Superwomen- A look into the challenges faced by single mothers pursuing a college degree

Da’Von Crutchfield

5:50A.M: the IPhone annoyingly chirps – a reminder to get out of bed. The room is gradually growing lighter as the sun filters itself though the closed blinds. A pile of laundry that should have been folded last night still lies on the floor, but after eight hours of schlepping through papers, fetching coffee and making several hundred mind numbing copies, then picking up two hyper active toddlers, giving them baths, dinner, reading a nighttime story, then into bed, folding clothes seems like the last thing to do.

Next to the pile of laundry, textbooks are stacked one on top of the other; chemistry, environmental ethics, modern Art101. You should’ve started to develop a thesis by now. The first draft of your paper is due in just two days, but the kids have been sick. You were an hour and a half late for work two days ago because your youngest had an ear infection and needed to see the doctor. You wrestled with him for fifteen minutes to take his antibiotics before putting him to bed. Your oldest has been complaining of stomach pain and has been refusing to potty train. His personal protest to making in the potty has you frustrated and his stomach in knots.

You were asked to stay overtime at work, only to have to deal with a frustrated baby sitter who cancelled her evening plans to watch your children so you could work late. The chances of getting to that research paper are unlikely at this point.

After spending eight hours at a job where you spend half the day refilling the coffee pot and the other half making copies, you have to sit in a three hour lecture void of the magnificent power of caffeine because you didn’t have time to stop for coffee on account of the fact that it took fifteen minutes to walk to the car and get the kids bucked in their car seats instead of the 7 minutes you mapped out.

This is but an isolated daily routine that is the reality faced by many single mothers who are balancing motherhood, work, and being a full time student every day.

Single mothers face a variety of challenges daily. Tasks like getting to and from the baby sitters within a reasonable time, or getting to work on time can seem almost impossible at times. There is a constant motion for the single mother, very little time for rest. Factor in the additional responsibility of being a full time student the juggling act becomes a Ringling Brother’s main attraction.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 report, of the 12 million single parent households counted in the United States, more than 80% were headed by single mothers. Of that less than 40% completed or even pursued post-secondary educational training.

With the rise in online learning universities such as the University of Phoenix, Kaplan University and Liberty University, single mothers have more options for pursuing higher education at a more convenient level than in previous decades. The freedom to attend classes online rather than having to sit in a classroom on a college campus is a push in the right direction for some single mothers to obtain a degree and maintain a healthy balance of parenting. Whether it is online, or in the classroom, the balancing of parenting and education can prove challenging for single mothers.

“It’s definitely not easy” says Ebony Jean Charles, a student at Essex County College and single mother of a 1 year old daughter. “It’s like you keep going and don’t really get a break. You got homework to do, plus finding people to watch your kids gets harder every day.”

The average cost of childcare in the United States is about $11,500 per year. Ebony relies on the free childcare received from a relative daily to make it to work and school. While she has transportation, she works in Livingston, New Jersey, drops of her child in Irvington, New Jersey and goes to school in Newark, New Jersey.

“I’m in the car a lot, me and my baby. We always running somewhere”, she says. “This winter was bad because all the ice we had, I couldn’t drive as fast as I normally do when I was trying to get everywhere.”

Most parents have a schedule or a routine set for their daily activities. Setting a routine is important for ensuring stability for the child and getting to destinations on time. For Ebony, transportation is an important factor in her daily routine. Going from the babysitter to work, then to school and back to the babysitter before stopping home, she puts a lot of miles on the pavement.

Holding a steady job is important for single mothers like Ebony. While the goal at hand is to obtain a degree and search for better more profitable employment and a satisfying career, it often means accepting a “for now” job to pay for immediate financial obligations such as rent, text books, vehicle maintenance, etc.

“I work in retail,” Ebony says, “and they don’t always want to give me time off so I can get to class, and on one hand I be wanting to say ‘well school is supposed to come first and y’all [the retailer] should understand that’ but at the same time I need this job to feed my daughter and get her the things she needs. When I think about it sometimes I just be wanting to stay in the bed and not go no where.”

Staying focused is one of the main challenges for the single mother in college. Being overwhelmed by professor expectations, unreasonable assignments and homework demands, and adhering to the needs of a young child is as second nature as not getting a full night’s sleep during finals.

“Keep stepping.” These words of wisdom from Dr. Deborah Sanders, Professor and Coordinator of the African American Studies Program at New Jersey City University and also a single mother while in college are her motto for when the going gets tough.

“I married young,” she begins, “but always wanted to get an education.” Dr. Sanders pursued a college degree and a PhD as a single mother faced with the challenge of a husband who was not supportive of her choice to go back to school.

For some mothers, it’s about getting a better job, for others it’s about fulfilling the lifetime goal that had never been attainable due to circumstance. For Dr. Sanders, getting a degree was about gaining the knowledge she needed to contribute on a greater scale to her family and community. “I just wanted better for me and my daughter” she says, “When you have to do it all on your own, you realize that nothing is going to get handed to you.”

As a single mother finishing up her Bachelors at Morgan State University, Dr. Sanders became interested in pursuing multiple degrees.

“I was always interest in ideas and analyzing ideas.” Dr. Saunders continues, “Education was key, it was the only way out in order to achieve better within my community.” She went on to receive a second degree with the use of a scholarship to Howard University.

The establishing a daily routine was vital for Dr. Sanders.

“I would have my daughter in bed by seven in the evening. Then I would go to the kitchen and study and read and do what I needed to do for school.”

She also held a job with the United States Postal Service as her “for now” job. When asked about help with establishing a routine for her daughter she explained, “I have a very supportive family. Everyone pitched in starting with my mother. My mother was an advocate for me going to school so anything I needed she was there.”

Anything she needed, including watching her daughter while she participated in school events and programs. With a supportive background, the weight can be lifted. But what about the workload assigned to the single mother and student?

“I don’t have time to do homework.” Ebony emotionally states, “When I sit down to actually do work, I end up feeling bad because my baby will need something and I have to stop what I’m doing to pay attention to her.” When Ebony sets out to start an assignment and gets interrupted, she finds that she cannot always come right back to her work.

“I can’t get back on the same train of thought I was when I started. Then when I go to class, and try to explain to the professor what happened they look at me like I’m stupid.”

When asked if she takes sympathy on students who have personal obligations that may interfere with their assignments, Dr. Sanders’ response was, “No.”

Having taught in Zimbabwe, Dr. Sanders saw firsthand some of the struggles students in Africa face just to get to school every day. “We live in a culture of excuses here” she explains, “I taught at the Rahway State Prison. There were some men there with low academic skills but high motivation.”

“No one cares about your cares” Dr. Sanders says purposefully. “There is a very small percent of people who have a valid excuse for something.” She described a student she and her fellow professors had during her tenure before coming to New Jersey City University. “This girl’s grandmother died in all our classes,” she laughingly says.

She described the student as having used the excuse of her grandmother suddenly dying in almost every class for at least 2 semesters. “Then on ‘Family Day’ the girl shows up with the same grandmother who had died in my class and Professor King’s class.”

For single mother Ebony, it’s the motivation that keeps her from making excuses. “I try to stay focused every day. It’s not easy, but when I look at my daughter, and the things she needs that I can’t get for her right now, I know that I am doing what I gotta do to get better.”

Having an education does not guarantee that better employment is up ahead. The reality is that many individuals who pursue a college degree do not land a career in the field in which they majored in.

“I want to go into Nursing” Ebony states, “I know I have a long ways to go, but I always had it in me to want to help people. I would’ve said doctor, but I’m not trying to be in school for that long” she chuckles.

For the single mother, there is no time to slack off. There is always something to be done, an assignment to be handed in, a doctor to be called, a shift to be covered, dinner to be made, laundry to be folded, children to be reassured security, and so much more. The power of education is only as strong as the person who is appreciating it. While college is a place for some to explore and transition into adulthood, for the single mother, that transition has already been made by way of procreation; making college a stepping stone to providing a better quality of life for her and her child. Both Dr. Sanders and Ebony Jean Charles come from a community where education is not always pushed towards, especially for black women. Dr. Sanders faced an unsupportive husband and made the decision to leave with her daughter to get the education she had been deprived of. Her journey has brought her to many incredible places, some of which may not have been achievable without the power of education.

Ebony is just beginning her journey. After she finishes at Essex County College she is hoping to get into Saint Peters University’s nursing program. While she is not facing opposition from a spouse, she is balancing being both parents and the sole financial provider for her daughter. Both of these women have and will continue to prove that single mothers, though faced with many obstacles can rise up and be great even through the daily struggles and challenges.