Let the record reflect that I began writing this from beneath my wiggling three-year-old. I had barely cracked open my laptop when he did a backbend across my legs and slid upside-down onto the floor, with a smile so wide I could see the ridges on the roof of his mouth. One of his feet hit my chest and the other hit my laptop, nearly toppling it to the ground. He giggled, and I nearly had a heart attack. My computer is how I keep a roof over our heads, and I can’t afford to replace it.
Welcome to summer break.
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I’m a low-income single mom with two kids, and summer break feels like a giant blurry question mark. I cannot take time off of work. We don’t have any vacation plans. I cannot afford to hire a summer babysitter or send my kids to a string of various camps. While I considered more creative options, like kid-swapping with friends, the logistics—work schedules, child temperaments, and distances between homes—became too complicated to figure out. And while I’m all for the concept of free-range kids, this week it’s 108 degrees. That’s about ten degrees hotter than the National Institute of Health thinks humans can withstand before their bodies start shutting down, which means sending the kids outside to play with sidewalk chalk and roll down hills all day is…not a thing.
As a writer, I only get paid when I produce something, which is hard to do with a three-year-old in my lap. So, since earning money must continue through the summer, my entire work plan is to write while my children are sleeping, lean into my coffee habit, and beg babysitting hours from my parents—a privilege compared to those who don’t have relatives able or willing to help.
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Accessing and affording child care is difficult for everyone all year, not just in the summer. For those like me who are living on a single income, the cost of child care cuts deep into our pocketbooks and chips away at our quality of life. To afford child care often means forgoing something else—reliable transportation, household goods, or even food. Today, the average cost of child care for a single child in the United States is approximately $9,000 per year, which is more than one-third of my income.
In fact, the cost of child care ranks near the top of a recent survey that found American women are choosing to have fewer children, or forgo having them entirely—which could help to explain why the childbirth rate has fallen to a 30-year low. In an article about the declining U.S. birth rate, journalist Amy Westervelt writes, “for all its pro-family rhetoric, the U.S. is a remarkably harsh place for families, and particularly for mothers.” It’s also especially rough for contracted laborers—a group projected to surpass 50 percent of the American workforce over the next decade–who sacrifice income each time they aren’t able to take a job. “That gig economy you keep hearing so much about, with its flexible schedule and independence?” writes Westervelt. “Yeah, it sucks for mothers… I can tell you exactly how great and balanced it felt to go back to work two hours after giving birth.”
I went right back to work after both of my births. Less than 48 hours after I had my first child, I was hauling produce on my vegetable farm. Two days after my second child was born, I sat in a business meeting while my milk came in. Now as a freelance writer, most of the time I work 7 days a week writing articles, editing other people’s articles, pitching stories, and chasing late payments. Sometimes I work on projects for months before seeing a dime.
While women are increasingly entering the gig economy (a 2014 study showed that 53 percent of full-time freelancers were women), there are real questions about a burgeoning economy that dangles the carrot of flexibility to busy, multitasking women (many of them mothers), yet still manipulates and mistreats them through pay discrimination and abusive power structures. FastCompany reported that “[female] Uber drivers earn 7 percent less than male drivers, while women freelancers charge lower rates, are more likely to get paid late, and are four and a half times less likely to be earning over $150,000.”
And then there’s child care. In 2016 alone, nearly 2 million parents of children age 5 and younger had to quit a job, not take a job, or greatly change their job because of problems with child care.
That means many parents—and statistically, mothers more than fathers, due to the archaic, sexist nature of both workplace and household expectations—are forced to cut back hours, miss out on trainings or job-related experiences, or pass up promotions due to the inability to work more or the need for flexible hours. It’s part of the “motherhood penalty” that stunts career advancement and reduces income, which snowballs considerably over a woman’s lifetime. That penalty reduces the ability of entire households—especially those of single mothers—to accumulate wealth or gain social mobility. In contrast, most working fathers earn more than men without kids.
In a conversation on NPR’s 1A about the motherhood wage gap, Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers said, “Our culture and our policies have just failed to account for the fact that we have families. … And in the 21st century, that means we actually need child care. We need elder care. We need paid family leave. These are just basic infrastructure assumptions we need to make that we haven’t caught up to.” She notes the emergence of new ideas and solutions, such as Universal Family Care, a proposed family care insurance fund that working Americans could draw upon to afford child care, elder care, and paid family medical leave.
While I’ve been able to carve out a successful job as a freelance writer and editor, there are limits to my ability to thrive. As a single parent, jet-setting off to cover breaking news or spending weeks away from home investigating injustice is out of the question, even though I think I’d do it well. I need predictability and routine, stable income, and child care for those long days when I’m on deadline. I find working from home while parenting to be beyond frustrating and near-impossible. I literally cringe at the zillionth snack request of the day and the never-ending chorus of Mom! Mom! Mom! Some days I’ve barely written a sentence by 2 p.m.
Still, there is something missing in these conversations about working and motherhood. The statistics cannot measure the bone tiredness of a mother any better than it can articulate the fierce tether that connects me to my children. There is magic in the unmeasurable. There have been actual moments when I have thought, If only someone could see me changing a diaper and typing at the same time. Or the phone calls with editors while balancing a newly-potty-trained toddler on the toilet. How many times I have held a sleeping feverish child while simultaneously racing a deadline. As Rufi Thorpe writes, “It is lovely; it is intolerable; it is both.”