Successful Single Mothers
Updated: Mar 23
With the focus on Women’s History in the month of March, I am feeling inspired to write about a topic I haven’t discussed much in the past: the reality of being a single mother while working in corporate America. I want to acknowledge that there are all kinds of single parents out there, but I’m writing from my perspective as a mother because, well, that’s what I know.
One silver lining of the pandemic having forced so many to work from home is greater awareness among leaders of the immense juggling act that raising a family while working full or part-time represents. Most everyone I know wants to be both the best employee they can be and the best parent their child needs them to be. Too often, these goals are in conflict and even more so as a single mother.
Nearly every organization has a leadership archetype, a certain profile of the most successful type of leader. It could be an Ivy League educated white male with a stay-at-home spouse; or a single white female with a liberal arts degree and no kids or a conservative, buttoned-upped executive who keeps their personal and professional lives very separate. There are all kinds of archetypes, but so so few that contemplates the reality of parenthood without partnership in the mix.
Why is this important? It’s very simple: the cultures of organizations are usually built around this leadership archetype. For example, let’s take the profile of a leader who is married and has kids, but has a stay at home partner (and note that this leader can be straight or gay, male or female.) If this is the prototypical leader, then you may have a culture that values and expects executives to travel at the last minute, to work evenings and weekends, to be readily available for social gatherings or attend offsites that last several nights. If a single mother wants to be successful in this organization, the lift required of her is much greater than it would be for someone who fits the archetype.
I speak from experience. While it was a very difficult decision to divorce, it’s not one that I regret. However, it did mean that as I was working as a senior executive, I also found myself as the primary caregiver for my then three year old son. Continuing to successfully navigate the demands of my career while providing for my son took ingenuity, hard work and, sometimes, a little luck. I learned to set very clear boundaries about when I would and would not travel or when I would be available for events that were described as social or optional, but I knew probably were viewed as mandatory for someone who wanted to get ahead. Before it was common to raise issues related to parenting in the workplace, I was a very upfront about my responsibilities to my child and did my best to support the other parents in my organization. For example, having successfully managed a part-time, work from home schedule when I returned from maternity leave, I was able to extend the option for alternative work schedules to my team. On another occasion, along with another single mother, I convinced our onsite day care center to stay open late when we had a big meeting that was going to run into the evening hours.
There were also many days I found myself running on empty. Being present for dinner with my son often meant logging back into email from 8pm to 11 or midnight. Making time for a workout meant hitting the gym at midday instead of power lunching with upper management. And a business trip meant either hiring an overnight nanny or flying a relative into town to stay with my son.
Fortunately, I also was on the receiving end of many acts of kindness. Once, when I mentioned I was exhausted despite having outsourced as much of the household duties as possible, a female vice-president called me to check in. Or there was the morning I had to leave work early with a stomach flu and a woman on my team asked if I needed her to pick up my son at the end of the day. One moment stands out vividly: one day, shortly after I arrived at my desk, my phone rang and it was a colleague and friend who had passed an accident during the morning commute. She had noticed one of the cars looked like mine and was calling just to be certain it wasn’t me.
These small acts of kindness helped to give me the courage to continue to pursue my career goals and dreams. Although it was a lot to take on, 5 years after my divorce, I moved halfway around the world for a new role despite the fact that my company had never had a single parent ex-pat before. Relocating to a foreign country where you don’t know anyone certainly takes a lot of fortitude, but it requires something greater when it’s just you and an 8 year old. Asking for the type of support I needed, continuing to honor my boundaries and ensuring the experience was as good for my son as it was for me made it an extremely rewarding experience. I’m also proud to say that once I demonstrated it could be done, another single mother was offered the chance for an ex-pat assignment and I was cited as an example to her.
Women are beginning to return to the work force post-pandemic and now is the time to consider ways to support single mothers on an organizational level. Give some thought to:
//Virtual meetings instead of travel, even when it is safe to travel again. The pandemic has demonstrated that we can be productive working virtually and that can make the juggle a lot easier.
//Providing child care reimbursement when employees must travel. Without a stay at home partner or family members close by, it’s expensive to arrange for overnight child care.
//It’s not enough to just offer alternative or hybrid work schedules. Can you also schedule critical meetings only in the morning so employees can work from home in the afternoons when children are back from school, as an example?
And if you work with a single mother, it is critical to start by asking her what might help. Could shifting a meeting start time relieve some pressure? Would it be possible to offer more administrative help? It’s important that you ask her what would help her succeed because there is no one size fits all solution. Importantly, don’t assume that you know what she’s going through if you’ve never been in her shoes.
I’m happy to say that I enjoyed some very productive years in the time I was a single mom in corporate America. It’s true that to rise to the same level and build the life I wanted, I had to work harder and be better than many of my contemporaries who had a partner to lean on. One benefit is that my son, who is now a freshman at Brown University, learned a lot about the relationship between me working hard and him having wonderful opportunities in life. I know for sure he doesn’t take anything about that for granted.
Remember, for all of us, life has seasons. There will be years when someone on your team may be slightly less productive and that’s okay. That does not mean that they are not adding value. The question becomes how can they be supported in a way that helps them to maximize their contribution? The bottom line is what you learn from supporting single mothers can help improve the organization for all employees. In the end, if we can find the equilibrium between being the best employee and giving the best to our children, the end result will have been worth the struggle.