The emergence of the novel Coronavirus in the United States brought with it an immediate impact on the economy, as well as our daily lives. As the general population slowly realized the virus would linger longer than anticipated, businesses and schools began to find ways to mitigate the damage. A considerable shift began to occur as people reorganized their professional and personal lives. School closures followed by distance learning programs and work from home directives were passed.
This shift towards a “new normal” impacted some demographics more than others. During March and April of 2020, the BBC found that women working in the U.S. (and U.K. and Germany) provided and performed more childcare and homeschooling during the COIVD-19 pandemic across all wage brackets than men in similar wage brackets (Savage, 2020). When the pandemic forced children to learn and attend school remotely, the additional burden fell on mothers, which caused the labor gap between men and women to increase. According to Bauer (2021), the COVID-19 pandemic has widened the gap in labor force participation between mothers and fathers, with mothers’ overall labor force participation “about 3.5 percentage points lower in March 2021 than in January 2020.”
The purpose of this research is to understand how COVID-19 has impacted single households headed by women. COVID-19s negative impact on the labor market and education has been well documented; however, not enough research has been done to measure its impact on single-parent households. Which leads us to the research question of what was the effect, if any, of the COVIID-19 pandemic on single mothers? And or how did the COVID-19 pandemic affect single mothers’ ability to maintain child care and stable incomes? While married mothers or mothers with a stable partner in the home did experience some difficulties during the pandemic, we narrowed our research to single mothers due to their unique experience of parenting more in isolation than others.
Additionally, single-parent households are vulnerable due to their increased risk of poverty, food insecurity, etc. We hoped our research would provide a clearer insight into their experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic. The United States has some of the highest rates of single-parent households globally. Thirty percent or around 10 million families with children under 18 live in single-parent households. (Chamie, 2021) Also, because of those 10 million single-parent families, the majority, or roughly 75 percent, are headed by a single mother (Chamie, 2021). We chose to focus on households headed by women because women are more likely to experience poverty than men. Our study aims to use qualitative research to uncover how the pandemic has affected their personal life, using direct questions and measurements such as childcare, employment, support network, work-life balance, and finance.
Our findings showed that each woman had a unique experience when facing the challenges of navigating COVID-19. Every member of our study experienced a change in some way, including but not limited to changes in employment, support networks, balancing work/home life, and changes to childcare arrangements. Our small-scale study showed that every single mother faced some life change during this global pandemic.
With the rapid shift of the COVID-19 pandemic, families were forced to negotiate difficult decisions regarding health, safety, and stability. To better understand the effect of Coronavirus on single mothers and contextualize our research, we looked into studies that explored single mothers’ financial stability and wellness both nationally and in the State of Utah. This was done to understand the possible financial difficulties and reported mental wellness between single and married women households.
Single Mothers and Financial Security
Single mothers or single-parent households have a higher rate of poverty. According to the National Women’s Law Center, in 2018, one in three single mothers lived in poverty. Native single mothers, however, are at a higher risk, with 43% living in poverty (Fins, 2019). In Utah, single mothers with children are at a higher risk of poverty. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 37.5% of single mothers with children under 18 lived under the poverty level. But this increases to 46.9% of single-mother families who live in poverty if the child is under 5 (Mandle, 2019). Single mothers are at a higher risk of being impoverished because frequently, they are in low-wage positions or experience higher variability in their employment. In a five-year study, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that single mothers had lower employment rates and earnings when compared to the general population. Single-mothers experience higher variabilities of employment: including “periods of underemployment and unemployment” (Wu et al., 2020). For example, if a single mother is pregnant, they will experience a 64.8% decline in economic well-being between before becoming pregnant and when they give birth. (Stanczyk, 2015).
In a research study on the inescapability of poverty, Ann Stevens (2012) explained that the longer someone is in poverty there is lower the chance they will exit poverty. After one year, the chances of leaving poverty is 56%; After seven years, this chance drops to only 13%. The longer single mothers and their children are in poverty, the more likely they remain in poverty. In Utah, of the children in intergenerational poverty, 62% are being raised single-parent (Utah’s Intergenerational Welfare Reform Commissions, 2021). Single mothers experience decreased economic stability, increasing their poverty risks. However, research argues that more robust employee support programs address such concerns to avoid the pitfall into poverty.
To combat the burden to single mothers, Michelle Brady (2016) through a longitudinal qualitative study with 30 single mothers, found that all single mothers with children had more robust employment trajectories when provided more substantial employee support: “Where stronger employment trajectories mean less time outside of employment, maintaining higher hours of paid work overtime, or increases in hours of paid work overtime” Therefore, it is necessary to increase employee support to support single mothers. Providing employee support provides more flexibility for single mothers to be employed and support their families.
Single Mothers and Childcare
Single mothers must fulfill two roles: full-time caregiver and full-time employee, unlike their married counterparts. In a research study about the burden of employment and childcare for single mothers, Michelle Brady (2016) explains that social policy has increased pressure on single household parents to obtain employment, “[h]owever, a single parent’s ability to engage in employment ‘when moving from Welfare to Work’ is dependent on their ability to shift their care ‘burden’ to other sources of care.” When single mothers cannot find accessible and affordable child care, there is a drop in employment for single mothers. According to a Center of American Progress research study, 84% of single mothers who found affordable childcare were employed. Whereas 67% of single mothers who could not find accessible childcare were employed (Schochet, 2019).
Single Mothers and Psychological Wellness
In our research, we have narrowed our research to focus on the wellness of single mothers instead of medical descriptions such as depression and stress. Our logic is articulated, in part, by Taylor and Conger (201): “The field remains rather limited in conceptualizing and measuring adjustment in single mothers, with the majority of researchers remaining focused on assessing psychopathology such as depression and anxiety. However, low levels of depression and anxiety do not necessarily equate with wellness.” Wellness allows our research to move from mere pathologies of single mothers but to be more nuanced in the experiences of single mothers. Wellness allows for the evaluation of psychopathologies but situates it within the question of the experiences of single mothers. To understand the literature around single mothers and psychological wellness, we have separated our research into social isolation, resilience, and mental health.
Good Mother Complex
The good mother must: (1) put children first, (2) spend time with children (3) provide for children, (4) keep children out of trouble, and (5) keep children safe (McCormack, 2005). Often “when poor women have children, research shows that motherhood often becomes the central component of their identity, and they strive to create and maintain their status as ‘good mothers'” (Freeman, 2017). While mothers can struggle with the “good mother” complex, single mothers continually have to try and balance that image with being able to provide for their families. Therefore, being employed can compete with single mothers’ identities as good mothers and providers. McCormack explains that after interviewing mothers, they found that “while most mothers in this sample desired work, they were not willing to sacrifice being the primary caregivers for their children. They could not fulfill their role as good mothers, as they had defined it if they left their children vulnerable to others” (McCormack, 2005). Single mothers, therefore, consistently try to balance providing for their families and maintaining a “good mother” persona. This forces the financial and job decisions of the mother to maintain that image, similar to the imagery of a good caregiver as shown above.
However, beyond the financial burdens, single mothers, compared to their counterparts, do experience higher rates of social isolation. According to Zoe Taylor and Rand Conger, whose research establishes a conceptual resilience model for single mothers, established that “single mothers tend to be more socially isolated than married mothers, work longer hours, receive less emotional and tangible support, and have less stable social networks. Single mothers with lower perceived social support have higher levels of internalizing symptoms and poorer parenting behaviors” (Taylor & Conger, 2017).
Single mothers who do not already have a stable social network when they become a parent are at risk of becoming socially isolated, leading to higher stress levels. A research study on single mothers in Pittsburgh found that single mothers needed a robust support system for emergencies, support, and child care. While some respondents could report at least one supportive backbone person, a portion did not have support and felt social isolation (The Pittsburgh Foundation, 2019). In a research study on African American single mothers, Royal and colleagues found that “parents in the present study who reported that they received more social support from a friend or family network, even when faced with child problems, reported less stress than that of single African American mothers who reported having less social support” (Royal, Eaton, Smith, Cliette, & Livingston, 2017). Therefore, single mothers can experience higher rates of social isolation when they do not have a supportive network.
While single mothers can experience higher rates of social isolation due to the direct burden of child care, financial stability, and maintaining the home compared to their counterparts, single mothers can be forced to create resourceful networks to combat it. Studies show that there is a learning curve for new single mothers. Their parenting strategies are more dysfunctional initially, but with time they recognize this and then improve their ineffective approaches and replace them by following a better model. After recognizing their past coping mechanisms, they will develop more adaptive strategies (Cheeseman, 2010). Therefore, single mothers had to adapt to a new identity, way of life and reassess themselves (Cheeseman, 2010). Therefore, single mothers develop coping strategies necessary to adjust to single motherhood.
In developing effective coping skills, feelings of self-efficacy are essential for a single mother’s well-being. Taylor and Conger (2017) explained that studies of single mothers, specifically low-income African American women, self-efficacy was necessary to impact and change parenting behaviors and coping mechanisms positively. While single mothers are at a higher risk of self-isolation and ineffective coping mechanisms, they can also develop healthy and creative coping skills when they experience self-efficacy. According to research conducted by Hertz et al. (2021), single mothers have to become resourceful to manage the “antagonism between production and reproduction.” Single mothers tried to avoid the risk of social isolation by creating “strategic villages” to be full-time employed and support their households. “Strategic villages” diffuse the burden of single motherhood and provide the necessary support.
COVID-19 and Single Mothers
COVID-19 has only widened the burden on single mothers. Hertz, Mattez, and Shook (2020) explain that with the COVID-19 pandemic, the separation between the workplace and the home has been blurred: “With so many people forced to conduct paid work from home—and with so many social services like childcare and public schools that are essential to people’s ability to work shut down—the pandemic has stretched families to a breaking point.” After evaluating survey results from three distinct parental groups, 73% of women were directed to work from home, 8,7% worked a hybrid schedule, and the rest were required to work outside the home. “Women who lived alone with their children were less satisfied with their work hours and more likely to wish they could decrease them. Once home, they struggled to accomplish more tasks with fewer resources, for example, paid work and children competed for attention” (Hertz, Mattes, & Shook, 2020).
For single mothers in Utah, studies showed a similar pattern. “Due to the pandemic, Utah women in the labor force have dealt with many challenges that have impacted their experiences with paid work, and those struggles were magnified for mothers with children in the home and single mothers in the labor force” (Utah Women & Leadership Project, 2021). Our research explores the possible nuances of single mothers’ experience during COVID-19. Our research study will contextualize prior research within lived experiences by utilizing interviews.
Our research focused on evaluating empirical data to shape our understanding of the effects the COVID-19 pandemic had on households headed by single mothers in Utah. Rigorous interviews were held to attain primary qualitative data designed to evaluate the effects the pandemic had on the interviewee’s personal and professional lives.
Our interviewees are the result of a convenience sample strategy. A small group of friends and personal acquaintances were vetted and interviewed. Our data was collected through telephone calls and video conference interviews in which strategically designed open-ended questions were used. The open-ended nature of our questions was designed to allow the single mother’s space to tell their complete narrative. This choice allowed the interviews to be conducted in a more friendly and personal manner to allow the mothers to feel more comfortable and open. Because our study deals with personal contacts and close acquaintances, consent was obtained from our participants before the interviews. The structure of the interview was provided to the interviewee before the date of the interview. To ensure the anonymity of the participants, they were assigned numbers rather than names.
Before performing the interview, participants were informed on the purpose of the research paper and how the information could be used in the future. Subjects understood the reason for their selection and were informed of their right to withdraw at any time during the research process. This included a confidentiality agreement that included the length of the interview, a reminder that they would be recorded, and who would have access to these recordings. Each participant then verbally confirmed that they agreed to continue with the interview. Participants were allowed to refuse to answer any questions they deemed inappropriate. Structured questions were used in the interview, although a margin of adjustment was allowed when needed to gain a deeper understanding of feelings and attitudes. Seven comprehensive 45-minute interviews were conducted and recorded. Finally, inductive reasoning was used to divide the resulting data to investigate the personal and professional impacts of COVID-19, if any.
The data was analyzed by compiling it into a spreadsheet. Each study member was assigned an interview number, and their answers were added under these numbers. The spreadsheet allowed the research team to compare the study participants’ answers easily. Our researchers independently read through the interview transcripts and an initial scan to find some initial common responses to establish a framework. Once the initial scan was completed, the researchers went back through the interviews to establish the frequency of specific themes. Any additional themes were found during this stage were added to the datasheet and the frequency calculated. The results were then captured in an excel sheet where quotations and contexts could be added to the frequency of responses. Multiple researchers conducted the analysis independently to ensure the accuracy of the results and reduce researcher bias.
Findings are presented in sections that analyze the possible ways COVID-19 impacted mothers personally, professionally, and finally combining the two to see how it impacted the interviewees’ work-life balance. To further elaborate, personal impact refers to home or family life, which is any time not spent working for a paid wage. Professional impact refers to the pandemic’s effects on work, income, or labor status. The findings aim to address the effects of COVID-19 on single mothers and identify possible common trends. While we had assumed that most of the results would show negative impacts from the pandemic, the analysis shows mixed feelings.
The analysis of our interviews showed that interviewees had mixed feelings about how COVID-19 had impacted their personal lives. Analysis of the data reveals that respondents felt varying effects on their personal lives. Most of the interviewees mentioned the difficult feelings which arose from quarantining. Some of the difficulties included feelings of isolation, time spent away from significant others, and a shrinking social circle to provide emotional support.
Some subjects quickly pointed out the stress created by the education system and the learning from home initiatives. One of the mothers emphasized the difficulty of having to work from her bedroom, which meant the son could come in at any moment for help with his homework. This leads to feeling overburdened and having difficulty separating work from home. However, this problem seemed only to affect moms depending on the age of the children. Some respondents, however, reported positive impacts. One respondent graduated from a master’s program during the pandemic and started working full-time again. Another respondent was a divorce attorney/mediator in downtown Salt Lake and had a career change to be with her children during the pandemic. She believes the pandemic forced her to find something else and stated that because of COVID and her career change, “I am now able to do things like run my kids to school and go to school performances, and I don’t have to ask people to take my kids to and from school.”
One respondent described how difficult it was to deal with a COVID-19 infection in the house with no support network:
I would say, in the beginning when my kids started coming down with COVID, no one obviously wanted to come into my house. I had support as far as phone calls and people dropping stuff off on the porch, but it was so challenging because I didn’t have the help that I needed with my kids, especially with my one daughter who was so sick.
Overall, it appears respondents found more positives than negatives personal effects from the pandemic. Even though many respondents reported increased levels of stress from balancing work with helping a child learn from home, they also reported increased levels of joy. Moms were able to further their education; after in-person learning began, they could spend more time with their kids and even attend school performances.
The professional impacts COVID-19 had on the respondents appear to be primarily positive. Aside from one respondent who works as a nurse and saw no change to her professional life, most seem to like the pandemic’s changes forced them to reconsider what they do for work and examine how their professional lives fit with their personal responsibilities. One respondent was able to start her bakery during the pandemic. “I now work at my bakery at home and that has been amazing.” Another respondent did not switch career paths but was delighted about her new work from home directives and had this to say about teleworking, “It’s been over two years now and it’s been great. At first I hated the idea but I grew to love it and I am dreading having to go back.”
All respondents expressed relief regarding COVID-19’s impact on their financial situations. Single mothers that are the head of the household suffered heavily from the pandemic. One interviewee explained, “I was lucky enough that the university allowed everyone to work from home, and there were no furloughs or layoffs due to the pandemic. I would have been fucked if I lost my job as I am the sole provider for myself and children.” All respondents seemed to acknowledge the difficulties other individuals face that had not been so lucky.
Four out of the seven respondents explained that their social networks were strained during COVID-19. Interviewee three explained that she “had support as far as phone calls and people dropping stuff off on the porch, but it was so so challenging because I didn’t have the help that I needed with my kids.” Others explained that COVID-19 made this uniquely difficult because people could not come over to their house and interact. It was constraining the possibility of maintaining social networks.
Another area the respondents seemed to agree on was the effect COVID-19 had on their work-life balance. The respondents state that they had little to no work-life balance during COVID-19. Because most were working at home, and the office is the bedroom, respondents discussed being overwhelmed with work and family. One mom explains how her son adjusted to having her work from home:
He became dependent on me being home and being there at his beck and call. If he needed some help with school work, all he had to do was walk across the hall. It was very difficult to be able to concentrate on my work with constant interruptions from him.
The impact on the work-life balance felt from the pandemic varies greatly depending on different factors. Interviewees experienced negative impacts on their work-life balance, especially working from home. These feelings tend to increase as the age of the children decreases. For example, one interviewee had teenage children, and it was much easier for her to balance work and home life. While another interviewee had grade school-aged children that required more attention, and it was much harder for her to find work and home life balance.
Our research focused on the professional and personal impact of COVID-19’s on single mothers. Our data were drawn from a convenience sample of personal friends and acquaintances from Davis, Salt Lake, and Weber County in Utah.
We set out trying to gauge the impact COVID-19 had on single mothers. Due to our literature review, we suspected that the findings would be overwhelmingly negative. We were pleasantly surprised to find out that was not the case. The literature review showed alarming data suggesting that the women’s mental health would suffer from the added stress of childcare, education, and possible loss of employment. Our data seemed to paint a nicer picture; despite all the difficult situations the mothers had to face during the pandemic, most of them noted positive growth in their personal and professional lives and additional time to spend with loved ones or personally develop. However, our study provides clear evidence of the coping mechanisms reported in earlier studies. To reiterate the coping mechanisms, women, after a time being single mothers, seem to develop coping mechanisms that make them more resilient to difficulties; this allows them to pivot back from setbacks quickly.
Additionally, while COVID-19 forced some individuals to be more isolated from friends and family, this became especially difficult for many single mothers. Several respondents explained how COVID-19 increased their feelings of loneliness and social isolation. However, as noted in earlier studies, single mothers were at-risk before COVID-19 to be more self-isolated than their counterparts. Therefore, COVID-19 could regress some of our respondents’ current social network bonds. The situation is best summed up in the following statement by one of the interviewees:
I think one of the only downsides of being a single mom in the pandemic is I think when you’re married, you have somebody to talk to you about, am I doing this right? Am I screwing up my kids even more? When you’re a single mom it is really kind of isolating and lonely. I think one of the things about the pandemic is that it’s been very polarizing as a society, as a community and even amongst my friends. You know one of my best friends… We have very different views on being socially responsible with the COVID and how we should treat things and so I can’t really discuss my opinions with anybody because there’s nobody that’s safe to do that with and it has kind of been that way for the past two years. So I think that’s been one of the hardest things, well not one of the hardest things, but it has been really difficult. Just not having somebody you know has completely got you. You know even my boyfriend and I have different opinions like my kids are vaccinated, and he’s not vaccinating his kids.
According to our interviews, every study participant experienced a change during COVID-19, but not all of these changes were viewed as negatives. Every single mother spoke of a positive and some negatives that they experienced due to changes experienced during the pandemic. Their ability to overcome and continue speaking positively through these times gave us completely different results than expected.
Due to our research design, there were some limitations to the conclusions of the research study. The sample size of interviewees is small, which means it might not correctly capture the attitudes of the more significant U.S population. Also, our sample’s locality and homogenous cultural background mean it could be hard to generalize findings with a more diverse population. Analyzing the data while avoiding group biases and creating unbiased questions was challenging.
Additional limitations include the method of gathering and conducting the interviews. All four group members conducted the interviews and data collection. Having different members conduct a piece of the research leaves room for variables like tone, order, and attitude during the research.
Time was another limitation. All interviews and data collection is conducted within weeks of each other leaving little room to understand the research question over a more extended period. Finally, it should be noted that COVID-19 is still infecting large numbers of the population in many parts of the United States. There are polarized political views of the virus, and an interviewee’s political views could shape how they feel towards the virus.
Finally, our research could have skewed results due to selection bias. Our sampling depended on a convenience sampling model. Therefore our research depended on who the researchers knew for interviews. As a result, the sample pool was limited to the researchers’ social network, which could lean more toward middle-class respondents. While interviews were not cherry-picked for their specific identities, other research has shown that social networks reflect ourselves more than likely. While specific demographic questions were not asked to maintain the privacy of the respondents, it is essential to note that convenience sampling could skew our results and may miss specific populations.
The purpose of the research was to understand how the novel coronavirus had impacted single mothers. We conducted seven interviews and analyzed each of them for similarities. We found that our findings indicated a more positive effect than anticipated.
We found that despite hardships, the mothers could recover and thrive during the pandemic. Mothers interviewed generally experienced positive personal and professional experiences during the pandemic. Also notable is that one of the interviewees was able to return to school and receive a masters’ degree. But the difficulties faced by single mothers should not be downplayed. The situation is best summed up in the following statement by one of the interviewees:
…when you’re a single mom, it is really kind of isolating and lonely….We have very different views on being socially responsible with the COVID and how we should treat things and so I can’t really discuss my opinions with anybody because there’s nobody that’s safe to do that with and it has kind of been that way for the past two years.
It must be noted that COVID-19 continues to impact our economy, and further research must continue. It has been one year since the FDA authorized the COVID Vaccine. Still, a new variant of the vaccine called the Omicron variant, whose severity is currently unknown, threatens to impact further the lives of the participants in unknown possible new ways. Research must continue to ensure we continue to monitor the effects and the welfare of single mothers and families during the pandemic. The welfare of the populations that are greatest at risk must be assured.
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Appendix A: Interview questions
- What is your age?
- What is your marital status?
- Including yourself, how many people currently live in your household?
- Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to now, how has, if at all, has your personal life been impacted?
- From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to now, how has, if at all, your childcare plans or arrangements changed?
- From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to now, how has your work and or employment changed? Did you have to work at home as a result of COVID-19?
- How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected your support network?
- How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected, if at all, your work-life balance? Did you have to work and take care of children simultaneously during COVID-19?
- Did COVID-19 affect your finances or financial planning? If so, are you still experiencing a financial impact as a result of COVID-19?