Gina, a single mother of three in southwestern Ohio, recently told me that being a mom saved her from despair and addiction. “It’s my life. It’s everything to me. It’s the reason I wake up every day.” Other poor and working class women I’ve interviewed hold a similarly high view of motherhood connecting it closely to their identity and saying things like, “Being a mother to [my kids] makes me feel like I’m here for a reason,” and, “That’s kind of the biggest point in life. More than falling in love, more than your house, more than your money, more than anything is keeping your family alive, keeping the world going. That’s what you’re put on this earth to do.”
But what is less discussed is how many of these women also value work outside of the home, even though they are less likely to have “careers” and more likely to work service jobs at restaurants or retail stores. It’s true that the work preferences of women are diverse, and that most women with children say they prefer to not work full-time. But according to the New York Times, from 2015 to 2019 the share of young single mothers in the workforce jumped about four percentage points, a trend driven by those without college degrees. While the share of married and cohabiting mothers who are employed has fallen since the late 1990s to less than 65 percent, the share of single mothers in the labor force is at the same level as it was then, at 80 percent.