Reclaiming the Dream: Single Mothers and the Power of Innovation

Photo by Luis Quintero from Pexels

I found out I was pregnant with my daughter Easter weekend 2004. Though I had taken a pregnancy test at home and received a positive result, I went to the college campus infirmary the next day to be sure. It was my senior year at Spelman College and I had so many plans in store after graduation — I was hoping that my positive home test was just a fluke.

When I arrived at the clinic, the nurse did a blood pregnancy test — and as one would expect, it came back positive.

In a daze, I grabbed my tote bag and left the always-too-cold clinic. Right outside its doors, in a worn patch of grass was a wooden bench worn by the Georgia sun. I’d throw my tattered tote bag on the ground next to me and weep. At the time, I thought I was weeping over the uncertainty of raising a child, but in hindsight, it was something much more.

As I sat and cried, I remember looking down at my tote bag and peeking out of the top of my folder was an application for The University of Maryland at College Park’s journalism program. I had this big dream to move to the east coast to work as a journalist — this dream that was crystal clear just days before was now as blurry as my teary-eyed vision. I remember mumbling to myself, “Welp. That’ll never happen.”

Nearly 16 years later, my life has tried to reconcile that moment as not one of sorrow for motherhood, but the sorrow for a dream that I had to abandon.

I think this is true for many single moms — that the weight of parenting alone is also about reconciling what happens when our dreams are stunted and delayed. That we leave behind remnants of our hopes in the sullied commitment to do our best at mothering.

But no one could account for how a global pandemic would compound what is already a deeply beautiful, yet complicated existence; single-parent homes make up 23 percent of families in the U.S. and despite working full-time jobs, find it difficult to not only make ends meet but to thrive.

“Women have been affected across the board, losing jobs at disproportionate rates in most industries and returning to the workforce slower than their male colleagues — even in sectors where employment levels have been essentially gender-neutral. In retail, for instance, women held 50% of pre-COVID jobs. But they suffered 60% of the industry’s losses through April and accounted for only 49% of the gains in May.” (emphasis mine.) (stat)

The trend of losing more jobs and returning back to work at significantly lower rates than their male counterparts is further compounded with the lack of childcare available across the country. For women who have the opportunity to return to the work force must make the unimaginable decision to not return to work because she has no safe alternative for in-home childcare. This decision making is compounded by states who have mandated in-person learning where COVID-19 is on the rise.

“The hit was even harder for low-wage single moms: Eighty-three percent working as waitresses lost their jobs by mid-April, along with 72% of those working as cleaners, 58% of cooks, a third of personal care aides and 14% of customer service representatives, according to the analysis.” (stat)

Since February 2020 the number of unemployed single mothers has tripled. (stat)

And, as you guessed it, Black and Brown women have taken the hardest economic hit with May unemployment rates reported at 16 and 20 percent, respectively. (stat)*

Since the start of this pandemic, we have often heard white folk** say that they are ready to “return to normal.” What this has been interpreted as is a return to the normalized conditions where their positions of power go unchecked and unchallenged.

And, in response, many scholars, pundits, and liberation movement leaders have sought to quench this desire because “normal” for marginalized folk is not a viable option. In its wake, this pandemic is offering new vigor in the dismantling of systems and ideologies that perpetuate policies that further subjugate the weak and immobile. The “normal” methods we have taken to rectify the glaring gaps in wage disparities for marginalized folk has been like a carrot dangling ahead of a horse desperate to be rewarded for its work. The ways we have sought to create systems, policies, and programs that truly create the conditions for thriving have been placated by “normal,” singular handouts fueled by pity and not promise. And, in their own self-serving way, “normal” allows them to keep someone, anyone just at the edge of hope so they may feel better about their own misgivings.

But it is on the thin edge of hope we find the dreams of women.

The hope of mothers who carry within them the never-quite-actualized dreams that take up residence in the corners of our minds. The dreams that are waiting for the right time, the right moment, enough money, and enough support.

On the thin edge of hope is where we awaken the dream that some of us had to abandon to make mothering possible. What new future are we creating to address the complexities of deferring our own dreams so we may cultivate the right conditions for the dreams of others to thrive? What is it that we owe to these women who mother the future, sometimes riddled with regret of the past, that is only compounded by the variables of a global pandemic?

This is reclamation work. Reclaiming the place where dreams were birthed — but now, with some lived experiences, some reformed thinking, an opportunity to investigate the dreams we have long held, and the space to be curious about the ways they’ve changed since we first dreamt them.

The etymology of “reclaim,” the Latin word reclamare, means to “cry out against,” to shout back, to call upon, or to invoke. The reclaiming of our dreams, then, is to call back to that which we once hoped for and give voice to those dreams we thought had no room within the current iteration of our lives. The dreams we were on the way to gather before a pandemic interrupted our journey. The dreams that we know, if only we have the right resources and support, we can make a reality.

Studies from The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) show that post-secondary education has been key in the economic and social striving of single mothers. While “9 in 10 single mothers pursuing a college degree have incomes at or near the federal poverty line,” (stat) higher educational credentials have shown to have positive economic and social impacts on single mothers. The more education a single mother has, the greater the decline in her poverty rate, in some cases, only 8% of single mothers with a graduate degree experience poverty while 62% of single mothers without a high school diploma or its equivalent experience poverty. But even though data shows that higher educational attainment reduces the rate of poverty for single mothers, college success is contingent on holistic resourcing and support; IWPR notes in the same report that “28% of single mothers have some college education but no degree, making them more likely than all other women to have started but not finished a postsecondary degree.”(emphasis mine)

Mothers who complete degree programs often attend higher learning institutions who make concessions like offering flexible class schedules, on-site childcare, work-study opportunities, and trend toward having strong, interpersonal relationships with friends, family, and their employers.

What if we took this model of holistic care of educating single mothers on every pathway of economic stability? What would it look like if we temporarily alleviated high costs of living in cities like New York, Atlanta, and Chicago to create the ideal conditions for single mothers to reclaim their dreams, the college degree or certification or the business incubation?

What if holistic care and economic stability were fueled by the best resources and funding to offer safe, reliable childcare and a network of co-laborers and community partners whose primary goal was to ensure she achieved whatever the iteration of dreams now looked like?

What would be the political and social implications to ensure that these mothers have not just the one-off resources we have historically used to placate the most immediate needs of single-parent homes, but seriously invest money and infrastructure into the wellbeing and dreams of this particular demographic? Strivings for a more equitable system for all begin when we create infrastructures that make this kind of work possible for them.

Want to solve the growing economic gap for some of America’s poorest neighborhoods? Create the conditions for single mothers to thrive.

Want to create more jobs for Black and Brown families? Give single mothers the support and autonomy to build out their businesses.

Want to shift the narrative of [insert any social ill here]? Equipping single mothers by addressing the systemic and social barriers like equal pay and childcare is the first of many steps we can take to begin to do the important work of equity.

Expert tip: decentralize wealth and put it into the hands of those who have mastered the art of making a dollar out of 15 cents! Fund the women whose lived experiences have made them gifted innovators, leaders who are eager to transform their lives — this is a way forward out of the pandemic.

The work I’m committed to is shared community resources that seek to center the needs of women and children. Funding that lowers the costs of living for single parent homes and fosters communal living, nurturing, supportive, and safe housing conditions. And finally, strong partnerships from companies, corporations, and community organizations whose involvement in the revolution is not just lip service — it is the ethos of their very existence.

This work is a merging of both program and policy that works hand-in-hand to resource and restore single mothers. Thoughtful work informs policies and informed policies create sustainable, generational shifting impact. This is the work that is ahead for me — and you too.

While I never made it to the University of Maryland’s journalism program, my life as a single mother brought me to the east coast over a decade later anyway — not as a journalist, but as a faith and social justice leader, one committed to telling the stories of the women whose lives as single parents are fertile ground for innovative, impactful change in the world around us.

No, not a journalist but a storyteller nonetheless.

To learn more about how we can support the innovation of single mothers through the pandemic and beyond, visit www.thecurrentproject.org.

*Recent unemployment numbers have changed slightly since May; Black and Brown women are still at risk for high numbers of unemployment.

**White folk = institutions, ideals, supremacy.