I received a letter from the Child Support Agency last week telling me I had to start paying my son's father child support. My stomach churned — not because of the money, but because I knew I'd have to get on the phone to the CSA.
I knew the letter had to be a mistake. My son lives with me full-time and hasn't spent a single night at his father's house all year. But I knew if I ignored the letter, the child support that my ex pays me might be affected.
So I steeled myself and made the call.
Forty-five minutes of hold music and "your call is important to us" later, I was finally connected to a lovely woman who told me the letter was "obviously" a mistake, and that I should ignore it.
Two days later, I received another letter telling me I owe my ex child support from 1 September last year. I didn't bother to call back.
The problem is, this isn't the first time I've had to get onto the Child Support Agency or Centrelink to sort out issues related to being a single parent. I've had myriad stuff-ups from both of them, including overpayments, underpayments, no payments, and weird letters.
Every time – whether I've asked my questions in person at my local Centrelink office or spent up to two hours on hold on the phone – the person I've spoken to has been helpful and lovely. But the whole experience is a drain of both time and energy.
When I first separated from my ex-husband, I had no idea what I could and couldn't apply for. I didn't know what was available, and there was no clear way of finding that out. I was tired and emotional, and although I was living on the bones of my backside, I almost didn't bother because the process of applying for any help felt so complex and confusing.
And the thing is, I'm a university-educated woman who was born in Australia, and I find the system difficult to navigate. Add an education or language barrier to this situation – or, heaven forbid, young children demanding your attention all day long – and I'd be willing to bet there are a lot of people who aren't claiming benefits or support they're entitled to because they either don't know they exist, or because they find the application process prohibitively arduous.
And then there are those who just can't spend two hours on the phone every time there's an issue because of work or family commitments – or because it's just soul destroying.
But what can we do? Single mothers are one of the most financially disadvantaged groups in the country, but as a lobby group we have next to no power. Many are too busy doing the bulk of the parenting and hustling to pay their bills to make any political noise.
So we get on with things, we suck it up, and we spend hours we don't have on the phone trying to fix problems we didn't cause.
But the question remains: why are there so many mistakes?
If the government actually cared about families – which must include single-parent families – they would have a service that assigns you an advocate who walks you through what you're entitled to, and helps you fill in forms and pull together required documentation.
And they'd properly staff their call centres to show they value our time. I'd say that's the least they can do, but they've already proven they can go lower.
Being a single parent can be a tough gig at times, but a little bit of respect would go a long way. I can't wait to see it.