I Was a Working Single Mom Twice — Here’s What I Learned
When I had my first daughter in 1996, I could never have imagined I would one day accept a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. I was just 19, and looking at my newborn, I didn’t feel like a genius. I felt like this was going to be really tough. Like 19-years-old couples do, Aminah’s dad and I broke up while I was pregnant. I was a black girl growing up with my own single mother in public housing in San Francisco, and, like the other women in my community, I knew I’d be working and raising the child on my own.
I was no stranger to work. I’d had jobs since I was 16. Taking orders at Taco Bell. Selling baby clothes at Gymboree. Running a paper route. By the time Aminah was born, I had nabbed something with better prospects: a community organizer role at the Center for Young Women’s Development in San Francisco, a nonprofit that was trying to help disadvantaged women like me.
I would go on to become the executive director in 1996, accept that MacArthur Genius Grant 2003 in my mid-20’s, study public policy at Mills College, make the O Power List in 2009, and create the Back on Track program in the San Francisco district attorney’s office — all while a single mom.
In 2012, I met my soulmate and husband-to-be, Kevin Weston, a journalist that helped so many young people of color get into media, a comic book nerd with a lot of swagger. He was the man I’d been praying for. We got pregnant with my second daughter, Lelah, and, this time around, she couldn’t have been more planned. Kevin and I were now 30-something middle-class professionals. Lelah was delivered by a hippie doula. While Aminah had been raised on Cheetos and Top Ramen, Lelah got only organic everything. While Aminah watched “Helllllla” and had no set bedtime, Lelah watched PBS and got a routine three naps a day. I even quit work for a few months to be a stay-at-home mom, a luxury I couldn’t have fathomed as a teen. Kevin and I both grew up poor, and we would joke with each other, “We’re so middle class.”
But money never gets you out of the unexpected. After a terrible fight with leukemia, Kevin died last year. And I’m a single working mom once again — one who declared bankruptcy last year, because of the endless hospital bills that wiped out our every last dollar of savings.
I took one month off work to lay in bed and grieve. But then I had no choice but to get back to work as the program director of a nonprofit. I’ve learned so much about what helps single mothers succeed at work: that money improves just about everything but the pain of losing your soulmate. That Instacart is a lifesaver. And why single moms will never take vacation.
If you want single mothers to be successful in the workplace — not stuck with poverty and limited choices — we all should take note of these lessons. There’s more women like me than ever before. Today, 41 percent of kids in the United States are born to an unmarried mom, a steady climb up from the single digits in the 1950’s. And that percentage is twice as high for black children (72 percent) as white ones (36 percent), according to a Harvard/Princeton study.
I want to tell all these women it is possible to chase your dreams. But I want to tell employers and policy makers that this country could make it so much easier for them — and if they did, we’d have a better economy, safer cities, and everything that good parenting brings.
So here are six things I’ve learned we need to do to improve the prospects of single moms.
Childcare subsidies are great. On-site childcare is even better.
I was the first young woman on staff at our nonprofit to have a baby. I rose to be the executive director in a year and a half, so guess what? I had the opportunity to create my own daycare option. I didn’t know a thing about parenting policy, but I figured what was good for me would be good for the other women who worked there. We raised the money, and paid a living wage for what we called a “child watch” in our own building. (We weren’t a licensed childcare center — more of a nanny situation.) But they could take the kids out to museums during the day, and their nursery was right down the hall. I had no extra commute time and I could pop in to see her whenever I wished.
When Aminah turned two, in 1998, she aged out of our in-house child care, which, by then, was filling out with other employees’ babies. So I put her in state-subsidized daycare for low-income mothers. (The minimum wage was $4.25 in 1996, and I was making $8.50 an hour. I still qualified.) That subsidy meant everything: it allowed me to keep running a nonprofit.
But here’s what didn’t help: the government gives out the subsidy based on the child’s body being in the school every day — a policy that continues to this day. This is tough on single moms, because sometimes the baby has to go see her dad. Her dad was in Los Angeles, and he was willing to take her for a couple weeks, because his family wanted to bond with her. I took the chance and let her go — but the daycare wasn’t happy it was losing money, and I lost Aminah’s spot. Friends and mentors put money together and I sent her to a Montessori school, $600 a month unsubsidized. I am so lucky that they covered it.
Parent-friendly university policies means the difference between single moms going to college or being stuck in low-wage jobs.
While Aminah was making her way through elementary school, I decided she was finally independent enough that I could go to college. I was 25 by that time, working full-time at the district attorney’s office on the Back on Track program to keep offenders from re-offending. I wanted to study public policy.
I picked Mills College, an all women’s school, specifically because I was able to take her to school and drop her off at what was called the “mother’s lounge.” Very few colleges have that — it had toys and food, and was co-designed by students and faculty for mothers who want to go to school. We had rotating schedules of women students who would watch the kids when we weren’t in class.
Here’s the messed-up thing. Many county welfare programs only allow you to take classes that lead to vocations, which means two-year programs and not four-year university classes. That is the most short-sighted policy: the surest path to the middle class is impossible for poor women to achieve.
Childcare subsidies should be available to the middle class, too.
A year after Kevin is gone, I’m back in the position I was in 1996. Just as broke. Still living check to check. Recently I was back out searching for affordable daycare again, and the flashbacks were very real.
I make an OK salary now, as a program director at a nonprofit, enough that I don’t qualify for any daycare subsidies. I’m not complaining — many women need them much, much more — but usually preschool costs $1,500 a month in the Bay Area. There’s no mandatory pre-k in my county. So for folks who are right above the poverty mark, we are forced to leave baby at Grandma’s (if we’re lucky enough to have family around). Or we spend one-sixth of our earnings on preschool, which is what I do — and that’s because I found a wonderful preschool that costs $700 a month. The old school cost one-third of my income.
I’m in a very different position today than when I was a young woman in the projects, but I still had to ask Aminah, now at college, to move home from the dorms so she could help take care of Lelah and we could save money. I’m still in the position of saying, “No, Aminah, you can’t get this textbook this week.”
I didn’t plan to be a single mom again, so I didn’t think I’d ever have to make these decisions. The privilege is that I can figure out how to make it out of the month, but I don’t know how lower-income women are able to do it. The answer is that they cannot; they have to decide to work half-time instead of full-time.
We need paid leave for caregivers. Or a single mother will never take her vacation.
I didn’t have the money to take much vacation with my first daughter. The first vacation I ever took was right after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when cruises were $200 dollars a pop. I took Aminah to Disneyworld, but that was about it.
My employer stood by me while my family was shuttling across the country, from hospital to hospital, seeking treatment for Kevin. I was able to work remotely on my laptop — which of course isn’t an option for women working service and retail jobs. If I had that type of work, we would have been homeless. We need sick leave nationally and locally in all types of jobs, to take care of our partners, and loved ones, and children.
Today, I get generous vacation leave, but I never take a single day. With no one to lean on in case of those unpredictable events like a sick child, I need to save my leave for the day I might really need it.
In our policies and in our mindsets, we need to support single poor moms as much as we do widows.
It’s funny how I had normalized being a single parent when I was 19. I didn’t see a lot of two-parent homes, and I never imagined myself having a partner. My community was all women-led. Still, I didn’t get much support back then. I remember how heartbroken my mom was when I told her I was pregnant, because she wanted something different for me. Going around with a stroller in my own neighborhood, people would say, “Oh my God, you’re so young.” There was no special subsidy for being a single mom.
Now, when I say I’m a widow, people get that sad look on their face and ask how I’m doing. There’s not that disgust and judgment when saying “my late husband” as when you say “single mom.” This culture and world is very kind to widows — within Judeo-Christian philosophy or in the Koran, there’s so many moments about loving and caring for the widow.
And our policies are so deeply connected to our world compass. We care for the widow: that’s why I get $1,400 in social security benefits for Lelah each month. (Kevin didn’t have life insurance, but he worked for so long we get almost the maximum social security payout for Lelah.) The $1,400 I get every month allows me to rent a home to give my kids the middle-class lifestyle all kids deserve. We don’t give that same allowance and love to the single, unwed mother, the mother whose partner is in jail, out in the streets, or isn’t working.
The 19-year-old me got no such help.
Instacart for all.
I’ve reflected a lot on what life is all about since Kevin’s death, and life is short, so it should be intentional. That time with my daughters at night, that’s it: I’m really with them, I’m dancing to Katy Perry. When I’m at work, I’m really at work.
When you’ve got no one to lean on, you need efficiency. I get my dry-cleaning done once a month by Washio. I take cabs around town to save time when the bus won’t do. (I’m legally blind and don’t drive.) I order all my groceries off of Instacart. Then I get up on Sunday morning and just start cooking dinners for the whole week. It’s insane, but it’s the only way. I can’t just come home at night and make dinner from scratch.
Build up the communities around single moms.
Back when it was just Aminah and me — before I had a laptop — I had a trick for all-night grant-writing sessions at the office. She’d sleep in a baby seat under my desk, and I’d take a cab home at 4 a.m. I remember being alone a lot in those days. There just weren’t many people I could call for help.
Now I have friends from jobs and college, friends from the community, Kevin’s friends, friends from all the networks you enter into when you are a middle-income professional. Being able to call my community on-demand to babysit, or to pick Lelah up from daycare because I can’t get away from the office at 5 p.m., is a huge privilege. If you’re working fast food, or at a gas station, your community is very small. Young mothers like 21, 22, don’t typically have the benefit of people who will babysit your kids.
The sad thing is I look at my neighborhood, at the single mothers trying to make it, and I realize nothing has changed. Poor women who choose life, just like Republicans want us to do, have to endure so much more hardship — just to get through and pay the college classes, to work as a hotel desk clerk or a fast-food worker, then leave work and go home and read a story to their child and clean the house and be out again at 6 a.m.
I have this incredible community to help me live my dreams, and right now, my dream is to be elected in 2016 to the board that runs the Bay Area’s transit system, BART. While it may not seem sexy, I’m running for BART Board because I know my daily experiences as a BART rider mirror so many others. It’s is all about working women getting to and fro, and helping parents get home in time to feed their children. In an Uber-gentrified ecosystem, public transit is one of the our most important public goods. This next year I will have a lot on my plate. People were like, “How are you going to run for office?” I’m like, “I’ve been doing this crazy dance of getting up at 6 a.m. since I was 18 years old. It’s never stopped.” Someone needs to stand up for this transit justice issue that is affecting so many parents everyday. And if not me, who? If not now, when?
One thing that’s extremely exciting is watching the Democratic debate. The next president will be pushed to not only talk about race and class, but parental leave and childcare. Not just when they’re born, but when they’re sick and starting out their lives. I was able to do that in a very small struggling non-profit, so I think large companies can take a step back and decide how to put children first. We must fight to ensure that all working families have what they need to thrive: good pay, good benefits, and quality childcare and schools. This is basic.
Lateefah Simon is the program director at the Rosenberg Foundation in San Francisco. *She is running for the BART board in 2016, the elected body that oversees the Bay Area’s subway system.
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