How I created a single-parent support network: ‘You never stop relying on the village’

<span>Cheap, inclusive and accessible activities, such as trips to the beach, are a great way to create connection with other single parents and their children.</span><span>Photograph: davidf/Getty Images</span>
Cheap, inclusive and accessible activities, such as trips to the beach, are a great way to create connection with other single parents and their children.Photograph: davidf/Getty Images

When I became a single parent of a preschool-aged child, I quickly discovered the best way to look after my son and myself was to build community with other single parents. I had just returned to Brisbane after a decade abroad and suddenly found myself without a job, a car or indeed a partner, and few family and friends living nearby.

Eight years on, I’m now part of an informal economy that shares childcare, school supplies, clothing, meals, days out and even holidays. It may take a village, but the village has saved me money, time and, on more than one occasion, my sanity.

The following tips aren’t just for solo parents – many are useful for partnered parents and some apply to people without children.

Build friendships with other single parents

Related: My big move: I was a single mum living in a sharehouse. A commune gave us a stable place to call home

First you have to create your village. In the beginning, my friendships with other single parents weren’t intentional; rather we gravitated towards one other over shared experiences. These friendships then became the backbone of a community built on intentionality and interdependence.

Sonja, a single parent of two, shares her experience: “In the modern village concept, we recognise people’s strengths and shortcomings,” she says. That means factoring in “who picks up the kids, who brings food, who has the car, who is the community organiser”.

Once you’ve built your community, you need to maintain it. No matter how old your children get (my son is now 12), you never stop relying on the village. The key is to invest in your support structures. Society conditions us to rely primarily on the support of a partner, but as single parents we need to feel entitled to depend on our community.

Fellow single parent Lenine Bourke, a pillar of community organising in Brisbane, recommends parents “build up some credit for trading in later when you need to”.

“That means even when you’re really stretched, someone else in the community might need you. Then when it’s your turn to have the highest need, your community will be there.”

I can think of only one occasion when I’ve paid for a babysitter and it was when I was away from home with my child. An unexpected benefit of my friendships with other single parents is the richness those relationships add to my child’s life.

Be a joiner, or start your own group

This might be a tough one for introverts, but you never know where you’ll find your people. Support can come from many places, including playgroups, early education, school, faith and community groups.

If you can’t find your ideal group, consider starting one yourself – it could be a sensory playgroup, a school-based inclusive family group or a meet-up based on shared hobbies. The labour of setting it up will likely pay off once the group is up and running. Bourke believes that when bringing people together, there’s “nothing a bag of chips and some poppers can’t solve”.

Embrace shared living

I’ve been living in shared housing since 2021. It keeps costs down and housemates can help with childcare, cooking and housework. Arrangements vary: I’ve had housemates who lived with me part-time (giving me and my son plenty of alone time); other people recommend separate living spaces (look for big houses split into separate dwellings, or houses with granny flats) so that families have their own spaces to accommodate their differing parenting styles.

Admittedly, it can be difficult to find housemates as a single parent. When my housemate of several years moved out, I struggled to find a replacement or rental alternatives. My solution was to get creative by offering my spare room as a crash pad for a close friend in exchange for a small fee, and to host housemates on a casual basis (friends who were between rentals, visitors from out of town, exchange students).

Carpool for bonus benefits

Going without a car is not for everyone, and to do so you have to be close to decent public transport and have kids with low support needs. I spent years living abroad in cities where car ownership wasn’t the norm, so I grew used to relying on public transport, occasional ride shares and carpooling.

The most obvious carpooling opportunity is the school run, which saves money, time and effort (and kids are usually happy with this arrangement as it gives them extra time with friends). Other useful carpooling trips include grocery shopping, extracurricular activities, days out and holidays.

Share seldom-used items

Most of us don’t need more stuff. As my single-parent friend Deb exclaims: “Nuclear families equal capitalism!”

Think about shared ownership or borrowing from within your network – Deb and I have shared a lawn mower for years, with our kids wheeling it round the block from house to house every fortnight. Mowers aren’t the only items that fit into this category. Think ladders, drills and tools, dryers, camping equipment and even printers.

Sharing can also work for short-term emergencies. When a friend’s washing machine and hot water system broke in the same week, I herded additional kids home for a shower and washed a few extra loads as needed.

Related: Sophie Heawood: how hard is it to raise a kid on your own? Where do I begin…

Swap and save

I swap clothes, uniforms, shoes, school supplies, toys, books and other unwanted items. The key is to prioritise low-income families, sort quality items and get specific with distribution. Don’t share dirty or damaged goods, and only give people what you think they’ll actually use.

Sonja says the value of swapping is in “recognising that we are all in the same struggle, and not about passing my problems on to another person in the same position as me. You want to show that you’ve thought about people and what they might like.”

Swaps can be informal, or you could hold a themed swap meet. Host it at someone’s house and bring a plate to share.

Many secondhand goods have migrated online. Schools have secondhand uniform pages where you can sell, buy and swap. Online community groups can also be useful – start with your suburb’s social media page or check out the Buy Nothing network. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need.

Share the good times

Most of us (kids included) want connection and the entertainment found in spending time together. I’ve shared days out, weekly dinners and holidays with other single parents. Think of cheap, inclusive and accessible activities – head to the beach or pool with a carload of kids, visit the park for a barbecue, check out free galleries and museums, plan a long bike ride or host a home movie night where everyone brings a dish. Aim to recognise the difficulty of being a single parent in this economy while creating opportunities for shared connection.

When all else fails, never underestimate the value of a well-timed meme. When someone is stuck at home with high-needs, sick or anxious children, or on the struggle bus balancing work and parenting, reaching out with a dose of laughter can make all the difference.

I’d love to live in a shared-parenting utopia where single parents are valued and supported by society, but until then, I rely on my community. At its core, this way of living is about holding up other single-parent families by living in a way that values flexibility, reciprocity and equitable care by bringing these intentions to our relationships outside romantic partnerships.