Single Moms and COVID-19: Lessons in Desperation and Strength

Single Moms and COVID-19: Lessons in Desperation and Strength
The coronavirus adds additional risk to the already precarious day-to-day reality of many of the 8 million single mothers in the United States. (allison fomich)

In a briefing about the coronavirus, New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently described New York City as the canary in the coal mine.

As the founder of Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere (ESME), a sociologist and former single mom, it’s a metaphor I’ve often used to describe the situation facing women who parent alone: The challenges they face from the current pandemic reveals the inadequacy of economic, political and social support for our most vulnerable families. 

Whether solo by choice, circumstance, divorce or the death of a partner, many single mothers parent under threat. Failing to provide affordable childcare, family leave, healthcare or living wages, our nation tests the limits of their strength and resiliency.

Now, the coronavirus adds additional risk to the already precarious day-to-day reality of many of the 8 million single mothers in the United States. It’s time to pay attention and learn from our nation’s true “canaries.”  

As an administrator on ESME.com and 60-plus single-mom Facebook groups, I’ve received one message loud and clear from single moms from San Francisco to New York City: They are scared.

I’ve identified four recurring fears that arise from an already frayed safety net. All of them reflect these moms’ desperation to do best by their children.

My hope is that if we pay attention in this moment of crisis, our nation will make changes that support single parents once it has passed. Twenty-two million American children are counting on us to notice. 

Solo moms are afraid of: 

1. Becoming So Sick They Can’t Care for Their Children.

One of the first people to die of COVID-19 in the United States was a single mom of four who was in remission from breast cancer. This news weighed heavily on our community.

Solo moms always carry a burden; often, every parenting responsibility is up to them, and they worry about what will happen to their children if something happens to them. 

One divorced mom, J., posted: It’s so hard for any mom that doesn’t have a partner right now. We are doing it all and don’t have anyone to talk about it at home.

Another mom, N, writes, This has been the few hardest weeks of my life with 2 kids at home and unemployed because I work in the hospitality industry. So So Scary! 

A mom in ESME’s Seattle group cut to the chase and asks: Hello fellow single moms. Does anyone have a GOOD plan for if you do get VERY sick? Who will take care of your child(ren) if you need to quarantine solo?

She received replies filled with fear and some bravado, but no concrete solutions. 

Single moms are known for slogging through work and childcare when ill. But COVID-19 presents a whole new set of rules—and possibly fatal outcomes.

Solo moms are scared and scrambling. Sometimes the backup plan expressed by the solo mom chorus is just to pray and hope for the best. We can do better by these moms, with creative solutions and reassurances that their children will be taken care of if they become ill.  

2. Exes Who May Compromise Their Children’s Health.

It started with a few memes about ex-husbands not practicing social distance and jokes about exes getting stuck with the kids for the pandemic.

But as the virus took hold in the United States, our community of solo moms started to become increasingly vocal about the challenges of co-parenting in a pandemic. 

An L.A.-based solo mom writes, My daughter’s father is something else. He is not taking the precautions seriously and is still demanding his monitored visit at the park with our 1 year old. I am already so overwhelmed. I can’t speak to him directly nor do I want to because I have a restraining order against him. Looking for advice or encouragement. 

This plea precipitated a long discussion, similar to others I found in other groups. Moms were scared that their exes were not being safe, would try to move back in with them, would demand visitation or even fail to return their children due to quarantining. 

Another solo mom complains: Does anyone know if parents with custody must adhere to visitation schedule during coronavirus? Child’s father seems to have taken it lightly. Lives with his brother (I am guessing) and will not tell me if he has been isolating or his brother has, or if any of them have any symptoms. I certainly don’t want my child to get it or bring it to me. Child and I have been isolating for one full week. I offered virtual visits but was told no. 

Domestic violence is spiking, and social interactions between estranged parents are more tense than ever. Single moms want to keep their children safe amidst a real threat and must make some hard choices. Some moms relent and turn their children over to exes with great trepidation, while others ignore custody arrangements and risk legal repercussions. Regardless, the fears are real.

3. Losing Work Because Their Children Are Home.

All U.S. moms face a society that demands that they parent as if they don’t have a job and work as if they don’t have children—but the current reality of daycare and school closings has thrown working solo moms into a state of fear. 

K from Chicago writes, Are the daycares closing as well? My daughters’ daycare told me they are waiting on a response from DHS. I have absolutely no one to watch my daughter if so. Trying to not panic but if they close I will probably lose my job. 

Employment and childcare have always been a pernicious Catch-22 for single moms, whose earnings historically have been low. Now the work/childcare juggling act is essentially unsolvable. 

One woman described a bind faced by many solo moms: Anyone else stressing about income during this time? I work for an agency contracted by public schools. Since school is closed, I am not working nor do I get paid. My kid’s school is closed as well and I do not have a sitter, even if I could find another source of income.

Quarantine is tough on all Americans, but especially for solo moms, who often live month to month.

Moreover, single moms predominate in the service industry, with work that doesn’t translate to working from home. Other single moms need to mask up and go to “essential” jobs, such as working at grocery stores or pharmacies.

Solo moms who work in the healthcare sector—and there are many of them—add another layer of risk to their juggling act, as they may be attending to patients infected with COVID-19. Placing their children in childcare also increases the chance of a family member spreading the virus. 

4. Not Being Able to House and Feed Their Children.

A record 6.6 million Americans recently filed for unemployment benefits. Undoubtedly, single moms were well-represented in this surge. Losing a partner—whether to divorce, abandonment or death—makes the typical solo mom’s family economy precarious. Mothers suddenly without income are worried about where their next meal will come from.

In addition to food stress, they worry about housing.

A New York mom posted, I live in a NYCHA building, and for the first time in three years I’m not planning to pay rent next month. I’m a housekeeper, so I have no other means of income. I plan to hold on to the little I have to make sure my 2 boys have essentials. I don’t know what the future brings, but I’m bracing for it. 

A mom from Atlanta posted: HELP! does anyone know of any online jobs that are hiring? My job let me go today and I’m so lost because I don’t know how I’m going to get my son diapers and food. I have tried churches they tell me to call back Monday. And don’t have family to help and I’m still waiting on my taxes. Please please pray for me. 

Solo moms are scared and scrambling.

A single mom with a two-year-old child in North Carolina describes the cruelty she faced as a result of her new financial reality: I lost my job due to the state shutting down bars and restaurants. . . . I called the rental company to explain my job loss and asked for an extension. The woman said she couldn’t help me and that rent is due and that I will be logged and evicted as soon as the courts open up!  

Even when they have a little money, solo moms are having trouble finding the essentials, like diapers and formula, at their local supermarket. A mom from Las Vegas shared that twice she’d used her money for transportation only to find empty shelves. Fortunately, another mom gifted this young mom some formula. 

Solo parenting has always been challenging, but the virus is showing us how fragile a foundation we’ve skated on for too long. 

Solo Mom Strength, Compassion and Empathy

In the face of these four main fears, the solo mom community remains compassionate and proactive. I’m always impressed by solo moms’ generous support and camaraderie. Even when they have so little, they are willing to give so much. 

This esprit de corps has been especially apparent during the spread of COVID-19. Our online community is growing: About 50 solo moms are joining some of ESME’s larger Facebook groups each day. No wonder, since these groups offer single moms a safe zone, free of the stigmas and recrimination that often come with being a single mom.

And they find that other moms are willing to go above and beyond for one another—commiserating, cheering each other on or dropping off diapers and formula, even while facing their own fears and challenges. 

One Boston solo mom offered free financial consultations, noting, We are in this together.

Single moms also share loads of local information to help quell the impact of the virus, such as job leads. The Las Vegas group is filled with helpful posts about free food at Chick-fil-A, casino food banks, bartender benefits, video pep talks and diaper bank information. 

When a solo mom worried that she would run out of food, another chimed in, I just learned that the school up the street is offering breakfast and lunch. Amazing! This can help cover you for two meals a day.  

Another offered, I just started making friends with neighbors I have shared a building with for over a year! Desperate Times Ha! Time to build a village for your family. I am trying to do the same. 

In this heightened moment of insecurity and fear, there are lessons to be learned from the solo mothering experience. If those of us with greater resources were as generous as most single moms, we would build an impressive web of support.

Just as the virus has exposed the faults in our healthcare system, single moms’ vulnerability reveals the inhumanity of the unrealistic demands they face. Economically, politically and socially, our nation can do better.

There have been many beautiful expressions of humanity as communities around the world confront the virus. Let’s extend this newfound generosity of spirit to single moms. It is long overdue. 


The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving.

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About

Dr. Marika Lindholm founded the social platform Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere (ESME.com) to ignite a social movement of solo moms. A trained sociologist, she taught courses on inequality, diversity, and gender at Northwestern University for over a decade. After a divorce left her parenting two children on her own, she built ESME out of academic and personal experience. Marika is also the coeditor of We Got This: Solo Mom Stories of Grit, Heart, and Humor, a frank, funny, and unflinchingly honest anthology—written by 75 Solo Mom writers, including Amy Poehler, Anne Lamott and Elizabeth Alexander. Marika can be reached at [email protected]