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|May 8-14, 2008
The juggling act
Single mothers defy stereotypes, finding success despite challenging circumstances
by Pamela White and Dana Logan
In the United States today, one out of every eight families is headed by a single mother. And although the media has been persistent in reporting problems associated with single motherhood, rarely do the papers or TV talk shows focus on the successes of single mothers.
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It’s a fact that being a single mother leaves a woman and her children statistically more vulnerable to a host of challenges, especially poverty. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 10 percent of U.S. families live in poverty, and 40 percent of those are single-mother families. Families headed by single women are five times more likely to live in poverty than those with two parents.
It’s not that single mothers are lazy. Despite notions of single mothers popularized in the mainstream media, most single mothers work at least one job and are self-reliant. However, many lack the education necessary to command higher wages, and many don’t have the time or resources to complete their education. Not only is higher education very expensive, it also requires women to spend more time away from their children and increases their dependence on expensive childcare. Even women with college degrees find that raising children alone is a juggling act as household and parental responsibilities often clash with the demands of their jobs.
In the following pages, we take a look at the lives of three area women who defy the stereotypes — women who are successful single, working mothers and who challenge us to rethink our notions of single motherhood. Despite the challenges that they face and the burdens that they may bear, these mothers have found ways to manage their busy lives and raise happy, healthy children.
Being a single mom is not easy, but then, being a mom is not easy. So Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms out there, single or otherwise. Your kids appreciate you.
And so do we.
A matter of priorities
Maria Corral, 36, was pregnant when her husband left her.
“We went to a talk to a priest to make the relationship work,” she says. “But the priest didn’t hear me. He just heard my husband.”
Maria admits she might not have been as assertive as she could have been about presenting her side of the story.
“When in the company of men, you keep your mouth shut — that’s how I was taught,” she says.
That was almost 10 years ago. Now she knows better.
By the time her daughter Iriana was 2, Maria’s husband had disappeared. Though she’s still technically married to him, he has never helped support his daughter. Maria is working toward a divorce, but she hasn’t had the money to find him and serve him papers.
“I have no idea where he is,” she says. “He hasn’t been involved with us for the last eight years.”
Raising Iriana is a responsibility that fell solely upon Maria’s shoulders. She, like many single mothers, found herself scrambling to provide food and shelter for her baby daughter. And like many single mothers, she turned to public assistance for a time, applying for food stamps.
“It was the hardest thing for me to go and do that, but I didn’t want to mooch off my mom and family,” she says. “There’s a stereotype [about single mothers], and you don’t want to be a part of that stereotype.”
Hardworking and determined to succeed, Maria nevertheless encountered preconceived notions wherever she turned, both within and beyond the Latino community.
Older women in her community subtly hinted that perhaps she didn’t know how to keep a man happy.
“What fault do I have if he left and never came back?” she asks.
Some in the Catholic community were less than sympathetic to her plight, sharing with her their unsolicited advice for what she needed to do to save her marriage.
“That’s why I’m not Catholic anymore,” she says.
Strangers, too, had biased opinions about her. She recalls getting dirty looks from people while in public with her daughter, particularly when Iriana was a baby.
“I would always feel judgments,” she says. “Because I’m Latina, too, the expectation was that I was a single mother and that I was having children out of wedlock, when that’s not the situation.”
A young Latina raising a baby alone, Maria might seem to fit some stereotypes, but in her case the “fit” was purely circumstantial. Maria had some college behind her, having attended Metro State College and come within a year of having her degree. She was also determined to succeed and to give her daughter the best life she possibly could.
Despite her lack of college degree, she found work and kept food on the table. By living frugally, she managed to set aside her tax returns so that she and Iriana could travel, visiting places of historical significance in Mexico and in the United States, which Maria felt was important for her daughter’s education.
But then a slight increase in income resulted in Maria losing her eligibility for CHP , the state-funded health-insurance program for children, and she ended up having to add Iriana to her employer’s health-insurance plan at an additional cost of $500 a month, resulting in a significant net loss of income.
“It’s difficult to be able to afford housing, and if you’re not able to afford housing, how can they call it a living wage?”
Still, Maria is grateful for her job.
“I’m really blessed because my job schedule is very flexible, and so I can either drop off my daughter before school or pick her up after school, depending on how my day is,” she says.
As for Iriana, Maria says her daughter is thriving.
“She’s doing incredibly well. I have no complaints. She’s a great kid.”
A very independent little girl, too, as it turns out.
But in the world of single motherhood, even success brings reasons to feel guilty. Raised by a more traditional mother who tried to do everything for her three kids — and who taught Maria that it was her job to take care of her brothers, one of whom was older — Maria’s internalized ideas about motherhood and the way her life actually functions don’t necessarily match.
For example, Iriana makes her own breakfast and gets herself ready for school without Maria’s help or prodding. While many parents might wish their kids would do the same, Maria, who grew up believing a mother was responsible for such things, feels niggling guilt that she’s not up making breakfast when her daughter rises.
“Me and my daughter have a much more open relationship than me and my mom did,” Maria says. “I’ve talked to Iriana about it. I’ve said, ‘Honey, I feel bad that I don’t get up and make your breakfast,’ and she says, ‘Mom, I can do it myself.’”
And then there are the extracurricular and enrichment activities she wishes Iriana could enjoy.
“I’d love my daughter to be in dance or violin or sports, but unfortunately due to my schedule, some sports are out of the question, plus paying monthly for something... It’s hard to save or to be able to put money aside for those types of things,” Maria says.
But Maria’s biggest internal struggle involves her own education.
“One of the things I feel bad for is not finishing school, where I could have just gone straight through and been able to finish it and provided a better life for my daughter,” she says. “That’s really difficult, and that weighs on me every day.”
Though Maria is economically stable at the moment, there’s no money left at the end of the month for anything extra. She earns too much through her job to qualify for financial aid, and resources for non-traditional students and single mothers are limited.
But it’s not only a matter of money, but also time. She doesn’t want a life in which she works all day and studies all night and can’t be available to cook dinner or help Iriana do homework.
“Our schedule is so set and delicate that if I introduce something different, I’m afraid that I might fail or that something else might tumble over,” she says.
Finding time in her life to pursue her own interests is important, so she tries to integrate these into her work and into her parenting. “I am involved in different community organizations, and I try to do them with work,” she says. “I’m also trying to politicize my daughter and show her there’s a different world… I want to instill that worldly view in my daughter. We talk about news stories and how news is not always accurate; it always has a point of view. We attend different cultural events. I try to give her as many different opportunities as I can.”
Although there are times when Maria feels a need to go out to happy hour with her friends, those times are few and far between. “I’d rather go to the park and fly a kite with my daughter or ride our bikes. I actually enjoy the time that I’m with her. I’m seeing how she’s growing and developing. Sometimes I get scared that if I don’t spend this time with her now, I’m going to miss out later on.”
In the end, Maria says, it’s a matter of priorities, and spending time with her daughter is at the top of her very long “to do” list.
And though her life has been difficult, Maria says she doesn’t want anyone feeling sorry for her. She laughs when people try to pawn off their hand-me-downs on her, assuming that because she’s Latina and raising a daughter alone she’s automatically too poor to buy new clothing. And she takes pride in her accomplishments.
“I’ve enjoyed the lessons that the hardship has brought, and I’ve learned a lot. Our successes are mine and my daughter’s,” she says. “I’m pleased with my life the way it is. You do struggle, but if I didn’t have these struggles, I wouldn’t want anybody else’s struggles.”
Taking the lead
Morning comes early for Juliana Forbes. Her alarm buzzes her awake at 6:11 a.m. The single mother makes sure her 15-year-old daughter Eliza Verena has a good breakfast before heading to high school. Then Juliana’s son, Emmet, 13, wakes up. The two have breakfast together before he heads to school, then Juliana and her dog head to the office, where she is a co-founder and the current communications director of Mothers Acting Up, a nonprofit that inspires and mobilizes mothers and others to advocate on behalf of the world’s children.
Juliana has been working outside the home since the founding of Mothers Acting Up in 2002, but it wasn’t until her separation about two years ago that she became a single, working mom.
“The challenge is to find the balance,” she says.
And she says that the key to finding that balance is in learning to be disciplined about time. Making the juggling act work means not bringing her work home with her and being home when she says she’ll be home.
But as tough as it is to manage the responsibilities of being a working, single mother, Juliana is proud of the work that she does — both in her home and at her job. And she’s glad that her kids get to see her passion for her work and witness her involvement and activism.
“Seeing me really engaged and excited about my work has been a really useful model,” she says. “It’s not a small thing to have your children see you contributing. It doesn’t have to mean working, but it certainly can include that.”
Juliana feels that by demonstrating her ideals of being involved in the world community and issues about which she cares deeply, she will encourage her children to do the same.
“I would love to give them the faith in themselves and the courage to stand up for their values,” she says. “We are entering an era where mothers are stepping into leadership roles like never before.”
And in the context of those dual roles, Juliana thinks that a new generation is seeing the role of mother in a new and different way than what her generation experienced.
“That is undoubtedly a hopeful, powerful, transformative phenomenon,” she says.
Juliana says that she’s really lucky that she really loves her work and that it means so much to her.
“It’s invigorating. It feeds me a lot intellectually and is engaging,” she says.
But she also recognizes that for many single mothers, work is simply an economic reality.
“It’s not really an option. It’s a need,” she says.
And to those who might say that a mother should be home with her kids, Juliana says that when you’re looking out for the well-being of your kids, “shoulds” really go out the window.
“There’s nobody on Earth who doesn’t want her children to thrive,” she says. “And the judgment we sometimes have about what other people are doing has gotten a little out of hand.”
Although it’s not easy being a single mother, it’s also rewarding.
“There are significant challenges,” she says. “But there are also gifts.”
One of those gifts is having the opportunity to show her children how she works toward doing good and impacting the world. Juliana and her kids have sort of a family motto. It’s a simple motto with a powerful message. “Live big,” they say.
“My work is part of my ‘living big,’ and [my kids] know that. And laughing really hard. And doing things well,” she says.
And acknowledging when she doesn’t do things well, too.
Her kids see her really clearly, she says. And there’s something about being able to admit that you don’t know everything — that you, too, are still working through things and trying to find the best way, that you’re not perfect, but you’re trying.
“I think it’s really helpful to say, ‘I’m just figuring this out,’ or ‘Wow, I didn’t do that very gracefully’ and ‘I’m sorry.’”
You don’t have to be perfect to be a great mom, she says. What is important is remembering to make sure her kids know that, as important as her work is to her, they are her true priority.
“And I think they do know,” she says.
But at the end of the day, Juliana finds joy in two really different things: Hearing that something she’s doing at work is really inspiring somebody and laughing really hard with her kids.
Doing it all
Sarah Massey-Warren thought she was on her way to happily ever after when she found herself divorced and raising her two daughters, then ages 6 and 3, by herself.
“It was awful,” she says of the divorce she never expected.
She went from living a fairly comfortable life working as a freelance writer to cobbling multiple jobs together in an effort to keep a roof over her daughters’ heads.
“I worked up to four jobs at a time, including freelancing, to try to make ends meet,” she says. “Any job that I took had to have flexibility, which meant that I wasn’t going to take a full-time corporate job, which doesn’t have any flexibility for single moms.”
Though her schedule was flexible, enabling her to be at home with her girls and to attend their school events, it still required her to meet a host of deadlines.
“As a result, when we were home together, as they pointed out, I was constantly working,” she says.
She couldn’t sacrifice income and refused to shortchange her children, but with only 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week, something had to give.
“There’s no such thing as a five-day workweek,” she says. “There’s a seven-day workweek. You have to choose to spend quality time with your kids, but you also have to choose to meet all your deadlines. I don’t think I’ve missed a deadline in my life. So you have to learn to juggle all that, and something goes — like sleep.”
Sarah’s social life also went by the wayside, as did her health insurance. Every day involved tough choices about how best to use what money she had.
“It’s just how it was,” she says. “I had to make sure the mortgage was always paid, because I got the house. I had to make sure the car was maintained because we had to go from hither to yon. And food was here, and what they needed for school. I never could give them for school what other kids have.”
Nor could she give them things some families take for granted, like formal sit-down dinners and long hours in front of the TV (the Massey-Warren household doesn’t have one).
“You have to let go of all of the conventions and scramble to make sure you can be at their school things and there for parent teacher conferences and at the same time meet all your deadlines,” she says.
The one thing Sarah held onto for herself was her daily time at the gym.
“That’s my sanity outlet,” she says.
The stakes were raised when Sarah decided it was essential for her to go to graduate school to earn first a master’s degree and then a doctorate. Time became even more compressed as she worked her way through eight additional years at the University of Colorado, refusing to go into debt and adding teaching duties to her list of jobs, often taking on a more than full-time teaching load.
Though graduate school can often be a bonding opportunity for people with similar interests, Sarah felt largely isolated.
“The other students would get together and party and have dinners and drink a lot and do all sorts of things that I could never do,” she says. “They didn’t include me in anything they did because they saw me as older, which was true, and they also saw me as, ‘Well, you have kids so you wouldn’t be able to do it anyway.’ I can’t tell you how many things I’ve been excluded from because of this. When I did go to the occasional social thing, I always brought the girls with me.”
Although her daughters were old enough to appreciate what their mother was trying to accomplish and would tell their friends, “My mom teaches at CU,” they also disliked the time she spent working and studying.
When Sarah finished her doctoral dissertation, she dedicated it to them.
“Whenever people asked me, ‘How do you do all that?’ I’d just say, ‘It’s not multiple choice.’”
She didn’t get to pick and choose; she simply had to do it all.
“It becomes a matter of pride to do it all just because you know the school is just sitting there waiting for you and your kids to fail because, of course, you’re a [single mom].”
Along the way, she encountered her share of well-meaning friends and strangers who offered their ideas about how she ought to be handling these challenges.
“I hate unsolicited advice,” she says. “It’s been consistent all the way, and also the sort of matronizing and patronizing you get.”
Suggestions like, “You ought to remarry,” only made her angry.
So did the stereotypes she encountered of the single mother .
“The stereotype that really bothers me is that children of single moms come from ‘broken homes,’” she says. “If a family is sound and supportive of each other and cohesive, then it doesn’t matter what its makeup is. It’s much less broken than a family with parents that are bickering all the time.”
Other maddening stereotypes include the notion that a woman is less successful because she doesn’t have a partner or that kids raised by single moms are somehow doomed to turn out “wrong.”
“I have a child who’s pre-med with a 4.0 at college right how, so clearly these kids don’t end up on the streets doing drugs,” she says. “Neither of my girls drink or do drugs.”
She also thinks that society gives too much credit to divorced men who “choose” to be involved with their children’s lives.
“That’s the one that really, really, really irritates,” she says. “‘Well, at least he spends some time with them.’ Well, geeze louise, what have I been doing?”
With one daughter now in college and the other a junior at Fairview High School, Sarah believes her hard work is paying off in the form of two well-adjusted, successful young women.
“The girls are screamingly independent,” she says. “I raised my kids to be strong and independent, and strong and independent is what I got.”
And her daughters are beginning to appreciate her sacrifices and hard work in ways she couldn’t have anticipated a decade ago. While driving back from a Christmas trip, her older daughter turned to her and thanked her.
“She said, ‘If you hadn’t been at home working all the time and providing the quiet structure that made me also settle down and focus on my work, I wouldn’t be where I am right now,’” Sarah recalls. “I almost drove off the road. I never thought I’d hear that.”
And although Sarah fears she’ll never recover financially from the shock of divorce and the subsequent struggle, she’s satisfied that she handled the situation well.
“I wouldn’t have done it any other way,” she says. “I made the choices I made because I wanted the girls to have one parent present and there for them. I wanted them to know someone was there for them always.”