September 15th 2023.
Thousands of women are impacted by the ‘single mother penalty’ as they juggle solo parenthood and their careers. Rachel Perera was one of them. For more than a year, she worked four jobs to support herself and her eight-year-old daughter. She was constantly worn down and felt an immense amount of stress.
‘I was always rushing to get back to her,’ Rachel recalls. ‘I wasn’t performing for my work or my little girl. I didn’t feel I was being a good mum.’
Rachel, like many single mothers, was impacted by the ‘single mother penalty’. Society expects single mothers to do it all – to be the perfect mother, while also being a diligent worker, as Ruth Talbot, Founder of Single Parent Rights, explains. This intense juggling act can come at a cost as most single mothers report high levels of stress and mental health issues.
Rachel took a bold step to try and make her situation better. She left her successful career to take a 50% pay cut for a low-level entry position at a market research firm three days a week, in a bid to create a better work/life flexibility. But even with the reduced salary, she still had to take on three other part-time jobs to make ends meet.
‘I was working twice as much,’ Rachel says. ‘I was getting up in the morning, dropping her at school, working all day, coming back to give her tea while I’d still be working, put her down and I’d still be working, and I was working weekends. I got to the point I was making myself ill.’
Rachel reached a breaking point when she forgot to send Jasmine into school with a fancy dress costume for a dress up day. It was a mistake any parent could make, but for Rachel it was another failure as a single parent.
However, it all ended up working out for the best. Rachel’s workload unexpectedly halved after two of her jobs fell through, leaving her with two more sustainable roles.
‘Now I think about what I need to survive on,’ Rachel explains. ‘Because, really, I just want quality time with my daughter.’
Kerry Davies is another single parent who understands the difficulty of navigating parenting and a career on one’s own. With her ex sharing custody of their two children, she had to quickly learn how to manage on her own.
‘My mental health suffered and my doctor diagnosed me with PTSD,’ Kerry recalls.
She returned to work 28 hours a week, anxious about how she would pay the bills and get the kids to school. She had to rearrange her work schedule to fit around morning and afternoon school runs, after school clubs, and bedtimes.
‘I felt trapped in our home because I couldn’t afford to do anything,’ Kerry says.
With her part-time salary and the top-up of government benefits, Kerry scraped by for the next three years. Until, Ted was about to start school in 2019. It was then that she quit her job to start her own business and began working overnight bank shifts as a healthcare assistant.
‘They [the children] were my priority,’ Kerry remembers. ‘For those first two years, I didn’t think about anything except for just getting by.’
Rachel and Kerry are two of the thousands of single mothers facing the ‘single mother penalty’ as they juggle solo parenthood and their careers. It’s an intense balancing act that comes at a high cost, with many reporting high levels of stress and mental health issues. But it is also a testament to their determination, resourcefulness, and hard work - qualities which often go unrecognised.
Thousands of women are impacted by the ‘single mother penalty’ as they juggle solo parenthood and their careers. Rachel Perera is one of these women. She spent more than a year working four jobs to support herself and her eight-year-old daughter. “I was constantly worn down. I just didn’t have a minute to breathe,” Rachel recalls.
The single mum was struggling to balance her parenting duties with her career, leaving her feeling like she was failing both her daughter and her employers. “I wasn’t seeing my child at all either and she was really suffering. I continuously felt stressed and was always rushing to get back to her. I wasn’t performing for my work or my little girl,” Rachel explains.
90% of single parents are women, and this often means they are expected to do it all - to be perfect mothers and diligent workers. Ruth Talbot, Founder of Single Parent Rights, states that “the daily juggle they undertake reflects just how determined, resourceful, and hard working they are. However, this comes at a cost for many who report high levels of stress levels.”
Rachel, now 40, split up with the father of her daughter, Jasmine, six years ago. To better balance parenting and her career, she moved from her home in London to Manchester, where her mum lived, and started working at a big PR agency in the city centre. However, the hour-long commute to work meant Rachel was missing out on quality time with her daughter.
In May 2022, she decided to take a 50% pay cut for a lower-level entry position at a market research firm three days a week, hoping for a better work/life flexibility. However, to make ends meet, Rachel ended up taking on three more jobs - at a communications agency, fundraising for a kids cancer charity, and doing social media for a housing development when she could fit it in.
Rachel admits that the workload was unsustainable, and she was snapping at her daughter. “It wasn’t her fault. I just panicked all the time. It was like being on a hamster wheel,” she recalls.
The single mother penalty is something that many women struggle with. Kerry Davies is another single mum who understands this struggle. Eight years ago, Kerry became a single parent when she and her ex shared custody of their two children. She had to take a month off work, and when she returned to her job, she was anxious about how she would pay the bills and get her kids to school and extracurricular activities.
Kerry explains that she felt trapped in her home because she couldn’t afford to do anything. “They were my priority. They had to come first. For those first two years, I didn’t think about anything except for just getting by,” she remembers.
Kerry eventually quit her job to start her own business and to keep the bills paid, she signed up for overnight bank shifts as a healthcare assistant. With her shift finishing at 9.30am, she had just a few hours to sleep and work on developing her business before the children came home from school.
The stories of Rachel and Kerry show how difficult it is for single mothers to manage a career and parenting duties. It is a struggle that thousands of women are facing every day, and it is often taking a toll on their mental health.
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