I have three children with high needs.  This shouldn’t exclude me from a good job

I have three children with high needs. This shouldn’t exclude me from a good job

I have three children with high needs.  This shouldn’t exclude me from a good job

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<p><figcaption class=Photography: Lukas Coch / AAP

I desperately want and need to work harder and believe I have a lot to offer any employer, but it seems like I am not seen as a serious contender for the roles I am applying for, because I keep my family together following a catastrophic event of life.

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

In 2015 my husband died suddenly of a heart attack and in addition to coping with this immense pain I had to become the sole provider and guardian of our five, eight and nine year olds. My children needed additional support as the previously well managed diagnosis of ASD became increasingly complex. It was difficult to try to manage the exacerbated behavior flared up by the traumatic testimony of the sudden death of his father. Then in 2019 my daughter became seriously ill and now she has a lasting disability due to the sudden onset of a neurological / neuroimmune condition called acute-onset pediatric neuropsychiatric syndrome (Pans).

The first shock when my husband died was to discover that 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, but I soon realized I had to first help my family and had to put this much needed initiative on hold.

Related: Australia Jobs and Skills Summit: Who Will Attend and What’s On?

I tried to keep my job as a marketing manager in a nonprofit organization, but after I ran out of all my leave my employer expected me to go 100% back to the office (this was pre-pandemic).

I became a full-time caregiver and advocate for my children and was shocked by how much judgment and disrespect from parents like me, who care for children with disabilities, they have received in the social and health system, not to mention of society in general.

I constantly had to prove our eligibility for services and support in the social security system. I was moved from parental pay to the much lower Newstart when my youngest turned eight, as if she suddenly didn’t need me after school anymore. Then, due to the immense challenges associated with mutual obligation, I had to move towards paying caregivers to avoid having to keep “proving my need” for some support. My children and I have experienced numerous system errors, each time resulting in immediate payment interruptions, and we have also been subject to “robodeb”. (I’m writing my submission to the royal commission now!).

The final straw came last April, when I was cut off from paying unannounced caregivers due to an automated Centrelink recalculation of my income and assets, which meant I was no longer qualified for the payment. This forced me to make the difficult decision to reduce my practical assistance for my children (who really need me there) to get back into full-time work.

With seven years without a full-time job, I face many obstacles to find a suitable job. My lived experience of overcoming enormous obstacles and the new skills that I have developed as a defender of myself and my children through health and service systems are apparently not appreciated in many organizations.

I tried to apply for advertised roles, taking the lead and writing to senior executives from private companies, outlining my skills, experiences, ideas and visions specific to their organization. I have spread the word among colleagues and former colleagues and connections with the hope that someone will see my worth, but so far there is no work coming up.

I believe I have something very special to bring to an organization, so it is disheartening to see that I am struggling to find a paid job when I know that addressing these challenges means bringing more depth to my professional experience.

There is no way I could have prepared myself for the tsunami that hit my family seven years ago. I hope that, by sharing my story, attendees at this week’s Labor Summit will consider ways to create more support for people with caring responsibilities to re-enter the workforce.

• Nicole Hibberd-Smith is a single mother of three young children. She is a counselor and advocate for single parents and their children who undergo a sudden catastrophic change in circumstances which leads to financial instability, poverty and social judgment

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