I often struggle with this platform, where I speak primarily to women like me: Educated, professional single moms. The number of unmarried mothers is increasingly affluent and educated, as women gain power in business and earning. But the reality remains that about half of kids raised primarily by a single mom live in poverty (a figure plummets for kids raised by single dads). I don't pretend that what I write about here speaks to every single one of the 10 million U.S. single moms, or financial challenges that I face as an educated white women are the same as someone who grew up with the challenges of generational poverty. However, I often hear from women facing single motherhood and find themselves in financial straights — very real, scary financial straights — despite having had every perceived advantage, a fact that only adds to the shame and fear around their situation.
A couple years ago I had this Facebook instant message conversation with Jennifer L.W. Fink, a single mom to four boys in Wisconsin. She separated five years ago and has been divorced for two. When she separated, Fink worked part-time as a freelance writer and homeschooled her children. She turned to public assistance.
Today Fink makes a living as a full-time freelance writer. She blogs at Blogging ‘Bout Boys.
EJ: In launching this blog I started researching the economics of single moms, and it actually depressed me for a few days. I don't need to tell you that the numbers are dire. When I realized I would become a single mom, I just kind of put my blinders on to the roadblocks in my way and plunged ahead. So far so good. That is what I aim to preach on Wealthy Single Mommy.
But I also try to appreciate that I am a white, educated middle-class woman who had a career before I had kids and got divorced. No ignoring that.
JLWF: That's a big point. I'm white and educated and relatively middle class. But I married at 20 and didn't exactly have a career before that. But I still have a leg up that a lot of other single moms don't have in that I have a college degree and had some professional experience.
But there's the thing: raising kids takes at least as much time as it takes money. I don't think we, as parents, do ourselves any favors by glossing over that fact. Ideally, you have two parents working toward that goal.
EJ: I agree 100 percent. But that isn't our story now. So what do you suggest?
What kind of assistance does a single mom qualify for?
JLWF: I definitely suggest applying for and accepting as much help as you need. There is nothing wrong or shameful about that.
EJ: We're talking public assistance?
JLWF: Yes. Most of the time, single motherhood is sudden. Even in families with two, educated, professional spouses, one spouse (often the woman) is working less outside the home to facilitate family life. And while many moms— most moms—can and will ramp up their income and earning potential, they can’t always pull that off right away. I would definitely urge these women to look into what's available in terms of health benefits, food stamps or other benefits. You have nothing to lose.
EJ: Did you accept public aid?
JLWF: Yes, I did, and I’m OK talking about it.
I have a nursing degree, but I transitioned into a writing career while I was having and homeschooling my kids. By the time of my divorce, I hadn't actively practiced nursing in 6 years. I made something like $21,000 writing the year before I divorced — not bad for a part-time job, but it's not nearly enough to support a family of five.
When I separated I ramped up my writing work, but to fill in that gap I applied for every kind of assistance I could get. Health insurance was a particular worry since my ex had carried me on his policy. I qualified for food assistance for six months, health benefits for a year, and help with heating costs that first winter.
EJ: How did you feel about applying for aid? What went through your mind?
JLWF: I'm from a middle class home. I'm not supposed to be one of “those moms.” I felt angry at a world and a system and circumstances that put my children and me in such a position that makes it easy for one spouse to walk away, while another struggles to figure out how to feed and clothe her kids. But at that time, it truly was survival for me. It was the only way to make the numbers work.
EJ: What would you family's life have looked like had you not gotten that assistance?
JLWF: I'm lucky and blessed to have good friends and family. No one would have let us starve, or land on the streets, but none of my family or friends could have afforded to subsidize us for long. We would definitely considered selling the house. But it would have been tough to find something more reasonable, and apartment living isn't exactly a great option for four active boys.
EJ: Not at all! Do you worry that professional women — or at least middle-class women — struggle unduly because they’re too embarrassed to apply for public benefits?
JLWF: Yes. It’s very hard to whip out your state assistance food card at the grocery store when you’re used to using a credit or debit card.
EJ: You said you were angry. Are you still angry, and if so, what do you do with that energy – and how does that affect your financial life?
How to financially thrive as a single mom
JLWF: I am angry, but I try to channel that anger into writing and building a better life for my kids and myself. My goal is to earn enough to make it without child support, and to build a life in which my kids and I are comfortable. In many cases (my case), child support comes with strings and resentment, even though it is just supposed to be about the children.
So far, I am on my way. Each year as been better financially than the last.
EJ: That’s fantastic.
JLWF: There is also a chance that if I make too much, it will affect my child support.
EJ: Do you think that has held you back professionally and financially – that fear of losing your child support, and how unfair that might seem?
JLWF: It was a huge step for me to get over that, yes. Now my goal is to make enough so that if that were to happen, it wouldn’t eat into our comfort. I also made the conscious decision that nothing can stop me from succeeding – especially not my ex-husband.
EJ: I love that. What you are really saying is, “I will not stop myself from being successful.”
JLWF: Right. It's recognizing and overcoming my own mental hurdles.
EJ: But it is easier, I think, to build a career and wealth and success — no matter how you define success — if you do it from a place of happiness and not from being pissed off — even if we deserve to be pissed!
JLWF: I think you're right. It's just hard to get there sometimes! That’s why I think assistance works best when viewed as a temporary bridge while you work through the professional and personal challenges of divorce.
EJ: And what do you have to say to women in similar situations who refuse to apply for assistance, and instead spend their energy trying to get their ex to fork over more money?
Reasons not to fight for child support
JLWF: I’d say:
1) You're going to spend more in legal bills than you'd probably get; you're not going to come out ahead.
2) You're feeding the negative energy instead of trying to work through it.
3) See what you can do to improve your financial situation.
EJ: I like #3 because we can't totally control how much the ex gives us, or how much we can get from the state. But we can control ourselves and our finances and our careers.
JLWF: We can't totally control anything!
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Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, noted blogger, and bestselling author. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour, Oprah.com, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.
Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.