Under typical circumstances, being a single parent is already tough. This society and its resources are not set up for us, with its value of individualism and extended families rarely living together. In fact, in the US, the average household size is 2.52 according to the Census, far below Pew's global average of 4.9. Whether with parenting advice, popular media or interpersonal interactions, single parents constantly dodge the unquestioned assumption that there is a "someone else" to share the bills, make decisions, care for our children while the other works, bathes, or rests. Despite that we often feel like the ugly ducklings of parents, in fact, 23 percent of children in the US live in single-parent households, more than in any other country in the world, according to a Pew Research study in 2019.
While "single parent" often includes parents who are separated and share custody or child support, those of us who lead a single-parent household without physical, financial, or other kinds of concrete help from another parent face unique challenges, including being more likely to suffer financial problems and resulting depression. While I am married to my husband who is in pending immigration from Cuba, I currently fall into this category.
Since becoming pregnant, I've been the sole support of me and our child, and due to closures of consulates during the pandemic and already slow immigration processes, these circumstances will continue for an unknown amount of time. The pandemic aggravated the financial, emotional, and physical strain single mothers already face, while exposing the holes and gaps we could usually navigate around. In March when shelter-in-place orders began and child care centers, schools, and for many, work, shut down, so did our access to the very resources that helped us function. My son and I could no longer see or depend on others for supplemental care and companionship, and with a need to reduce exposure, our bubble was sealed closed.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I had to keep my then-16-month-old with me 24 hours a day and to continue working – aware that I was one of the lucky few single mothers with the ability to work remotely as a college instructor and teaching artist. With a growing toddler becoming increasingly active and mischievous, I had to manage multiple jobs along with home-maintenance responsibilities, rent, and all the bills. My sleep deprivation was exacerbated by my needing to stay up after my son fell asleep in order to work, along with the anxiety that many of us faced about our new normal. I would be teaching for the remainder of the spring semester, though future work was more uncertain; many colleges and universities faced budget cuts and were concerned about the impacts of the shift online learning.
Forget sleep and self-care. I wondered: How will I find time to both care for my son and to teach, support, and assess nearly 100 students during a global crisis? The first attempts were somewhat comic: Once, my son threw spaghetti during a Zoom class, and another time, he fell asleep at his high chair after a tantrum — my classes were scheduled during his lunch and nap time. Desperate to keep him occupied, I begrudgingly plopped him in front of his first full-length movie on my laptop, forced to ignore the recommendations to not offer TV until he was older. Yet 90 minutes was not enough time to do what would normally take a full day. As he grew, so did his need for direct attention. Basic house-keeping became nearly impossible. Eventually, I could not even handle all of my teaching work and had to give up two of my classes, fortunately with support by the university in the last weeks.
It really does take a village, but during the pandemic, my successful cobbling together of a makeshift village was thwarted. My parents, who typically stayed for weeks at a time and helped watch my son, were now quarantined abroad. The circle of friends who had become adopted aunties could no longer play with my son for a couple of hours or share family time. Everyone was terrified about contracting or spreading the disease we were still learning about. Borders were closed as well, so the two yearly trips that enabled my son and I to see his father were put on indefinite hold. To date, we have not seen my husband since January of this year.
During the pandemic, getting sick became a single mom's worst nightmare because – who could take care of us, much less our children? I experienced COVID-19-like symptoms at the very start of shelter-in-place, and it was terrifying. A friend had to swoop in, entering our "bubble" to take my son away as I was helpless to care for him while I endured fevers, chills, and vomiting. As I waited for her to arrive, through the chills, I heard her saying she would take him for a "few days," and I replying, "no, no, that's too much," between vomiting into a cup and lifting my head to check that my son was still there. I had strapped him into his high-chair and managed to turn on the movie Coco for him before I collapsed back to the floor and wrapped myself with all my comforters. She packed a bag, and like an angel, swept him away while I lay there until my fever broke. As I craved someone to bring me soup and tell me everything was going to be okay, friends dropped off packages of medicine and food at the door. Being sick is never easy, at any time, but being that helpless to care for my own child was frightening to another level. I could not know if was COVID-19 because tests were limited to those with extreme respiratory symptoms. Fortunately, after several days, I was able to take my son back. Two weeks later, I was finally recovered, but could not imagine that ever happening again.
Seven months later, I'm still avoiding grocery stores and only seeing people masked and from a distance. I control our movement carefully, crossing the street when I see a group of people. Despite the fact that many of us have grown weary of shelter-in-place orders and precautions, cases continue climbing up and we are nowhere close to the virus' demise. My bout with illness was enough to remind me that I simply cannot afford to get sick. In seven months, I have only hugged two people – my friend and my son, whom I hold close every day. Night-nursing and extended breastfeeding have helped us both, and I have enjoyed our mother-son adventures in nature. My son is back to a daycare with COVID-19 precautions, and that's allowed me to keep working. He is sprinting towards 2 years old, and I am grateful not only that we have both stayed physically safe, but that my sense of optimism and mental health have remained steady.
The truth is: while people know single moms are superheroes, most don't understand how the invisible, daily ways we have carefully constructed our lives can be swiftly knocked from under us when illness or crisis strikes. We can hold down so much, but not having another to hold it down with us eventually can wear us down. I am one of the lucky, with the ability to work online, reduced-cost childcare, and rent control, but any one of these removed could spell disaster, leaving me scrambling. And many single mothers have suffered much more. Many could not transition to online work, have multiple children, including those in online school, or have limited access to health care and other resources. I also have been able to advocate for myself, to navigate complicated systems, find parenting support programs, and, as a writer, tell my story to help bring visibility to families like ours. As an artist, a daughter of immigrants and as a woman of color, I can help support find others with similar experiences, and we can build bridges to help break the isolation. I've built alliances with other mothers, many women of color, working moms and single moms, from varied cultural and educational backgrounds; we know that this world is already not set up for us, and COVID-19 has exposed it.
If you know any single mothers, give them a call, a virtual hug, knowing they've spent at least the past seven months being superheroes of their own stories. But like other moms, I don't want to be a superhero. I just want to be able to thrive without worrying about basic food and shelter, to fulfill my goals and provide a life that is comfortable, safe, and protected for my child. We are resilient. As though we're on the edge of a new evolution, single mothers have adapted, gaining new skills to compensate for what's missing, so that our children may experience things whole. For my beautiful son, and my new ways of surviving, being, and loving, I am grateful.