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Family Matters No. 36 - December 1993

Parenting resources in one and two parent families

Christine Millward and Kate Funder


Sole parents have an extra workload due to being the only parent in the household to care for the children. They also have restricted opportunities to increase their household income: not only can they have difficulties managing full-time work (especially with very young children) but also they are one-income units in a society of increasingly two-income households. Sole parents are also more likely than couple families to live in rental and public housing. Does type of housing and lack of money to buy children's requirements lead to difficulties with parenting for sole parents? Using data from a study of living standards in Australia conducted by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the situation of couple versus sole parents in the four Victorian localities of Berwick, Box Hill, Melbourne and Werribee are examined. Comparisons are made between the situation of sole parent families and couple families with regard to child care, support from the other parent, housing, children's happiness and progress, and life satisfaction.

Is parenting more difficult for sole parents than for couple parents because of restrictions on their time and household budget? Sole parents have an extra workload due to being the only parent in the household to care for the children. They also have restricted opportunities to increase their household income: not only can they have difficulties managing full-time work (especially with very young children) but also, they are necessarily one-income units in a society of increasingly two-income households. Sole parents generally have less scope than couple parents for balancing the demands of children and paid work.


The Australian Bureau of Statistics, in its 'one-parent families' profile (ABS 1991, Catalogue No. 2511.0), describes the national characteristics of sole parents. Mother-headed families constitute 86 per cent of such families. Sole parents also include two distinct age groups: one is younger (never-marrieds) and one older (older separated/divorced and widowed) than are married/couple parents. There are special problems associated with workforce participation for these younger and older groups, because they are predominantly mothers and may have little or no employment experience.

One-parent families are over five times more likely to be in the lowest quintile of income than couple families with dependent children and more than seven times less likely to be in the top quintile (these income figures are not adjusted for family size and composition). As well as income deviations, marked differences exist in housing tenure and costs between one-parent and couple families (ABS 1991). The trend in renting shows that 20 per cent of couple families have rental accommodation compared with 36 per cent of sole-father families and 56 per cent of sole-mother families. Conversely, 77 per cent of couple families own or have mortgaged homes compared with 60 per cent of sole- father families and 41 per cent of sole-mother families. Sole mothers are also the most likely to be in public housing (nearly 16 per cent compared with less than 10 per cent of sole-father or couple families).


Does type of housing and lack of money to buy children's requirements lead to difficulties with parenting for sole parents? Using data from the Institute's Australian Living Standards Study, the situation of couple versus sole parents in the four Victorian localities of Berwick, Box Hill, Melbourne and Werribee was examined. The sole-parent population sampled in Melbourne contained a fairly substantial proportion of high-rise and other public housing tenants. Due to the very small numbers of sole father families encountered within the four localities, they are not discussed here as a group, although some differences between them and their female counterparts should be noted: the fathers were much more likely to be employed and had a higher median net income. They were also more likely to have older children.


The characteristics and experiences of sole and couple mothers were examined in some depth, with the following factors or resources considered as having a bearing on parental functioning: personal education level, work status and type of occupation, household income, housing, transport, child care arrangements and support from their children's other parent.

The information presented here focuses on mothers who have dependent children under 16 (as defined by the Department of Social Security when administering the Sole Parent Pension). The accompanying Figure compares the employment status and household income of couple mothers with sole mothers (who have no partner living in the household) for the four Victorian localities surveyed. The household income is shown relative to the Henderson poverty line, where 100 per cent means being on the poverty line. At the time of the survey, this was a net yearly income of $19,416 for a couple with two children. The Henderson poverty line is based upon household net equivalent income, which takes into account family size, composition and costs.

The Figure shows that families where the mother was employed had a higher median income than those where she was not employed. The two-parent families had a higher median income than sole-mother families. Employed sole mothers' median income was around 85 per cent of that of two-parent families where the mother was employed. The not employed sole mothers' median income was only around two thirds of that of their counterparts in two-parent families (both maintenance payments and government benefits are included as part of household income).

The City of Melbourne encompasses the broadest socio- economic variation between the suburbs within its boundaries and so had the widest range of family incomes. For the four groups of mothers shown, Box Hill had the highest incomes overall and Werribee the lowest.

In three of the four localities surveyed, a higher percentage of couple mothers were employed. The sole mothers were more likely to have only Year 10 education and less likely to have professional or para-professional occupations than were the couple mothers. Couple and sole mothers' access to job benefits such as sick pay and holiday leave, long service leave, maternity leave, superannuation, car parking and medical insurance, was very much the same.

Of those in the workforce, only 40 per cent of the sole mothers had part-time jobs, compared with 57 per cent of couple mothers, and these part-time workers reported fewer benefits. Nearly half of the couple mothers who worked part- time said they did not need the extra income of a full-time job. Sole mothers tended to be dependent on full Sole Parent Pension with all the concessions attached, or a reasonably well paid job, preferably full-time. A dependable income was important as nearly 60 per cent of sole parents in the survey were not receiving any maintenance (or Child Support) payments from their children's other parent.


Of this group with dependent children, there was a higher percentage of sole mothers than couple mothers with primary school aged children, but a lower percentage with younger children, not yet at school. Overall though, about half of the mothers had either primary or pre-primary school children or both and so would require child care when working.

The couple mothers had another parent in the home to help care for the children - perhaps by juggling starting and finishing times of both partners' jobs, or working different shifts, one partner working weekends or one not employed.

The sole mothers did not have another parental adult in the home to assist in this way, although, of course, a number of both one- and two-parent families had older teenage children who could help care for their little brothers or sisters before or after school. Very few families had other relatives living with them.

The issue of child care certainly has important parenting implications for mothers. Couple mothers can choose to stay home and care for their children while still having a reasonably adequate household income to support those children. As the Figure shows, most sole mothers who stay home have a much less adequate income. If sole mothers go out to work, however, they should be able to feel they are still adequately caring for their children.

Sole mothers tended to use council or government child care centres or family day care more than did couple mothers, who tended to use grandparents and friends or neighbours more. Of those using any form of child care, 53 per cent of sole mothers and 18 per cent of couple mothers received government fee relief, mostly for pre-school aged children.

For example, Jill (not her real name) is a 35-year-old mother of a three-year-old child. She works full-time and uses a council run creche for 40 hours per week. Half of the $136 weekly fee is paid direct to the creche via government fee relief and Jill pays the rest. She says the creche is of excellent quality and close by.


The Institute study shows that 58 per cent of the total sample of sole parents were receiving no maintenance (or Child Support) from the child(ren)'s other parent. About a fifth of sole parents were receiving $30 or less per week per child and about a fifth were receiving more than $30. Most (85 per cent) did not receive any additional financial assistance from the other parent. So, in terms of contributing to parenting through children's general standard of living, levels of financial support from non-resident parents were not very high. Thus, the burden falls back on the sole parent, putting an extra strain on their resources.

Further, more than 20 per cent of the children never saw their other parent, but up to half the younger children, pre- and primary school aged, saw them fairly regularly - ranging from daily up to about monthly. Only about a third of the older, secondary school children saw their other parent this often. Of those who did see their non-resident parent, less than half the pre-schoolers went to stay overnight with them, but about two-thirds of primary and secondary children stayed fairly regularly - most commonly, one weekend per fortnight or per month.

So the amount of financial or practical support provided by the children's other parent varies greatly. For example, a positive case is that of Jill, the above mentioned sole mother with a three-year-old child. Jill has a full-time job, earning more than average weekly earnings. Her ex-partner pays $100 per week in maintenance, which more than covers her costs for the full-time creche her child attends. In addition, the child stays with Dad every second weekend, so Jill can have a break. Jill can afford to mortgage her own home unit and is very pleased with her child's progress and happiness and feels content with most aspects of her life.

On the more negative side is Mary, a 40-year-old sole mother of three - one primary and two secondary school children. Although Mary works full-time and earns more than Jill, she has three children to cope with alone. They only see their father a few times a year, never stay overnight with him and the family receives no financial help from him at all. Mary pays a baby-sitter to look after her six-year- old before school each morning and she says it is 'very difficult' to meet the educational expenses of her two secondary students, although she is generally happy with their progress. Mary feels she has no opportunity to pursue her own, personal life and is concerned about the family's financial situation. She says that her major pressure in life is 'being a sole parent with virtually no support from my ex- partner'.


In the Institute study, sole mothers not in employment were much more likely than those in employment to be in public housing, especially in the inner-suburban Melbourne high- rise flats. There was also a much higher percentage of one- parent families than two-parent families in this situation. An article by McDonald and Brownlee elsewhere in this issue discusses the difficulties arising for parenting under such conditions - often with serious concerns about the lack of safety or security - and the effects on the overall quality of such families' lives. In the other three localities of Berwick, Box Hill and Werribee, sole parents were still less likely to be in their own house (either owned or mortgaged) than were couple parents, and if they were, the financial burdens or poorer conditions of their housing was often a problem.

Sole mothers interviewed in the four Melbourne localities were more likely to report major or minor problems with housing than were couple mothers. These problems included plumbing, wiring, foundations, rising damp or rot, insect pests, conditions of walls, doors and windows, fly- screens, floor coverings and fencing. They were significantly less satisfied with their home's heating and/or cooling, the state of repair of their home and its maintenance costs, the state of the garden, security of the home, their children's safety when playing outside, privacy from neighbours and noise level of neighbours.

Broader, locational or environmental concerns such as size of house block and dwelling, amount of street traffic, proximity to shops, schools, friends, family, parks and convenience to work, demonstrated no differences in satisfaction levels between the couple and sole mothers. The only aspect of housing where sole mothers were more satisfied was with proximity to public transport: they were less likely to have a car and many of them lived in the inner city.

Although a number of the one-parent families were owners/purchasers, some of whom had major problems, many of the above mentioned housing inadequacies stemmed from renting, and were reported by some sole parents to cause a great deal of anxiety or depression.

For example, Linda is a 34-year-old migrant with two young primary school children. She lives in public housing and lists major problems with the flat she is renting: insecure and draughty windows and doors, lack of storage space, cockroaches and other insect pests, inadequate heating, shared laundry facilities, lack of privacy and lack of a safe place for children to play. Linda feels insecure in her home and says her housing deficiencies are affecting the health of one of her children, who has a chronic medical condition. Linda is very dissatisfied with her housing and feels anxious and depressed. She has no support whatever from her ex-husband and so is parenting under very difficult circumstances.


Generally, most parents were clearly satisfied with their children's developmental or educational, physical and social progress, as well as their general behaviour. Concerning the youngest children, not yet at school, and primary school aged children, there were some small differences in the way couple and sole mothers judged each child's general progress. Sole mothers were less satisfied than couple mothers with the general behaviour of their pre-school aged children. They were also less satisfied with the educational progress of their primary school children.

Few parents felt their children were rarely happy. Certainly there were some children who had serious intellectual or physical problems, but on the whole, most parents felt their children were content. There were some differences in degree, however, between the judgements of couple and sole mothers. Regarding their pre- and primary school children, the sole mothers were more inclined to answer that their children were happy 'some of the time' or 'most of the time', while the couple mothers were more inclined to say that their children were happy 'almost all of the time'.

If children's happiness is linked to family's activities, there is some evidence of the sole parent families' activities being curtailed by their status. A problem associated with the low income levels of sole-parent families can be the lack of private transport: the ABS (1991) reports that around a fifth of sole mothers do not have a car. Six per cent of families in the Institute's study had no car and two-thirds of these were sole parents. Some had a broken-down car with, perhaps, no money for repairs. Such circumstances can adversely affect the family's social life and restrict access to important services, some of which may be required by the children.

For example, one of Linda's children has serious learning difficulties and emotional problems requiring a special therapeutic service, but she was unable to take the child there because her car had broken down. Sylvia, a mother of four, did not have a car and, with public transport being poorly serviced and 'unsafe' at night, she could not take her children out to visit friends.


In addition to judgements about children's progress and happiness, the Institute's Australian Living Standards Study identified broad areas of life where the sole mothers with dependent children were significantly less satisfied than their couple counterparts: some were personal aspects of life, some were family aspects and some specifically concerned their children.

The sole mothers were less satisfied with their family's situation regarding housing, (private) transport, family income and overall living standard. They were less satisfied about their children's wellbeing, their own relationship with the children, their children's relationship with their father and how well the children get along with their brothers and sisters.

Focusing more on their personal lives, sole mothers were significantly less satisfied with their personal income, employment situation and education level, their leisure and recreational opportunities, what they are accomplishing in their lives, the amount of pressure they are under, their personal, emotional life and their life as a whole.

To sum up, these sole mothers' overall parenting resources were, in many instances, much less substantial than those of the two-parent families. Nevertheless, they still had to cope with full-time parenting responsibilities, often having no respite through sharing and support from their children's other parent. Such limitations on their parenting resources appear to relate to less satisfaction with their children's progress and wellbeing as well as their own everyday life.