A little over twenty years ago, I met a young woman from Florida who was traveling with a group of hippies. Like most of the traveling hippies I met back then, she had a hippie nickname: Pixie. I was a college student and loved meeting people like Pixie, though I was envious of their adventures and freedom. I had basically reinvented myself when I moved from my small town on the edge of “coal country” to attend the first interracial and coeducational college in the American South. I got married right before my senior year of high school and was overwhelmed with the adult life I had leapt into, terribly unprepared.
I’ve been friends with Pixie on social media for several years and suspected for a while that things had gotten tough for her. We were both single mothers, and she had recently moved back to Kentucky, after trying to get a new start in Florida. I had been feeling the stress of being a single parent during a pandemic, and wondered how other women without a close support system were coping. On a hot Sunday afternoon this past summer, I called to see how she was doing.
Right away, Pixie mentioned that she shares a bedroom with her eight-year-old son so her teenage daughter can have her own room. “It looks like the room has vomited toys and clothes all over the floor,” she told me. “I really should be cleaning it up but I’m exhausted. I just can’t get motivated.”
She told me about her attempt to move back to Florida, where she would have been closer to her birth family, and how her housing plans changed just as she arrived, resulting in higher rent payments. Her toddler son battled ear infections and soon, Pixie lost her job and housing. With a friend’s help, she made her way back to Kentucky, where she lived in a domestic abuse shelter that helped her get into an apartment. She started her own cleaning business to support her family, but the pandemic hit just as it was growing. She didn’t have enough income history to file for unemployment. On the Sunday we spoke, she told me one of her clients had canceled on her at the last minute, but paid her for the day because the business owner knew how much she needed the money.
I called Pixie because I suspected, despite having a group of close friends, she might be experiencing the stress of single motherhood as I often have — and the worst aspects of single parenting are exacerbated during social isolation. Pixie quickly shared that she was overwhelmed and never feels like she gets a break. Like mine, her family lives too far away to help with childcare or everyday needs. There are no other adults to help with the myriad, endless needs of the children. She’s struggling to overcome the PTSD sustained from years of abuse, while her young daughter is suffering from depression and anxiety. “I try to be sensitive to her,” she told me, “but sometimes I feel crazy and so guilty. It’s so hard to do this alone.”
In January of this year, I moved with my daughter to another area in Kentucky, away from the small town where I had lived since college. The rest of winter and early spring were cold and rainy, as they often are in Kentucky, so I looked forward to meeting people and exploring our new home when the weather turned.
Like a lot of U.S. states, Kentucky began shutting down in March 2020 to slow the spread of COVID-19. I watched as friends and acquaintances mourned the loss of kids’ activities, visits with their older family members, and the simple act of having coffee with a friend.
For weeks, I enjoyed relief from the stress in our routine: I no longer had to worry about whether my daughter was safe alone at home after school until I was done with work. Gone was the morning rush to get her to a school where she felt like an outsider. All of a sudden, I didn’t have to worry about whether the boys at her new school behaved worse than sixth-grade boys at the old school.
But with the lessening of these pressures came an increasing pressure that now, many parents in America and around the world understand well — the pressure that comes with never being alone. Single mothers have known this pressure for a long time, as so many of us don’t have family members who will take care of our kids regularly and we certainly can’t spend money on a babysitter for the luxury of time alone, when there are so many other needs to be met and so few resources.
It’s a generalization, of course, to talk about single mothers as a group with the same problems. Some single mothers do have support systems, and some have wonderful families who take an active role in their children’s lives. But according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 statistics, one in four American children are living without a father and 80% of single-parent households are headed by women. Among the approximately nine million single mother households, 40% are living in poverty and around 28% are food insecure.
Other burdens of single motherhood are not so easily quantified. I dreaded my son’s school plays and performances because I almost always sat alone — alone, that is, with my daughter. It seemed like everyone else was part of a couple or a family. If they brought a younger child with them, someone could take care of that child and leave at least one parent to cheer and take pictures. It was painful to sit there, knowing I had to try to meet the needs of both my children, and knowing I was barely able to meet any of our needs.
I couldn’t help it, of course, but I felt like a failure in those moments and in countless others where my attention was divided, where I couldn’t stretch myself far enough.
A good friend once told me, when her husband was away on a business trip, that she finally knew what it was like to be a single mother. I didn’t correct her. I didn’t point out that she knew when her husband’s next paycheck was coming in and she didn’t have to work herself. I didn’t point out that if they ever did have financial worries, she would share those worries with him, and they would likely find solutions — or even just hope — together. She meant no harm, and I wasn’t ready to describe how so many single mothers bear the endless pressure of appointments, school requirements, and children’s needs for love and attention, along with the responsibility of generating income and managing finances. And for those households under the poverty line, failure to attain financial health raises the possibility that the mother will lose her kids, if she cannot take care of them.
My friend didn’t understand how utterly alone a single mom often feels as she tries to navigate the responsibilities of adult life, the needs of her children, and her own basic needs. Of those needs, the need to be alone is perhaps the most overlooked. After long days of making ends meet and struggling to maintain emotional, mental, and financial balance, single mothers are still on duty, calming a child after a nightmare and cleaning up during her child’s bouts of illness.
Who cleans up after the mother?
I’m grateful that we didn’t have a pandemic when my daughter was a toddler, when I was still gripped by fear and uncertainty and a deep loneliness. A toddler’s needs are sometimes overwhelming in the best of circumstances. The school year quickly morphed into a desperate situation for single mothers, who are already one of the most vulnerable American populations. Suddenly faced with a need for more childcare to stay employed, many single moms have faced an even greater struggle than ever, while all American families discovered just how much they depend on others to help care for their children. While America awkwardly grapples with closures and the discomfort of social distancing, there are few opportunities for children to be entertained outside the home.
For mothers like Pixie, the pandemic shines a spotlight on the burdens that single mothers bear with little or no support. And now more than ever, our children are home, ensuring that amid these struggles of isolation, we are never alone.
As mental and emotional health across the nation is damaged by isolation, worry, and economic stress, we know the impacts to children are compounded by the quality of care their parents can provide. Not every aspect of the pandemic can be mitigated, but economic stress is one area where public policy can make a significant difference in a family’s well-being. For instance, single parents could be offered expanded child care assistance, which has historically provided limited support for parents trying to enter the workforce in a way that is sufficient to climb out of poverty. We could expand on government-subsidized education programs (such as Head Start) that are shown to provide lifelong benefits to children and contribute to breaking the cycle of poverty. These kinds of policies help provide single parents with the support all parents need — the proverbial village to help raise a child. Just as importantly, they can satisfy that other critical, overlooked need — the need for a parent to be alone, to decompress, and to take care of herself, even for a short time.
Economic investment in our most vulnerable populations can — and should — be designed to empower them not just to cope with the pandemic, but to change the fate of single mothers as a demographic, going forward.
This pandemic has shown us clearly where our vulnerabilities lie, both individually and as a society. Now is the time to determine our new priorities, and creating solutions to strengthen all of our families, is an investment that is long overdue.