How thousands of women are falling victim to the single parent penalty

Rachel Perera spent more than a year working four jobs to support herself and her eight-year-old daughter. 

‘I was constantly worn down. I just didn’t have a minute to breathe,’ the single mum recalls.

‘I wasn’t seeing my child at all either and she was really suffering. I continuously felt stressed and was always rushing to get back to her. I wasn’t performing for my work or my little girl.’

In short, Rachel says, ‘I didn’t feel I was being a good mum.’

Like her, thousands of single mothers are impacted by the ‘single mother penalty’ as they juggle solo parenthood and their careers. Of course, there are fathers who take on this role and also face an overwhelming balancing act, but the reality is 90% of single parents are women. 

‘Society expects single mothers to do it all – to be the perfect mother, while also being a diligent worker,’ explains Ruth Talbot, Founder of Single Parent Rights. 

‘The daily juggle they undertake reflects just how determined, resourceful, and hard working they are. However, this comes at a cost for many who report high levels of stress levels. 

‘Perhaps it is not surprising then that more single mothers report problems with their mental health than those who are married.’ 

It was six years ago that Rachel, now 40, split up with the father of her daughter, Jasmine. 

Being newly single, Rachel decided it would be better to move from her home in London to Manchester, where her mum lived, so she could help out more, and started working at a big PR agency in the city centre.

Rachel tells how, thanks to an hour-long commute from her home to work, it soon became routine to only see Jasmine briefly at bedtime. 

However, it was a routine she wasn’t prepared to accept, and in May 2022, she decided to ditch her successful career and take a 50% pay cut for a low-level entry position at a market research firm three days a week, in a bid to create a better work/life flexibility.

But there was a hitch. In order to afford her mortgage and all the bills, Rachel had to to take on more work, and ending up with three more part-time jobs – at a communications agency once a week, fundraising for a kids cancer charity twice a week, and doing social media for a housing development as and when she could fit it in.  

She says she ended up saying ‘yes’ to any work opportunities that came her way because she had an ‘innate worry’ that if she stopped, ‘it would all crumble.’

‘I’d left Manchester to have more time with Jasmine, but it was even crazier,’ Rachel admits. ‘I was working twice as much. I was getting up in the morning, dropping her at school, working all day, coming back to give her tea while I’d still be working, put her down and I’d still be working, and I was working weekends. I got to the point I was making myself ill.

‘I was constantly snapping at my daughter,’ she adds. ‘It wasn’t her fault. I just panicked all the time. It was like being on a hamster wheel.’

Rachel can still remember the moment when she knew things had gone too far – it was the day she forgot to send Jasmine into school with a fancy dress costume for a dress up day.  

‘She was the only one not to go in fancy dress,’ she says. ‘I felt awful.’

It was a mistake any parent could make, but for Rachel it was just another failure as a single parent. 

Since then, her workload unexpectedly halved after two of her jobs fell through. Thankfully, the two she’s been left with are the better paid roles.

‘It worked out for the best because it wasn’t sustainable,’ says Rachel, adding that she finally feels like she can breathe again. 

‘Now I think about what I need to survive on,’ she explains. ‘Because, really, I just want quality time with my daughter.’ 

It was eight years ago that Kerry Davies became a single parent. Although she and her ex share custody, it was decided that their two children, Poppy and Ted, who were aged two and seven at the time, would live with Kerry in Northamptonshire for most of the time – which meant she had to quickly learn how to navigate parenting and a career on her own.  

‘I had to take the month off work,’ the 41-year-old sleep specialist remembers. ‘The difficulty of going through a breakup and becoming a single mum, was a huge realisation. My mental health suffered and my doctor diagnosed me with PTSD.’

After some time off work, Kerry returned to her job where she worked 28 hours a week, anxious about how she would pay the bills and get the kids to nursery, school, extracurricular activities, all while attempting to remain an exemplary employee. 

‘Trying to maintain a level of professionalism was virtually impossible,’ she remembers. 

Kerry had to rearrange her work schedule to fit around morning and afternoon school runs, after school clubs, and bedtimes. Any career aspirations she might have had came to a sudden halt.  

‘They [the children] were my priority,’ she remembers. ‘They had to come first. For those first two years, I didn’t think about anything except for just getting by.’

With her part-time salary and the top-up of government benefits, Kerry scraped by for the next three years. After paying monthly bills, she was left with only £400 each month to cover things like food, dance classes for her daughter, clothes, and petrol. 

‘I felt trapped in our home because I couldn’t afford to do anything,’ she says. 

Then, as Ted was about to start school in 2019, Kerry quit her job after deciding to try to start her own business. To keep the bills paid, she signed up to work overnight bank shifts as a healthcare assistant, while the children slept over at her mum’s. 

With her shift finishing it at 9.30am, it meant she had just a few hours to sleep  – ‘which felt like a nap’ she says – and also work on developing her new business, until the children came home from school.

‘It was a really exhausting time. I was sleep-deprived. I was often moody and stressed,’ she remembers.’Looking back, it shows the lengths we go to and the resilience we have when trying to provide the best for our family.’

Later than year Kerry had set up her sleep specialist business The Sleep Fixer, which aims to help both children and adults deal with sleep deprivation, and was able to quickly find work. 

Although covid initially hampered plans, once the pandemic settled down, Kerry was subcontracted to work for ‘loads of different places’ where she could choose her own hours.  

Even though being her own boss has given Kerry financial stability and flexibility, she is quick to say it hasn’t been the ‘magic bullet’ fix – trying to have a career as a single parent is still incredibly hard. 

‘I really want to build my business,’ she says. ‘But my children are still my priority. It’s hard to know when to take the next leap with everything. What if I try and build it too quickly and the spinning plates start to drop?’

‘When a child falls ill or there’s an unexpected commitment, it either means cancelling on clients or seeking my mum’s help, especially if I have an online workshop or presentation scheduled. Sometimes, I’ve had to decline work that requires traveling, as it becomes a childcare challenge if it’s an early morning departure.’

While Kerry suffered many hurdles as a single parent starting up her own business, Ruth Talbot from Single Parent Rights adds that those working under an employer are often penalised due to ‘a triple whammy of discrimination from colleagues and managers, structural bias within organisations, which disadvantage them, and a childcare system, which is expensive and fails to meet the needs of single parent families.’

She emphasises for single parents of colour, or those living with disabilities, the barriers are even greater. 

Meanwhile, research from the group in 2021 found that up to 80% of single parents had faced some form of discrimination in the workplace, such as bullying, exclusion from promotions, or denied flexible working or professional development opportunities. A third reported they had been rejected from a role due to their single parent status. 

‘The single motherhood penalty results in many missing out on a positive workplace experience, promotions and professional development opportunities, earning a decent salary and – in some cases – having the choice to spend time with their children,’ adds Talbot. 

Maria Kordowicz was a single parent of young children for nine years, all the while plugging away at her career in academia. 

The 41-year-old describes life then as, ‘overwhelming, fatiguing, all-encompassing… It was a constant juggling act.’

Spending ‘hundreds of thousands of pounds’ on childcare, Maria says she was constantly trying to make ends meet to put food and the table and make sure everyone was clothed. 

At the time, Maria both worked for herself as director of the research company ResPeo and was employed by various universities. 

Although some of the men she worked with ‘paved the way for women to state their needs and the needs of their children’, she noticed that there simply wasn’t an expectation of fathers to defend why they might need to take time out for a school run or stay home with a sick child. 

Maria says she also encountered inflexible employers who hadn’t allowed for home working, would schedule 8am meetings and after hours networking sessions. ‘All things that were really difficult to work around the children,’ she points out. 

It was when Maria applied for an academic promotion at a university – having spent countless hours creating an extensive portfolio and gathering endorsements from colleagues – but learned she had not been successful due to a one-year gap in publications, that the single mother penalty really hit home. 

‘I thought about what was happening to me that year,’ she recalls. ‘I had been working full time, had finished my PhD, was getting a divorce, had toddlers at home, and was going through some health problems. I didn’t take it [the refused promotion] personally, but just thought how the system can heavily disadvantage single parents.’

Maria also remembers that in another job she was given a timetable for teaching in advance that she used to schedule a mix of paid and familial childcare for her kids. 

‘And then it [the timetable] would just change, several times,’ she says. ‘I put my foot down and was accused of being stressed and told I needed to see the GP.  It pointed the finger at me.’

However Maria refused to go off sick for stress, because that wasn’t what she needed from her employers. ‘Instead, I resigned,’ she says. ‘It is a shame that this is what happens to solo parents.’

According to the single parent charity Gingerbread, research has shown that solo parents are more likely to be working in lower paid jobs and are less likely to progress in work. 

‘There is a chronic lack of quality, flexible work that allows for career progression,’ says Jo Hardy of Gingerbread. ‘This means that too many single parents – the majority women – are stuck in roles beneath their skill set just so they can get the flexibility that they need to look after their children.’

To help them, charities like Gingerbread and Single Parent Rights are asking the government to review the 30 hours of free childcare to make it more compatible with the realities of working life, add in single parents to the UK Equality Act, and create a supportive social security system for single parent families. They’d also like to see organisations create employment opportunities that meet single parents’ availability, offering things like work from home, job share, part-time hours, and term time only positions. 

‘Single mothers require a supportive ecosystem to enable them to access the same opportunities as other workers,’ concludes Talbot. ‘This requires employers and government coming together to implement key changes so that single parents are treated fairly and their needs and circumstances are taken into account.’

Now newly partnered and primarily investing in her own company, Maria looks back on her solo parenting with a mixture of feelings. 

It was beautiful and full of love and joy,’ she remembers. 

‘But it was also full of hardship, and so many lessons to be learned about myself, motherhood and my resourcefulness.’

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