After a long day of work, I watch as my mother hauls herself to her car with fierce determination. As she steps into her white PT Cruiser, she lets out a delayed sigh and proceeds to share her woes from a day of work as a supply staff worker with the local daycare centre. It had never been her preferred career choice, but she had chosen it to answer a most desperate need.
During my time of unemployment, we often shared our day together like this. At the end of her shift, I would meet her in her workplace parking lot. When I was in my teens, an unexpected divorce made her a single mother in her early 40s. Then, losing her full-time job as a support worker in December 2013 compounded the financial trials she encountered — the latest, the inability to find steady work.
In our home, she was the sole breadwinner but had to “hustle” to land part-time contract jobs that often offered only a small pittance and no benefits. Yet, it was the income from these modest gigs she had to use to take care of our needs every month.
That’s why, though she ended the day exhausted and worn out from a day’s work at a mere $11.40 an hour, she would wake up the next day and do the same thing. She had many dreams of going back to school and starting her own business, but all of these had to submit to a higher order — to do all she could simply to survive.
According to a report released by Poverty and Employment Precarity in Southern Ontario (PEPSO), situations like my mother’s are becoming the “new normal.” The prevalence of what is called “precarious employment,” even on a full-time basis (which essentially refers to jobs that offer no benefits or security) has risen dramatically in the last 20 years. This has created much peril for those who are unable to land steady sources of employment for whatever reason and have to rely on this type of work to make a living.
Further research from the Law Commission of Ontario has shown single parents (often women), racialized workers, immigrants, Aboriginal persons, persons with disabilities, older adults and youth are most likely to find themselves in part-time, temporary work. Among part-time workers, women are more likely to be low-paid.
Challenges in finding solid work also translate into other areas of life, as can be seen in my mother’s example. We have moved nine times within a six-year period and came close to being evicted on more than one occasion. It was a cycle first spurred into motion after we lost our first home in 2007 (in desperation, my mother resorted to claiming bankruptcy.)
Yet, despite such insurmountable barriers, my mother has refused to be overcome by them. “Sometimes, there is that shadow of the doubt to ask the question, ‘What am I going to do?’” she says. “But I also believe that you have to take action for what you need.”
My Mother’s Story
Though both my sister and I are in our 20s and, therefore, adults, we too have been greatly affected by our household’s poverty. In the case of my sister, it has meant relying on the use of credit cards and taking out countless loans just to support herself and further her education. As for me, I now work a part-time contract job after more than a year of being unemployed.
According to census data released by Statistics Canada, nearly 1.2 million children across Canada lived in low-income households in 2015. Further, children living in a one-parent family (the majority led by mothers) that same year were more than three times as likely to live in a low-income household as children in a two-parent family.
“When you’re a mother, you have to think differently. That’s when I had to choose, ‘Either I’m eating or they are.’”
As for my mother, she became accustomed to living life below the poverty line at a young age. She says that growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, she would wake up early in the morning, only to find her own mother had already left for a day of work. “She worked tirelessly; long hours. My older sister, my mother and I lived in one room and we all slept in the same bed. My mom really struggled to put bread on the table. As a kid, I didn’t think much of it. I just thought that she had to work and it was a natural part of life.”
Though this picture became all too familiar, it was one my mother sought to change. When she arrived in Canada in 1978, she did so thinking things would be different. But she only found herself following the same path, which was to work odd jobs to pave her way through college. (This included a few temporary cleaning jobs in upper-class neighbourhoods, which offered reasonably good pay.)
Lucia, a friend and former co-worker of my mother’s, is no stranger to the hardships that come from a life of poverty as a single mother. She gave birth to her first child, a daughter, at the age of 17, followed by another daughter a year later. When her boyfriend moved out, she found herself truly on her own for the first time and was left to fend not only for herself but also for her two children.
It was during this vulnerable time that she underwent the kind of transformational attitude shift that would be needed in her new role as a mother of two and that regularly called on her to make decisions affecting her entire family. This truth became even more apparent in light of her financial situation. “When you’re a mother, you have to think differently. That’s when I had to choose, ‘Either I’m eating or they are.’”
As a young resident of the notorious Jane and Finch neighbourhood in Toronto, Lucia was given early exposure to some harsh realities. “Growing up here, you see constant shootings, poverty and many other struggles,” she says, while further describing an unfortunate, yet common, scene: “The single parent. The guys you see on the corner trying to make a cent selling drugs. That’s all you see and that’s all you know.”
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Now, as a single mom juggling numerous responsibilities (not only does she work full-time, but she is also currently enrolled in the social services worker program at Humber College), she credits her early childhood experiences with shaping who she is today, as well as providing the current basis for her faith and values. “It made me who I am. I learned to hustle as a mother and think quick. Times get hard, but you survive. In the end, we make it.”
With this in mind, she founded her own support group for single mothers called “Sisters Overcoming Together.” The group holds monthly meetings and provides women with an opportunity to strengthen and encourage one another while forming bonds based on mutual values and shared experiences. The vision of this group was birthed last October when she first wrote it out by hand on paper.
Outside of the monthly meetings, this vision exists in the friendships she has cultivated with the other women and, most especially, the fulfilling relationship she possesses with her two girls. These days, she hopes to continue to instil positive principles in her children to carry them into their future.
Bringing Support to Single Mothers
For single mothers living in poverty, there are some unique challenges that often present themselves and may not always be apparent to the eye. What Lucia and many single mothers like her have found is that, at times, there is a silencing stigma that creates unwanted impressions of single motherhood in Canada.
This is especially so with minority mothers in low-income communities. Some common misconceptions can be that “we are not educated and that (we are) not going to amount to anything and how will (we) raise (our) children?” Lucia relates.
When my family moved to an obscure location earlier this year, our living room sat empty for months. We couldn’t afford furniture, so my mother frequently slept on the floor. Eventually, acting upon advice from a friend, we connected with a local faith-based charity that was known for supplying furniture, food and other items to families in need. My mother cried when the group arrived on two separate occasions with two new beds (for me and her), along with a brand-new couch.
This is what happens when the church acts in its given role to address the needs of the community – lives are changed. Ministering to this group — widows, orphans and anyone who fits the description outlined in James 1:27 — aligns perfectly with Christ’s model to minister to a person’s needs before bidding them, “Follow Me.”
Lori, founder of Hope and Help for the Single Mom, an organization that was founded on 21 biblical principles she now shares with single mothers everywhere, says the church can truly be a blessing in a single mother’s life by not making meetings with her one-time encounters.
“The best thing the church can do for a single mom is to visit her, build a relationship with her and help her get into that church,” she says. “God provides in the midst of the community with other believers. Single moms are looking more for a hand to reach out to them in friendship than a hand reaching out to them just to hand out financials.”
Through it all, it has been my mother’s faith in God that has kept her going, despite the challenges we have faced. It is this faith that consistently gives her hope to face another day. “When you have Christ, you have everything,” she says. “Even if you have to eat bread and water. He is Our Source.”
Infographic created by: Starla Hill Jimenez
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