In November 2009, Army Specialist Alexis Hutchinson made national headlines when she missed her scheduled deployment to Afghanistan because the child care arrangement for her 10-month-old son fell through. Though such an extreme situation might be unlikely in the typical workplace, there are plenty of everyday ways in which single parents are forced to choose between work and family.
Teresa Coates, a Portland, Ore., public school teacher who has been a single mother for 10 years, began working at her children’s school several years ago to reduce her commute and limit the time spent away from her children.
The situation has its advantages.
“I get to see them intermittently throughout the day and keep better tabs on them,” she told SHRM Online. “At 12 and 17 years old, they aren’t prime age for telling me all about their day anymore, so being around the school is really helpful.”
But there are plenty of drawbacks, she said, most notably the regular after-school meetings. “On days with meetings (every Monday and Friday), the kids just roam the school building until I can leave, several hours after they are released,” she said.
But as the only employee with school-aged children, Coates says, there isn’t much that can be done. “I wish that we could have meetings at other times. But I know that as the one person who needs that, it isn’t going to happen. I have learned to live with that.”
In Sickness and in Health
Single parents face added challenges when their kids get sick, according to Mary Crist, operations manager for Emerge Interactive Media, a Tulsa, Okla.-based marketing firm, and single mother of twin boys—especially when no paid sick leave is available. “I had two weeks of vacation and three personal days at my last employer,” she told SHRM Online. “Being a single mom meant that I used a lot of that time when my children were sick.
“When I ran out of vacation time and personal days, it was sometimes challenging and certainly stressful to find safe, affordable child care,” she said. “The baby sitter would cancel, the mom friend who offered to baby-sit would have sick kids, and the drop-in day care centers have six-hour limits,” she continued. “So I missed a lot of time. It made work tense, it made home life tense, and I did not feel like a good mother or a good employee.”
Some single parents choose self-employment for just such reasons.
Tammie Aaron-Barrada, a Pennsylvania-based widow and mother of two, chose to operate a home-based business after seeing the impact that her work schedule had on her kids. “They had no meals before sports due to time constraints,” she said, or they ate in the car while changing clothes and doing homework on the way to events. “It was just too crazy and hard on the kids. Their grades suffered, and emotions flared.”
Mark Ernest, development officer at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., was a single and primary parent of two daughters for a few years while running a contracting firm. “I leveraged every angle possible to raise children and manage the company,” he told SHRM Online. “I paid for in-home child care, took sick kids to work, left early, came in late, worked early from the home office, worked early in the morning and late at night, basically anything it took,” he said. “Mostly I lived in constant stress over dealing with child care issues. We survived, but for a while it was a terrible grind.”
A Closer Look
Hope Hanner-Bailey, Ph.D., an assessment consultant for Management Concepts, a Vienna, Va.-based consultancy, said working parents’ challenges are generally tied to anxiety, guilt or a lack of flexibility.
“There’s much more anxiety when it comes to children getting sick and child care falling through,” she told SHRM Online. “Panic can arise when last-minute meetings are scheduled, which are very difficult to attend when you have to pick up a child from school or day care.
“There is guilt associated with having to miss those engagements and activities of your child that occur during the day,” Hanner-Bailey continued, such as performances and sporting events. “There is worry that you may be one of the only parents that don’t appear and what message that sends to other parents, teachers and the child.”
And there is a lot less flexibility than for employees who don’t have kids, she added, because parents typically have to arrive at work and leave at very specific times.
But Hanner-Bailey, who has managed a working mothers group for several years, said these issues are magnified for single parents who “tend to need a lot more notice with regard to logistics.
“They are even more worried about a child getting sick and child care falling through because they don’t have a spouse that can cover for them; it’s just them,” she said. “One single parent said she has anxiety just leaving work because she is afraid of getting into an accident on her way to picking the child up.”
The list goes on.
“They are more worried about losing a job because there is no second income,” she continued. And there is guilt about spending sufficient quality time with the child, less flexibility with regard to business travel—particularly if it comes up unexpectedly—and less flexibility with regard to working late and arriving early, she said.
But the challenges don’t end when the workday ends.
“There is no division of labor once you get home from work,” Hanner-Bailey explained. “So if you have a really bad day or are really tired, there is no one to trade off with.”
Whose Problem Is It?
Millions of working parents are less productive at work because of concerns about what their children are doing in the after-school hours, according to a 2006 study published by Catalyst that surveyed 784 fathers and 971 mothers employed at U.S.-based Fortune 100 companies.
When parents, single or otherwise, are distracted by family issues, productivity, morale and engagement can suffer, Hanner-Bailey said, and mistakes can be made. “If they feel they are not supported by their employer or their manager, they will be much more prone to look elsewhere for an employer that really takes work/life balance seriously,” she added.
But for those employers who think it might not be so bad to have a workplace full of child-free workers who are able to focus their attention entirely on the business, Hanner-Bailey had this to say: “Good luck trying to find people who aren’t family-oriented, who don’t have children or who aren’t planning to have children. You are really going to minimize the pool you have to choose from.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there were 11.6 million single parents living with their children in 2008. Of these, 9.8 million were single mothers, up from 3.4 million in 1970. By comparison, there were 5.4 million stay-at-home moms in the same calendar year.
“You are not dealing with unqualified, uneducated, unmotivated people,” Hanner-Bailey added. “They are very qualified, educated and motivated. They just want to spend time with their children, too.”
Case in point: Dr. Carol Greider, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize for Medicine and a single mother of two, who, when asked what she would do with her winnings, reportedly told CNN: “Right now, my kids are in school, and I still have to make them lunches and dinners. And all that will keep me grounded.”
What’s an Organization to Do?
“More organizations do realize that having a supportive, family-friendly environment will impact the bottom line because they are able to retain their employees more easily and have employees who are more motivated and able to focus on their work,” Hanner-Bailey said.
“It’s important to assess what is needed and what is wanted at every stage,” she said. And, once programs are launched, she suggests, employers should ask a diverse set of employees to share testimonials about their use of work/life benefits to encourage others to do so.
She suggests that organizations hold informal workshops or brown-bag lunches focused on training managers on how to get the best from their employees and to allow time for employees to tell their stories.
Such programs should not focus solely on working moms, however. “There are people who have elder care responsibilities or a whole host of other responsibilities they need to attend to,” she added.
“We try to look at programs and opportunities to help people ease the burden of what might be happening outside the workplace so they are most productive when in the workplace,” said John Robak, executive vice president and chief administrative officer at Greeley and Hansen, a Chicago-based engineering firm with 300 employees in 17 locations.
One such program is a concierge service, a fully funded benefit offered as part of its employee assistance program that helps employees research colleges and find day care providers, nursing homes, pet sitters, concert tickets, dinner reservations and gift ideas.
“The reason we fund the entire cost is that we believe it definitely allows our employees peace of mind,” Robak told SHRM Online. “They have a resource to help them with the hectic struggles of day-to-day life.”
And it pays off in business results: “If employees walk in and aren’t distracted, they are going to serve our clients better and manage their teams better,” he added.
But there’s another reason Greeley and Hansen wants to keep its employees happy, according to Robak. “For us it really comes down to the labor market. Even in this economy, it’s still hard to attract and retain high-quality professionals,” he said. “We are only as good as the talent we have.”
Robak said Greeley and Hansen is exploring backup child care, a service that he said tends to be used most heavily by single parents. It’s easier for a two-parent family to juggle schedules if the baby sitter gets the flu, he said.
Crist’s current employer, Emerge, offers such a benefit, something she took advantage of soon after joining the company when her mother came down with the flu and was unable to care for her sons during a school break. “Normally there would not have been anyone to care for my children, and I would have had to miss work.”
Instead, she used the baby-sitting service the company provided. “As a result, I was happy, productive and worry-free at work. Everyone won,” she said. “It makes me feel good to know my employer cares enough about me and my family to provide this service. And it takes so much weight from my shoulders to know it is there. I feel like I can be a good mom and a good employee for the first time in years.”
Though Coates said she accepts the trade-offs she has made between career and family, there are some things that could change for the better.
“I’m often not invited out to staff gatherings (drinks or dinner after work) because I have kids,” Coates said. “It’s frustrating because sometimes I could go but I’m not told about it happening. Being a single parent limits how much you socialize and how much you can just be yourself.”
And Coates said she rarely has time to do the things she enjoys most, like reading, crafting and hiking. “Those things get put off indefinitely while I do the things that have to get done—working, cleaning, cooking, homework help, et cetera.
“When my children are grown, I plan to move abroad again and teach and write for a living. That’s what I truly love,” she said. “But [the current arrangement] suits my needs for now.”
Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.
The Balancing Act: Ensure Equal Treatment for Parents and Non-Parents, SHRM Online Diversity Discipline, Dec. 1, 2005