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Building a village: meet the single parents finding stability through cohabitation

After her separation, Sunshine Coast naturopath Stacey Foat’s search for a suitable living arrangement had not been very fruitful. She had been living in a friend’s granny flat with her two-year-old daughter, Halo, for about eight months. Then a close friend mentioned another single mother she knew was moving to the area and looking for a place to stay. Maybe this was just what she needed.

“I knew I didn’t want to live alone,” Foat says, “but how was it going to work with my daughter, our personalities? Were we going to clash?”

Stacey Foat and her daughter Halo.

Nikki Horsford was moving from Mackay with her daughter Portia, eight at the time. The two mothers chatted on the phone and they “instantly clicked”, the pair agree. They found a big house with a pool, something neither of them would have been able to afford on their own. They signed the lease, and Horsford and her daughter Portia travelled to the Sunshine Coast and moved straight in.

“The emotional support is there, the teamwork in the house,” Foat says. “We compliment each other really well.” The pair have now been living together for a year, and just renewed the lease on their shared home. Foat reflects that they have been lucky to have very similar approaches to boundaries, and good communication skills to work through anything that came up.

In a study on loneliness conducted by Relationships Australia, single mothers and fathers reported the highest rates of social isolation. Divorce and parenting are very emotional experiences, especially when faced alone. Financial and child-rearing pressures also mean that, for single parents, there is very little room at the end of the day for self-care and meaningful connection with other adults. Shared living arrangements can help tackle this problem.

The latest Australian census shows that multiple-family households have more than doubled in 15 years. It is unclear how many of those are single-parent families co-housing, but, thanks to social networks, and platforms specifically designed to help single parents find housemates, it is now much easier to engineer this arrangement.

Jenny Davidson, the chief executive of the Council of Single Mothers and their Children (CSMC) in Victoria, believes that co-housing has many benefits for single parents.

“It normalises your family type,” she says. “You live with another single mother, your kids are going to grow up thinking single mothers families are very normal. So that’s one element of social isolation: feeling different. Secondly, it gives you company and it gives you more freedom to go out and to do more things.”

Nikki Horsford with her daughter Portia.

Foat says: “Nikki was further ahead on the journey than me. She’d been separated for six years so she was able to say, ‘That’s normal, it’s gonna feel like that for a while’.”

Horsford says: “You doubt yourself as a parent sometimes, and it’s nice to have that back-up from another mum to say: ‘Look, this is so normal. Sit down and have a coffee with me and let’s talk about it.’ Being a single mum, you don’t have that validation, that support from a significant other, so it’s nice to have that from someone who is in the same boat.”

CSMC has started a closed Facebook group to help facilitate the kind of interactions Horsford and Foat now enjoy. Five years into its existence, the group includes more than 950 members.

“It’s obviously filling a need,” Davidson says. “The cost of living is prohibitive. And the private rental market is competitive. Sharing makes it a lot more likely that you’ll get a house, or that you get a house where you want to live.”

Wilhelmina Ford is the founder of ShareAbode, an online platform that helps single parents pair up in the search for suitable living arrangements. Her own experience jumping through rental market hoops made her think this was a solution many single parents would benefit from.

But how does it work for children?

“I always say to people not to go for parents with children of the same age,” Ford says. “Go for different developmental milestones, so they’re learning from each other.”

For Foat and Horsford, the five-year age gap between their two daughters meant that the girls took easily to the new arrangement.

“Halo adores following Portia around,” Foat says. “She’s learned to swim within a month because they were together in the pool and she was mirroring what Portia was doing.”

Horsford agrees that the new living arrangement has given the girls the opportunity to experience what it is like living and growing up with a sibling.

‘Halo adores following Portia around,’ Stacey Foat says of the relationship between her younger daughter and her flatmate’s older child.

Sydney single father Nick Albion was lucky that his children could skip the introductions. Weeks after his separation, the father of four ran into Rebecca, the mother of one of his son’s friends, at a dance school drop-off. Herself newly separated, Rebecca was familiar with the challenges and she offered to host Albion until he was ready to get back on his feet.

“My sons spent quite a bit of time at their place anyway, they got along really well,” Albion says. “She offered free accommodation for as long as I needed but I said, ‘That’s a kind offer, but, to be practical, let’s say any longer than two weeks I pay rent.”

Albion ended up co-living for a whole year and credits this arrangement with giving him and his children much needed support through this transition.

“Living with another adult who has been through a similar experience was like having round-the-clock counselling.”

There were challenges, as there were always going to be, with six children in the house (Albion’s four children came to stay most weekends), but the two single parents made it work and supported each other through a time of adjustment.

Single father Nick Albion says that living with another parent felt like having round-the-clock support.

This year Rebecca moved to a more remote location, which makes the commute tricky for Albion, so he decided it was time to move out – but he admits it is not without “mixed feelings”.

He worries he will be lonely, and that he and the children will miss the support and balance provided by having another parent in the house. Albion says he would like to find another single parent family to cohabit with, and hopes not having all the children at home at the same time might make it a bit easier.

While cohabitation between unrelated single parents seems relatively novel, living with family, parents or siblings can feel like a more normalised social arrangement.

Narelle King, a Melbourne-based mother of two, moved in with her sister nine months after she separated from her husband.

“We were spending so much on rent, power, and we were with each other all the time,” she says. “So we decided to get a house together again. That was four years ago, almost five. And we’re still together.”

King’s sister does not have children but the two had lived together before, and they grew up sharing sisterly disputes. But that has changed in their adult house. “When you want something to work, you work extra hard at it,” King says.

No living arrangement is perfect but single parents have limited options and particular ne. The benefits of sharing can be transformative for everyone involved, from meaningful connection to emotional support, to picking up a forgotten dinner ingredient and sharing bills.

Ford suggests doing weekly family dinners to build that social connection between the two families. “If you want to depend on each other, you have to build it, you have to put effort in.”