Single mothers represent 85% of the 2 million single-parent families in France. Victims of a double glass ceiling, they remained invisible for a long time. Now they are determined to make their voices heard and defend their rights.
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âWe have the impression that you are losing your motivation. These words fell like a ton of bricks on Emmanuelle Hutin, Parisian 41 years old and single mother of two children.
At the time her manager made this comment, she was working as an executive at a famous luxury company. A few weeks earlier, she had missed a leadership training workshop because she had to take her severely epileptic son to the hospital.
âAs soon as something urgent happens, we are suspected of being disloyal,â she said.
Yet in France, where single mothers represent 85% of all single-parent families, there is nothing exceptional about âsomething urgentâ arising. That’s why Ms. Hutin had to say ânoâ to new projects, trips to Asia and late meetings. They are impossible to integrate when you have the exclusive care of the children and you have to work evenings and weekends to meet deadlines and ensure you earn the rewards and bonuses essential to the survival of the family.
âThe perspective of work is changing. It is no longer a question of personal development, âshe explains. âTo be a single mother is to find yourself facing a double glass ceiling. To grow professionally, you have to network, make yourself visible, find the time to build relationships. We are not equipped for this battle.
She left her job on good terms in 2018, determined to regain her freedom and the elusive time she had so missed. She was able to devote herself to her son, Solal, who died of an illness in 2019, at the age of 14.
Now independent artistic director and yoga teacher, she has just published a book, âLa grenadeâ (La Grenade, Editions Stock, March 2021). It is the story of a family, couple and professional life which, after a breakup, needs to be rebuilt in another form.
A DOUBLE BURDEN
“Single mothers are always burdened with a huge stigma because they are supposed to be less ambitious, less available and less invested,” says Jennifer Petriglieri, associate professor of organizational behavior at the European Institute of Business Administration in Fontainebleau near Paris.
At work, they are subjected to everything every mother is used to, but to a greater degree – and in silence. Because if they admit to having problems, they say they risk being put aside.
âOur studies show that the best way to break this taboo in a work environment is to encourage male executives to talk about their lives as parents,â she adds. “If they do, everyone thinks they can do it too.”
Another key issue is flexibility. Single or not, every parent sometimes needs to go to the pediatrician in the middle of the afternoon or to pick up their children from school, even if it means working from home afterwards.
In some cases, the novel coronavirus pandemic has allowed for more flexibility, but only time will tell if this will last.
âWe have to let go of short-term thinking,â says Ms. Petriglieri. âTwo years after a separation, things get easier. But during the transition period, the support of an employer is vital. This is when women quit their jobs.
A PRECARIOUS WORLD
The risk is to be permanently excluded from the labor market.
In France, 15% of single mothers are unemployed, more than double the rate of those in a couple.
For single mothers with two children, the rate jumps to 33 percent. Worse yet: only 50% of people with a child under 3 have a job, according to the National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies.
Single mothers who are employed are twice as likely to be part-time as mothers who are are together, have a relationship.
Thus, a third of single-parent families live below the poverty line. Hence the idea, defended by the French association Le Laboratoire de l’ÃgalitÃ©, that each company creates a solidarity fund for single mother employees.
âIt would help them go on vacation or pay for a babysitter while they attend training or take driving lessons,â explains Corinne Hirsch, vice-president of the association.
Another idea, supported this time by journalist Nathalie Bourrus, former war correspondent and author of “Solos mothers, the forgetful ones of the Republic” is to “us (single mothers) cards like those we have for large families, which offer discounts.
Even some higher income single mothers would benefit, as the standard of living drops dramatically after a separation.
Julie Denes, author of â(De) charge Mental (Mental (Un) loadâ published by Michalon in 2019 and founder of the Mindset publishing house, knows this from experience. She was at the time a lawyer and employee.
âI ended up with 150 euros ($ 182, or 20,180 yen) in my savings account, having to go without dinner so that my children could eat three meals a day. Not to mention the constant stress. The walls of my house were covered with post-it notes, because the thought of forgetting something terrified me.
Divorce also means moving, often to a smaller house, further away from the workplace. Travel time increases – leaving even less time to work, sleep and live, causing constant fatigue, compounded by feelings of guilt for not doing enough or not doing things well enough.
âWe feel the need to always be on top of our game, so that the children have a good time, eat what they like. It’s a lot of pressure, âsays Ms. Hutin. âThese women feel like the naughty parent, the one associated with authority, homework, brushing their teeth. And the children rub shoulders with it by saying things like: “it’s more fun at daddy”, explains ClÃ©mence Prompsy, psychologist and co-founder of the Parisian child psychology firm Kidz and Family. “It creates a lot of sadness.”
How can they, under these circumstances, carve out the time and presence of mind to have a life of their own and build a career?
LIGHTENING THE LOAD
âFor their sake and that of their children, they urgently need to let go and feel carefree again,â says Ms. Prompsy.
âNeighbors and other relatives can be their best allies around if they take the time to get to know them and make friends. If they have children, parents can breathe while the little ones play.
They create a support network, taking turns to take care of each other’s children. Many organizations are already operating on this basis, such as the French association Rsseau Mom’artre, which brings together around fifteen nurseries and extracurricular clubs which offer welcome services based on artistic and cultural education.
It also allows parents to get to know each other, support each other and meet sleep specialists and nutritionists. This type of assistance is all the more important because the French government has been slow to act.
Single mothers were among the first yellow vests, a vast movement of social protest that shook France for many months in 2017. Last May, the French National Assembly unanimously adopted a bill proposed by the French government. majority MP Marie-Pierre Rixain who aims to guarantee single mothers access to vocational training and priority places in nurseries.
Ms. Rixain also hopes that in the future, the number of âhybridâ crÃ¨ches combining childcare and professional support for parents, currently 180, will increase.
The adoption of this law is a first step. But nothing will change for good unless parenting is more fairly shared. Ensuring that maintenance payments are met and that fathers take an active role in raising their children remain the main challenges in making a real difference – for the good of all.
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This article is published as part of âTowards Equalityâ, an international and collaborative initiative bringing together 15 international media outlets to highlight challenges and solutions to achieving gender equality. The Asahi Shimbun is participating in this campaign led by Sparknews.