22 JUNE 2001

Reflecting on a report in New Zealand

The lonely existence of lone mothers

New and rigorous research into the health of lone mothers paints a sad, and highly disturbing picture, reports CARROLL du CHATEAU. Stressed, hard-up and doing a job meant for two, single mothers are sicker, both mentally and physically, than their partnered sisters. A new research paper by research fellow Diana Sarfati from Otago Medical School in Dunedin and Kate Scott, a senior lecturer at the Wellington Medical School, which studied 721 single mothers, spells out something we always suspected: mothers rearing children on their own suffer enormous stress, leading to poor physical and mental health.

The paper, published in the June issue of the New Zealand Medical Journal, is built on data from the New Zealand Health Survey of 1996-97 with references to nine other substantial pieces of research. Sarfati's interest in the subject was sparked after her husband was away for three weeks when her younger child was three months old and she found it difficult to cope. She suggests the stress on lone mothers (she uses the term now fashionable in the United States) is under-appreciated by the wider public.

"I have an awful lot of advantages, but he was a poor sleeper. And by the end of three weeks [when her husband returned] I was a cot case. Women on their own don't have that option. I know how desperate you get ... "

Although a great deal had already been written on social and economic status and David Fergusson's longitudinal study in Dunedin constantly updated information on lone parent families, there was absolutely no data looking at the realities of life from a single parent's point of view. "What was needed was some rigorous research from the perspective of lone parents themselves," says Sarfati.

Lone mothers are more likely to be Maori, have lower incomes two-thirds had family incomes of less than $20,000, low educational qualifications and live in more deprived parts of New Zealand. They are also more likely to smoke and be hazardous drinkers than women supported by a partner. Surprisingly, in one of the few findings not supported by similar overseas studies, they are also twice as likely to have taken hypertension medication as mothers who are part of a couple.

Most predictable, but also most worrying, was the high incidence of mental disorders and psychological distress found among lone mothers. The report highlighted five reasons for mental illness: lack of social support (lone mothers have a higher risk of isolation); lower socio-economic status; the stress of losing or being abandoned by a partner; lower perceived control of their lives; and the high physical and emotional demands of raising children alone, which may result in poor health both directly and through higher rates of risky behaviours such as smoking and drinking.

Even worse is the inter-generational roll-on effect. "Children raised in low socio-economic conditions are ... disadvantaged in terms of survival, mental and physical development, educational achievement and future job prospects," the report states. "They are also more likely to become involved in criminal activity, to become unemployed and to become pregnant at an early age. This means that the cycle of deprivation is likely to continue into future generations. Considering the high proportion of families headed by a lone parent, this is a major public health concern."

Overall, says the report, lone mothers are so vulnerable they should be targeted for special consideration to address health inequalities.

The hard data underpinning Sarfati's research is also shocking. Around 118,000 people are on either the Domestic Purposes or Widows Benefits, meaning 27 per cent of New Zealand families with dependent children are headed by a lone parent. This percentage has tripled over the past 25 years. One in three of the country's children roughly the same number as those being brought up in DPB-dependent homes are living in poverty. This, says Sue Bradford, Green Party spokeswoman on employment, welfare and social services, obviously puts them at risk. "I'm not surprised by the report's findings not even the raised hypertension levels in lone mothers," she says. "I've been a solo mother myself and worked 16 years in the beneficiary area. The stresses on young women are huge. Sole parents are carrying all that responsibility. They're not trained to be solo mothers, often they're left and find themselves on their own. It's really tough."

Much worse says Bradford is the hopelessness that seeps from generation to generation when there's not enough money or support and every night the have-nots watch how the other half live on TV. "There's a whole slice of society that ends up with no moral connectedness, no sense of right and wrong, no trust or love, no responsibility to anyone or anything because people feel they've been totally abandoned by society."

As for solutions, Bradford points, surprisingly, to efforts of the last National government to provide specialised education and training for lone mothers while their children are looked after in the next room. "Then we should return the DPB to its 1991 equivalent and return the family benefit by which, as in Britain, all children get a small amount each week," she says. "There should be really good support. I know there are people who deliberately go on the DPB but most don't and I don't think everybody, especially their kids, should pay for that."

Sarfati agrees: "Lone parents need access to sufficient material resources to care for their families and participate fully in their communities ... There must be an acknowledgement of the critical role parents play in our communities. There needs to be work for those who want it and access to affordable quality childcare and support for those who want to stay home with their children. They are both critical roles.

"Another strategy is to reduce the number of lone parents in the community, especially very young mothers," she says. "We need to make sure that the health service is answering the needs of lone mothers and mothers in general."

But how? Stopping young women from getting pregnant is a complex problem as Minister of Social Services and Employment Steve Maharey points out. There are two ways to go: "We either do what Dr Murray a recent guest of the Business Roundtable says and condemn them, or we become very active in the area of parenting skills and making sure they don't get pregnant in the first place."

Maharey's disgust at the man labelled "America's most dangerous conservative" sizzles down the phone. Charles Murray, who has a PhD in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, suggests that "to change, you have got to be tough on young women and their babies." Punish them for having children out of wedlock by cutting off welfare payments. The options, according to Murray are: abortion, putting their babies up for adoption or asking the woman's family and the baby's father for support. All this says Murray will work just fine if young women deny men sex and instead demand marriage.

Maharey takes a very different line. "We need to get young people focused on their ambitions and aspirations" making early pregnancy the unattractive option for disadvantaged girls that it is for the middle-class women who leave motherhood until 30 or later. For those who do get pregnant, Maharey has a web of community incentives to get them back into education and employment. Central to his idea is the Home Visit pilot programme.

"What we're doing is sending people out to visit 4500 new domestic purposes beneficiaries even before they have their babies. The idea is to get alongside them, talk to them about what they want to do with their lives, then help them get there. "We want to make sure that someone is interested in their ambitions and aspirations, rather than letting them settle and sink on to the benefit and into the [solo parent] role as this report highlights."

Maharey is also determined to find the 15,000-odd fathers who have abandoned their children to the DPB and either terrified or co-erced their former girlfriends into refusing to name them to Work and Income authorities.

"It's reinforcing the whole idea that we have to be responsible for kids," he says. "Fathers have to realise that that child is theirs for the rest of their lives." 


New Zealand News : Diana Sarfati




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