When a New Single Mom Stumbles at Work

Working mom with toddlerBy Dr. Leah Klungness

The media are buzzing with conversation about working mothers, stay-at-home-mothers, and fathers shedding traditional roles and taking on more child-care and other home front responsibilities.

But it’s discouraging that most media discussions on juggling work and family obligations do not address single parent homes. Instead, these discussions tout the obvious benefits of more than one adult in the house. Tips and advice hinge on the erroneous assumption that the talents and energies of both parents are always available.

All parents face daunting challenges, but for most single parents, just getting through another day is a huge accomplishment. Splitting chores, sharing child-care responsibilities, and the safety net a critical second income provides . . . that’s NOT reality for many of us.

Despite heroic efforts, single parents who are faced with doing it all can find themselves struggling to cope – and without essential emotional and financial resources – especially when unanticipated circumstances derail their best laid plans. Fortunately, we get it – and are here to help one another.

So, when this single mom shared her career dilemma, it just felt right — and urgent — to ask YOU for advice.

Here’s the situation:

“My marriage ended when I could no longer tolerate my husband’s adultery,” she said matter-of-factly. “I always felt like a single mom. Doing it all while his “business trips” grew more frequent seemed like all the preparation I needed. Our kids are school-aged so I did not anticipate any real difficulties when I snagged a promising part-time job.”

This newly single mom wisely looked for a position with flex hours. And luckily, she found one. The flexible working arrangement was key to her initial success and so was her ability to multi-task. She was able to anticipate problems before they escalated into crises, and her employer was pleased with her performance.

Flexible work hours were not enough . . .

Unfortunately, this mom experienced what many of us have. Both her kids have been sidelined with health issues at the same time. Thankfully, nothing life-threatening, but definitely serious enough for them to stay at home.

The resulting doctors’ appointments, pharmacy runs, and keeping both kids on track with school work have wreaked havoc with her schedule. Her ex – predictably – did not step up. In fact, he cancelled his scheduled parenting time when the kids were sick.

“I’ve missed key meetings. Team members – especially those without kids – are loudly grumbling. And my boss seems far less impressed with exceeding expectations production,” this stressed out mom confided. “Things have calmed down — for now. But, I know now that juggling my work and family responsibilities is going to be tougher than I ever thought.”

Please share your thoughts:

This mom realizes that she is NOT alone in trying to meet all her family and work obligations, so she is reaching out to ask other single parents for advice.

  • What steps can this single mother take to ease the inevitable – and unpredictable – interruptions in her work schedule?
  • Does she owe explanations to her less than kid-friendly team members?
  • Is volunteering to do “extra” to make up for recent lapses a savvy career move or could it backfire?
  • Should she frankly discuss her challenges with her boss and team members?


Leah Klungness, Ph.D., is a psychologist and recognized authority on single parenting and relationship issues. Dr. Leah is the coauthor of the award winning book The Complete Single Mother. She has been quoted in major national magazines, newspapers, and online media. 

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© D. A. Wolf



  1. says

    This mom is smart to plan for the next bout of sickness because it will happen, it will never be convenient and she already knows how her ex is going to respond.

    I would recommend that she start taking a look to see what parts of her job she could do remotely. Could she participate in meetings via conference call? Could she monitor her email from home? This would help her stay on top of the urgent tasks that need attention.

    She could talk to other employees who have children and ask them how they manage and any flexibility their bosses have offered.

    I don’t think it will do any harm to explain that she was out with her sick kids but her team members don’t need the details about her ex. She can ask them for suggestions for how she can stay connected the next time.

    Setting up sick care is not easy and frankly it was never something I wanted to do. I always felt that when my kids were sick enough to be home it was me they wanted and I wanted to be with them. Strangers, no matter how qualified are not the same as having mom :)

    If this mom’s boss isn’t understanding about life’s curve balls, the writing is on the wall. It’s time to start networking and looking for a more family-friendly employer.

  2. says

    My first response to this was to weep a little. I have to admit up front, there’s no panacea. Or if there is one, I’m not aware of it.

    These are complex issues, particularly because we have become so accustomed to the notion that women can have it all that we (the collective) have romanticized what is truly an exhausting and unmanageable lot for most.

    I too have friends who complain that their husbands don’t do enough. They even refer to themselves as single moms. And I understand because I had those feelings when I was with my husband. But once you are truly alone and there is no one to turn to, situations like the one illustrated here become nightmares.

    I am lucky to have flexible work (as in no set hours) and I also receive financial support from my ex. When one of my kids was out sick for nearly a month, not a moment went by that I didn’t question, “how the hell would I do this if I had a regular job???” And, I was worn down to a nub.

    So, first and foremost, I want to offer my understanding and admiration to this woman and to the countless others (and there are men doing it too) who carry these heavy burdens alone. At least for me, being related to, validated and respected helps. Feeling like you’re not enough and questioning your abilities comes with the territory of being overburdened. If I could hammer one notion into the heads and hearts of both the single parents and the community that devalues them, these are everyday heroes who are raising our next generation, who barely sleep and who take on the work of at least three people at all times. It is so much easier to keep going when you give yourself and are given credit for what you are accomplishing and Lord knows, the kids often just make us feel less adequate by pointing out all of the things they don’t have and that we are not providing. We parents have to support and reassure ourselves. When I do give my self props, I feel revived and more able to take on each day.

    But that advice sounds trite when basic survival is at stake, when doing “the best you can” doesn’t seem to be cutting it.

    -Should she frankly discuss her challenges with her boss and team members?

    This question immediately stood out to me and triggered a resounding yes! I think a conversation with ONE trusted higher up is a great idea. I would not discuss it with a team. Of course, the caveat here is that I know nothing about the nature of the work or the dynamics so I am going with my gut here. I have found that honesty is the only option. You just can’t fake it when you are a mother and have these issues. You need someone on your side and if you can’t find that where you are, at some point you’ve got to seek and/or create opportunities that will accept you and your needs. In the mean time, you need a go to person who gets it and is willing to help you construct a plan to deal with such emergencies (what that entails is so job specific- delegating, working from home, having a list of people to call upon to cover, depends on the job). Having a plan will reduce the panic enormously.

    Of course, family and friends come to mind as back-ups to help with the kids. I have to assume that is not an option in the illustrated case. In my case, my family is local but so damn busy I have to count them out. But, this is an area that I wish we would improve on culturally and collectively. I’ll pop a few brain cells trying to devise a way in which to accomplish a major cultural shift but it probably wont be resolved in time to help the woman referred to here so I’m going to let it go for the moment.

    As far as a “savvy career move,” I think we’re in survival mode here. You really do need to do the best you can. If making up work is necessary and pertinent to the specific job at hand, then yes, do it. If it’s just an effort to compensate or kiss ass, than skip it and don’t ask for trouble, just do a stellar job at all times when it counts. Again, this is so career and job specific. But, my main thought is do what is necessary but don’t run yourself into the ground trying to overcompensate.

    Communication with team members should never be self-deprecating. We moms are so good at that. I think a higher up should handle most communications with team members. Getting into the nuances with them will just make you feel mousy and bad about yourself (at least it would for me). Keep conversation light and straightforward, no need to spread drama around. That said, if you have friends at work than that may be different. Again, so much of this depends on the dynamic and of course, if you ARE the higher up that’s different too. Professionalism and reliability don’t need to be compromised beyond the extenuating circumstances. And again, any plan that you have in place will help avert chaos and drama when untimely motherly duty calls.

    Parenting, even in the best of circumstances, is like being on a treadmill. I have to continually remind myself “just keep going, just make it till they’re 18!!!” Of course, the big joke is that parenthood never ends but if I give myself the benchmark of 18, I can keep going. Once you’ve made peace with “holy crap this is impossible but I’m going to do it anyway” you can slowly work toward finding solutions and carving out a life that is more manageable and enjoyable. Thankfully, I have had the benefit of watching friends who were literally on welfare with children claw their way to sustainable incomes and enviable lifestyles. I know it can be done. And they are still working their tails off but they have systems and plans and they keep going.

    At one point I had no hope. I still wonder, “how am I going to do it all?” But I try to stop obsessing on the big picture and get through (I hate to go cheesy here but I have to because it’s true) ONE DAY AT A TIME. Pat yourself on the back at the end of each day and make/take 5-30 minutes a day (maybe in the shower or on the toilet) to invest your mind in a dream, an idea that excites you at all. It starts as a little flicker but if you get some inspiration it can be very sustaining in the tough times. To be clearer, a business idea, a creative project, a person you’d like to contact, a degree you’d like to obtain…these things can keep you going and can come to fruition.

    That’s all I’ve got for now. This is near and dear to my heart. It sucks when our dearest loves, our children, become a burden and just trudging through each day is so tough. We want to enjoy them while they’re young and not be bogged down with work and stressed out all the time. It has helped me immensely to read or hear that others “get it” so that’s the best I can offer here. I “get it”. And I hope that and my two cents are of some help here.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      More than two cents, Surviving Limbo Girl. Much appreciated, I’m sure, by this mom and so many other single parents.

  3. says

    This is a tough situation, made all the tougher if you don’t have family close by to help out. I am fortunate to have a boss who was always a single mother and cuts me a lot of slack when one of my kids is sick or I need to leave early for a school performance. I really need a job that pays more but am reluctant to look for one because it’s unlikely I would have such an understanding boss. I agree with Mandy’s last sentence above — having a family-friendly boss makes all the difference in the world and can keep single moms sane.

  4. April G says

    Fly By The Seat of The Pants Parenting is what I call it. No ones going to help when everything is falling down around you. You have to do some fast stepping, ultimately the kids come first you can’t send them to school sick. The ex, even tho our son has a disability will not go to the school and pick him up if he gets sick or has an episode that requires him to be taken home to rest, the ex puts the teacher in the middle and tells her to call the mother. Co-workers, whether or not they have kids, are not going to like that you call in sick or leave early/come in late because of parenting issues. Even if your work production numbers are high, they could be higher than all the staff-the manager doesn’t want to hear the grumblings of the underlings. They will tell you “it’s just business”. Corporations don’t mean it when they use buzz words like ‘cohesion’ ‘family’ ‘team players’. It’s really all about ‘the bottom line’ ‘the almighty dollar’. You need to do a lot fast talking and have a little luck to keep a pay check coming in and burn out from staying away. Unfortunately we are on our own, it can be very lonely, and even lonelier with a child with a disability. isolation, as hard as I tried to avoid it snuck up on me. Don’t let it happen to you. I have heard of moms finding each other in the same work places in the same situation that are able to get their employer to combine their flex schedules so they can cover for each other. I have never been that lucky, thus my title Fly By the Seat of Your Pants Parenting. I hope it goes easier for you, I have been juggling this for 10 years and have a I have a few more years to go. I hope you find that work place support that is much needed to all working single moms.

  5. says

    When I became a working single mom, I turned down much more lucrative opportunities in favor of a much more flexible opportunity, because of the issues stated here. I’ve also made my boss aware that I have come in on Saturdays to make up lost time for family issues.

    It’s imperfect. I’d love the extra money that I exchanged for flexibility, and when I’m operating in a constant state of exhaustion, giving up half of a weekend can feel unbearable, especially when the other day is taken up with grocery shopping, scheduling, cleaning, laundry, etc. just to get through the work week.

    I can’t “lean in” because I’m too busy and if I put one more thing on my plate I might implode. I have a great support system – friends and family; I have a decent coparenting relationship with my ex (though I’m the one doing 99% of the parenting); I have set clear expectations with my boss that I’m committed to being the best employee I can but that family comes first. It’s working for me, in an uneasy way, but then, nobody promised it would be easy.

    • BigLittleWolf says

      I’m glad you mentioned “leaning in,” Pollyanna. It isn’t an option when all you can do is try to keep from toppling over.

      On your remark about passing up more lucrative opportunities, I’m nodding. I’m also noting that you’ve obviously put in extra work (your Saturday mentions), like this single mom. And your “family first” stance with your boss – was that part of the bargain when you got the job? I’m curious… It’s such a tough, tough economy, depending on what you do for work and where you live, not to mention how old you are. Supply certainly outstrips demand.

  6. says

    Ugh! It’s so, so tough. Here is what I have found in my years as a single mother (three children currently age 5, 7,8).
    – When there is a rough patch, it will pass. The good work and dependability during the rest of the time will help you to cross those bridges.
    – I plan to miss at least one day each month. I am paid hourly so I feel it on the paycheck, but it helps me to just assume that someone will be sick, or have a field trip, or dentist appointment, etc.
    – When I’m out, I regularly check in at work to see if there are any unexpected issues that must be immediately addressed. My employer knows he can contact me and some of what I do can be done from home/remotely.
    – I do not have any family in our town, so I have developed a network of backups for desperate situations. These are the people who are on the list to pick up children from school or could grab Gatorade at Target. I do my best to only call them when absolutely necessary so that I don’t overuse their favors.

    These are some little things that help, but I do think at the core there is simply and ongoing and underlying tension between needing to be in two places at once.

  7. says

    PS – I have also passed up additional income in order to remain where there is some flexibility and a very cooperative employer. He doesn’t always like it when I have to be out, but he seems to be willing to concede that in order to keep the history I have. One thing that I know works in my favor is that I have been with the company for eight years, only five as a single mother. When that time came, I let him know that I was getting a divorce and would need more flexibility or would have to look for other employment. At the time, he didn’t want to lose me and so we were able to work it out. I’m not sure how that would play out had I been here for less time.

  8. The Loving Parent says

    It is always so comforting to know that one’s not alone. I can relate to every single comment above!
    My children are 6, 6 (twins) & 7 now and I’ve been on my own for nearly 3 years. As above, I often felt ‘alone’ even when my husband and I were still together but it is a very different alone to the reality now.
    I chose to give up all salaried employment in the end! I found I just couldn’t work the constant competing pulls on my time. I’ve managed to build up a big-enough list of clients for whom I work freelance, affording me the flexibility to work evenings & the weekends when the children are at their father’s. In some ways, it means I have many ‘bosses’ instead of just one, but provided I deliver, there is much, much less concern about when or how I do it.
    Invaluable for me has been my single-mother friends. I have two in particular who I quite literally couldn’t manage without. We have ‘sleepovers’ with the children so we can have some sort of social life and we help each other out in the little emergencies. I don’t know hat I’d do without them! They are strong, funny, caring, empathetic women and I wish everyone had the support that I get from them.
    Wishing all mothers everywhere strength, love and solidarity!! We can do this!! But we need each other. I’m here for you!! And I know you’re there for me too. :) Vicky xx

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