I found myself a single mother; unexpectedly, quickly, with no time to prepare.
When my husband was removed from our home there was an income to be replaced, and my job as a Realtor in Upstate New York was no longer feasible. Working nights, he had been able to care for our six children during the day.
A reliable job, not dependent on commission, and with regular hours, became a necessity, and so I set about finding one.
With a diverse resume and a focus on years of customer service, it should have been easy; and was to an extent, except for the low paying positions that are the main fare in my area.
As I had to have something quickly, I accepted a position in a call center, making just above minimum wage. It was not enough to live on and I supplemented by applying for public assistance.
With that help, we existed for well over a year.
My call center job was great, my supervisor was a single mom herself, and understood my struggle. She was supportive of the flu, numerous court appointments, and unexpected catastrophes that sporadically marred my attendance record.
More money, and I could have made it work.
I was ashamed of needing government help. I grew up as an army brat, and while not rich, we needed nothing. Here I was now, accepting a handout.
It weighed heavily on my mind. Vowing to move on and move up, I kept my eyes and ears peeled for another opportunity.
And then it happened.
We worked in the same complex as our NYS Department of Labor and word traveled quickly that they were actively hiring a new team for their unemployment division, another call center environment that processed New York State’s unemployment claims.
The pay was almost seven dollars more an hour. The benefits, the retirement potential; it was everything exceptional. Above all, it would get me back on my feet and my assistance could end.
I applied, interviewed, and was hired. I still remember my excitement on the phone with my mom after I got the call from the recruiter, how I proud I was of my achievement.
Medicaid, child care assistance, and SNAP were gone; and I was going to be financially independent again. It was my dreams and my hopes, my very self-respect, that was reinstated and restored.
I began that job a new woman, a member of a team of only twenty other new-hires, and my worries were dissipating quickly. As school was still in session for another six months, my childcare expenses would not immediately commence; I had a fifteen-year-old daughter and seventeen-year-old son to watch the younger girls for the brief after-school period. Necessary, as my closest family lived an hour away.
However, my new care-free lot in life was short lived; as life happens, as shit happens.
And that shit happened literally, as I woke up one day to a sewage backup in my basement, resulting in homeowner’s insurance adjusters’ visits and a professional cleaning on a different two-day schedule. I missed work.
My fifteen-year-old became very ill, resulting in two emergency room visits, a neurology referral, ophthalmologist referral, and a spinal tap that finally led to the diagnosis of a chronic, lifelong condition for her. None of those medical appointments happened on Saturday or Sunday, nor were any of them something someone else could do for me while I went to my job.
I missed more work.
To top things off, my nine-year-old went off her rocker, the beginnings of mental health issues that can happen to children when something bad, like divorce and the loss of a parent, devastates their family. Throwing herself against a living room wall, falling to the ground, raging at life to the point of vomiting and hyperventilation–she missed school. Having no other help to care for her, but most importantly: MY need to care for her, I missed work.
I found out quickly that the understanding nature of my previous supervisor was not the norm; that despite being a part of a team of over three hundred other employees doing the very same job, my lack of outside support in the event of the unexpected was jeopardizing everything I had gained.
My employer was not pleased. My supervisor and the department manager made it clear that I was failing at my job. Not in performance, they had no problems with that, but my attendance had to improve. Or I would lose the job I so desperately needed, not just for money, but for my self-respect. For my sense of worth and the value that comes from pulling your own weight; something that is so very much demanded by society, and severely looked down upon if you fail.
I was failing. I was beyond stressed, my kids were suffering from a depressed, absent mother, and our home life was deteriorating rapidly. My failure was making me sick.
I developed a severe upper respiratory infection that, guess what? Made me miss more work.
In what I can only now describe as an intervention of Fate herself, that respiratory infection led to what ended up being a six-week long bout of laryngitis, and a meeting with my manager putting me on unpaid leave until I could speak again. I was hired for phone work, they had no other work for me, and I was unable to perform the job I was hired for.
I could come back when the doctor released me to resume my phone work.
Until then, I was under strict orders not to speak or even try to whisper. Think of trying to follow that with a house full of children, and you can see why my laryngitis lasted so long.
Include the fact that my manager still required me to call in sick every morning; whispering as softly as I could over the phone, to a supervisor who became increasing rude to the point of what bordered on verbal abuse; and maybe my recovery was hampered a little bit.
I resigned after two weeks of unsuccessfully gaining my voice back and having no work income. I reapplied for public assistance.
When you can’t speak, you sure do have a lot of time to listen. You have nothing but time; to re-evaluate your problems, identify your obstacles and come up with solutions, to figure out the best chance for your kids. My temporary new job would become figuring out exactly what that was going to be.
So, I did.
Our best chance was a whole new career for me, preferably the night shift so I could care for my most important responsibilities during the day. I went back to school, became a Certified Nursing Assistant, and started working for a local hospital.
It was less pay than a call center position with New York State. But I had once again found the support that can only come from a company that truly values their employees. I’ve been there over five years now, and I have missed work. Those absences are now responded to with words like “how can I help?” and “let me know what you need.” And “Is there anything that I can do?”
After five years, I now finally make enough money that I ended my need for the food stamps portion of welfare. I do still qualify for help with my insurance.
I needed that welfare for another five years after ending my employment with New York.
Don’t get me wrong here, I understand the value placed on good attendance at work. No employer wants an unreliable employee, no matter how valid the absence. No matter how many doctor notes and repair receipts are provided.
What I am saying is that our moms, single moms especially, are vulnerable to having those kinds of absences.
What I am saying is that we have a long way to go when it comes to employers who understand a mother’s unique challenges.
I wrongly thought that if any employer COULD understand, it would be my state’s labor department.
As I am acting upon a newfound love of advocacy, I’m finding an awful lot of low-income households, regardless of whether they are run solo by women or partnered, are having similar devastating experiences with their employers.
Moms are responsible for the clear majority of crises that impact their work. Important to remember, I think, is that these crises most often involve the well-being of children; or just as importantly, the women’s own health.
Perhaps it is time for our employers to start re-evaluating a few things when it comes to the different needs of women in the work place.
Perhaps, as my story reveals, that reflection should start at the top.