Opinion

My three children have high needs. That shouldn’t rule me out of a good job

I desperately want and need to work more and believe I have a lot to offer any employer – but it seems that I am not seen as a serious contender for the roles I apply for, because I am holding my family together following a catastrophic life event.

Seven years ago I was a successful marketing executive and part-time counsellor (my new career path), my husband and I were raising our children in a Sydney suburb. I have neurodiverse children, two having been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and with moves both interstate and overseas for my husband’s work we faced significant challenges, but even then I could always find jobs.

In 2015 my husband died suddenly of a heart attack and as well as coping with this immense grief I had to step up as the sole provider and carer for our children aged five, eight and nine. My children needed extra support as the previously well managed ASD diagnosis became increasing complex. It was difficult trying to manage exacerbated behaviours flared by the traumatic witnessing of their father’s sudden death. Then in 2019 my daughter became seriously ill, and now has a lasting disability due to the sudden onset of a neurological/neuroimmune condition called pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome (Pans).

The first shock when my husband died was finding there was absolutely no financial, emotional or practical support available for people who suddenly lose a spouse. So I started working with New South Wales Health, my local MPs and the NSW coroner to establish “sudden death supports”, a foundation to assist those in my shoes, yet I soon realised I had to help my own family first and had to put this necessary initiative on hold.

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I tried to hang on to my job as a marketing manager with a not-for-profit organisation, but after I had exhausted all my leave my employer expected me to return 100% to the office (this was pre-pandemic).

I became a full-time carer and advocate for my children and was jolted by how much judgment and disrespect parents like myself, caring for children with disabilities, received in the social welfare and health system, not to mention society at large.

I constantly had to prove our eligibility for services and support in the social security system. I was moved from the parenting payment to the much lower Newstart when my youngest turned eight, like she suddenly didn’t need me around any more after school. Then, due to the immense challenges with mutual obligation, I had to navigate my way onto the carers payment to avoid having to continue to “prove my need” for some support. My children and I endured numerous system errors – each time resulting in instant payment cut-offs, and we were also subjected to “robodebt”. (I am writing my submission to the royal commission now!).

The final straw came last April when I was cut off from the carers payment without warning due to a Centrelink automated recalculation of my income and assets which meant I no longer qualified for the payment. This has forced me to make the hard decision to reduce my hands-on care for my children (who really do need me there) to re-enter the workforce full-time.

With seven years out of a full-time job, I am facing many roadblocks to finding suitable work. My lived experience of overcoming enormous hurdles and the new skills I have developed as an advocate for myself and my children through the health and service systems are apparently not valued in many organisation.

I have tried applying for advertised roles, taking the initiative and writing to senior leaders of private companies, outlining my skills, experience, specific ideas and visions for their organisation. I have spread the word among peers and former colleagues and connections with the hope that someone will see my worth – but so far there is no job forthcoming.

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I believe I have something quite special to bring to an organisation, so it is disheartening that I am struggling to find paid work when I know that navigating these challenges means I bring greater depth to my professional experience.

There is no way I could have prepared for the tsunami that swept through my family seven years ago. I hope that by sharing my story participants in the jobs summit this week will consider ways to create more supports for people with caring responsibilities to rejoin the workforce.

Nicole Hibberd-Smith is is a sole mother of three young children. She is a counsellor and advocate for sole parents and their children who experience sudden catastrophic change of circumstance leading to financial instability, poverty, and social judgment

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