A number of so-called “single moms by choice” have taken the Mindful Return maternity leave course. But it occurred to me recently that I’ve never featured their working mom stories on the Mindful Return blog. This post was sparked by both a commitment to inclusivity and wanting to learn how “choice moms” can be supported in their professional roles.
Here’s my interview with Masha Sapper, working mama to a 10-month old, about her own experience becoming a single mom by choice and navigating her own return to work from maternity leave.
Mindful Return: It’s great to have you here, Masha. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself – where you live, your job, and your parenthood journey?
Masha: Hi Lori! I am a Regional Manager for a company that provides management services for student housing communities owned by non-profits. I also have another role and title with the company, Associate President for Business Services. In that role I provide training, support, and implementation services for our management software package within the company.
I live in Wheaton, Maryland, in a little 850 square foot house I bought in 2009. I had always wanted to be a mom, and always assumed I’d get married and have children with my partner. But it never happened.
I used to travel a lot for work, which made dating difficult. I just wasn’t meeting the right people. Or, if I did, the relationship wasn’t getting the time and attention it needed to survive. As I got older I started dating at a frenetic pace, trying to get married while I was still young enough to have a baby.
About six years ago, a friend of mine decided that she was going to become a single mom by choice, and in watching her parent her baby on her own, I decided that I could (probably) do that too. I started trying in January of 2016. And I went through two HSGs (tests for blocked fallopian tubes), two hysteroscopies, one cancer scare, six IUIs (fertility treatments – two canceled and four completed), and one ectopic pregnancy, before I finally had a viable pregnancy in July of 2017.
I gave birth to my daughter in March of 2018. She’s amazing and absolutely worth all of it.
Mindful Return: How did you wind up in the career you’re in?
Masha: I was a Resident Advisor (RA) in college and liked it. One of my mentors said he thought I should consider making a career out of it. Because my degree was in Mathematics and wasn’t very useful in the job market at the time, I decided to take his advice. What I do now isn’t very similar to what I did when I was an RA, but I think I’ve landed in an area that matches my skill set more closely.
Mindful Return: “Single Mom By Choice” is a term that was new to me as of a few months ago. What does this (or “Choice Mom”) mean to you?
Masha: The term is intended to describe women who knowingly choose to become single mothers. As opposed to single mothers “by chance”, who end up parenting on their own due to unexpected circumstances. But I don’t think “Single Mother by Choice” (SMBC) really describes my situation very well.
While I chose to get pregnant and parent on my own, it certainly wasn’t my first choice. I would have loved to have gone through my pregnancy with a partner. And I would love to have a co-parent provide company, affection, and support. That said, I know some women who consider being a SMBC to be “Plan A”, or who originally wanted to have children with a partner and now find that they like being a solo parent and wouldn’t want to co-parent.
Mindful Return: What issues do you think Choice Moms face in returning to work after maternity leave that might be unique? And what challenges did you face, personally?
Masha: Most of our issues aren’t necessarily unique, but are just amplified. We don’t have the safety net of a partner who can do daycare pickup if we want to stay late one day. Or who can stay home with a sick baby who cannot go to daycare, if we have an important presentation.
That means our schedules generally have much less flexibility than our colleagues who are partnered parents. And we are more likely to be impacted by a sick child (or childcare provider).
Also, where other families have two incomes or have one income but no daycare expenses, we only have one income and still have to pay for daycare. For SMBCs who don’t take home large paychecks by themselves, this can limit our ability to use money to address our issues, such as using a babysitter to help with daycare pickup.
Finally, the entire burden of chores, household maintenance, childcare, etc. is on us alone. So there are huge demands on our time outside of work and after the baby goes to sleep (if she goes to sleep). All of this can mean that it’s easier for us to burn out.
I faced a few issues personally, some related to being an SMBC and some not. I had a hard time finding a daycare that I felt comfortable with, because my daughter was so bonded to me and me alone. Like most mothers, I was worried about leaving my twelve week old baby with strangers. But in my case, the concerns were amplified. No no one else fed her regularly, she wouldn’t sleep unless she was sleeping on me, and she often cried if other people held her.
I also struggled with the logistics of pumping while returning to work. This included everything from buying an affordable pump, to finding a place to pump when on the various campuses I visit as part of my job. Finally, I occasionally have to travel for my job, and that’s very hard to manage as a solo parent, because I don’t have a second parent who can care for my baby at home while I am on the road.
Mindful Return: How did you address these challenges?
Masha: I was lucky to find an amazing in-home daycare with lovely staff and wonderful facilities. I was originally on the waiting list. But, I found that calling once a week during my leave to express that I was still interested and get to know the director a little helped me find out as soon as a space opened up and secure it. Except for a week at the height of her separation anxiety phase, my baby is always happy to go to daycare. And it’s great to see the staff and other kids so happy to see her each day.
Pumping is still a daily challenge. I have had to get used to the idea of telling my team that I’m taking their offices to pump when I’m on campus. And I have had to get comfortable changing into my pumping bra in various parking lots and gas stations all over the DC/Baltimore area. I’ve also set up my pump in my car, so I can pump while driving on I-95 at 65 miles an hour, if I cannot manage to find a good place or time to pump indoors. If you see me mostly topless on the interstate, feel free to wave!
As for travel, my parents are willing to have my daughter stay with them while I travel. My daughter is so bonded with me, though, that I don’t feel like that’s possible at this point. Especially when she’s so young.
My mother was also willing to travel with me to care for my daughter in my hotel room. But not only is it expensive for me to purchase a second ticket for her, it was also going to be difficult for my mother to pick her up and otherwise care for her all day on her own, because of some physical limitations.
My first work trip is at the end of January. I’m bringing my daughter with me and have found a daycare with a vacancy that is willing to take her for a reasonable fee. I sent an email to all my female colleagues at that location to ask if anyone would visit the daycare for me to see if they would feel comfortable leaving their baby there. I’m really hoping it works out well, but I’ve put more thought and effort into this one trip that I used to for dozens of trips cumulatively.
Mindful Return: Was there anything your employer did that was helpful to your own transition into working parenthood?
Masha: My employer is very understanding and flexible. And my boss has told me several times that he understands that my daughter is my first priority and that he supports that. Not only does my company allow me to work from home when I am not on campus, but they also gave me time to get used to my daughter’s being in daycare before going back to visiting my campuses.
It was so helpful to be able to get the daycare drop-off and pick-up routines down without the stress of getting to another work location. That allowed me and my daughter some nice relaxed mornings, when we could play and cuddle before I had to take her to daycare. It also gave me the chance to figure out how to pump three or four times a day in my home, without adding the stress of trying to accomplish that in several different locations.
Mindful Return: How can employers be more thoughtful and supportive of working moms like you?
Masha: I cannot tell you how much I appreciate my employer’s flexibility. It has made a world of difference for me.
While my team has been understanding and supportive, I know other SMBCs whose colleagues have been less so.
My biggest recommendation when there is a conflict within the team is to talk to other members to set expectations for women like me. Because we have less support, and thus less flexibility, it can sometimes appear like we are getting special treatment. This feeling can create resentment.
So the solution is to be transparent. Educate the whole team about whatever arrangements have been made, that this employee was allowed to tele-work, or flex their hours. And say that it’s because as an employer, you want to support your employees in their home lives as well as their work lives. Let them know that working for an employer who has that value is beneficial to the whole team at different points in their careers. And let them know that any complaints about it would not be productive.
Because we have fewer financial resources and less support, providing a backup care benefit would be extremely helpful for solo parents. I don’t want to leave my company in the lurch when my baby is sick or daycare closes unexpectedly. But I don’t have many other options. I can’t take my sick baby to my parents’ home, because she would probably infect my mother who has health issues and would likely end up with bronchitis as a result. But at the same time, I have days at work that I simply cannot miss. Like when over twenty people fly in from all over the country for me to train them on our software package. Backup care takes a lose-lose situation and makes it a win-win.
Offering a health plan that includes fertility coverage for all types of families also makes a big difference when SMBCs are trying to build their families and go back to work. While undergoing treatment, it’s incredibly stressful to be constantly worried that you will run out of money for treatment before you have been able to achieve a viable pregnancy. And parenting as a SMBC would be much easier if you hadn’t depleted your savings paying for fertility treatments. Like many of these suggestions, this is also a wonderful benefit for partnered employees building their families, whether they are LGBTQ families or opposite sex couples experiencing infertility.
Breastfeeding support for lactating parents is not unique to SMBCs, but it was such a significant and difficult part of my return to work, that it’s also worth mentioning. There are a few concrete steps an employer can take to support breastfeeding:
- Make sure your health insurance provider is supportive of breastfeeding. My employer’s plan is a grandfathered plan and so is excluded from many of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act. Because the plan is grandfathered, they do not provide a breast pump in most situations or cover visits with lactation consultants. Having a successful breastfeeding experience is very important to many parents returning to work and has so many health benefits for babies, that all employers interested in supporting new parents should ensure adequate coverage for these expenses.
- Work out the logistics of pumping for your employees, so everything is taken care of when they return to work. You may not be able to provide a perfect lactation space with a hospital grade pump, cold bottled water, refrigerator space, and a recliner. But you can make sure that the new parents themselves don’t have to be the ones trying to work out the plan. Even something as simple as the following can help: “Please let us know if you have a better idea, but we’ve worked out that you can pump in Joe’s office in the mornings, Brian’s office at lunch, and Seth’s office in the afternoons. Please try to give them five minutes notice that you’re on your way.” You can even go a little further by giving them a pumping survival kit when they return to work. Include a doorstop to prevent people from walking in, signs that inform people that there is no entry to these spaces, and some bleach wipes to clean their pumping surfaces.
Another thing employers can do is to talk to their new parents and ask if their preferences for recognition have changed. Whereas before, I might have liked a kind word in front of others or a card, now money and time are far more important to me. If I exceeded expectations in some way and my supervisor gave me an afternoon off, I’d be able to take the car in for service without having to manage a miserable baby in the waiting room for hours; wash, fold and organize the next size of baby clothes in the dresser; catch up on housework, or any number of other things that I have to get done without any help from a partner. Alternately, if I got a small bonus and could pay for a babysitter and have a night out or contribute to my daughter’s 529, it would mean more to me now than before I became an SMBC.
Finally, our relationships with our colleagues are still important to us. While we may not be able to afford a babysitter to go out to happy hour or grab dinner after a meeting, please keep inviting us. Even if we have to say no, a simple, “I know you probably have other obligations, but we’d love for you to join us for dinner if you’re able to come” means a lot.
Mindful Return: Are there any skills you’ve gained as a working mama that you think are also helpful in the workplace?
Masha: Yes! Before I had my daughter I sometimes allowed my perfectionist tendencies to run rampant. It wasn’t uncommon for me to frustrate myself and others trying to format a PowerPoint presentation exactly perfect, going through dozens of revisions, when it actually looked great at version seven. Because my time is so limited, I’ve learned to focus on the things that matter in the big picture. Which has made me more efficient and (I hope) more pleasant to work with.
I have also become very practiced in having multiple backup plans in mind for when things do not go perfectly, which happens frequently in our field. Now I am usually able to handle those eventualities better, which has been helpful to my colleagues and to me.
Finally, I have learned to appreciate stability far more. There are so many demands on my time, that anything I can keep running smoothly and predictably is incredible valuable. I think this makes me a more loyal employee, because I appreciate what I have so much more.
Mindful Return: Anything else you’d like us to know?
Masha: Just one thing. While we chose to have our children without a partner and knew it would be hard, we still need emotional support to get through it sometimes. Just like a friend or colleague who is studying for an advanced degree or training for a marathon might need to vent about how hard those challenges are, we need to be able to complain in a safe space as well. I really appreciate the people in my life who listen and support me. And especially those who do so without reminding me that I chose to be a single mom.
Masha Sapper has managed public-private partnerships at the University Delaware and Old Dominion University. She currently supervises student housing communities at several different Universities. Masha earned a BS in Mathematics and a BS in Mathematics Secondary Education from the University of Maryland, College Park. She currently lives in Wheaton, Maryland with her ten month old daughter.
If you need more help getting your head in a better place to return to work after maternity leave, join us for the next session of Mindful Return.
Want more practical tips on working parenthood? Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave.