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Can’t get a break

Working single moms in the pandemic

One thing has become clear over the past year:  the pandemic didn’t affect everyone equally. There is the person joked about on social media, out of work but getting unemployment; without their typical income but still able to cover the rent; with time to worry about what to binge watch or when they could get their hair done. And others out of work and without unemployment, struggling to make ends meet—but finding themselves with some free time.

And then there are the ones who didn’t get a break.  The ones who made the shift to the digital work world without missing a beat. Even when their workload grew to accommodate the masses newly in need of services, the pay did not.

Confined to home with two jobs

Compared to two-parent households where at least one parent was able to focus on childcare while the other worked, single parent households were hit hard by the pandemic. Isolation and excessive workloads have caused negative impacts on mental health for all members of our nation. However, the effects of such isolation on top of a full-time job for income and the full-time job of being a single parent can increase pandemic stress levels exponentially.

Negotiating child-care with work responsibilities takes a toll.

Taking on the role of full-time caregiver for one’s children, full-time housekeeper with the added challenge of cooking and cleaning for little people making messes without supervision during the workday, full-time teacher’s aide filling in the gaps of instruction between the few hours of interaction with teachers, and full-time worker stuck in Zoom after never-ending Zoom, has left many single moms at a mental breaking point.

Single moms in general have less pay, less resources and less space. They have been overworked, under-supported, and overstressed for a long time. This has led many to put their own well-being, mentally, emotionally and physically, on the back burner. The unequal demands of home and work placed on single mothers during the pandemic has increased levels of emotional distress and burnout.  Cases are even higher among black, Asian and Latina mothers.

When I asked three single working mothers in our community what they needed just to feel sane again, their wishes hit home.

Time to be present for the kids

One local single mom spent the past year converting her face-to-face consulting business into a virtual, digital-based experience for her clients. Long days and nights have been dedicated to trying to grow a business against almost insurmountable odds. Added to the isolation and many aggravations associated with pandemic living, she had to start washing all dishes by hand when her dishwasher broke and repair was way too expensive.

Working, schooling and wearing the many hats needed to get through the day leaves no time for being a parent. This mom said, “I need time to be present in my kids’ lives.” So her greatest wish was to have someone to cook meals that are actually healthy; someone to clean the house; a handyman on call for that dishwasher — and everything else that seemed to be breaking.

A longing for emotional support

A second single working mom reported the irony of being told by her employer to make space for self-care, and then promptly being advised that her caseload at work was doubled. Another irony was her feeling of jealousy towards those who ended up unemployed because of the pandemic. Perhaps reading social media posts of others’ excessive boredom at being at home with nothing to do but make sarcastic videos and watch TV exacerbated her despair.

Her hopes of finding someone to share her life with seemed to slip farther out of reach as isolation, stress weight-gain, and a longing for human contact with someone other than her children strained her resilience. Too many free moments were spent handwashing dishes (wishing her children were old enough to wash their own), she echoed the wish for help with housework and time to connect with her children outside of schoolwork.

Some private space

A third single working mom talked about the close quarters in her small, affordable home and a desire for more space. How much longer will hiding in the garage or the car be necessary for a private phone conversation, free from the prying ears of little ones? She reminisced about promotion opportunities she’d had to pass-up due to the constraints of being at home while working as her kids’ caretaker and teacher, and as a full-time worker and manager.

It’s even a challenge for single moms who are primary care-givers to get support from former partners —and lifelong co-parents—to ensure that their kids are fully supported in their studies and their lives. Having a fully functioning school and an equal partner in parenting was this mom’s wish, along with a chance to see friends for the regenerative effect of a sisterhood bonding over a Scrabble board. On top of all that, her dishwasher broke… a third single mom spending many hours washing dishes by hand.

Underlying the burnout—economic discrimination

The Brookings Institute reported in their “2018 American Community Survey data, before COVID-19, nearly half of all working women—46% or 28 million—worked in jobs paying low wages, with median earnings of only $10.93 per hour. The share of workers earning low wages is higher among black women (54%) and Hispanic or Latina women (64%) than among white women (40%), reflecting the structural racism that has limited options in education, housing, and employment for people of color.”

Some expenses are especially burdensome to working moms. Lack of affordable and available childcare for example. Childcare itself is very expensive yet the childcare providers, who are mostly women, are grossly underpaid leaving a working mother with little left of her paycheck if care is not subsidized. Unlike men, women face other not-so-hidden expenses associated with their gender, such as expensive undergarments and the monthly costs of feminine hygiene products that tap into the lower paycheck that women earn.

Gentrification of neighborhoods that were once affordable to many lower income single parents, has made it harder to rent, and next to impossible to buy a home to accumulate generational wealth. As neighborhoods become gentrified, services important to low-income households, like free clinics and food pantries, move away and become less accessible.

Does it have to be this way?

Cities like Vienna created housing specifically designed for moms who work. Developments that are close to public transit and have on-site healthcare and childcare facilities are making it possible for single parents and moms, who are traditionally childrens’ primary caregivers, to have opportunities to reduce the heavy burdens associated with the role.

Along with stresses and demands tied to the pandemic, worries about what the future holds abound. What happens when the moratorium on evictions ends? Where can women with small children go to have access to the affordable childcare necessary to find full-time work and pay for the ever-increasing costs of housing? How can we gain equity in the workforce? And why can’t dishwashers stand-up to pandemic level living?

Ilana Smith is an avid reader, wishful traveler, and a lover of Scrabble who has laid down roots in Lacey.

Source consulted for this article: Bateman, Nichole and Ross, Martha (2020). Why Covid-19 Has Been Especially Harmful to Women

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