A recurring, and vital, conversation surfacing during the coronavirus pandemic is the disproportionate load of parenting working mothers have been bearing compared to their male partners, scaling back their career commitments or leaving the paid workforce entirely in order to oversee Zoom classes and the largely invisible labor that goes into running a household. But what happens when there is no second income to lean on, or even a second pair of hands to help with childcare and chores as traditional options like in-person school, daycare or even a babysitting grandparent dry up due to the risks of COVID-19? In a time of job insecurity, fragile health and intense school and childcare commitments, single moms aren't shouldering most of the burden — they're shouldering it all.
Kim Williams, who blogs and podcasts at Single Black Motherhood, is one such single mom. Until this winter — Williams received her MBA in December, and her 8-year-old daughter, McKinley, resumed in-person classes the following month — the Houston-based mom was juggling a 40-hour workweek, her daughter's remote learning and her own business school coursework, all on her own. While Williams receives some financial support and the occasional visit from her daughter's father, who lives in another state, they do not share custody. The nearest family members she has to help pitch in are her grandparents, who live more than six hours away. Apart from local mom friends and a nearby drop-off daycare available when she's desperate for help, she's been holding down the fort solo.
Williams — who started her Single Black Motherhood platform to "amplify young, single Black moms because I didn't see it being done and I felt that we needed to have important conversations and share how we were doing things" — feels grateful that she has a healthcare industry job that's offered her some flexibility during this time, noting that many other women in her community have lost jobs because of childcare complications. But even with the peace of mind that comes with a steady paycheck, taking this all on has been "overwhelming."
"It was terrible at first," she tells Yahoo Life of those first few months of the pandemic, during which she oversaw her daughter's schooling while spending an average of two hours a day on her MBA work on top of her full-time job. "I was struggling trying to be present at work and teach her at the same time, plus be a present mom after work."
A silver lining has been the amount of time she's been able to spend with her daughter. At the same time, her various responsibilities left little room for her to fill her own proverbial cup.
There is no one in the city to take care of my daughter if I get COVID.Kim Williams
"My biggest struggle was the lack of alone time, plus juggling everything while keeping my sanity and maintaining my mental health," Williams says, adding that connecting with a therapist helped keep her afloat. She also felt additional pressure to stay physically healthy because of her single status, explaining, "There is no one in the city to take care of my daughter if I get COVID."
Health is also top of mind for Karen Stillman, a divorced mom to fraternal twin daughters in the eighth grade, one of whom has "executive functioning challenges" that require some hands-on support. Both girls have been fully remote since March 2020.
"On top of all the other stresses I think married working moms feel, I think, at least for me, there's a whole additional layer of stress around being the primary caregiver and provider that really makes me fear for my own health, because I have to worry about who will take care of my kids if I'm unable to do so," the Chicago-based public relations pro tells Yahoo Life, noting that she's been more "hyper-vigilant" about COVID-19 as a result.
"There's the constant fear that I cannot get sick," she adds. "There's no back-up plan. There's no Plan B to default to another caretaker if I'm down and out or dealing with my own health challenges... A lot of it is not only just fear for making sure that I'm around and alive to take care of my kids but the fear of some of these long-hauler stories because even just having ongoing headaches or fatigue would be such a huge blow to me trying to keep everything together as a single parent."
Like so many others, Stillman's life has undergone a major upheaval as a result of COVID-19. Pre-pandemic, she worked full-time outside of the home, with a live-in nanny and cleaning service on hand to keep things ticking along. Last May, her office closed and she was laid off, which meant she, in turn, had to let go of those helpers. Since then, "it's just been me," says Stillman, who is now doing consulting work from her home and feeling added pressure as the household's sole income-earner.
"It's been a bit of a catch-22 because on the one hand, I need to be able to continue to sustain my financial stability and some source of income, so I need to continue, even though I got laid-off, to find a way to work and make money," she says. "But at the same time, it's not really feasible for me to start a new full-time job or one that would take me out of the house at this point because my kids are still at home doing remote learning. I can't really go after another full-time job right now."
There's no other person to make dinner while I help someone with their homework, or run to the store while I get work done. If I'm on a work call and one of my kids needs help with something, there's nobody else here to help them. There's no one else to go to.Karen Stillman
She describes her current situation as thus: "I was a full-time single working mom before the pandemic, and now I feel like I'm a full-time stay-at-home mom and a full-time working mom at the same time."
Without a "partner in crime to divide and conquer," Stillman says it's a challenge to take on the various responsibilities associated with raising two 14-year-olds at home all day.
"I'm the sole childcare provider," she says. "I'm also, like, the home chef, making three meals a day for everybody in the house. And I'm the housekeeper because I don't have any household help. I'm the school oversight if there's any issues with e-learning or getting on their Zoom or helping out with their homework challenges. I'm the after-school activities supervisor and the provider of all of our basic needs. Every grocery item, every morsel of food that comes into the house, every supply that comes into the house, is because I did the shopping and made sure to keep everything stocked.
"There's no other person to make dinner while I help someone with their homework, or run to the store while I get work done. If I'm on a work call and one of my kids needs help with something, there's nobody else here to help them. There's no one else to go to."
While Stillman's ex-husband is in the picture — though she has residential custody — even that has presented its own set of "really tricky" complications amid lockdown. Because the girls' father is remarried and living in a separate household, contact has been limited due to COVID-19 concerns. "Navigating that with a co-parent has been really, really hard," Stillman says.
Lastly, she echoed a sentiment shared by single mom Mayim Bialik during a recent podcast episode about pandemic parenting. The actress, who is divorced with two teen sons, noted, "It's very hard to manage my own anxiety when there's not another adult in the house."
Stillman too feels the mental health strain of not having a partner at home to bond with, sharing, "there's no built-in adult emotional support."
The challenges faced by single moms — mental, financial, practical — raise the question, what can be done to lighten the load? The pandemic has prompted calls for mothers to be compensated to the tune of $2,400 a month. Trina Greene Brown, a self-described "proud Black feminist mama activist" and founder of the Black parenting virtual platform Parenting for Liberation, tells Yahoo Life that she'd also like to see "a shifting of priorities in this nation to really honor the labor of care."
The author of Parenting for Liberation: A Guide for Raising Black Children explains that "the pandemic has taught us that we need to honor the labor of caregiving and caretaking. It is the most valuable role/position/work that people do, and we don't honor it, we don't resource it and it's not compensated right. And it's the most sacred work that we can do ... [and] the economy and the labor force cannot move if we don't take care of the children."
Greene Brown says her group has been privy to concerns from parents who identify as single or uncoupled about financial insecurity and the need for childcare, particularly for those who would typically rely on their "village" — friends, grandparents, etc. — and can no longer do so because of the pandemic. "Being disconnected from our village has really had a really, really hard impact," she notes.
Providing mental health support is key, she adds — and something that Parenting for Liberation offers to its community members. Under the program, Black parents are paired with healing practitioners — from therapists to reiki healers — for a free session in order to "really create space for Black parents to get support" amid not just COVID-19 but also "the pandemic of racism and white supremacy." It's something she'd like to see happen on a broader scale for all parents who need it.
Says Greene Brown: "Who cares for the caregivers? Who provides care for those who provide care for everybody?"
Read more from Yahoo Life: