I’ve been a single mother since my ex-husband left when my now-9-year-old was a baby. Because his father lives more than 500 miles away, I have grown used to making all my child’s medical appointments, attending recitals and parent-teacher conferences, arranging all play dates, and planning all birthdays alone. But some things you cannot get used to or prepare for solo, like handling a pandemic.
As schools rapidly begin to close for long periods due to the coronavirus, who will care for the children in one-parent homes? How can single parents hold onto their jobs, and any sense of economic security? The coronavirus pandemic, perhaps like no other emergency in recent times, has exposed the lack of infrastructure, support, resources, and care for the most vulnerable among us, including single mothers.
My son’s school has announced it will be suspending classes for three weeks, after a mandate from the governor of our state, Ohio. Coming on the heels of spring break, this makes at least a month that local children will not be in school. For many people, this means a loss of income. For single parents, it may also mean finding money to feed children who eat free or reduced meals at school — and with no other parent to pitch in, coming up with hundreds of dollars of sudden, unexpected child-care costs.
Though many businesses are pivoting to online work, that won’t be a huge help to more rural or poverty-stricken parts of the country like my own, where many people have shift jobs, working in warehouses, health care, administration or maintenance. We don’t have reliable Internet where I live, in central Appalachia, so remote work and school isn’t even a possibility in many cases. Households may only have one computer or phone with multiple family members trying to use it for work or school. Working at home will also be extremely difficult for single parents like me — alone with children who need care.
Laid-off from my previous job as an editor, I now work full-time as a freelancer. The silver lining of this is that I work at home always; I’m here for my son. The bad news is if I don’t actually work, my son and I don’t actually eat. Because I’m not a regular employee of a company, I earn no guaranteed paycheck and get no time off or sick days.
I’m not alone. According the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4 in 10 parents had no sick leave at all in 2011. No federal law has been passed for paid sick leave, and according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, only 12 states and the District of Columbia have laws requiring employers to provide paid sick leave for workers.
Jobs in the service industry, the gig economy and retail are the least likely to have sick days — and these are overwhelmingly the kind of jobs that single mothers can get. We have gaps in our employment, credit and educational history due to having to take time out to be primary caregivers. Single mothers are more likely to have our savings drained by the high costs of raising children alone, and many of us never recover financially. Half of single mothers make less than $30,000 a year, according to the New York Times. Divorce financially punishes women significantly more than men, with becoming a single mother one of the leading reasons women go into poverty.
I’m in this camp, living below the poverty line, as about 30 percent of single-mother-led families do, according to the Census Bureau. How can we afford to purchase two weeks’ worth or more of groceries at a time? I’ve stocked up on beans, rice, pasta, peanut butter and soup, food that both keeps and is relatively inexpensive. But to do so meant grocery bills that were double what I budget for, at a time when my work is slow. The feast-or-famine nature of freelancing makes it difficult to plan for normal bills, let alone the bills of a pandemic. Buying and freezing a lot of extra meat and pricey prepared foods was out of the question for my family.
I’m also not sure how I can afford the extra books, workbooks, games, art supplies and activities to keep my home-from-school child active and entertained. Our public library has shuttered its doors, the closing that sent the most panic through me.
We are extremely fortunate in that neither my child nor I take regular prescription medication, but we both need expensive, over-the-counter allergy meds to stay well, and stocking up on pain and fever relievers for adults and children, as advised, also costs a lot, especially in our era of price gouging.
How can you stay well when you’re barely staying afloat? The advice to get a lot of sleep, eat well and exercise to try to avoid the virus also seems especially punishing to single parents. The last time I remember regularly sleeping more than six hours a night was a decade ago, before I had a child.
Though rarely considered in policies ranging from the local schools to the federal government, single mothers have learned to form our own alliances, developing a network of support even with no supportive co-parent in sight. I dreaded the forms at the beginning of the school year, freezing at the “emergency contact” page until a fellow single mom told me: Put me down. I’ll be your emergency contact. My son’s No. 1 babysitter is the teenager of that single parent, who reached out to me the moment the school closing was announced, to let me know they’re here. Another single mom is forming a co-op to take turns watching a small group of children, while my son and I are planning a neighborhood book exchange, leaving books for trade on our porch.
I learned of the power of a social network early into single motherhood: When my child was a baby, and a group of women — strangers to me — left home-cooked food on our doorstep for weeks.
I will rely on my fellow single mothers, my neighbors and my parents who live an hour away to get through the next few weeks or longer, as they will rely on me. But I’m not sure who will care for my son if I fall ill. One of the hard realities of parenting alone is: When you are taking care of your sick child, you know you’re next. And no one is coming to relieve you.
People have and will continue to die of covid-19. People also have and will continue to die from the poverty the pandemic is exposing. I work hard and save as much as I can. But like many people in America, I am one disaster away from ruin, a car repair or an unexpectedly high bill, which seem minor in comparison to the pandemic we’re staring down. For single parents, could that disaster be now?