Diverse families

The parents we interviewed lived in diverse family arrangements. They talked about their experiences of their families and of relationships that were important to them. A few people discussed their experiences of single parenthood; some talked about the complexities of blended families and sharing the care of children from previous relationships; and some migrant parents spoke about grandparents and other relatives caring for their children. People also talked about becoming parents while still very young themselves, being parents in a same-sex relationship, and being parents of large or small families.

A number of single parents talked about their experiences. Some became single parents following divorce or separation from their partners while others decided to have children on their own, without being in a relationship. Single parents acknowledged both the positive and challenging aspects of raising children on their own. Positive aspects included the freedom to set their own rules for their children, having time off for themselves when their children were staying with their other parent, and emotional closeness with their children.

Kahli reflected on some of the advantages and disadvantages of being a single mother to three children.

Tony said becoming a single parent when his ex-partner was sick was difficult but he had developed a close 'bond' with his daughter as a result.

Parents who became single following a relationship breakdown generally appreciated bringing up their children in an environment free of conflict, rather than in relationships fraught with dissatisfaction or, in couple of cases, marked by emotional or physical abuse. Tony and his ex-partner decided to separate when their relationship problems 'started affecting the kids as well'. Loretta, who became a single mother following a divorce commented that her children were 'much better off than if we'd stayed together because they would have ended up with two mentally ill parents and not just one'.

One of the challenges about being a single mother described by women was perceived negative stereotypes of single mothers, particularly the assumption that they misused government social support.

Loretta, a lawyer and single mother of two children, felt strongly about stereotypes of single mums and stay-at mothers.

Single women who were recent immigrants often faced additional challenges following divorce, including having no close family in Australia, limited English language skills and being financially dependent on their husbands.

Mishi, a single mother from Pakistan, described her struggle to find a permanent accommodation for herself and her young daughter after her divorce.

Most single parents talked about the importance of close family support in helping them raise their children. Kahli, a single mother of 11-month old twins and an older boy, lived with her mother and said her support had been critical: 'Without her I would have been in the foetal position crying with the babies!'

Cecilia's parents' support was 'invaluable' when she found herself a single mother of a three-week old baby, but as time went on she needed to establish a 'sense of identity'.

A few single parents appreciated support from their close friends and from other single parents. Mathew, a single father of a two-year old daughter described a few friends who were single mothers themselves as very helpful when he 'needed a break'. He said: 'Single parents, they kind of lobby together.'

A few parents talked about negotiating multiple relationships with previous and new partners, and children from different relationships. Sila talked about his eldest daughter being 'upset' because both he and his former wife were now in new relationships with other children.

Sila said he and his ex-wife were trying to 'work together' to raise their eldest daughter, but that it had been hard for her.

A couple of parents had shared care arrangements for children from previous relationships, and described the challenges these sometimes presented for their children.

Andrew was concerned about the impact of shared care on his son's social network and decided, in agreement with his ex-wife, to change this arrangement for their son's benefit.

Some migrant families talked about their experiences of grandparents living with the family to help care for their babies or young children. Chandrika received significant help from her mother with caring for her new baby in Sri Lanka. Since migrating to Australia she missed this and was considering applying for visas for her parents to come to live with them and help care for her daughter and new baby.

Ajay said his and his wife's parents came from India at different times to help with their daughter as they could not put her in childcare and had limited flexibility from their employers.

A few people who became parents while very young themselves talked about the reactions they experienced from other people, but said becoming a parent helped them to 'mature' themselves. Alice who became a mother at 17 talked about 'always doing the right thing' by her child, but feeling judged by people. She commented: 'They don't even know you and they're still saying, 'You're a bad mum,' and things like that, because you're a young mum. It's hard'. Alice's partner Luke was 18 when their son was born and said becoming a father 'changed everything', prompting him to get 'clean' and 'sober' and return to TAFE.

Deb felt becoming a parent at a young age had made her mature and learn how to 'stick up' for herself, especially in terms of accessing healthcare.

Parents in same-sex relationships, like single parents, talked about the importance of support from broader social networks, particularly parents in similar situations, and organised parent groups. Daniel, a father of two daughters through surrogacy, said his stay-at-home partner developed supportive relationships through groups for multiple birth parent and local playgroups.

Lara described the importance of relationships with friends and her mothers' group in the absence of family engagement with her son and partner.

Life in a large family was very busy. Tolai, a migrant mother from Afghanistan, had four children and said: 'I look after all my children and I'm very busy to clean the house and look after the children. I want to study English but this is not possible for me to go out because I look after my children'. She was glad her family were soon joining her from Afghanistan to help. A few parents of 'small' families talked about how they were perceived by others. Sian, who lost her daughter during pregnancy and had a four-year-old son, described the 'inherent judgment' and 'sense of failure' she experienced when people asked her, 'Have you just got the one?'

Erin, a mother of six, talked about what it was like having a large family and the importance of still finding time for herself.

Further information:

Other resources

Raising Children Network: Family Diversity

Pregnancy Birth and Baby: Raising a child when your family is overseas