American Morning

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October 27th, 2009
07:05 AM ET

Single mom balances work and grad school

By Nailah Ellis Timberlake

For Mary, a single mother of a two year old boy, the economic downturn plaguing the country has deeply affected her. When her son was born in 2007, a record 40% of children – approximately 1.5 million – were born to unmarried mothers. As a single parent, Mary juggles her education and job in order to maintain a comfortable lifestyle for her and her son.

“Women are expected to be mothers and caregivers while going to work or school. I’m competing against men that don’t have the same expectation. I have this extra burden because I’m expected to be able to do both.”

Mary takes on extra shifts and works holidays so that she can rent a condo in a gated community in the Pembroke Pines area of South Florida because she wants to raise her son in a safe residential suburb.

She commutes an hour both to work and school in lower income areas where the amount of crime dissuaded her from wanting to live in those areas out of convenience. After taking advantage of federal funding to help pay for school, Mary is a semester shy of getting a Masters Degree in Biomedical Science from Barry University.

“I’m trying to go to med school because that’s something I’ve always wanted to do and getting my Masters enhances my credentials in order to get there.” Being a single parent hasn’t been easy while working and going to school full-time.

“Today I had an exam and spent the entire weekend in the ER with my son who has the flu. Because I’m his mother, it’s my responsibility to take care of him and sit in the hospital until he gets the proper treatment. School is other people’s first priority – my son is my first priority.”

Mary is one of the millions of Americans that do not have health care, but she was eligible to receive Medicaid for her son. She isn’t alone. The U.S. Census Bureau reports the number of people without health insurance coverage rose from 45.7 million in 2007 to 46.3 million in 2008, while the percentage remained unchanged at 15.4 percent.

Health care costs aren’t the only financial hardship Mary faces. As a full-time grad student, Mary can only receive a certain amount of loan assistance, and this barely covers her tuition and school books. “My loans don’t cover housing, food or transportation, so I have to work. I have a son and have to cover his expenses – there’s no way I could afford to do that with just school loans.”

It’s been a stressful few years and at times, she feels that few people her age can’t really relate. “A lot of the kids I go to school with either live with their parents or have their parents paying for everything, it puts me at a disadvantage right away. I have a job, I have a son – they don’t have jobs or kids so they just go to school and have nothing else to worry about.”

To help make ends meet, Mary works approximately 24 hours a week in a sports bar as a waitress. Some would say she’s lucky – jobs are scarce. Since the start of the recession in December 2007, the number of unemployed persons has increased 15.1 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“It’s been slow at my job and subsequently that affects my tips, but I still feel better working there then anywhere else I could because I only work 3 days a week. If I had a job in the field that I’m studying in school, I’d have to work 40 hours a week to make the same amount.”

Working 3 days a week also allows her to stay home with her son on her days off, cutting back on daycare expenses. The savings: $180 for the entire week regardless of how many days her son attends versus only paying her babysitter $50 for the two days that she actually needs help. But there is a price.

“The disadvantage is that he doesn’t get any educational benefit like learning his ABC’s or his 123’s – its just someone watching your child, not actually teaching him anything.” Mary looks forward to the day when she finishes medical school and can afford to provide her son with more options. She also hopes to help disadvantaged people receive proper medical treatment regardless of coverage because she too was uninsured and feels she can relate to patients in ways that others cannot.

Filed under: Living
soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Patricia Higgins

    I really enjoyed reading this article and the responses. It's hard to find community web sites/forums that support single mothers who work and go to school. I work full time, 5 days a week, and go to school full time (12 units), and have an 8 year old with Aspergers Syndrome, and have been dealing with my own heart issues (I live off of Ace Inhibitors and Beta Blockers to manage my blood pressure and heart rate). On top of all that, I have been trying to maintain a rocky long-distance relationship for three years, and trying to keep my cool. I feel very selfish for thinking my life is more important than being a mother, and at times I feel like something needs to give. I need to let something go, and it WON'T be motherhood or education, or work....

    March 22, 2010 at 2:23 pm |
  2. masiamom

    As a single mom grad student, freelancer and tutor, I find my family role an enabler (rather than disabler) to my studies. I run the house; the schedule is my own, and I only add activities that truly matter. There are many different kinds of families, and each has its advantages as much as its disadvantages. While 'making ends meet' is certainly more difficult in this economy, adjusting my expectations (happy kid in apartment trumps overworked mom in big house), building a community of family and friends, and becoming a master of my own time and household has proved not only effective but empowering.

    December 29, 2009 at 1:44 pm |
  3. jennetics

    I have a 4 year old boy and am a last year pre-med. It's inspiring to know someone else is working hard and making progress towards her dream. When my son was born everyone acted like a 2 year degree program would be the only school I could do as a single mother. I ignored everyone and worked fulltime while going to school fulltime. Times have been hard but I feel that my hard work will pay off eventually. I feel that I earn my GPA more than many of my classmates, as many do not even have jobs; much less a job and a child. Having a child should not stop anyone from pursuing their dreams. Hang in there girl, it'll all be worth it.

    November 8, 2009 at 2:22 am |
  4. ronvan

    GOOD FOR YOU!! My step-daughter is in the same position. Lost her job in auto industry. Now is going to school to become a nurse, working two jobs and raising her son who has some serious medical problems. Is she mad & upset? YES, but she has turned it into her motivation to suceed and as of today looks like she is seeing light at the end of the tunnel.

    October 28, 2009 at 10:34 am |