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"You Have No Idea What It Takes": An Examination of How Low-wage Single Parents Navigate Work and Home

Ballentine, Kess (2021) "You Have No Idea What It Takes": An Examination of How Low-wage Single Parents Navigate Work and Home. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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Over the last fifty years, workers’ rights have eroded even as work demands increased. These labor inequities, along with racism and sexism, mean that the mostly female, primarily Black and Brown, workers in caregiving jobs in the service sector tend to earn low wages with poor benefits and thus struggle to support their families. This study examines the experiences of working parents in this sector with relatively good jobs, defined as wages well above the minimum wage ($14.88/hour, on average), fringe benefits, and ample hours. I focus on (1) what workplace policies and practices parents identified as supports and barriers to family well-being, (2) how these factors interacted with the broader social environment to affect parenting, and (3) how parents navigated supports and barriers. I completed two interviews each with 21 single parents(20 mothers and 1 father) of elementary-aged children working in relatively good, low-wage healthcare jobs. I used a qualitative methodology drawn from extended case method and phenomenology and a theoretical framework informed by ecological, feminist, and work-family theories.

This dissertation uncovers how policies and practices that aim to care for employees are perverted by individual prejudices and discriminatory social structures, at best insensitive and at worst punitive to employees. Mothers described feeling misunderstood and undervalued at work. This study disrupts the myth of the ideal worker, the persistent reification of the work-family divide, and the assumption that “family friendly” policies extend care to lower-wage, single parent families. I show how mothers grapple with the cultural contradiction between expectations to be ideal workers and intensive mothers and suggest that there is a material contradiction between these problematic norms. Additionally, I critique current motherhood theory as undervaluing work as a site of motherhood and encompassing limited aspects of motherhood. I propose holistic motherhood as a framework to challenge the false dichotomy between paid and unpaid care labor and acknowledge paid labor as a site of meaning-making for mothers. Future research should further examine the struggles of working parents with relatively good jobs and explore whether the holistic motherhood framework can help in reformulating policies to better support working families.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Ballentine, Kessklb199@pitt.eduklb199@pitt.edu0000-0003-1456-7174
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairGoodkind, Sarasag51@pitt.edusag51
Committee MemberShook, Jeffreyjes98@pitt.edujes98
Committee MemberFarmer,
Committee MemberHenly, Julia
Date: 25 May 2021
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 7 April 2021
Approval Date: 25 May 2021
Submission Date: 5 May 2021
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 287
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: School of Social Work > Social Work
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: parenting, low-wage work, feminist theory, motherhood, work-family interaction, poverty
Date Deposited: 25 May 2021 22:24
Last Modified: 25 May 2021 22:24

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  • "You Have No Idea What It Takes": An Examination of How Low-wage Single Parents Navigate Work and Home. (deposited 25 May 2021 22:24) [Currently Displayed]


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