Navigating the workplace as a single parent

Work Life Balance   |   Age: 7 weeks 2 days

Navigating the workplace as a single parent

Every parent who returns to work after the birth of their first child goes through an adjustment period - your life is simply much different now - and no matter how much time you spent knowing that your baby was on the way, it’s still going to take some time for you and your coworkers to get used to this change. For single parents, this is magnified by the added responsibility of not having a partner to share this new responsibility with. Single parents may also end up going back to work earlier than parents in two-parent households and may have less of a choice about when they go back.

Plan ahead

One of the main differences between parenting solo and having a co-pilot is that while you may have everything set up to run smoothly under clear skies, you’ve got less backup to rely on when things get stormy. This can be a problem for any single parent, but the better you prepare for such turbulence ahead of time, the more easily you’ll be able to handle it when it arrives.

For example, single parents - like all parents - occasionally face the question of just what to do when their children get sick, but they may have a smaller pool of sick days or days with paid leave to draw from than two parents, who can take turns missing work, and may also have a harder time losing out on a day’s worth of work if they don’t have paid leave. 
In the U.S., in the case of serious illness, parents can often take unpaid leave under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). But the FMLA won’t do much to help a single parent whose little one just has a little stomach bug or a persistent case of the sniffles. 

Even very healthy children get sick from time to time, so you'll want to plan ahead of time just how you'll handle these sort of surprises. If you have friends or family in the area who might be able to occasionally cover for you and care for your baby during work hours, it helps to have a conversation with them about this sort of an arrangement ahead of time before the sniffles strike. If you feel comfortable doing so, it can also be helpful to have a conversation with your boss or supervisor about what you can or should do if something unexpected like this comes up. But since single parents are not protected under U.S. federal anti-discrimination laws, it’s not a bad idea to be a little wary of those conversations if you’re not totally confident about how your employer will respond.

Find your people

Other parents you work with - whether they’re single parents or not - are probably going to understand the challenges you’re facing better than anyone else you work with, even if you didn’t start off knowing these coworkers all that well. Particularly if you do shift work, adding parents that you work with - who might better understand just why you’re asking - to your list of people to call if you need to adjust your schedule unexpectedly can be practical and important. If nothing else, though, there’s strength in numbers and there’s reassurance in sympathy, and finding some allies among your coworkers is an important part of adjusting to your new reality at work.

When job seeking

Whether it's because you need a job with better flexibility now that you’re a parent or because you just want a change, job hunting as a single parent can be a nerve-wracking situation. In the U.S., potential employers are not legally allowed to ask you about your marital status or whether you have children.

But many parents feel uncomfortable withholding key information about themselves, and early disclosure of potential scheduling conflicts could help build goodwill with your potential employer. Additionally, letting an employer know about your baby right away may be the best way to explain a gap in employment on your resume.

On the other hand, if you feel uncomfortable sharing that information, there is a reason protections are in place to keep you from being asked - it’s your family life and your privacy. In any case, if you are going to talk about your baby, there’s no reason to mention her in your cover letter or application. That kind of heart-to-heart can wait until you’re in your interview, face to face, when you can get a better sense of your interviewer and how to best approach the subject.

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