Arizona Public Radio | Your Source for NPR News
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Portraits In Single Parenting: Doing One Of Life's Hardest Jobs, On Your Own

(Left) Shana Steele with her three children. (Top) Vannessa Kamerschen with her daughter. (Bottom) David Meissner with his son.
Courtesy of Shana Steele, Vannessa Kamerschen and David Meissner
(Left) Shana Steele with her three children. (Top) Vannessa Kamerschen with her daughter. (Bottom) David Meissner with his son.

Being a parent is hard, even if you have a partner and a steady income (or two). Now, imagine doing that job solo.

It's a trend that's risen steadily in the past few decades. In 1968, 85 percent of children were raised in two-parent families, according to U.S. Census data. By 2015, the share of U.S. kids in families with one parent had more than doubled, to 27 percent.

In many two-parent (and two-income) families, the cost of day care is a heavy burden, creating anxiety for parents as they hustle to keep up with those costs.

For single parents, the challenges are multiplied. At the same time, they're looking for the same things as all parents: doing the best they can for their kids, with what they have.

Here are some of their stories: of paying for child care, and of life as a single parent.

For a mother in Georgia, every little bit counts

Shana Steele drops her two toddlers off at their day care center at 7:30 in the morning. She doesn't have to be at work that early; she takes them in at that time so they can take advantage of breakfast provided at the center.

It's one measure this 38-year-old mother of three takes to stretch tuition further — she pays $1,200 a month for full-time care for Erin and Amani, her two youngest children. After rent, it's her second-biggest monthly expenditure.

When money is tight, every little bit counts. Between child care and rent — which together account for more than 75 percent of her monthly take-home pay — there isn't much left over most months.

But like rent, says the mom from Loganville, Ga., you can't go without paying for day care.

I always think about their future. That's all I'm thinking about.

Steele has worked for Comcast for more than a decade and says she has had to dip into her 401(k) occasionally to make ends meet. For two years, she has been trying to get child support from the father of her two younger children.

Steele also has 16-year-old daughter Kerri, a motivated, straight-A student who hopes to go to college. So Steele may soon need to pay not only for day care, but also for college.

"It's like I'm paying college tuition twice," she says about the costs. Steele and her daughter already are looking into scholarships and other ways to finance her studies.

And in fact, it's almost as if she is: The average cost of day care in the U.S. — $9,589 per year — edges out the average cost of in-state college tuition at $9,410, according to arecent report from New America.

"I always think about their future," Steele says about her children. "That's all I'm thinking about."

A mother in Texas wishes she had alternative child care options

Many single parents have no alternative but to turn to their families for child care. And while it may seem attractive financially, it creates its own challenges, as Elizabeth Ayala, a single mother in Lake City, Texas, has discovered.

"Your parents are always going to try and tell you what to do," she says. "Then when you have a son ... sometimes they try to take over."

Ayala, 20, explored day care options for her now-20-month-old son, Sergio, but it just wasn't possible: She was taking classes and then working an externship, unpaid, as part of a program to become a medical assistant.

They're so small, and they're so expensive.

Her mother was able to switch her work schedule and now takes care of Sergio during the morning and early afternoon, until Ayala gets off work from her job at a pediatrician's office.

"It was the only choice I had," Ayala says. One day care center, she recalls, charged $200 for just three days of care; a full week was $315. "I can't afford that."

She lives with her parents, so she doesn't pay rent, but she still has car payments, student loans, phone bills, diapers and formula to pay for.

"They're so small, and they're so expensive," she says about infants.

In fact, infant care at a day care center costs 12 percent more nationwide than for older children.

Money is extremely tight for Ayala, and when asked whether she is able to save any money, she responds: "Honestly, I save the little spare change, the dollars that are loose in your purse. That's all I'm able to save."

A father in the Bay Area scrambles for care for his "guardian angel"

David Meissner of Castro Valley, Calif., started an entirely new life a few years ago, when he was 39.

In his words, he "came out of a really bad slump of addiction and alcoholism."

And he became a father.

Meissner was in jail when his son, Gabriel, was born.

Gabriel had been taken into child protective services after he was born, and the boy's mother had arranged an adoption that Meissner says he was unaware of.

When he found out, he went to court to fight for custody of his son; the judge ordered that Meissner enter a drug rehabilitation program.

"The sexual bias that goes against guys trying to get custody of their children ... can be very difficult," Meissner says. "You almost have to luck out or do something extraordinary, jumping through hoops to impress the powers that be."

"As my CPS worker said to me right at the beginning, 'I am not going to candy-coat this, it's a race to the finish,' " he says.

After 18 months — nine of which Meissner spent in a Salvation Army rehab program — Gabriel came to live with his father.

"Since then, I've been hard-charging, just being the best dad I can be, turned my life around," Meissner, now 42, says. "It's kind of funny how his name turned out to be Gabriel, he really is my little guardian angel." They just celebrated Gabriel's fourth birthday.

At first, Meissner and his son lived with his parents and relied on them to watch Gabriel while he worked his construction job. There was a short stint at a day care center that closed abruptly, leaving the parents of some 130 children scrambling to find child care.

Eventually, they moved into their own place. But Meissner's sister started up a day care center out their parents' house, and so Gabriel stayed there for a while. When he was able to afford it, Meissner put his son into another preschool because he wanted Gabriel to have exposure to more children.

But soon, Meissner grew dissatisfied with that center and began looking for different child care.

There were a lot of waitlists, Meissner recalls, and his mother helped out again, checking out various day care centers for him while he worked.

"I was working all the way across the Bay so getting time to make those calls was difficult for me, and being able to find time to actually go and look at the school would have been almost an impossibility," he says.

In Gabriel's four years, he's been in five different child care situations.

Meissner has mixed feelings about Gabriel's current preschool. He compares it with the center his girlfriend's 4-year-old daughter attends, where he says the kids are taught writing and math.

Gabriel's current day care is play-based — no lessons or worksheets.

I wish he was learning a little bit of something academic. Can't have everything all at once sometimes.

"[His current day care] believes that it's better to ... get them ready for school by way of being able to deal with other kids, by being able to socialize ... know the merits of compromise and sharing and all that stuff, which that makes a lot of sense," Meissner says.

"Same time, I wish he was learning a little bit of something academic," he says somewhat wistfully. "Can't have everything all at once sometimes."

Tuition at his current day care is $240 a week, and it's his biggest monthly expense after rent for the one-bedroom house the two share.

Meissner's pay tends to fluctuate from month to month, and he says he is pretty much living paycheck to paycheck right now. Though Meissner's job is in construction, the specific type of work his company does — remodels rather than new builds — means his work isn't seasonal or affected by the weather. He is looking forward to a few big projects coming up, and hopefully saving enough to take advantage of first-time-homeowner's programs.

In the meantime, he is making the best life possible for himself and Gabriel.

"Five years ago, I didn't care what I did, I didn't care who I did it to, I certainly didn't care about anybody but myself, and that's when I actually took the time to even care about myself at all," Meissner says.

He continues:

"If you'd asked me what I thought about having a kid five years ago, I would have laughed. And if you'd asked me what I thought about having a kid and doing it by myself, I would have just flat out said you're crazy, there's no way.

"But after having had a child, and taking on that responsibility, I absolutely wouldn't have it any other way. What my son gave to me was more than just himself; he helped give me a life. He gave me a huge amount of drive to better myself and what it took to be a regular working citizen."

A mother in California builds a life after homelessness

"My story is probably not the average story," says Vannessa Kamerschen, a single mother in San Mateo, Calif.

When you know your daughter or your son is in good hands you're so much better to focus on work.

Kamerschen grew up in Yreka, a small Northern Californian town near the Oregon border, where she, like Meissner, fell into a life of drugs, partying and substance abuse. Eventually, her sister invited Kamerschen to move to the Bay Area, to start a new life.

"It was a struggle for me down here," she says of her move to the Bay Area 13 years ago.

Kamerschen split up with the father of her daughter, Athina, when Athina was 2 months old. Mother and daughter were homeless for a while and lived in a shelter for six months. Kamerschen says she was able to save money during that time; she worked at Starbucks for seven years, as a supervisor for some of that time.

"I managed to save up a lot 'cause when you're in a shelter they want you to save up most of your money, and I was there during tax season, so I saved all of that, too," she says.

Athina, now 4, stayed with relatives at first. Then, while they were at the shelter, Kamerschen got a referral for a day care that charged just $40 a day.

"It was a lot more affordable than the other places, but you know, there's a reason for that," Kamerschen says. Among other issues, she says there were too many children at the center and it served unhealthy foods.

"I tried to pack a lunch, and the lady was not liking that, and didn't want me to pack a lunch," Kamerschen says.

After eight or nine months there, Kamerschen pulled her daughter out of that center, and her mother came down from Yreka to watch Athina temporarily. Eventually, Kamerschen was able to find an affordable in-home day care center she was happy with.

"I didn't even look into trying to get her into a facility. It was too expensive," she says.

Kamerschen says it was a huge relief when she found her in-home provider.

"When you know your daughter or your son is in good hands you're so much better to focus on work," she says.

The family's situation began to stabilize in other ways, too. Kamerschen moved out of the shelter into an apartment, which cost $2,500 a month, considered a good deal in the high-cost-of-living Bay Area.

At the same time, she applied for housing vouchers — she got into a three-year program and then a five-year program — and eventually, out of thousands of applicants, secured a one-bedroom unit in a newly built, affordable housing complex in San Mateo.

Now, she is paying less than $200 a month on rent, which will more than double at the end of the year — but is still well below market level.

"I have these two things, I'm really blessed to have," she says.

About a year and a half a ago — and after seven years working at Starbucks — Kamerschen took another big step forward: She landed a job with San Mateo County Human Services Agency, working in employment services, helping people find jobs.

As a county employee, she gets a big break based on her salary for a spot at a day care center near her office, and she lucked out again: She got priority as a county employee and there was no waitlist. She is very pleased with the new center and says her daughter has really accelerated there.

With her county discount, Kamerschen's tuition is about $650 a month — compared with $900 at the in-home day care — which she splits with Athina's father.

Kamerschen loves her job — and its child care perks — but also the work itself.

"I get to see the rewards of the clients succeeding. ... I've been on that side of the table, too, so it's really rewarding," she says.

But Kamerschen has her eyes fixed on the future. She has applied for a job as a counselor for a youth shelter. She didn't get the job — she says she was No. 3 on the list — but has now applied for an even higher-level position.

"I'm putting myself out there for a higher position," she says. "You gotta try."

David Meissner and Vannessa Kamerschen plan to get married and move in together soon.
/ Courtesy of David Meissner
Courtesy of David Meissner
David Meissner and Vannessa Kamerschen plan to get married and move in together soon.

There's another goal Kamerschen is working toward, too: buying a house with her boyfriend. She has some savings and is working with single-mother groups that provide matching funds and other specialized loan programs — her boyfriend is a veteran, for instance.

That boyfriend? David Meissner.

He and Kamerschen plan to get married, too.

"He's a great dad and he's a hard worker. The kids get along great," Kamerschen says. "We're really a good unit."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit

Maureen Pao is an editor, producer and reporter on NPR's Digital News team. In her current role, she is lead digital editor and producer for All Things Considered. Her primary responsibility is coordinating, producing and editing high-impact online components for complex, multipart show projects and host field reporting.