Managing career and family, and making adjustments as we go
My work life has always been my own. After graduating college, I could not wait to apply all the theory I had spent years discussing and writing countless papers on. My twentysomething self fancied herself the up-and-coming young professional. Standing on the train platform with piping-hot coffee in one hand and my black leather Coach briefcase in the other while waiting to make my trek into Manhattan filled me with pride. As a sociology major, I was thrilled to have a first job in my field of study and more than ready to make my contribution to making our world a better place.
Those were some of the best days of my life. I was working for one of the most lauded nonprofit agencies in the country and forming meaningful relationships with coworkers, some of whom remain friends to this day. I was enjoying all that New York City had to offer—the shopping, restaurants, after-work drinks at swanky lounges, and weekend getaways. I loved it all. I was getting my Carrie Bradshaw on before there even was a Carrie Bradshaw.
And when I decided that I could make an even bigger impact helping those in need by going to law school, that’s exactly what I did. I applied, and less than a year later, my bags were packed and I was off to New Jersey to start my first year. After my first semester, I knew that I had chosen the wrong profession. The type A, obsessively competitive cerebral set was not the scene for a creative at heart like me who was more interested in the story line of The Sopranos than the parol evidence rule. But I stayed the course. After I graduated and snagged my first legal job, there were some nights when I stayed in the office past 6:00 p.m., poring over appellate briefs. And there were even more of those late nights when I went to work for the federal government. After putting in a nine-and-a-half-hour (sometimes 10-and-a-half-hour) work day, I then embarked on a long commute home. It was grueling but doable. I was young, single, and childless. I was my only concern.
Work life changed once I became a single mom
But when I turned 35, everything changed. I wanted to have a baby. And it was when I had to get cortisone shots in a bald spot the size of a silver dollar at the crown of my head that I knew something had to give. The stress of work and the daily grind had caught up with me. I had to slow down my life if I wanted to become a mother.
A close friend of mine who worked for the federal government with me had started teaching a criminal-justice class a couple of nights per week. She told me the college was in need of adjunct professors and that I should apply. I did, and eight years later, I am still there. Although my career trajectory may have taken a bit of a hit, teaching on a full-time basis turned out to be the best thing for what was to come in my life as a Solo Mom.
Teaching is the job that made sense for my life during the many years that I so desperately tried to conceive, and it makes even more sense now that I’m a Solo Mom. I can no longer work any job that I choose. Things that were once never a consideration in my professional life are now my biggest concerns.
I need to know that should my son become ill, I can get to him in 40 minutes or less. Right now, I can reach him within 20. That saved us last winter; my son had a rough season with colds and respiratory issues. I would be in the middle of a class lecture and get a call from his teacher saying he had a fever or a barking cough or a stomach bug and needed to be picked up immediately. Thankfully, my employer never gave me a problem when I had to grab my things and jet out the door. My employer gave me no hassle, arranged coverage for me, and always wished my son well. Nor did my employer give me a problem when I usually had to call in the following day because my son still wasn’t well. For a single mom, having an employer who understands and makes accommodations for her family structure, and the responsibilities that come along with it, is essential.
Single moms are sole caregivers and providers
Having consistent work hours is also key for the Solo Mom. Gone are the days of working as late as I want or need. My mind automatically transitions from work mode to mom mode somewhere around 3:00 p.m. Thoughts of constitutional amendments and criminological theories about which I lecture are replaced with day-care pickup and dinner options. If I am delayed at work, there is no one else to call to pick up my son and bring him home. I am it—the primary and alternate plan. I cannot have a job that occasionally requires me to stay later hours. That is simply something I cannot do at this time in my life.
Money has never been the chief reason I worked any job. The human-services industry and public-interest law have never been known to yield high earnings. My income philosophy was always pretty basic: make enough money to meet my necessary expenses with a few wants thrown in. But now that I am a Solo Mom who is fully financially responsible for supporting my son, money matters. There is child care, education, health insurance, clothing, and enrichment activities, among many other things that must be paid for. Those expenses require money—and a lot of it. It is important to me that my son receives a quality education and has rich life experiences, and it is up to me to provide that for him. Before I had my son, my salary was sufficient to meet my needs and wants, but now that he is here, money does not stretch as far, which is why I am constantly finding ways to generate more of it. Now, my money philosophy is this: the money that I fail to generate is the something that my son cannot have or do, so I do all that I can to guard against robbing him of that.
Freedom and flexibility are must-haves for the Solo Mom
Supporting a family and maintaining a work life suitable for her family is no easy feat for the single mom. Her role as both the breadwinner and caretaker for her family make her uniquely situated. Somehow, she must find a way to balance the two. Sometimes she will be able to do it successfully, but many times, she will have to redesign a professional life that meets the needs of her family as they evolve and change. As mentioned in the Huffington Post article “A Single Mom’s Guide to Career Advancement,” for the Solo Mom, “flexibility is no longer a ‘nice to have’—it is a must-have.”
It was the flexibility and freedom that I needed as a single mom that ushered me into the arena of freelance writing. I always had a passion for writing, but it was after my divorce and birth of my son that I suddenly had a lot to write about. So I did what many do and started a blog. For the past two years, I have continued to work as a professor Monday through Thursday, while blogging and side-hustling as a freelance writer Friday through Sunday. The amount of hours I spend writing and working on freelance projects, I could never physically spend at a job location. There would be commuting involved, time away from my son, and child-care concerns. And any extra money earned would become extra money spent in child-care costs. As a freelancer, I am able to write from the comfort of my home while my son is in day care, napping, or occupied with doing his favorite things. I can take breaks when needed to do some laundry, whip up a small meal, or play with him. It is by no means a perfect system. But even with its challenges, it is what works for our family right now. And I know the sweet spot that I have crafted for us will require adjusting time and again, but that’s OK. What’s most important is that I now know what must-have tools I need to keep us functioning no matter what.
Career choices for the Solo Mom are far from a solo decision. We have to weigh our professional goals alongside what is best for us and our children. We forgo some opportunities for the sake of our families and pursue others while making necessary adjustments. But we do it, and do it well. So to all of us, I say, “Carry on, Sister, carry on.”
Terri Linton, ESME’s Incarceration Resource Guide, is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, where she is currently pursuing a master of fine arts degree in creative nonfiction writing, and a graduate of Rutgers School of Law-Newark. Terri is a freelance writer and professor of criminal justice. She hosts and produces the podcast She Roads with Terri Linton, where she interviews women about their journeys of endurance and resilience. Terri’s writing has appeared in Ninth Letter, the Huffington Post, Motherly, and Mamamia. You can connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.