“There have been moments - especially when my son was quite young – [when] he’d be lying there crying, and I’d just be so exhausted. Just not having that second person ... lying there crying in front of your baby. You desperately need to have a break and you just can’t.”
Exhaustion is the biggest challenge for any new parent with a baby, let alone single, working parents.
Thirty-three year-old solo mum Imogen Alcorn is incredibly grateful for her supportive family and friends. She says that without them, she doesn’t know how she would have coped.
Born in Wellington, Imogen is the third of four siblings whose parents separated and later remarried. As a teenager, Imogen was raised by a sole parent, her mum Robyn, a community worker with four kids to care for.
Imogen had her son when she was 29 and has been his primary care giver since he was born.
“I’m the mother of a beautiful 4-year-old son, Manea,” says Imogen. “Manea was born in 2012, the Year of the Water Dragon. We call him our little taniwha.” She adds hopefully “fierce children, but apparently wonderful adults that look after their parents.”
Imogen and Manea recently left a busy flat in inner city Newtown to live with her dad, Andrew Alcorn. It’s a warm, delightfully artistic, sprawling home in Eastbourne, on the other side of the harbour.
Manea loves living with Poppa Andrew but he misses his previous home and flatmates. Their old home was close to other families, playgroup, the zoo and most importantly close to Massey University, where Imogen is completing her final year of a Bachelor of Social Work.
When Imogen graduates, she’s keen to be an entry-level social worker in the areas of sole-parenting, sexual violence or mental health sectors.
It’s the social hub of Newtown that Imogen misses. “We were pretty involved with the community, and Newtown’s a really lovely place to be when you’re solo-parenting. I’d still be in Newtown if I could afford to be.”
Why the move? “Our rent went up and trying to fill the rest of the house was a struggle. It’s hard to find people that you want living with your kid, and it’s hard to find people that will put up living with your kid. When our rent went up, I thought I can’t do this anymore.”
Imogen says that studying and living off the sole-parent’s benefit makes for an extremely tight budget, especially when there’s not enough money for food. “Yep, there’s definitely been some hairy moments.”
Here are the stats; there are 200,000 single parent families in New Zealand. Of New Zealand’s 200,000 sole-parent families, almost 85 percent of sole parents are women.
As a Pakeha, Imogen is one of the majority but her son Manea is of Cook Island heritage on his dad’s side, something Imogen’s proud of.
Imogen separated from his father before Manea was born, but she does her best to keep her son connected with his dad and that side of the family.
Imogen makes sure Manea celebrates every part of his cultural heritage. When I visit them at home, Manea shows me around, pointing out Cook Island grandmother Mi-mi’s magnificent traditional tivaevae, or quilt, that covers his bedroom wall.
“She’s a very adoring grandmother and she’s just got one grandson, so he gets lavished with all the aroha from the Islands.” Imogen tells me.
Creative and energetic, Manea shows off his home-made cardboard transformers. “For our listeners, we’ll start with the trucky-truckydon!”
Next, I join Imogen and Manea for lunch in Newtown, at the home of close friends Flip That Script writer/blogger Jesse Moss and musician Mara TK, and their two girls Kahuia (7) and Irihapiti (2). Mara is away touring with his band Electric Wire Hustle, and Jesse’s preparing pancakes for lunch as the three children play and squabble.
Over lunch the two mothers reflect on the difference between solo-parents, men and women, and whether there’s still more social stigma for women. Jesse thinks so.
“It’s not shocking or unexpected if a woman becomes a solo-mother, but … if a father becomes the one who looks after his children all the time, it’s quite exceptional. You get treated differently. If a man does it, it’s like ‘oh my goodness!’”
Imogen agrees, “Even if he has his kid on the weekend, it’s like ‘you’re the best dad in the world!’ You had them for five minutes. You’re the fun weekend dad. There’s not much glamour in being the not-fun weekday 80% mum, it’s not very glamourous.”
Is there more inequity for solo-mothers? Imogen thinks so.
“There are so many intersecting things when you’re solo-parenting. You’re physically taking caring of everything. Then you have the financial inequity, trying to make life work on half a benefit. And renting is the hardest it’s ever been. That’s massive.”
“At the moment our struggle is trying to find somewhere to live that’s close to our support network.”
“I don’t know anyone who enjoys living on the benefit”
Imogen feels there are great misconceptions about solo-mothers being a burden on society and she challenges the welfare restrictions made by Deputy Prime Minister Paula Bennett, herself a solo-mum.
“It’s as if ‘solo-parents have a luxurious life-style, didn’t have to work, and just pop out another baby if they’re short on money. Beneficiaries are taking the piss and getting money for nothing.’ There’s still a feeling, especially around solo-mums that they should be extremely grateful that the government giving them all this money so they don’t have to work. “
“I don’t know anyone who enjoys living on the benefit. I’ve never met this person, this mum, who enjoys living on zero dollars a week. Anyone who thinks that should spend five minutes with a solo-parent and see what their life is actually like. No-one would want that for their kids. No-one has that attitude being on welfare. It’s not a fun time.”
Creator/Producer: Lynda Chanwai-Earle
Senior Producer: Alison Ballance
Executive Producer: Tim Watkin
Flying Solo Episode Five was engineered by Phil Benge.