By Sophia Steinhorn
I can barely even conceptualize most of my early childhood, but I can recall the comfort of my brief–but memorable–two parent, middle class upbringing. I remember my father coming home from work and going on long bike rides. I remember swimming and putting on talent shows in the backyard with my sister. I remember my mother making us chocolate chip pancakes in the morning. These memories seem trivial to me as I recount them today, but when my nuclear family became a single parent household, these were the pastimes I wished for. At eight years old, I felt the sting of my parents’ divorce, and it was only later that would I learn I was immensely shielded from the deep personal and economic hardships my mother endured during that time.
Once my dad moved out, it felt like my mom, my sister and me against the world. The divorce not only led to selling our home and moving into an apartment, but it also meant my mother would have to re-enter the workforce after an almost ten-year hiatus, and without a college degree. I watched her comb the web for administrative opportunities, complete odd jobs for friends, and subject herself to difficult work environments to maintain our standard of living. When we reconvened at the dinner table each night, I could see the mental and physical toll of these new financial responsibilities. Her clothes were baggier, her under-eye circles were darker and her smile was less vibrant, but she always managed to protect me and my sister from the severity of our circumstance.
After three years living paycheck to paycheck, we moved an hour away to follow a potentially lucrative job opportunity. We packed up our life and settled into a friend’s guest house, where the living room doubled as our bedroom. We played Tetris with our jackets, dresses and shoes to fit all our clothing inside a small hall closet. Every day started with a scramble for the bathroom amenities and ended with my mom, my sister, and I falling asleep beside each other in our king bed. Our lack of personal space and square footage reflected our financial limitations, even with my mom putting in twelve-hour days, and I became accustomed to seeing her overworked and worried. I missed the carefreeness of our chocolate chip pancake mornings.
One day after school, my mom, my sister, and I veered from our daily routine and picked up lunch at our favorite fast food place. My mom seemed more quiet than usual, and her large, tinted sunglasses hid the full scope of her emotions. As I sat in the front seat feverishly scarfing down my fries, I turned to see tears falling down her cheeks. When I asked her what was wrong, she deflected my question and quickly wiped her eyes. Soon after I would learn that her potentially lucrative job opportunity did not go as planned: after almost a year of overtime hours, she was shut out from the business and forced into unemployment again. My mother cried because she knew she would have to uproot our lives again, and she couldn’t help but feel her sacrifices had amounted to nothing. I felt heavy when my mother cried, and I desired a more tangible way I could ease her pain. After years of instability, personal and economic success seemed virtually unattainable for a single working mother.
Our life there was short and difficult, yet I’ve always considered it a transformative moment for my mother and our family, perhaps more so than my parents’ divorce. Years later, when we were past the thick of our financial troubles, my mother explained to me that the pain from her divorce and professional challenges was almost crippling, but the motivation to provide for me and my sister was paramount. When we settled back in back home, I saw her move forward with laudable perseverance and relentless motivation. As most single parents in America do, she still works two jobs to make ends meet, but she’s also been operating a successful business for almost ten years. Laughter and wisdom have replaced her worried looks and hopeless feelings, and she speaks about the future with a contagious joy. When I visit home, mornings are filled with chocolate chip pancakes again.
I’ve carried the inspiration of my mother’s journey into my daily endeavors, personal developments, and career aspirations. From her, I drew the motivation to pursue higher education and achieve the independence she could only accomplish later in life. I enrolled at UCSB with a bright-eyed optimism, driven by the belief that education was the antidote to economic instability. Over the past four years I’ve spent hours reading about communication concepts, improving my writing techniques, and developing transferrable professional skills. But of all the theories and phenomena I’ve studied during my college career, I have most importantly come to understand that the struggles of my upbringing were a product of institutional gender inequities, rather than educational barriers or individual misfortune.
My mother’s story is not uncommon. Single mothers and everyday women are constantly subjected to systems structured against their financial and personal interests. We are still beholden to domestic expectations, discouraged from pursuing professional endeavors, and penalized when we cannot fully excel at both. We are still grossly underrepresented in academics, business, politics and law, despite being the largest voting population in the United States today. Through my mother, I saw these barriers, but I also saw ability: the ability of women to persevere, rebuild and thrive.
As I came to understand the national implications of the gender divide, I also found my place in an informal collective of aspiring activists who have either witnessed or felt the effects of the female double-burden. Whether they grew up with a single mother, struggled with imposter syndrome or confronted blatantly sexist work environments, all of the women I encountered in my personal, academic and professional lives had a similar anecdote to share about the male-centric systems that limited them. Hearing their stories and feeling their likeness to my own fostered my growing frustrations but, more importantly, it increased my willingness to channel this acute attention to women’s inequity into tangible action in the civic sphere. Whether through writing, filmmaking or non-profit advocacy, I intend to invoke the power of public storytelling and expose these cases of institutional inequality so we can dispel the notion that females have come far enough. By telling and re-telling these narratives of struggle and resiliency, I aim to join the millions of women contributing to this conversation so our collective voice drowns the noise of those who doubt our capacities.
I often wonder how my upbringing might have been different if the pervasiveness of the gender divide was expressed and publicized years earlier. I like to imagine the double-bind women experience is addressed and reflected through innovative and robust legislation. I like to imagine federal childcare programs are well-funded and paid maternity leave extends beyond six weeks. I like to imagine women are mentored in professional environments and given viable advancement opportunities, without having to sacrifice their familial stability. I like to imagine a political and social landscape that is kinder to women like my mom, one that rewards female agency and fosters female leadership. I hope my civic efforts will give rise to these idealizations. I hope I can raise my future daughter in this world, and I hope I can raise her half as well as my mother raised me.