American Moms: Unsung Heroes of a Bad Economy

Mothers, hard-hit by the economy, are working to sustain their families.

Lilly Dong

In a new study on American families released today, the toll of tough times is painfully clear. “Parents across groups express strong feelings of frustration and disappointment with how things are going for people like them today,” says the report, which was commissioned by Ascend, the family economic security program at the Aspen Institute.

“They believe politicians are just fighting and completely out of touch. They are burdened financially—living paycheck to paycheck—as well as by the demands on their time from work and family. They are also attempting to attain the elusive goal of a sliver of leisure for themselves and a little extra for their families,” reports the study, Toward a Two-Generation Strategy: Voices of American Families. “They believe the economy is bad with no recovery in sight and it is making things worse for them in terms of wages, benefits and cost of living.”

Such findings won’t surprise the millions of hard-pressed American parents who are struggling to support their families while juggling economic demands that often are exacerbated by the financial stresses of the holiday season.

And yet many families remain acutely aware of how fortunate they are to be managing at all; no matter what their challenges, they all know people with worse problems, and looking on the bright side is deeply ingrained in the American psyche.

As a 32-year-old new mother, Amelia Mattocks is on duty around the clock these days. Her baby awakes between 5 and 6 a.m., but by then she’s already gotten up to breastfeed him every two or three hours during the night—a practice that helps her economize, but doesn’t do much for her sleep.

As her husband, Jake, heads out to run with a buddy, the next couple of hours whiz by in a blur while Mattocks breastfeeds again, prepares brown-bag lunches for herself and Jake to take to work (another money-saving strategy), prepares the cloth diapers she washes every night instead of using expensive disposables, and gets ready to leave the house, a modest beige bungalow in a middle-class neighborhood of Greensboro, N.C.

Then comes a flurry of activity as friends drop off their own infant and the babysitter—whose cost is shared by both families—arrives to take charge of the children. By 9 a.m., Mattocks has bicycled to her job (gas is expensive, so she tries not to drive) and plunged into a day of making gingerbread men and colorfully-iced sugar cookies for the Spring Garden Bakery and Coffeehouse, a beloved local institution. She enjoys working there, but the $8-an-hour salary leaves her scrounging to pay the bills.

Such pinched circumstances are not what Mattocks expected to encounter after earning a master’s degree in public health—a field that was flourishing four years ago, when she decided to get the degree, but has since been hard-hit by budget cutbacks.

“I’ve been looking since April, applying to jobs that are near us because we don’t think we could sell our house or afford to buy something else if we relocated,” she explains. “I’ve had a few interviews, but no job offers. There are a lot of people in public health looking for work; the government has let people go, so the market is extremely saturated. You would think things would get better with a master’s degree, but they actually got worse for us, because I lost my monthly stipend as a graduate assistant.”

Her husband, an Army Reserves veteran who served a total of two years in Iraq, was working toward a degree in digital art design until financial pressures forced him to take a purchasing job at a computer company. “After the baby came, we just couldn’t afford for him to do school right now,” says Mattocks, who delivered little Oscar last spring. “We’re waiting to get back on our feet to get Jake back in school.”

Their financial liabilities include a mortgage, student loans, credit card debt, and medical expenses incurred in childbirth. “But there are so many people that are worse off; a lot of people in Greensboro are out of work,” Mattocks says. “We’re doing okay, although we’ve had to borrow a little bit of money from our parents. I am very frugal, and we work hard to live within our means. We don’t buy diapers; we don’t buy formula. We get cheap baby clothes at the thrift stores, because the baby is growing so fast. I cook most of our meals from scratch, and I make all of our bread and pizza dough. We’re just trying to get by.”

But the money crunch has deferred their hopes of having another child soon. “We’re going to have to be better off before that can happen,” Mattocks acknowledges.

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In the meantime, she tries to stay optimistic. “I go up and down,” she admits. “Some days I’m like, ‘We’re fine!’ Other days I think we’re never going to make it. But we will make it. Maybe the jobs I didn’t get weren’t the right fit, and the job I do get will be the right fit. I just have to be patient.”

As the economy continues to sputter, women all over the country are sharing similar money worries and employment frustrations, along with their own struggles to remain upbeat about the future. Despite widespread hardship, many feel that their leaders have barely noticed, let alone done anything about their problems.

When Michele Bachmann—the only woman running for president—addressed “moms across this country” in one Republican debate, she noted the high rates of unemployment, home foreclosure and financial stress burdening American families today. “Hold on, moms!” she urged.

But Bachmann’s remarks only underscored how little attention the male candidates have paid to women’s concerns; although women suffer a disproportionate share of the nation’s economic woes, that fact has scarcely been mentioned in this campaign.

The latest Census data revealed that 42 percent more women than men now live in poverty—and among those over 65, twice as many women live in poverty, compared with men. Single mothers are particularly vulnerable; more than 40 percent of their families are poor, and more than half of all poor children live in female-headed households.

In a recession whose initial impact focused attention mainly on men, mothers have become the unsung heroes of many families as they struggle valiantly to cope with daunting responsibilities in a time of circumscribed job options. These days, women often view a decent job and an employed husband as if such good luck were tantamount to winning the lottery.

In Wabash, Indiana, Casey Sausaman is an office manager for the water-service company where her husband works as an industrial engineer. They have four children, including a 28-year-old daughter with severe disabilities who will never be able to live independently. But Sausaman certainly isn’t feeling sorry for herself. “We just shake our heads sometimes and say how fortunate we are, because we have two good jobs,” says Sausaman, who is 49. “We cannot believe how blessed we are not to be struggling like some people are.”

Around the country, hard-working moms speak of cultivating gratitude for what they do have instead of complaining about what they lack. “It’s all about perception,” says Tianne Ricks, a 35-year-old African-American mother with four children, a husband who recently was laid off from his job in a warehouse, and an 82-year-old father with dementia.

“It is a lot, I will admit; at times it can be very overwhelming,” acknowledges Ricks, who lives near Trenton, N.J. and works as a project coordinator for a pharmaceutical company. “Attitude plays a major part in how you get through it. We had a point several years ago where we reached rock bottom financially; my husband and I were both unemployed and we had to go on welfare. But then I had a moment of revelation, and I learned how to look at my life as a glass being half full, rather than half empty. We didn’t allow our situation to keep us down; we fought hard to rise above it. Sometimes I ask older women how they do it, and they say, ‘You just do what you have to do.’”

In Helena, Montana, Jennifer Massman also contends with a combination of personal and financial challenges. The mother of a 7-year-old son and 3-year-old twin boys, Massman works for state government as a lawyer in a civil service job. Her husband is a project manager for the Montana Department of Revenue. Despite their steady jobs, money is tight.

“Our pay has been frozen for three years, and in the meantime everything else keeps going up,” says Massman, who is 42. “Day care takes a huge bite, utilities are high, and the price of gas is high. You think you’re going to get a little ahead, but then you need car repairs, or your refrigerator dies. Life happens. The 3-year-olds took apart the hand soap and flushed the top of it down the toilet, so then the toilet didn’t work and we had to get it fixed. We’re probably about two paychecks away from bankruptcy.”

They also are burdened with unusual medical costs. Massman’s husband suffers from a form of muscular dystrophy as well as an auto-immune disease related to rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis, and Crohn’s disease, among other conditions that recently landed him in the Mayo Clinic and require expensive medications.

“He has an infusion therapy for Crohn’s disease that costs between $6,000 and $7,000 every six weeks,” Massman reports. “He also needs hip replacement surgery, so he’s in a lot of pain a lot of the time. I worry that he won’t be able to continue to work full time. If we had to live on my salary, we’d be totally screwed. There would be no freaking way.”

The resulting stress can seem unrelenting. “I’m overwhelmed most of the time,” Massman says. “It’s really hard. I didn’t think we’d be living paycheck to paycheck in the middle-age-with-minivans-and-kids stage of life, when you’re at your maximum earning ability. It’s scary to try to figure out where you could trim things, or what you could sell. What’s a 10-year-old minivan worth? We buy a lot of stuff at Costco, and we have a freezer, and a lot of people have cattle out here, so we buy half a steer and have it butchered and keep it in the freezer, and that saves a ton of money. We’ve got to pay the day care, so we can work, so what can we put off paying, to stretch things a bit? You just take it week by week, and try to juggle.”

But Massman makes every effort to keep her problems in perspective. “You try to count the blessings you have, and appreciate them,” she says. “My cousin, who’s 40 and has Type I diabetes, had his first baby last summer, and his wife died of a brain aneurysm. That’s a horrible tragedy. My husband is probably going to be in a wheelchair, but at least my kids still have a dad.”

For families that don’t have a dad, the pressures are even greater. More than three-quarters of all custodial parents are women, but less than half of single mothers receive the full amount of child support they are owed. According to the office of Child Support Enforcement at the Department of Health and Human Services, payments in arrears totaled $110 billion for fiscal year 2010, a 2 percent increase over fiscal year 2009. More than 11.3 million cases had arrears due in 2010.

The default of deadbeat dads can inflict terrible hardships on single mothers who are left with full responsibility for raising their kids. “As far as I’m concerned, we’re all heroes,” says a New Jersey mother who hasn’t been able to collect any support from her ex-husband in many years and who is putting three children through college on her teaching salary of $48,000 a year.

The Aspen Institute report reveals that while single mothers are beset by such pressures, they too find positive aspects in even the most difficult situations. “Single mothers report tremendous challenges in their day-to-day lives from having to be solely responsible for their children,” the study said. “However they feel these challenges have made them strong and independent.”

Although marriage is often touted as the answer to such strains, particularly by conservatives, some women find it only leads to more problems. An African-American single mother with a 17-year-old adopted daughter, Monette Harrison was thrilled to get married last winter, even though she had to leave a teaching job in Indianapolis to join her new husband. “I quit my job to relocate to Alabama, because he was from Montgomery,” explains Harrison, who is 50 years old. “I really wanted my daughter to have a dad.”

But the marriage ended within months, and Harrison found herself homeless as well as unemployed. Since then she has been unable to land another teaching job. “The economy is rough, and they closed a lot of schools here; a lot of people are unemployed,” she says.

Harrison finally found a new job as a customer service representative for an outsourcing company that enables her to work from home. “The position pays a lot less than I’ve ever earned before, but I’m not discouraged by the pay; I’m encouraged by the opportunity,” she says.

Right now Harrison’s main priority is overcoming her financial problems. She has no health insurance, and her car was repossessed: “I’ve been trying to get another car since June,” she says. She is carrying school loans and credit card debt, much of it acquired when she used her own credit to help finance a construction business with a man who then abandoned the venture and left her saddled with its debts.

Although she owns her former home and her late parents’ house back in Indiana, she fell so far behind on mortgage payments that both are in danger of foreclosure. “I would love to sell them, but the housing market is so low I couldn’t get enough to pay off the mortgages,” Harrison says. “I refuse to file for bankruptcy, because it stays on your credit record, and every job I’ve ever applied for, they ask if you’ve ever filed for bankruptcy.”

And yet despite her worries, she remains resolutely upbeat, signing her emails with greetings like “Have a fabulous day!” and appending feel-good quotes from popular writers. “Monette is genuinely one of the most hopeful people I’ve ever met,” says Kris Myers, an Indianapolis school administrator who supervised Harrison during her teacher training and has remained friendly with her. “She looks at the path as always being a pretty one, and she enjoys her journey. I’ve not been tested to the level that Monette has, but when I think of her, I smile, and I don’t look at a crisis as unsolvable. It’s always: ‘This too shall pass, and there will be a way.’ I handle disappointment better because I’ve watched Monette handle disaster.”

A devout believer, Harrison credits religion with helping her to persevere. “I really live my faith; for me, that means there’s hope,” she says. “All my friends are Christians, and when I’m down, they pick me up. It doesn’t help me to feel bad; when you’re living in anger and fear, you can’t think straight. I have to face things and not fall apart. If I couldn’t hold it together, where would my child be? I look at the lesson in a situation: What am I supposed to learn?”

To help her figure that out, she puts up reminders all over her house. “I make my own little posters with inspirational sayings, with a flower border and a fancy font,” she says. “When I look at them, I count my blessings instead of my discouragements.”

The hard-won bits of wisdom sustain her, and she is happy to pass some along. “Have faith,” Harrison says. “Have a budget; know your money. Be proactive. Don’t just sit there—do something. Be persistent. Sometimes we think there’s no hope, and nothing can change, but there is a solution. Don’t stop until you find the answers. And give. Think of others. Someone is always worse off than you are, and you reap what you sow.”