She Works Hard for the Money…

Cover of Donna Summer’s single ‘She Works Hard for the Money’.

No, I clean no other toilets than my own. I only stand on my feet all day on the days when I deliver training courses and run through airports to catch my flight. I don’t usually get my bottom pinched by drunk customers, though the occasional leery look down my shirt is par for the course. I may be up all night because of jet lag or because I suddenly have to change my course at the last minute, but I don’t have to do night shifts. So I make no claims to be working as hard as the average single mother on a minimum wage job.

I also know how to count my blessings. The children are older and can do many things for themselves. I get paid reasonably well when I do work, even though the gaps between those moments are sometimes too long. Yet the precariousness of this freelance existence is brought home to me every time I fall ill or have a less than stellar experience of business travel. Let me give you an example:

I have a contract for a piece of work which pays the fixed sum of 500 euros for a day of classroom training plus a follow-up virtual session of half a day. Sounds quite good, right? Luckily, in this case, the sum was fixed in euros rather than pounds, so I am going to see a bit more £££ for my effort: 450 at the current exchange rate (which may change by the time I am paid, usually a month or two after the event).

However, that rate does not take into account the following:

  • 1 two-hour meeting with the client, 3 one-hour teleconferences, numerous emails and many hours of course design – all unpaid – I estimate about another 3-4 days of work at least.
  • While some of my travel expenses are paid for, it does not include compensation for the cancelled flight and airport parking from the previous week, when I was too ill to attend the initial course, so I am out-of-pocket to the tune of about £100.
  • For 7 1/2 hours of training, I spent 15 hours travelling, contending with flight delays and massive queues at airports. Bear in mind, this was in Europe and for a relatively short flight, but I occasionally have courses in Asia and the US.
  • Luckily, I have supportive friends who looked after the children while I was away and another friend in Geneva who housed me overnight, but if I’d had to pay for all that, the course money would probably not have covered my expenses.
This could be Rotterdam or anywhere, Geneva or Rome, 'cos Rotterdam is everywhere, everywhere alone... (lyrics from Beautiful South)
This could be Rotterdam or anywhere, Geneva or Rome, ‘cos Rotterdam is everywhere, everywhere alone… (lyrics from Beautiful South)
  • I’ve never been able to eat on the days when I deliver workshops, plus, as I age, I discover my body is less and less able to cope with the strain, the strange sleep patterns, the jet lag, the negative feedback. I usually end up with a migraine during or after such events, and am prostrate for a couple of days afterwards.
  • I don’t even get much satisfaction out of it, as quite often I cannot structure the course whichever way I please (despite the many hours of discussions and design efforts, I am only the lowly trainer-deliverer), so I’m often between a rock and a hard place when expectations are not met, the client is dissatisfied and the training provider goes on the defensive.
  • This is, to all intents and purposes, a zero hours contract: I have no idea when my services will be next required. I get sudden requests for help at short notice that I have to turn down because of the difficulty of making childcare arrangements. Flexibility may be wonderful during the children’s holidays, when I can be mostly at home with them (albeit often preparing materials or doing teleconferences). Not so wonderful however, when you have no income for 1-2 months at a time, then only a dribble the third month. Also, I have no proper pension or other form of security, no insurance, no security of any kind.
  • This is the kind of job that single people or those without children excel at. Or else those whose families are extremely supportive (or who have a Teflon nanny whom they pay in gold nuggets). Even so, I have friends who have whittled their savings account to zero during lean years (and counted themselves lucky that they did not have children to support).
This is very often the only place I see in all of my exotic locations.
This is very often the only place I see in all of my exotic locations.

By this point, that nasty, suspicious little noisy wren is turning somersaults and screeching in my ear: ‘Is it worth it? Can’t you do anything else?’ But of course I’m told everywhere that it’s too late to change career to something more bookish, that I’m over-qualified for a more administrative role, and over-specialised to do a more senior generalist position. While any other in-house training role will require just as much travel.

So forgive me this fest of self-pity. I’m actually trying to highlight a plight for many single mothers out there, regardless of what level of income they are at. Both single and ‘coupled’ mothers in many households I know have been doing the work of both parents anyway, organising complicated childcare arrangements for the times when they travel (plus handling all the laundry, housekeeping, school meetings, medical appointments and homework upon their return home), but (unlike me hitherto) there often isn’t even a reluctant someone there who could, if pushed and nagged and reminded daily, take the kids earlier one day for a school trip and maybe even remember to pack their passports or lunches.

Yet the corporate world has nothing but disdain and impatience for this ‘lack of focus’ and punishes women’s careers accordingly. The divorce courts allow more compensation for wives of millionaires who haven’t worked a day of their lives, rather than the very real loss of earnings of working women who have tried to find a balance and do the best for the sake of the family.

After all, nobody asked them for this sacrifice, right?

15 thoughts on “She Works Hard for the Money…”

  1. It’s not self-pity – it’s frustration that despite the various feminist waves of agitation we still seem to be regarded as a weaker or less important gender by some. And when the ritual sexism extends to potential presidents of the USA, you know that some things have never changed. And why is that it’s *still* the women who are expected to bear the brunt of the childcare and house care? Gah – I get angry whenever I think about it. Fortunately my daughters are staunch feminists, but I wish they had a better world to live in and fewer battles to fight.

    1. Exactly – despite being a staunch feminist, and starting off with equal division of labour, once the children come along and when career choices are being made, it’s all too easy to slip into inequality and I see that in nearly every couple I see, regardless of how well-educated and well-qualified the women are. Still fighting those battles!

  2. I sympathize with your plight (and that of other women in a similar situation) but I am not eloquent enough to express my frustration with the ways women are treated and viewed even now in the work world. I have not personally experienced those problems in either my marriage or the working world — at least not in the last four decades. I am at retirement age but was very lucky to work in a company for decades where there really was no difference in the treatment of women vs. men. I now work in information technology and there is a gap between me and the males I work with but it is not because of my sex but because I am not willing to immerse my whole life in learning more and more about technology. Having experienced a good amount of sexism in my youth in the American South and first marriage, I know just how fortunate I have been.

    1. The most frustrating part is that it’s all insidious, so gradual, so step by step, that you have no idea what you are getting yourself into or what you are relinquishing.

  3. I couldn’t possibly agree with you more, Marina Sofia. Corporate culture has never made it easy (for most companies) for single parents. As you’ve pointed out so well, there are so many different obstacles to trying to raise one’s children well and do one’s job well, too. And that is extremely frustrating. I had my frustrations, too, raising my daughter, and I’m married. Balancing it all takes a real toll, especially for single parents.

    1. You can usually just about teeter along on the edge of sanity, until an illness or an unexpected event throws everything off kilter. But even the daily grind leaves you very exhausted indeed!

  4. It is frustrating and we still get paid a lot less than men for equivalent jobs. Travelling all the time must be exhausting and it is time consuming. It’s difficult to balance everything. I’ve always wondered how single mothers made it without collapsing.

    So a heartfelt Bon courage from France. 🙂

    Things are slowly moving though.
    Here, the legislation has changed and parental leave must be shared between the two parents. Divorce settlements with the children one week with their mother and the other week with their father are more and more numerous. So now we have men who need to get home on time to fetch the children at school.

    PS : From what I’ve seen of daily training tariffs, your rate is low for your skills.

    1. It depends on which company I work with. I refuse to accept any rates below 500 euros/day (because I know about all the additional costs) and I’ve been lucky at times to have much higher rates, but I’ve heard people here in the UK who’ve had to work for 250-300 and were simply grateful to have any work at all.

  5. I can identify with much of what you say, Marina, having done similar things when my children were growing up—we’re ‘doers’ and ‘they’ will let us. I’d hoped that time had changed things as it was the 80’s when I was being ‘superwoman’ (not) but clearly the same frustrations occur.

    1. Things have changed perhaps for certain age groups and up to a certain point, but once children come along, it appears to be much of a muchness. Human society hasn’t progressed all that much (although I do hear a few encouraging stories, to be fair).

  6. I feel really frustrated for you, Marina. I don’t know how single parents manage and particularly with the type of work you’re doing and the travel involved. I’m generalizing, but I tend to find businesses don’t care because they’re still largely run by men and they’re not interested in adapting.

    The only positive I have for you is that I’m also overqualified for an administrative job but I got one on the third attempt. For me, it was a case of finding a manager who could see the skills I brought with me as a positive.

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