As Mother’s Day approaches, fresh in my memory are recent encounters with two single mothers. First is my hairstylist who works two jobs, in the morning as an elementary school aide and then at the salon. Her polite greeting could not hide her apparent fatigue.
Another is a woman recently widowed with a third child about to enter college. The family finances had been drained by the long illness of her beloved husband. She felt utterly alone.
Single mothers play a significant role in this country. Approximately half of all single mothers have never married while the others are separated, divorced or widowed. About 17 million children, or one in four, are raised by single mothers. Nearly half of these children live below the poverty line.
The context for single mothers is not easy. There are many obstacles blocking access to jobs, particularly those beyond minimum wage; postsecondary education, which is an essential driver of upward mobility; paid time off; and affordable child care.
While single mothers probably struggle everywhere, those in the U.S. are much worse off than our peer countries. For every single mother in the top 10 percent of income in the U.S., there are 20 in the bottom 10 percent. This number is 11 for France and eight for Italy.
Across the decades, the Catholic Church has provided much-needed services to single mothers toward keeping and giving birth to their babies. But the assistance beyond that point is thin and must rise to a level of commitment that comprises the core of the church’s advocacy for life, children and families.
Showing the way are some inspiring efforts. At the College of St. Mary in Omaha, Nebraska, I learned of its “Mothers Living & Learning” program, which provides child-friendly residences and meal plans for single moms and up to two children (six weeks to 10 years) at no extra cost. Grants make possible early education for toddlers.
Beyond physical needs, this structure establishes a community that offers understanding and help, encouragement and role models, as well as opportunities for autonomy and responsibility. The university also requires the “Single Parent Success” program for acquiring knowledge, skills and habits for success.
The Diocese of Rapid City, South Dakota, as I learned in my recent visit, created “Uplifting Parents Program” to empower single parent families, many of these headed by women. The goal is to enable these parents to gain their education and achieve professional training.
Assistance is tailored to the needs of the individuals and includes bridge funding to finish a degree, grants for evening child care, transportation for work, financial counseling, parenting classes, etc. Other Catholic Charities agencies around the country also offer such programs.
The comments from these mothers indicate their greatest gain is not just a degree, but an increased sense of worth because someone believed in them, invested in them, saw something in them that they did not see in themselves. This often helped them cross a threshold, persevere through hardships and come to know themselves differently.
They also know that they are not alone. Inevitably, all of them want to make a better life for their children.
Pope Francis reached out to a single mother and praised her courage to keep and raise a child alone. He recognizes her struggles. Implicitly, this is an invitation to us to stand with and assist her.
A church that embraces these single mothers gives hope, affirms the dignity of the person, recognizes the inherent sacrifices of parenthood, shares in their burdens and thereby makes God’s presence real.
Woo is distinguished president’s fellow for global development at Purdue University and served as the CEO and president of Catholic Relief Services from 2012 to 2016.