On Mother's Day, we celebrate all moms. This year I am thinking especially of the many mothers across the country and the world who are raising children on their own.
People become single parents for many reasons: loss of a partner, breakdown of a relationship, by choice. One year and five days ago I joined them.
For me, this is still a new and unfamiliar world. Before, I did not quite get it. I did not really get how hard it is to succeed at work when you are overwhelmed at home. I did not understand how often I would look at my son's or daughter's crying face and not know how to stop the tears. How often situations would come up that Dave and I had never talked about and that I did not know how to handle on my own. What would Dave do if he were here?
I never understood how often the world would remind my children and me of what we don't have--from father-daughter dances to Parent Night at school. Until we lost Dave, my brother said that he too did not realize how many "father" events there were at their public school in Houston and how hard they must be for the many children without fathers.
For many single mothers, this is the only world they know. Each and every day they make sacrifices, push through barriers, and nurture beautiful families despite the demands on their time and energy.
I realize how extremely fortunate I am not to face the financial burdens so many single mothers and widows face. Poverty is one of the hidden and devastating after-effects of loss for women. By the time they are sixty-five, about one in five widows in the United States lives in poverty. Cohabitating and many same-sex couples who lose partners are particularly vulnerable as they are often not afforded the same rights of survivorship that married heterosexual couples have.
I am also lucky that I have close family and friends who have done so much to support me and my children. I could not be more grateful for all the time and love that they've given us. Still, Dave's absence is part of our daily lives and, for me, has redefined what it is to be a mother. Before Dave died, I had a partner who shared both the joys and responsibilities of parenting. Then, without any warning, I was on my own.
In Lean In, I emphasized how critical a loving and supportive partner can be for women both professionally and personally--and how important Dave was to my career and to our children's development. I still believe this. Some people felt that I did not spend enough time writing about the difficulties women face when they have an unsupportive partner or no partner at all. They were right.
I will never experience and understand all of the challenges most single moms face, but I understand a lot more than I did a year ago. Our widespread cultural assumption that every child lives with a two-parent heterosexual married couple is out of date. Since the early 1970s, the number of single mothers in the United States has nearly doubled. Today, almost 30 percent of families with children are headed by a single parent, and 84 percent of those are led by a single mother. And yet our attitudes and our policies do not reflect this shift.
Single moms have been leaning in for a long time--out of necessity and a desire to provide the best possible opportunities for their children. Connie Sparks, who started the Lean In Circle Single Moms Rock, was a victim of domestic violence who left her abuser and raised her four daughters on her own. She worked hard to show her children what resilience looks like, earning her college degree and inspiring every one of her daughters to attend college. Connie went on to found her own company, Wade Co. Capital, to help other women start their own businesses.
On Mother's Day, I want to celebrate women like Connie. I think we all owe it to single mothers to recognize that the world does not make it easy for them, especially for those who struggle to make ends meet. Forty percent of families headed by a single mother in the United States live in poverty, compared to just 22 percent of families headed by a single father and 8 percent of married couple families. Single parent families headed by women of color face even more barriers: 46 percent of families headed by black and Hispanic single mothers live in poverty.
For many single parents, there is no safety net. Thirty-five percent of single mothers experience food insecurity, and many single mothers have more than one job--and that does not count the job of taking care of their children. A missed paycheck or an illness can present impossible choices. A single mother living in San Jose said that each month she has to choose between putting food on the table and paying her cell phone bill. When she does not pay her phone bill, she spends her night shift--her second job of the day--worried that her son did not make it home from school through their unsafe neighborhood because he is unable to call her.
The United States is the only developed economy in the world that does not provide paid maternity leave. Almost a third of working mothers don't have access to any kind of paid leave to care for themselves or their families if someone gets sick. Instead of providing support, we all too often leave the families who are struggling the most to fend for themselves. The odds are stacked against single mothers in this country. Yet so many give everything they have and go on to raise incredible children.
We need to rethink our public and corporate workforce policies and broaden our understanding of what a family is and looks like. We need to build a world where families are embraced and supported and loved no matter how they fit together. We need to understand that it takes a community to raise children and that so many of our single mothers need and deserve a much more supportive community than we give them. We owe it to them and to their children to do better. We must do more as leaders, as coworkers, as neighbors, and as friends.
Being a mother is the most important--and most humbling--job I've ever had. As we rightly celebrate motherhood, we should give special thanks to the women who are raising children on their own. And let's vow to do more to support them, every day.
Originally posted on Facebook.