Cultivating and pursuing my professional aspirations are hard-wired into my DNA, so having a career has never been an option for me even before my son was born and I became a single parent.
However, many single mothers believe they must choose between employment and maternal responsibilities, while others do not or cannot.
Gender roles and limited work options have fueled the contrived incompatibility of a single mother being a breadwinner and a caregiver. To overcome these issues, the ideology of motherhood itself must be reinvented and public policies must advance family-friendly work environments and just labor markets.
Career vs. parenting?
My decision to examine this topic resulted from a woman’s unsettling question on a Facebook group for single parents: Did you sacrifice your career to be a good parent?
I was outraged! I’m so infuriated with the prevailing attitude that single parents, particularly mothers, must choose between having a job and being a good parent. As a result, many single mothers believe they must sacrifice, destroy, surrender, abandon, forfeit or resign something or someone.
Many single parents realize quite quickly, however, that this perspective oversimplifies the complexity of the problems single parents confront on a daily basis.
Below are some of the responses from single moms and dads:
“Yes! Don’t regret it at all. My plans for getting my Master’s and then Ph.D. got put on hold to raise my kids. My oldest started college this year and my son is senior. I am now looking to go back [at 44]. It is never too late to get an education or a career, but my kids were more important. Even though I could provide more with higher degree, I don’t regret it. I was there for every occasion and off every summer [I am a teacher] to be with them. I was also offered a higher position by the district, but it would have been year-round [12 months] and more pay, but I declined. I needed summers with my kids.”
“No, I have hired a tutor for this home schooling, and after seeing how beneficial it has been for both of us, I’m going to overcome my fear and stigma of hiring a nanny. I have discovered that having the extra help has benefited both of us, and we actually have more quality time because we aren’t frustrated and tired. My career doesn’t have to suffer now.”
“Yep and I’m going to be honest I hate it … like I really hate it. It’s not fair that I have to do that. I shouldn’t have to give up something to be involved in something else … I’m learning balance because I refuse to go through this again.”
“No. I am a school administrator and just manage both. Because I am at the top, I do have flexibility so I don’t miss things with the kids. I am tired though, but when I was working from home at the height of COVID-19, I realized I couldn’t be home full time.”
“If I quit, then I can’t provide for my children, so hell no!!”
“I almost did. I actually set stronger boundaries with work. Made a huge change and now I’m advancing and a better parent. It’s hard. Best of luck.”
“I can’t say it’s made me a ‘better’ parent, but it’s allowed me to be with him more often. I previously worked for the U.S. Department of Defense then when they did this ‘temp’ promotion freeze about 10 years ago, [we were told it was only going to be about three or four months], It’s apparently still going on. I left and went to work for the U.S. Department of Justice. I left there after a year when I realized I didn’t like a desk job. Now, I have my own business and it allows me to be with my son more often and we can do more things together. I think even bad parents think that they are good parents, and some good parents may not be as good as other parents think they themselves are. So, I would have to know what YOUR personal definition of a good parent is and what do you consider a bad parent? I personally think I’m a F’ing EXCELLENT parent … but you may not.”
These single parents presented various reasons for working and not working, explaining further, in some cases, how their decision to work or not work affected how they parent their children.
Their responses made me realize that hard-wiring was only one reason why I work as a single mother.
Why I work
The Great Recession in the mid-2000s in the United States left millions, including me, unemployed. The media industry was decimated as newspapers were shuttered, leaving hundreds of thousands of reporters and editors competing for an ever-dwindling pool of positions.
The newspaper I helped start in Baltimore, MD, The Examiner, closed in February 2009 after which I spent more than a year and a half sending more than 300 resumes to potential employers. Yes, more than 300 and I interviewed with less than five of them. The job hunting experience was demoralizing and simply cruel. I don’t know how I survived emotionally, but I do have PTSD from that experience
During that time, I took classes to become a paralegal and found a job at a law firm, but the work environment was unfriendly, cliquish and hostile. I was pushed out essentially in less than three months and decided to take the following three months to complete my paralegal certificate with an internship at a small mom-and-pop law firm — and loved it! Sadly, they could not hire me.
Since February 2009, my son and I were surviving on my unemployment, child support and the generosity of my parents who allowed us to live with them.
Then, the paperwork arrived in the fall of 2010, the court filing where my son’s father accused me of voluntary impoverishment in an effort to reduce the child support he was paying. I was mortified and humiliated. I could not find a job despite my best efforts and I desperately wanted to return to the workforce.
Eventually, I did find a position and the claim was dropped, but the horror of such an accusation has lived with me ever since.
Single mothers, motherhood and work
To better understand the nature of the conflict single mothers face in striking a balance between parenting and working, I happened upon a study titled “Single Mothers’ Perspectives on the Combination of Motherhood and Work.”
Published in April 2020, this qualitative study involved researchers interviewing around 200 single mothers in Belgium and analyzed their responses. The researchers focused on single mothers who were divorced because of their greater risks of poverty rather than single dads who typically do not endure this type of financial strain. Racial disparities, unfortunately, were not considered in this study.
Over the past decades, Belgium, like the United States, has seen an increase in the rates of divorces and child custody arrangements. The gender pay gap that disproportionately affects women is a common problem in both countries despite legislative efforts to overcome it. Because of these shared issues, I wanted to present the results of this study to you, dear reader, in the hopes of giving you a broader perspective on the challenges of single mothers.
The study found that single mothers face the strains of being a caregiver and a breadwinner after divorce. Many mothers who fall strictly into the role of caregiver perceive the demands of raising the children as fair compensation for not having a paying job in the workforce. In a marriage, that arrangement may work, but when parents are divorced, the newly created single mother is under pressure to address their new financial responsibility as a breadwinner.
Because motherhood is understood through a set of norms and values that are internalized, single mothers differ in their response to their post-divorce environment. Some single mothers believe that their role as caregiver can be adapted to their role as breadwinner, while other single moms are unwilling or unable to adapt their caregiving responsibilities.
The researchers noted that these orientations toward motherhood and employment are not in opposition to each other but rather are in a continuum.
After analyzing the responses from the study participants, the researchers revealed the four following ways single mothers deal with the strains of parenting and working during the transition from marriage to a single-parent household:
- Re-invented motherhood. Single mothers who are willing to adjust caregiving to the demands of a job tend to achieve a satisfactory work-life balance if their work environment is flexible and family-friendly if they change their attitude about work or both.
- Work-family symbiosis. Single mothers who subscribe to this perspective have a more family-centered work ethic. They are more willing to subvert their career aspirations — at least temporarily, in some cases — and take on flexible jobs that allow them to maintain most of their maternal responsibilities.
- Work-centered motherhood. Unlike work–family symbiosis, these single mothers have a work-centered ethic where the demands of their employer require them to seek child care solutions and family support. These mothers tend to be in a rigid work environment with little to no flexibility for families.
- Work-family conflicted. Single mothers who want to retain strict maternal responsibilities while working for a rigid employer typically discover that these two spheres are in conflict. These family-centered women tend to be unable to balance the demands of these roles or are resigned to stay with an employer who is not flexible and family-friendly rather than find one who is.
These viewpoints suggest the continuum I mentioned earlier. Single mothers, like any parent, can move from one to the other at any time depending on their individual, changing priorities.
So now what?
The majority of single mothers must work to support their children and themselves and struggle to achieve a work-life balance. Suffocating gender roles and limited working arrangements are injurious to women, families and society, as a whole.
To help single mothers as they transition from marriage into their new roles, changes must be made on various fronts.
Social workers, therapists and other practitioners must be sensitive to the maternal responsibilities of single mothers while assisting them in adjusting to their new role as the breadwinner. They can explore with single mothers the values they believe are essential to motherhood and ways they can be more flexible in coping with their new financial challenges. By doing so, they can help single mothers reduce the stress associated with their maternal role.
Employers must create family-friendly work environments where flexible arrangements replace rigid work hours and in-person requirements, making it easier for single mothers to achieve a work-life balance.
Lawmakers must enact laws that eliminate inequities related to family status, gender, ethnicity, and social class. They should also support employers who provide equal pay for equal work in a family-friendly environment.
These changes can help to build a healthy society in any country in the world. Single mothers have been the canary in the coal mine, inspiring many reforms when they are heard. We must continue to listen to them if we are to sustain our global community.
On Thursdays, I share a blog about a day in the actual life of a single parent. Every other Thursday, instead of a personal post, I put together one where I assemble news on and about single parents nationally and globally.