The XX Factor

The Career and Life Decisions of a Single Mom

Working in K-12 education was not compatible with single parenthood for this mother.

Photo by Mikael Damkier/Shutterstock

Over the past few years, there has been a great deal of discussion about why women aren’t achieving as much in their careers as their male counterparts, even though women have been enrolling in and graduating from college in greater numbers than men since the 1980s. Explanations for this gender gap range from women aren’t “leaning in” enough, to entrenched sexism in the workplace, to husbands’ careers taking precedence, to a lack of social supports for mothers in American society.

But when we discuss the issue in a macro way, we don’t hear the stories of men and women who are making career choices not as statistics in a think piece, but as part of an often complicated balancing act between various interests and responsibilities in their lives. Here is the sixth interview in an occasional series, Best Laid Plans, about how career decisions get made over time and are altered by the unpredictability of life.

Name: Wendy Litman

Age: 38

Occupation: Staff member at a university

Children: A 9-year-old daughter

Location: Denver

Hi, Wendy. What were your career expectations when you first started working?

I started working in high school, and I have not ever not worked since then. And then it was just … I didn’t have career expectations, more job expectations. I worked in a restaurant for a long time. And I had sort of a nontraditional high school experience, so work experience was more important than school experience. I went to a half-day high school program in Boulder, Colorado, that was—I don’t even know how to describe it. It was just nontraditional. Now I’d say it was unschooling, but then I didn’t know what that term was.

I went to college not out of any great ambition, but so I could make sure I could have health insurance, because my jobs were not doing that. I studied fine arts, a creative field that I knew I was not going to work in. I worked for state government for about a year and a half after I graduated. Again, not out of passion, but because I needed a steady job.

My then-partner, who is my daughter’s father, was a university administrator. I went to a graduate program at a private school at a spousal discount for almost nothing and became a teacher. My degree was in curriculum and instruction.

What was your life situation at that time—did you have kids then, or did you expect to in the future?

I was with my daughter’s father when I gradated from college. We met through mutual friends. We didn’t have a wedding. Colorado is very sort of … different about common law marriage. The state takes it very seriously. We had a hetero civil union almost, and we had paperwork through his employer. A sort of declared partnership. At the time, I knew I always wanted kids and a long-term partner.

How does your current work situation match up with your earlier expectations?

I think it’s probably similar. I’m definitely not making huge amounts of money. I never expected to. I didn’t realize how difficult that would be. But I’m not drowning in debt, which I expected to be. I expected to be able to afford a small place to live and transportation, and that’s sort of what we have.

How does your current life situation match up with your earlier expectations?

That’s different. Being a single parent is incredibly hard. And my daughter’s father is not available in any way. He had a very unfortunate, terrible medical diagnosis in his mid-30s, and coupled with some emotional stuff, he had a breakdown and has been homeless for two years. We broke up when my daughter was 1, and he sort of hung on for a little while after that. His illness didn’t cause our relationship to fail, but it was a piece. There was a perfect storm that involved stresses related to managing needs of elderly and ill family members, parental death, difficulties with housing and finances, his misdiagnoses and slow deterioration, job changes for both of us, and new baby. Our daughter seemed like the only positive. He was very at ease and involved as a dad. Unfortunately, it was just too much.

He had to have multiple brain and spinal cord surgeries, and he had other issues on top of that, and he was no longer employable and could not take care of himself at all. The social security/disability system is not able to take care of him.

I would have never envisioned this situation. Socially, it’s kind of hard sometimes. I have a lot of friends and acquaintances who are wonderful and supportive and others who I’ve felt they perceive being a single mother is contagious and I never would have ever envisioned that for myself, being an imaginary social pariah in some way.

When you were still with your partner, whose career came first?

I would say it was balanced during the time that we were together. He was working in a very upward-moving direction at a university, so that was important, but it was also important that I get another degree. I ended up getting an additional degree after that. We thought at the end of things we’d both be employed, and ultimately it didn’t work that way.

Did you ever sacrifice career advancement for personal reasons? What were they?

I left K-12 education because it did not work with single parenthood, even though I made more money being a teacher than I do now. There was probably different opportunities for advancement within that system if I were able to focus on it. But what it required of me in terms of both time and emotion—I just couldn’t do as a single parent.

Did your partner ever sacrifice career advancement for personal reasons?

I think so. I don’t think I realized it at the time, but I think maybe he felt like he was sacrificing something by staying at this particular university until I finished my degree. That was never said—there were clearly communication problems—but I suspect he felt that way.

What is your child care arrangement like?

My daughter’s school has an after-school program. And part of teaching that was impossible was that there wasn’t a before-school care program. So I was hiring baby-sitters to take her at 6 a.m. until school started at 8 and then drive her to school. It was a huge amount of money. But now I can drive her to school myself.

My parents live about 30 miles away. There aren’t any summer camps offered at the very end of August, and my daughter’s school begins after Labor Day, so the last few years they’ve taken her for multiple weeks in August and I come up on weekends to stay, and that’s a great help.

How much time per week do you spend on leisure (hobbies, entertainment, solo exercise)?

I really only work 40 hours a week, which is nice. A lot of entertainment is going to child activities and sitting and reading, and that’s three times a week typically.

I have a long-term boyfriend, we’ve been together for four years. We met at our kids’ kindergarten. During the week, we usually see each other two nights a week, maybe three, and we always see each other on weekends. He also has a 9-year-old daughter and shares custody 50/50 with his ex. He will come to my house the two nights she’s with her mom, and we’ll occasionally go there another night and during the weekends. We’ll see them regardless of whether he has her. The girls are very good friends.

Is there anything, in retrospect, you wish you’d done differently?

I guess not. I enjoy my job; I enjoy the time I get to have with my daughter now. So those things are worth it. I realize I need to work a second job for the money, and I need to do that soon. I was a reading intervention and special education teacher, and I have a lot of knowledge about the mechanics of reading, so I’m looking for tutoring, and as my daughter gets more independent, I’ll probably do that.

Check out more of Slate’s Best Laid Plans series.