It Takes a Village: How the U.S. Can Lift Up Single Moms

I just googled “Single Parent Awareness Month” because I didn’t know if there even was one, although for six years I have raised my daughter as a single parent. This is typical; single parents don’t have much time to think about themselves. It turns out there is a Single Parent Awareness Month. As of today, we’re in it. 

My partner died when my daughter was three. I have raised her in a town where I have no relatives, no nanny and no financial assistance from life insurance, child support or alimony. 

What I do have are friends. I am raising my daughter with the help of a village, and I absolutely need to be. Ariel picked her up from school every Monday for a year. Bjorn lets her hang out with his girls every Thursday. When my daughter was very little and sick, I couldn’t leave her at night to pick up Pedialyte or children’s Tylenol, so I’d call my friend Dave and he would drop them off for me. Joe and his sons shovel my sidewalk every time it snows. If I am running a little late, I have neighbors who will pick her up from school; in the mornings when I’m rushing to work I have neighbors who will walk her to school.

According to the 2016 U.S. Census, there are around 12 million single parent families in the U.S., and a quarter of all U.S. households are headed by single mothers. It has been more than two decades since the sitcom Murphy Brown depicted the female journalist choosing to parent alone, causing a cultural stir and helping to widen notions of family. Today, 25 percent of never-married women in their 40’s are following her lead, and she’s coming back to the small screen. 

But single mothers still face significant challenges managing childcare and work. Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook CEO and author of the book Lean In, admitted to the steep difficulties of single parenting after her husband passed away from a heart attack in 2015. “Some people felt that I didn’t spend enough time writing about the difficulties women face when they have an unsupportive partner or no partner at all,” she wrote in a Facebook post on the anniversary of her husband’s death. “They were right.” This new awareness has led her to advocate for family leave and childcare benefits for single, working mothers.

While our definitions of families are shifting, policies to take care of families have not kept pace with the change. Women, married or not, mothers or not, still make 79 cents to the man’s dollar to do the same job if they are white, 60 cents to the man’s dollar if they are black and 55 cents if they are Hispanic—and according to the Pew Research Center, single mothers earn only 60 percent of the salaries of married, working mothers, a number that represents the millions of mothers forced into part-time work in order to simultaneously care for their children. Traditional two-parent families earn an income more than three times that of households headed by a single mother, but only 42 percent of single mothers receive the child support owed to them.

These disparities—and the fact that the U.S. is the only country not to mandate paid, family leave—are why the U.S. ranks 23rd in inequality out of 30 developed nations, according to an index by the World Economic Forum. The U.S. scores particularly low on providing social safety nets that protect the most vulnerable of our society, including our children. 

Today, 57 percent of babies born to Millennial women are born to unmarried mothers, and 67 percent of these births are to college-educated Millennial women. These figures suggest that this current generation of single mothers will continue to work while raising children—which means that paid family leave, equal pay, child tax credits, full-time benefits and childcare reimbursements will become even more essential in the next decades.

The challenges of single parenting disproportionately affect lower-income women, wage workers and women of color, and these women deserve the social safety nets that will allow them and their children to succeed. But single mothers in every profession face hurdles that remain invisible to outsiders. Even with hard work, good benefits, a leadership position and a loving community, it is very difficult to parent alone and simultaneously “lean in.”

I teach full-time at a prestigious university, where I direct an academic program, but a few years ago, as I was listening to an NPR story about saving for college—while I made my daughter’s lunch, put on my makeup, scrambled her eggs and helped her find her homework—I heard a numbers breakdown and realized that we were nearly a low-income family. 

Oftentimes, childcare costs prohibitively outweigh the costs—or pay—of attending conferences, yet my absences from such conferences have significant professional fallout. Even my absence at evening workplace events, because of childcare costs or my need to re-center my daughter as her only parent, have career fallout, since these social gatherings result in new ideas, personal visibility and networking opportunities.

If you are the employer of a single mother, give her a raise. Do not take advantage of how much she needs her job—which, along with her gender, will make it far less likely for her to negotiate or job search like a person with the safety net of a spouse. If you are her manager, you may advocate for her, teach her how to negotiate or inform her of opportunities for career advancement. If possible, provide her with professional development funds to use at her discretion.

When I look back at the heart of my daughter’s childhood, I can see that it hasn’t been all struggle. I see us all crowded around our little pine table during potlucks with our friends in the neighborhood. I see myself picking up my daughter after a long day, and then staying for soup and conversation in Ariel’s cozy kitchen. I see myself learning gratitude, humility and connection in the face of so much receiving.

I see how single mothers and their children could thrive if our businesses, institutions and lawmakers learned from our communities.


Rachel Jamison Webster teaches at Northwestern University, where she Directs the Creative Writing Program. She is a 2017-18 Public Voices/Op Ed Fellow.