Susan’s Story – Climbing High: on Single Motherhood and Social Mobility

Work-Life Balance Profile #9: Susan*

Introducing Susan, the subject of my latest Work-Life Balance Profile.

Having come across my blog on social media, Susan approached me to share her perspective on finding balance as the single mother of two children, one of whom has particularly demanding needs. The story I unearthed about social mobility, however, proved to be just as insightful, and something that has impacted significantly on her work and life values and choices.

In order to preserve her true identity, her name and some of the details of her story have been omitted or changed. The rest, however, is a true account.

I was touched by Susan’s reaction to my draft write-up of her interview. She wrote to me: “It is such a unique experience to read my life story so well-written and understood by someone else”.

I was motivated to start my ‘Work-Life Balance Profiles’ series in order to give voice to people like Susan who, neither rich nor famous, are balancing their time at work with other things in their lives, and not usually celebrated or invited to showcase their accomplishments. Susan hopes that others may find it helpful to read about someone that has never given up, however “up against it” they’ve been. And so do I.

Work : Life Ratio

40:60 (Pre-Covid)
10:90 (During Covid)

*The names and some details have been changed for confidentiality purposes

On an average day, Susan wakes up around 5.00am to fit a couple of hours of work in before her children wake up and need preparing for school. The school run takes the best part of two hours, after which she is back at her kitchen table ready to start working again.

A self-employed freelance literary agent, there is constant pressure on Susan to retain and acquire contracts. She is a single mother and her income is supplemented only sporadically by unreliable maintenance payments from her ex-husband, a source of constant anxiety and frustration that casts a shadow over her whole life.

When given the chance, she enjoys the simple pleasures of having time to herself, like taking a walk or enjoying a moment of quiet calm in nature. She doesn’t have much interest in material things and doesn’t miss indulging in the luxury purchases that she used to be able to afford when she was married and working full-time.

Susan says that she finds it difficult to switch off from the pressures and demands in her life, and turns down opportunities to exercise or take up hobbies. Coronavirus notwithstanding, she is content with her 40:60 work:life balance ratio; “I would not want to work any more hours”, she told me, as this arrangement enables her to provide her children with the care they need. “I like stopping work at 2.30pm and spending the rest of the day with the kids”.

That said, her career and earning potential are limited by her situation, which she finds frustrating, financially terrifying and lacking in the consistency and stability she desires: “If I didn’t have to look after my children single-handedly, I’d be earning as much as my ex-husband and would be able to live much more comfortably”, she shared.  

The responsibility of being a single mother influences all of Susan’s work and life values and decisions: “I have no choice. I feel like my options are limited”, she told me. The pandemic has impacted her in multiple ways, making it even harder than usual to find balance in her life. It has thrown open new career opportunities, however, and that shines some optimism on an otherwise bleak situation.

Dream small, little girl

As a young girl growing up in Hampshire, Susan was given no encouragement to continue her education after GCSEs. Her parents enrolled her in evening secretarial college from the age of fourteen, telling her that a grounding in typing would serve her well. So, by day, she was a school girl working towards her GCSEs; and by night she was preparing for her prospects to be stunted by cutting short her academic career. She left school the summer after her exams and a matter of weeks later, was working and earning a wage.

When Susan’s schoolteachers discovered that she was leaving school at the age of sixteen, they were horrified. She clearly showed promise and had the potential to do well at A-Levels and even go on to Higher Education. But there was no convincing her family, and I don’t think anyone tried. As though on a conveyor belt, Susan found herself placed on a path that would take her away from the school life she had enjoyed and at which she had excelled. Little did she know that missing out on gaining the qualifications that had potentially lay ahead would haunt her for the rest of her life and influence her work and life values and choices from thereon.

I’m starting with this part of Susan’s story, because it spells out the powerful forces working against her before she probably even knew what a “career path” was. Her parents’ actions were not ill-intentioned; they were simply preparing their daughter for the world that they knew. They were, Susan described, a “working class” couple: her father left school at fourteen and worked as a tradesman; her mother had wanted to be a teacher, however, she opted to be a stay-at-home-mother until Susan went to secondary school. She started working later in life, never earning more than the minimum wage.

Though there were few role models for her to aspire to growing up, Susan instinctively felt frustrated by the limitations imposed on her and couldn’t shake the restless feeling that that she wanted more.

“I shouldn’t be here”

“Social mobility” is one of the buzz words of our generation, and a challenge that many governments and organisations grapple with to overcome inequalities, and make educational institutions and workplaces more diverse and inclusive. The younger Susan is an example of the untapped potential that “social mobility” agendas seek to address; a person for whom opportunities were either unknown, unattainable, or out of scope due to lack of awareness, qualifications or a crippling sense of inferiority and presumption of exclusion.

Starting out as a secretary in a publishing house, Susan was stuck for years in junior administrative roles, while her contemporaries entered the profession as undergraduates on higher starting salaries, and promoted up the ranks.

Until interviewing Susan, I hadn’t really considered how clumsy the term “social mobility” is. Being socially “mobile” implies a degree of fluidity of movement between social classes (however those are defined these days). Of course, in reality, the desired trajectory is usually only ever upwards, and from Susan’s description, such movement is far from fluid; it is a climb of mountaineering proportions: some paths are closed off outright as you lack the basic requirements for entry; and to find the confidence, resilience and opportunity to keep knocking on doors and clawing your way “up” is a continual uphill struggle. Then, once you’ve “arrived”, the ground is not always steady underfoot; there is a cultural acclimatising to adjust to that can starve you of oxygen and snuff out your spirit if left unchecked.

Susan eventually beat the odds and managed to rise the ranks of her profession by a mix of sheer determination, supportive mentors and hard fought self-belief. Doing so, required overcoming outright discrimination and sexual harassment as well as battling with her own self-doubt. She described how demeaning she found it to be expected to wear a skirt because of her secretary status; and the humiliation of having to pander to specific tea requests by groups of grown men in suits.

I heard the former children’s television presenter Baroness Floella Benjamin once wisely say that “a childhood lasts a lifetime”. Your childhood experiences, education and culture stays with you as you journey through your adult life. Susan attests to this in her story of “social mobility”: however much social “movement” she aspired to, and attained, her childhood voice stayed with her, impacting negatively on her confidence, self-esteem and hindering her sense of fitting in, as – to keep with the mountaineering metaphor – she sought to acclimatise to new heights.

In her mind, Susan felt sure that she was as capable, if not more, than her demanding seniors. She took a punt one day and entered uninvited to her boss’ office to put forward a suggestion for one of the company’s most valued clients. It turns out she was right: she could do the job as well as her seniors, and this was proven by her suggestion being picked up and ran with.

Yet, this is not a straightforward rags-to-riches kind of story. Her female boss decided to present the idea as her own. And Susan remained the secretary, too intimidated to seek credit or promotion. She describes how out of place she felt being surrounded by people with degrees from Durham and Oxford Universities: “it didn’t take much for me to be put back in my box”. 

Despite being lauded for her contribution to the business, she was excluded from client meetings, her bosses preferring instead to showcase to their clients the biographies of those employees with first class honours degrees.

Nevertheless, Susan’s persistent drive was relentless. When probed, she couldn’t say why or where that drive came from; she just knew that she wasn’t fulfilling her potential as a secretary. I got the sense that her schoolteachers’ horror at her leaving school at sixteen remained with her as a signal that she could achieve more. Without the educational backing, however, she had to go it alone. And for Susan this meant leaving her home town, despite her parents’ protestations that she should stay, and heading to the big smoke of London town to seek a more prosperous future.

However, even when she did start making strides with her career, Susan continued feeling out of place. “I shouldn’t be here”, she would tell herself; and would never contemplate demanding a promotion, pay rise or bonuses. “My confidence did not rise at the same rate as my mobility”, she told me, and that imposter syndrome, to this day, remains.

Breaking cycles

Are you ok mummy?”. Susan mentioned in passing her daughter’s awareness of the stresses she is under, for example observing her mother’s brow over the top of the lap top lid, furrowed with anxiety as she checks her finances. In response Susan breaks into a forced smile, repeating what she told me is her usual response: “Oh, it’s just grown-up stuff. It’ll be gone in the morning”.

‘Forced smiling’ seems to be something Susan has become accustomed to as a means of reassuring her children that she has their lives under control. She is mindful not to let on how financially precarious their situation is; and she shields them from some of her nastier interactions with her ex-husband and his family that may hurt them.

Her anxiety and sadness are buried deep beneath the forced smile and I am left imagining it as a suppressed ball of energy swirling within her with no outlet.

Susan says that she had an inkling before she married her ex-husband that the marriage would fail. She knew that she was entering into the relationship in the hope that it might gain the approval of her parents, where her other achievements had failed; had worried that she might not find anyone better. She saw herself entering the marriage pattern that her parents had set and, as though on a conveyor belt again, allowed herself to be carried along by it. Her priority was to be married. Little did she know that she was entering a relationship that would make her deeply unhappy.

After having children, there was an unspoken assumption that Susan would give up her hard-fought career to look after the children. Susan did not fight to preserve her career. Part of her, she says, felt relieved: “I had an excuse to stop doing it before someone found me out”.

It doesn’t help that Susan has long connected money to her sense of self-worth. She describes that her parents were not very demonstrative, capable of expressing affection more through occasional cash hand-outs than saying “I love you”. Similarly, during her marriage she grew to associate the money she received from her husband with her value; consequently, his refusal to pay for their children’s costs now continually erodes her self-esteem, “I need to be financially independent of him”, she told me.

It is plain to see that there are some repetitive patterns snaking through Susan’s story: uneducated parents, uneducated daughter; and mother, then daughter, setting aside potential career trajectories to raise their children. Susan feels that she has gained clarity of these in recent years and she is resolute – however many forced smiles it takes, and regardless of how much it skews the balance in her own life – that the cycles will stop, that she will be a positive role model for her children and that they will get the opportunities that she missed out on, setting them up for a better future.

All the single ladies, put your hand up!

One couldn’t possibly seek to understand the balance that Susan strikes between her work and all else in her life without taking account of her being a single mother. During our interview, Susan went into the granular detail of how this affects her ability to find balance, and I felt humbled to hear the wide-reaching impact of single motherhood, realising in turn the security that comes as part and parcel of being married with children, which are easy to take for granted.

I imagine that for many households with children – particularly during lockdown – the idea of being left in quiet solitude while one partner takes the children away for a weekend sounds pretty blissful. Yet, of course, there is so much more at play for divorced couples than some welcome peace and quiet.

Some of Susan’s married girlfriends try to empathise, at times drawing comparisons with the single mothers’ predicament while their husbands work long hours. They mean well, Susan told me, but they don’t know the half of it. Even if your husband is out working long hours, you still have the security of his income contributing to paying the bills; it’s not all on you. And you also have other long-term financial safety nets, such as insurances, inheritance and pensions, that you might eventually need to fall back on, or enjoy later in life. As a single mother, all of that is stripped away and, in Susan’s case, she bears sole responsibility to provide for herself and her children, a predicament she understandably finds quite terrifying.

The magnitude of this responsibility seems to override Susan’s capacity for anything more than survival. It makes sense that she does not have any energy or inclination to indulge in any interests outside of work for her own sake, though she may well benefit from doing so. I imagine that this is an incredibly hard-going rhythm to sustain, with little respite.

With her dogged determination, it stands to reason that brighter days lie ahead for Susan. After the interruptions of Coronavirus lockdowns, which have constrained Susan’s time to work, her freelance business is back on track for 2021 and, ever resourceful, she has plans to develop her offering to increase her income further.

The first step in finding her balance, it seems, would be to give herself permission to prioritise her own physical and mental well-being needs over those that she cares for.

In the good old pre-Coronavirus days, when taking a flight was commonplace, the instruction would regularly play out that you should put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. Grounded in lockdown as we all now are, I think something in that that still holds true, especially for self-reliant people like Susan, who are in it for the long haul, and need all the oxygen they can get to keep on climbing.

If any of the issues raised in this post relate to your situation, feel free to comment below. If you’re interested in being featured in the Work-Life Balance Profiles series – or would like to nominate someone you know to share their story – please get in touch.

You can follow my blogging journal on Instagram @afinebalance_blog, or subscribe for updates at www.a-fine-balance.com.

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