In 2002, when my first son was about 6 months old, he, his father and I went to visit some of my extended family. At one point I sat with my young cousin, who was about 7 years old, and asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up.
“My mom said I can be anything I want!” she answered. “As long as it isn’t a stay-at-home mom.”
At the time, I was a 24-year-old stay-at-home mom and heard this a lot. People never failed to remind me that I needed to go back and finish college, that I was “wasting” my talents by being at home. They also reminded me incessantly about anything they thought I should be doing for the children while also pursuing work outside the home and higher education, from how the babies should be fed to the cleaning products I should have around the house. The offers rarely included anything like actual help to the children and me, they were mostly suggestions for how I alone should go about things, even once I became a single mother.
Eighteen years and two children later, I—and countless single mothers like me—have continued to receive these unsolicited words of “advice” during the forced homeschooling and all the hardships that have come with the Covid-19 pandemic. The burdens of caring for children and keeping a home is still thought to be women’s work and is therefore not valued in America, while also being lauded as some of the most important work performed by people every day.
Work is an activity put into purpose. Standing at my sink washing dishes is work just the same way sitting at my desk typing is. But only one type of work is expected of me without compensation (when you take into account my water bill, I pay to stand there cleaning dishes). Single mothers are expending all the energy and resources they have to perform multiple full-time jobs simultaneously all day.
Philadelphia, where I live with my two teenage sons, is one of the most impoverished large cities in the United States. 25 percent of all residents are living in poverty in my city. The city also has more single mother households than married family households. Of those single mother-led families, over 60 percent make less than $20,000 a year, putting them below the poverty line. Seventy percent of single mother households in Philadelphia are on public assistance. These are the most recent statistics, but even those are from before the pandemic.
The pandemic has forced governments across the country to roll out restrictions to which business can be open, which schools can be open, and more. Unsurprisingly, women bore the brunt of these disruptions. Women have been far more likely to be forced out of work during the pandemic than men. In the service industry alone, where women make up 58 percent of the workforce, a PEW study estimates that 5.7 million women lost jobs over the past year—men lost just over 3 million over the same period.
I recognize that there are single fathers and that they have their struggles, too. But the particular plight of single mothers cannot be ignored. Single fathers are more likely to be cohabitating, often meaning they have help with the bills and the children, and most make almost twice as much as the average single mother. Across all sectors, 17 percent of women have lost jobs during the pandemic, compared to 13 percent of men.
The work of cooking, cleaning, rearing children is very often some of the most underpaid and unstable work, despite the fact that this work is fundamental to the wellbeing of individuals, households, and communities. About 75 percent of all service workers are making minimum wage and the majority of those workers are women of color. The importance of this work, now universally understood to be “essential,” needs to be reflected in the wages and accommodations afforded to these workers, no matter where that labor takes place.
Speaking from my own experience, it is intensely overwhelming to be expected to do too many things at once, but for single mothers there is often no other way. The frustration I felt in my early 20s at the expectations that I return to college, care for my children, and work outside of the home to bring in “extra” income were tremendous even with a partner. On top of that pressure, I felt that society didn’t want me to show any frustration over these competing demands. When women do show our agitation, we are often blamed again and told we should engage in some kind of “self-care” so that we may properly care for others. Queue the “oxygen on the airplane” analogy and “take care of yourself first,” as if the only reason women should even give themselves air is to be sure they can save everyone else.
This pandemic has brought this treatment of women and their work to the forefront, one of the beacons of hope from almost a year of living in constant crisis. The New York Times now has an entire section called Primal Scream devoted to telling the stories of America’s mothers in crisis due to the pressures put on us right now. It is too much, and many women are just looking forward to this being over. But as children finally begin returning to schools, often staffed by women working as Early Childhood Educators making less than $25,000 a year, the crisis of single mothers living in poverty, and that impact this crisis has on the millions of children they raise, will not go away.
The oppression that women faced—in the workplace, in the unpaid work expected of them at home—was a foundation of our society long before the pandemic. We have an opportunity now to leave some of that oppression in the past. This pandemic has brought about vital proposals on establishing longer paid leave for single mothers, raising the minimum wage, providing benefits for employer-provided child care assistance, and comprehensive legislation that supports working mothers—we must act on these proposals, and we can’t let this crisis go to waste. We have to keep insisting that a “recovery” that brings us back to where we were before the pandemic is not acceptable. This pandemic will end, and when it does, we must be sure the crisis of single mothers and their children living in poverty ends with it.