The Impossible Heroism of Young Single Parents Who Are Raising Kids, Studying and Working in a COVID World

Blog Post Authored By Stephanie Krauss

The other day I was laughing at the dinner table with my husband and mother as we read through the highly relatable anecdotes of other working parents in the New York Times opinion piece, “I Have Given Up: Parenting in Quarantine.” It’s a funny sampler of the everyday struggles that so many of us are facing as we try to simultaneously parent-teach-work. 

This extended period of quarantining, remote work, and school closures is hard for two-parent working families. Speaking from personal experience, it is still hard even if you have the added support of a helpful grandparent. Still hard, even if your job translates well to remote-work, and you have relative economic stability. 

It’s even harder for young single parents. Hidden between the humorous stories in the New York Times article are the unique struggles, complexity, high stakes and isolation of America’s single parents — an experience that is even further amplified for those who are young and early in their career or college experience, or even trying to finish high school.

“I feel overwhelmed and ashamed that as a professional I can’t do this. My house is in shambles. When I have to do work meetings I point the camera to the highest point possible to hide the chaos on the floor.”

“Co-parenting seems like a dream. Someone else to take the kid for an hour so I could go for a run or hit the store? Not happening.”

These accounts ring true for two of our Economic Well-Being YTFG Fellows who take on the seemingly impossible and heroic task of single parenting every day, while continuing to study and work.

Carmen, an urban planner, lives in Los Angeles with her fifth-grade son. Confined to a one-bedroom apartment, Carmen and her son have spent the past few months trying to negotiate and navigate space and tech use in a way that keeps their relationship and sanity intact, while also meeting the demands of her work and his schooling.

Carmen described her struggle:

“I’m a consultant, so I bill clients per hour spent on their projects. That means I am constantly writing down the hours I have worked, which are then reviewed by my employer and sent to clients as invoices. Since I am juggling work-parenting-teaching, I am constantly behind on hours and have had only one weekend off since quarantine started. The hours I spend cooking, cleaning, teaching my son, grocery shopping — not to mention dealing with flooded bathrooms, lost kittens, and various household mishaps — are not billable! It’s a race against the clock to try to get 6-8 hours worth of billable work each day.”

As part of her job as an urban planner, Carmen has had to continue to make trips to various offices and sites. In those moments, it is unclear what to do with her son. Her office, which includes other parents — but most of whom are higher up in the company and are co-parenting with a spouse or partner — will not allow anyone besides employees in her office building. However, Carmen’s son is still too young to be left home alone, particularly for long periods. Does she leave him, and tell her sister who lives in the same apartment building but who is social distancing separately? Or, does she bring him along and either leave him in the car or take him into the building, thereby breaking corporate policy? 

Carmen faces compounded and challenging power differentials that are true for many young parents: she is a more junior employee who is also a single parent. She hasn’t been employed long enough to establish the credibility or tenure needed to flex her own schedule or work assignments, and yet is the primary caregiver – and now primary educator – for her fifth-grade son. The result is that Carmen’s desire to establish herself in her career is pitted against her commitment to her son, and there aren’t enough hours in the day to give both the time and attention they deserve. 

Kera, another YTFG Fellow, lives on the other side of the country. Now days away from delivering their third child, Kera started the academic year on a full scholarship at a prestigious private New England college. The stars seemed to align last fall when they found a two-bedroom apartment close to campus and to the girls’ schools. When COVID hit, Kera’s well-oiled machine suddenly fell apart, dismantled by school closings, sudden childcare needs, and continued expectations from the college to complete coursework.

In a letter Kera wrote to college administrators, they described the challenges they were facing:

“The problem is that even with internet access and my Chromebook, I cannot keep up with my assignments while home with my kids. I am a single parent and am tasked with keeping my second-grader engaged in online learning at home, keeping my 2-year old engaged in activities throughout the day, making food for all of us, cleaning up, doing baths, juggling all the household duties, all the invisible work of child rearing such as breaking up fights and working strategically through conflicts . . . Working for hours to get my 2-year old to nap so I can do things like send this email. It is more than a full-time job.” 

Kera is majoring in critical social thought. Speaking as a parent, I cannot imagine being able to critically think about anything while single parenting a toddler and second-grader, and managing a pregnancy. Kera felt similarly. They were disheartened when college communications focused on continuity of learning and getting online, to the exclusion of supporting those hardest hit by the pandemic. Communications that were meant to be supportive — directing students to continue completing readings and assignments, but acknowledging that much would be review or potentially only counted as pass/fail – left Kera feeling conflicted: should they focus on “busy work” reading and assignments, in order to stay in school and maintain scholarships, or focus on parenting instead? 

Without clear answers to these questions, Kera faces the same concessions that many parents of young children face: deciding to what extent should they use technology and screens to occupy their young children while they attempt to concentrate on challenging college coursework. Kera must determine on a daily (or even hourly) basis whether this trade-off is worth the many downsides of too much screen time for young kids, including behavioral issues that could have been avoided through active play and engagement.

For young single parents, COVID response and recovery decisions loom like a dark cloud of risk and uncertainty. For Carmen, she wonders if she will be able to extend the trust and goodwill of her employer if she is forced to continue homeschooling her son, and therefore unable to devote her full attention to her work responsibilities. For Kera, they wonder what life will look like with a newborn, toddler and rising third grader, all of whom may be at home while Kera may or may not be required to go into class (whether virtual or in-person) in order to continue receiving crucial financial aid and scholarships which they rely on to pay the bills. 

Layered on top of these uncertainties — and their deep love for their children — is the fact that Carmen and Kera also love what they do, professionally and academically. Each is passionate about urban planning and critical social thought, respectively. And both are frustrated to not be able to engage with the passion and skill they normally bring.

Single parents cannot work or study in shifts and sprints. They are often alone in the struggle of parenting-teaching-studying, parenting-teaching-working, or a combination. There’s no time for Netflix marathons or virtual get-togethers. Good parenting requires full engagement. So does good learning or working. Unfortunately, our young single parents often lack the social and financial capital required to effectively negotiate for the paid time off or flexibility they desperately need.  

We must invest deeply and differently in programs and providers who offer supports, relief,  resources, and advocacy to our young single parents and their families. Their economic stability and advancement – not to mention the wellbeing of their children — hinges on their ability to keep parenting, working and learning during this time. They should be afforded the same benefits and cash supports so many of us rely on as we parent and work to meet our many adult demands.