Single Moms Speak Out On Challenges

Single mothers have a lot on their plate, but reports show that the unemployment rate among single moms has doubled in the last five years. Host Michel Martin speaks with three moms who have raised children as single moms, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Dani Tucker and Angelica Perez-Litwin.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

Earlier in the program, we were talking about single people who say they want more life-work balance, even if they don't have families. Now, we want to talk about the single folks who do have families, especially single moms. Now, it's never been easy to raise children as the only adult in the household, but in the wake of this country's ongoing economic turmoil, 12 percent of single mothers are now unemployed, according to the National Women's Law Center. That number has nearly doubled in the past five years and, in the wake of that, there is renewed focus on just how tough it really is, financially and emotionally.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we're joined now by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. She recently wrote a piece in The Atlantic magazine about the challenge of single working mothers. She's also an author and contributing editor-at-large for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. She's a mom of one with a second and third on the way. We'll let you figure that out.

Dani Tucker is a single mom of two teenagers. She's also an office administrator and fitness instructor. And Angelica Perez-Litwin is the mom of four children. She was a single mom for seven years. She's also a clinical psychologist in private practice and publisher of New Latina. That's a website for professional Latinas.

Welcome to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us.

DANI TUCKER: Thank you.

GAYLE TZEMACH LEMMON: Thank you.

ANGELICA PEREZ-LITWIN: Thanks.

MARTIN: Now, Gayle, I'm going to start with you because you wrote a piece for The Atlantic recently called "America's Silent Crisis: The Plight of the Single (Working)," and you have Working in parenthesis. First of all, why silent and why crisis?

LEMMON: Because, when you say the words single and mother together, all kinds of images come up and arise in people's minds. And somehow the stereotype has become, you know, women who don't work or who are riding off the system or, you know, all of these things which, when you look at the numbers, are really not true, and you're talking about women who have just been crushed by this economy because their education levels are often lower, because they are often in jobs that are government-related and the government has been cutting back. And they are really bearing the brunt of this recession, just as they're raising more and more of America's children.

MARTIN: So we can see the crisis part. Why do you say it's silent?

LEMMON: I think silent because the stereotype of the victim and the freeloader, all of these things that are not statistically true, are what into mind. So people don't think about single moms' unemployment rates. They don't think about how women are working two jobs, sometimes three. A lot of the interviews I did for this Atlantic piece were women who have one job, no benefits, miles from home. So they're getting crushed by high gas prices, by high food prices, by high rent prices and their incomes are not going up and their jobs don't have benefits.

So, not only do they not have great and stable jobs, but the second and third jobs are often either hard to find or vanishing.

MARTIN: And you think that, if this group of people were more visible, if people thought more about the fact that single parents are raising a larger and larger percentage of America's children that perhaps - what would be different? If people thought about this in the way that you'd like them to, what would be different?

LEMMON: I think two things. First of all, you would see that the victim narrative gets trumped by the working parent narrative. And just thinking about those in different ways, I think, would shape the way people think about this huge demographic of mothers differently.

Second of all, I think people would think more about what constitutes a working wage and what constitutes support. Now, daycare is one of the things that has gotten absolutely smashed by this recession because it's one of the first things that state governments are cutting. And I think some of that might be rethought if people realized just how critical that daycare funding was for moms who are trying to work and raise their kids.

MARTIN: Dani, does this resonate with you? I mean, in addition to being one of our regular contributors, you actually work three jobs and you've been a single parent for most of your time. You started out married, but your marriage ended when the children were really young and you haven't had a lot of support from the children's father at all...

TUCKER: No.

MARTIN: ...financially or emotionally. So does this resonate with you?

TUCKER: I love this woman. I mean, it resonates big time. I like the way that she wrote the article. I like, you know, what she just said. I mean, it's the truth.

MARTIN: But do you feel invisible as a mother, that the way you are and in the world, the fact of what you're trying to do, how hard it is. Do you think that's invisible?

TUCKER: Totally. But, as a single mom, you don't have time to even focus on that invisibility. You got to keep moving. I got things to do. I got kids to raise, you know, and so far, so good, you know, with the son doing well in the Navy now. But you - you've been there the whole time. You know, no help from their dad. He left when they were very, very young. So I've been a single parent most of their - all of their lives, to be honest with you.

MARTIN: Do you feel judged in that way? Like, that people find out that you're a single parent, that there's a judgment that goes with that?

TUCKER: Oh, most definitely. And she brought it up, like...

MARTIN: Which is what?

TUCKER: A stigma, a stereotype, like you're some sort of dumb black woman who kept popping out babies, and that's not it. You know, the economy first hit and I was out of a job and I had to go on the system to feed my kids. Those are the things that she said. I'm in transitional housing, I'm homeless. But they didn't know anything about me, and as a single mom you have to look at your kids, and for many of us, I know, pull on your faith and you got to keep it moving.

MARTIN: Angelica Perez-Litwin, you, like Dani, your family started within marriage, and then your former husband left when your child was very, very young, at the very point at which you were trying to start your graduate education.

PEREZ-LITWIN: That's correct.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit more about that. Did you feel like, you know, people would look at you like a stereotype? Dani is African-American, and you're Latina. Did you feel, in a way, that you wanted to keep that part of your life quiet because you thought people would judge you?

PEREZ-LITWIN: I actually wanted to let the whole world know that I was a single parent. And I was a PhD student at that time, and I was finishing my clinical psychology dissertation - PhD dissertation. And right before I separated, three months before, I was about to go into an intensive clinical psychology training program. So in the back of my mind, I knew that people will judge and, you know, have things to say or perhaps consider when they know the label. But, you know, I feel that it was my role to show the public and the world that I felt proud of, you know, what I had done and the decisions that I had made and the fact that I was a working mom and also a student who was going to make it work.

MARTIN: How did you do that?

PEREZ-LITWIN: It's my upbringing. I'm a Latina, strong woman. And a lot of women in my family have been strong that way. We're just resilient. We don't look back. We just keep going. We have goals. We're determined. And so those were the messages that I grew up as a little girl with my parents - immigrant parents working hard. I have an extended family who was extremely available to me on the weekends when I had to work on my dissertation. They took the - my daughter out and, you know, she really was raised by all of us, not just myself, and that really made a difference.

MARTIN: Let me just push on this question a little harder. We're talking about single motherhood. And I do want to say that we recognize that there are dads who are raising children as single dads, and they should be part of this conversation. But at the moment, we're focusing on single mothers, because they are the majority of the people who are raising kids. And also, the wages of women tend to be lower. So that's part of the reason we're focusing on single mothers here.

I'm joined by two moms who've been single mothers, Angelica Perez-Litwin. She's the mom of four. She's a clinical psychologist. Her first child, who's now 18, she spent seven years of her life as a single mom. Dani Tucker, one of our regular contributors, mom of two. Also with us, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon. She wrote a recent piece for The Atlantic called "America's Silent Crisis: The Plight of the Single (Working!) Mother." And Gayle also points out in the piece that she was raised as the daughter of a single working mother and has done very well.

But, you know, one of the reasons we're talking about this is that The New York Times recently wrote a very in-depth piece about this. The piece was by Jason DeParle - whose work is very much recognized for his in-depth, you know, discussion of issues around economic equality and poverty and so forth.

The piece was titled "Two Classes, Divided by I Do." And one of the things he says is that scholars have said that changes in marriage patterns - as opposed to changes in individual earnings - may account for as much as 40 percent of the growth in certain measures of inequality. Long a nation of economic extremes, the United States is also becoming a society of family haves and family have-nots, with marriage and its rewards evermore confined to the fortunate classes.

He quotes a sociologist, saying, "It's the privileged Americans who are marrying, and marrying helps them stay privileged."

So Angelica, I wanted to ask, do you think that that might be true?

PEREZ-LITWIN: I guess there is some truth to that. But I do know that I believe the level of education of the single parent that, you know, that raises the child, the opportunities that that person has socially and economically, I think that really makes a huge difference. I mean, I've seen many, many families who are married and not especially - not making more than someone who's a single parent and actually has a high-tier job or a position in corporate America. So it really depends.

MARTIN: But couldn't you make an argument that you - you know, you remarried after you achieved the highest educational status, you know, a PhD. Don't you think that that increased your exposure to more people who are also equally well-educated, and then you had more children and more advantage circumstances? Isn't it kind of - isn't that the way it works?

PEREZ-LITWIN: I was who I was before I was married - remarried. I mean, I was working. I was a professor at NYU. I was working. I was making good money. Am I perhaps living a more comfortable life now? Of course. But it could have gone another way. I could've married someone who didn't have a great job and maybe was unemployed.

MARTIN: Seriously, after going through all you went through to get a doctorate, do you really think that you would've then married somebody with less education or less accomplishment in some other way?

PEREZ-LITWIN: Let me tell you what's going on among Latina women - professional Latina women. What's going on right now among Latina women who have advanced degrees is that they're actually having a very hard time finding men who are Latinos, for example, who are at their level - educational level - or have similar values, because these women are very bicultural. And I'm not saying that every Latino woman is going to marry a Latino man, but that is happening.

LEMMON: And even those who are professional are also having a hard time finding someone who is at their level and making the same income. Many Latina professional women are actually the head of households, and they're actually the ones sort of carrying the load, the financial load, of the family. So...

MARTIN: So you're saying it's not just education that determines whether you're going to be in a single-parent circumstance. You think it's across the board. OK.

Dani? You wanted to say something?

TUCKER: I think you have a tendency to meet where you are. You know, you're educated. You're going to meet people who are kind of on the ball, you know, because they're educated, as well. I don't have that opportunity to mingle in that group. So I don't always have that opportunity to meet in that group or to have a relationship with somebody in that group.

In my group, you have a lot of males who are raised by single moms and don't know how to be mates or don't - you know, they didn't learn it. They didn't see it. So you really have to focus on what you're picking.

MARTIN: Let me ask you this, though. I'll ask each of you. Gayle, I'll ask Dani. I'll ask both of you. The Times also reported, as part of this article, that women without a high school diploma are most likely to become single mothers in every racial group. Why do you think that is? Dani?

Again, that's what I'm saying, because of that group that you're in. You know, the woman that doesn't have the high school diploma, nine times out of 10, is working the smallest jobs - the fast-food jobs, the places that she can work because she doesn't have the education. She meets men there. You know, they're not necessarily guys that have kids and stick around. I mean, sad to say, but the truth is what it is, you know...

Yeah, but why is that? You think that they were themselves raised in households where they didn't see a male in that role, and so therefore, they didn't learn that role?

TUCKER: Both. I think 50 percent of it is that they were. But I know some that were raised with a mom and a dad and they're just selfish or whatever the case may be. They just never matured in that area.

MARTIN: Gayle, what's your take on this?

LEMMON: I think upward mobility is increasingly difficult in this country, and people often emulate what they see. And so, many times, people do not realize what their full range of options are. And that is something, to me, that I think worries me in terms of you have a lot of single mothers who are striving - that was certainly the case with the women I grew up with, right, none of whom had graduated from college.

And I think that what I see now when I talk to a lot of people that I spend a lot of time with who have had the privilege of education and comfort, is what I call drawbridge economics, right? So everybody gets to a certain point. They sort of pull up the bridge right behind them so that it gets increasingly difficult for kids from - and I'll just use my example - PG County, Maryland and certain places to say, oh, yes. Harvard is an option.

MARTIN: Is marriage part of drawbridge economics? Which is it used to not be at all unusual for a man of more education to marry a woman with less education. Whereas now, is it that people increasingly who do marry, marry people who are their peer in terms of education and economic standing? So that's one drawbridge that's been pulled up, for whatever reason. Do you think that that's part of it?

LEMMON: Absolutely. And statistically, women are getting more and more education, right? So then you have a woman who is educated looking for a husband who's educated. There is a huge economic cushion that comes from being a two-income family that allows all kinds of things, like SAT tutors, private schools, advantageous summer camps and activities and travel and all these things that when the University of Pennsylvania is going to look at your application, they're going to say, oh, what did you do, you know, on weekends as a high school student. Right? And that was part of The New York Times piece. What activities could these mothers afford?

And so I do think that there is a greater cushion and there is a higher standard for income mobility, for class mobility in this country now. And I think both of those are working against this rising number of single parents.

PEREZ-LITWIN: I absolutely agree with Gayle.

MARTIN: Angelica, I was going to ask you that. I would be curious about what's most different about your life as a parent being married.

PEREZ-LITWIN: One of the most amazing things that I've been able to benefit from my being married to my husband is the fact that we're co-parenting. And that's really powerful, having two parents involved, having the children have parents that are more available, obviously, than one parent. And obviously, having two incomes, like Gayle mentioned earlier, we were able to afford those SAT courses. We were able to afford those expensive summer programs, and that really made a big difference. It's just powerful.

MARTIN: Dani, what about you? What would you like people to be thinking about when we talk about this?

LEMMON: It's the village that makes us. That's, to me, the greatest gift to a single mother, is our village.

MARTIN: You have had, you know, family support. Your parents have stepped up to be helpful. You know, siblings, friends have stepped up to be helpful and kind of support you. But if you were in a position to talk to, you know, policymakers about this or the people who kind of - and I know you say, you know what? You're too busy to be doing all that.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: But what is the one thing you would want them to know, you know, about...

TUCKER: Open dialogue first. Let's just do that. That would break us out of the stereotypes and the everything else that they put us in. Then you can start from policy there, because each of us needs something different.

MARTIN: Hmm. Gayle, what would you like to say?

LEMMON: The values I learned that I think are deeply American values of hard work and sacrifice and community and thrift and not expecting everything to come quickly or easily all came from those single mothers that I grew up with, who we saw get up at 6 AM - not because they wanted to, but because they had to drop us off daycare to go to the job, where if they were five minutes late they got dock pay. And then we waited for them to pick us up at 5 PM or 5:30 PM from daycare.

And we never felt like our mothers didn't love us. We felt like our mothers had to work at least one, often two jobs. And we had such a sense of solidarity and values that I think about today when I think about my own children, and I think that often shocks people who have never met single mothers. Because so many people writing and reporting about this issue, for them, the world of single mothers is the same as reporting about Mars. And so, you know, now I feel like that I sort of stumbled across writing about this and, really, you see what passions it brings.

MARTIN: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a journalist and author. She is the author of the recent piece "America's Silent Crisis: The Plight of the Single (Working!) Mother" for The Atlantic. She's a mom of one, expecting two more shortly. She was here with us in our Washington, D.C. studios, along with Dani Tucker. She's one of our regular contributors to our Moms parenting segment. She's a single mom of two teenagers. She's also an office administrator and a fitness instructor. With us from our bureau in New York, Angelica Perez-Litwin. She's the mom of four, a clinical psychologist, publisher of the website New Latina.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

TUCKER: Thank you.

LEMMON: Thank you.

PEREZ-LITWIN: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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