8: Caring without Sharing: how single parents worked and cared during the pandemic

This is a mixed methods research project following the journeys of single parents required to work and care, without the support of ‘'critical worker’' education and childcare, through the COVID-19 crisis. The research examines the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, including an analysis of the Labour Force Survey, and interviews with 40 single parents. Forty qualitative interviews with single parents in July–August 2020 were undertaken, to explore their experiences of working and caring during the early stages of the lockdown. These single parents were re-interviewed in January and February 2021, to explore their subsequent journeys and, in particular, whether and how concerns about job losses, changes to terms and conditions, and a decline in availability of childcare were realised. In this chapter, we will explore how single parents were combining working with caring for their children – often with reduced or no support – often, an ‘impossible balancing act’, with single parents making constant trade-offs between their work and caring responsibilities. In addition, mental health problems were prevalent, highlighting the unique challenges facing single parents, which have not been sufficiently accounted for in policy and guidelines developed in response to the pandemic.


Our Caring without Sharing research project, funded by the Standard Life Foundation (now known as abrdn Financial Fairness Trust) and undertaken by Gingerbread and the Institute for Employment Studies (IES), was designed to fill a gap in the evidence base regarding the differential impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on single-parent families. While, during the first national lockdown (March–June 2020), there was a considerable focus by policymakers and researchers on the experiences of certain groups including women, those in work, those on low incomes, and parents, for example, there was little specific consideration of the lived experiences of single parents, who frequently encapsulate a number of these identities. ‘Caring without Sharing’ sought to fill this gap, by exploring the working and caring situations of single parents in early 2020 and by following their working and caring journeys over the first year of the pandemic. It focused on the sub-group of single parents who it was envisaged would face the greatest challenges during the COVID-19 lockdowns, namely those who were not classified as ‘critical workers’ by the government. These single parents were unable to access emergency education and childcare, and so were required to work and care for their children both simultaneously and in isolation, given that childcare provided by those outside of the household was prohibited in the first lockdown.

A mixed methods design was adopted. Secondary quantitative data was analysed to understand the prevalence of different experiences and challenges among single parents, and how this compared with other family types, while new qualitative data was collected to enable us to understand the ways in which these experiences interacted to inform the lived experiences of single parents through the COVID-19 pandemic. We recruited a qualitative sample of 40 single parents in the summer of 2020, with quotas employed to ensure diversity on various work- and family-related characteristics, which it was envisaged would influence their experiences of working and caring during the pandemic. Work-related characteristics included: hours worked, employment status, and experience of being furloughed, while family-related characteristics included number of children and the age of the youngest child. In line with the national picture where around nine in ten single parents are women, the vast majority (36 out of 40) of the single parents we interviewed were female. While other chapters focus on the gendered impacts of the pandemic (see Chapters 7 and 9), this was less feasible from our data, given we only interviewed a handful of single fathers.

Each of these 40 single parents participated in a semi-structured qualitative interview in July or August 2020, as the UK emerged from the first national lockdown. Six months later, 33 of the original parents, who were contactable and willing to talk to us again, were re-interviewed. The two sets of interviews had a primarily retrospective focus, examining changes to, and challenges in, single parents’ working and caring lives over the previous six months in each instance, along with their expectations and concerns for the future. The opportunity to collect and analyse longitudinal qualitative data from single parents was invaluable, as it enabled us to track not just their actual working and caring journeys but to understand how these reflected and were informed by their expectations and fears (see Chapters 1, 3, and 9 for other examples of qualitative longitudinal research). Alongside this qualitative strand of work, IES undertook analysis of the government’s Labour Force Survey (LFS), to understand the extent to which single parents experienced various work-related developments, such as being furloughed, working from home, and becoming unemployed, compared with other family types (see Gingerbread, 2020, 2021). However, it is the qualitative longitudinal data collected from single parents on which this chapter concentrates, when exploring and illustrating their journeys through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Overview of findings

The single parents interviewed for this project provided a wealth of data about their experiences of working and caring during 2020 and 2021. Data from Caring without Sharing will serve as a historic record of single parents’ experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as informing policymaking going forward and contributing to its evaluation. In this chapter, we focus on three key themes to emerge from the data. While the first has been selected as it broadly encapsulates the difficulties facing single parents during the pandemic, the second and third were chosen as they are highly relevant to single parents’ future working and caring journeys, with employers, government, and policymakers having the potential to significantly improve the caring experiences and job outcomes for single parents in these particular areas.

Caring without sharing: an impossible balancing act

In relation to many aspects of their lives, single parents characterised the experience of caring without sharing during the COVID-19 pandemic as “an impossible balancing act”. While many single parents described their working and caring situations prior to March 2020 in terms of balancing a range of routines and considerations, it was widely felt that the imposition of additional responsibilities on them (in terms of home-schooling) and the loss of wider support in the first lockdown, converted the “challenging” balancing act into the “impossible”. Single parents frequently found themselves having to balance a range of roles and responsibilities, with insufficient time or support or with conflicting demands on their time or resources – without being able to share the load with a partner. This experience was particularly pronounced during the first and third lockdowns, when many single parents were required to work from home and undertake home-schooling with their children simultaneously. Single parents described how they were unable to fit in all that was required of them within the available hours of the day, forcing them to make compromises – some of which they were deeply uncomfortable with. Reflecting on the first lockdown and her primary-aged child, Jasmine, who worked part-time in administration, recalled: “I’d do two hours’ work and just think, do you know what, I’m not doing it, and take her out for a walk or something because it did get really hard with having to try and balance the both of them (work and care).” Similarly, Emily, who was self-employed as a personal shopper, described how: “it was fine the first few weeks, but when you’re in the middle of doing, say, Maths, and a client rings me, then Maths went by the by. And then I’d feel guilty.” Experiencing their working and caring roles as an “impossible balancing act” was pronounced during those periods in the autumn of 2020 where some single parents’ children were required to self-isolate, due to positive COVID-19 cases in their children’s school class bubbles. Single parents described how what was required from them by government guidance, schools, and their employers was frequently impossible to achieve in combination and sometimes contradictory. As Penny, who worked outside the home and whose young primary-aged child was sent home to isolate from school, explained:

‘We have to follow the protocol of isolating. I can go to work apparently, but my son can’t go to school, but he can’t actually leave the house. So I am a single parent (and) you’re saying it’s okay for me to go to work but what do I do with my son if he’s obviously been in contact with somebody, so I can’t leave him with anyone? It just doesn’t make any sense.’

To deal with these conflicting requirements, the single parents we interviewed took a variety of approaches including taking annual or unpaid leave or, in a small number of instances, taking their children with them to work and ensuring they did not interact with others.

Such experiences, and the feelings of worry and guilt they engendered, contributed to widespread concerns among single parents about their and their children’s mental health. The impacts on mental health reflects a wider body of research, as well as our own analysis of LFS data, which shows that single parent families remain particularly at risk of negative outcomes in this area (Child Poverty Action Group, 2020; Fawcett Society, 2020). Our analysis found that, even at the outset of the pandemic, single parents were substantially more likely to report depression or bad nerves, compared with parents in couples, and these differences were sustained, as reports of negative mental health outcomes rose for all throughout the first year of the pandemic (see also Chapter 5).

More positively, however, our research did unearth evidence of mediating factors, which could improve the experiences of single parents working and caring in isolation and lessen the burden of responsibility placed upon them. Many single parents found that the introduction of support bubbles for single adult households in June 2020 eased their situations, as did the availability of pre-school childcare (and the greater availability of school places) in the third lockdown although, as single parents noted themselves, this was often offered at the discretion of schools, rather than reflecting national policy. Similarly, the greater level of provision and communication from schools, including the availability of live teaching, in the third lockdown reduced the responsibility placed on single parents to ‘teach’ their children – although it is worth noting that challenges remained for those with primary-aged children in particular, where considerable supervision was still required.

One of the most significant mediating factors discussed by single parents which helped them to balance their work and caring responsibilities was the flexibility of their employers. This had a particularly positive impact when single parents were allowed to fit their working hours around their caring responsibilities. In the summer of 2020, one single parent we interviewed, Carla, who worked as a bookkeeper, said:

‘Because I worked five hours a day … they said that rather than me doing them between ten and three, which was the core school hours (where) I was getting distracted by children asking me questions and me trying to help them with their schoolwork as well. So work said that when the school day had finished, I could do my working day then. So my workday would then start at 3:30 until nine, ten o’clock in the evening.’

Analysis of time-use data identified similar trends in the working hours of parents in general who worked from home, with these being fitted around their childcare obligations, making work more likely to occur in the morning and at night (Office for National Statistics, 2020). While the single parents we interviewed were grateful to their employers for their flexibility in allowing them to fit their work hours around their caring responsibilities, it was commonly described how this could lead to very long days, with early starts and late finishes and little time for any relaxation. Feelings of stress, exhaustion, and burnout were very common. Moreover, such flexibility was by no means universally experienced by single parents in the first lockdown. Esther, for instance, who worked for an energy company, recounted how:

‘They did at one point tell me that it would be more flexible and I could log off and log back on later on if it suited me better, but when I tried doing that they complained to me and told me that I should be working to my hours.’

Encouragingly, however, data from our second set of interviews with single parents shows that employer flexibility was much more universal in the third lockdown (January–March 2021). While most employers were allowing single parents to fit their working hours around their caring responsibilities, some went even further, offering additional support with home-schooling in terms of resources, such as digital technology and time off for parents. However, in the minority of cases where employers were not supportive or flexible, this considerably exacerbated the challenges facing single parents and their feeling of stress – as a result of the necessity of making uncomfortable compromises, discussed previously.

In the next two sections, we examine two specific aspects of single parents’ working and caring journeys over the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, both of which have significant long-term policy relevance – the shift to home-working and experiences of job insecurity.

A shift to home-working

The majority of single parents interviewed for this project moved to working from home in March 2020 and continued to do so into the early part of 2021, although LFS data shows that the proportionate increase in home-working was less pronounced among this group of single parents compared with other family types (Gingerbread, 2020) – likely to result from the fact that home-working has been shown to be more common among those in professional occupations, where single parents are less likely to be represented. Single parents’ experiences of and attitudes to home-working were highly polarised, but also evolved considerably throughout this period. When we interviewed single parents in the summer of 2020, they identified a variety of benefits and drawbacks to home-working. Chief among the benefits identified were the fact that it enables flexibility, reduces travel time and costs, and so allows single parents to potentially work a greater number of hours. However, home-working was viewed negatively by other single parents, who attributed it with the experience of increased social isolation. Isolation was seen to produce a range of negative impacts including making team-working more challenging and reducing visibility, which single parents thought might limit opportunities for career progression in the future. While some single parents recognised both the benefits and drawbacks of home-working, when it came to their own lives, perceptions regarding its impact and desirability were highly polarised. In the summer of 2020, Jasmine, who worked in administration, described the benefits to her situation of working from home, explaining:

‘for one, saving petrol. I used to spend £40 a week driving to [LOCATION] for four days … So obviously money wise I’ve saved. I can do hours that are quite suited to me, so if I’ve got something silly like a delivery coming between 10 and 11 I know not to work between then, or be on a call. So I can kind of cater it to me.’

On the other hand, Bethan, who worked as an analyst for a bank, described the limitations home-working placed on social interaction within her organisation and its negative impacts from a work perspective, emphasising: “Everything is harder remotely, everything. Everything has to be written up, every conversation, nothing happens easily. If I were at work, I’d pop to someone’s desk if I needed to chat about something work-related, and now you can’t do that, you have to schedule it in.” When we re-interviewed single parents in early 2021, attitudes to home-working had evolved markedly. For many, home-working had come to be viewed as the ‘new normal’, and there was clear evidence of a greater appreciation of its advantages and, among those who had originally disliked it, a resigned acceptance of its continuation. While Esther told us that: “Now I’ve got used to it, I think I actually prefer working from home than actually going into the office. I’ve just found it, as I’ve got into a routine, it’s easier,” Rowena emphasised that: “I miss people. [But] it is the norm now. It’s been almost a year.” Moreover, those single parents who viewed home-working negatively because of its impact on isolation, increasingly recognised the role of the national lockdowns in this regard and the fact that a return to office-based working would not resolve this problem entirely. This was the case for Kelly, who told us that:

‘If I asked to go in the office, it won’t be the same as what I had before, so I won’t be any happier, I don’t think, because I want to be with people, I want to sit with people … so I don’t think I’d be any happier going back in the office with all this social distancing.’

Experiences of job insecurity

Similarly, single parents’ experiences of job insecurity were far from homogenous, and evolved throughout the pandemic. When we interviewed single parents in the summer of 2020, many were concerned about the security of their jobs, a feeling which was sometimes triggered by actual (or anticipated) reductions in hours and pay. Concerns about job insecurity also reflected more general feelings of uncertainty at the start of the pandemic, as emphasised by Lindsay, who worked as a receptionist in the plastics industry, who told us that:

‘it’s all a bit uncertain for a lot of companies at the moment. The industry we’re in, it’s taken a big dip financially with the whole COVID-19, so it is a bit worrying. I don’t know if we’re going to survive this, but at the moment we’re just taking every day as it comes.’

By the start of 2021, however, single parents’ views had diverged. While some single parents felt that the organisations they worked for had survived, adapted, and prospered during the pandemic, others felt increasingly insecure; this was particularly the case for those who had been on long-term furlough, who felt distanced from their employers and therefore more vulnerable. As Karen explained: “I think then it’s just been that the firm has managed without me, to be honest, which is then making me very concerned for the security of my job going forward.” Indeed, such concerns dissuaded some single parents from pursuing furlough during the third national lockdown, even when their employers had furloughed them in the first lockdown. As Bethan recounted of her employer: “We’ve never really spoken about it. I think the worry is that if you’re furloughed you’ll be first out. So everybody just wants a job.” In fact, even working from home could create for single parents a perception of a lack of visibility, which heightened concerns about the security of their jobs. As Shona explained:

‘I just worry about job security which I think everybody does … it’s something that’s started to worry me more. I think being at home, because I’m so used to being out busy travelling, talking to people, I’m worrying that I’m not doing enough … no one has said anything, I think it’s just something that’s playing on my mind.’

The translation of job insecurity into actual job losses was comparatively rare among the single parents we interviewed. Of our 40 research participants, six lost their jobs at some point between the summer of 2020 and early spring of 2021, with three having already found new jobs or entered self-employment by the end of our second round of interviewing in February 2021. Those single parents who had secured new positions tended to have done so through existing contacts and networks, rather than through contact with Jobcentre Plus. At the time of writing, LFS data similarly shows little change in the level of single-parent unemployment (Clery et al, 2021). However, the proportion of the single-parent workforce that was unemployed was already higher before the pandemic at 12 per cent, compared with 5 per cent for coupled parents, with single parents being more likely to be working in routine occupations such as retail, hospitality, and restaurants (46 per cent, compared with 26 per cent of coupled parents) – industries which are likely to see further job losses. It was widely recognised, a the time of writing, that the economic impact of the pandemic on single-parent unemployment might not be fully realised until the furlough scheme ends in September 2021. There is also mounting evidence that single parents are likely to be disproportionately impacted in this regard (for instance, as they are much more likely to work part-time, compared with other family types – a characteristic likely to be associated with more negative outcomes as the furlough scheme ends (Timewise, 2021).

Case study

We can see how the themes described thus far can interact and inform the lived experiences of single parents, by considering the case of Marilyn – a single parent who we interviewed in the summer of 2020 and again in early 2021. Marilyn’s case demonstrates the particularly precarious nature of balancing work and care for single parents during the pandemic.

In March 2020, Marilyn was working in administration in a shop for 20 hours a week across four days, to fit around the schooling of her secondary-aged daughter. She used family for childcare in the school holidays during her working hours; her child did not have any contact with their father. Balancing her working and caring roles became an immediate challenge for Marilyn when it was announced that schools would shut on 20 March 2020. As her role needed to be performed on-site, she took the decision to take unpaid leave for a week, before finding out she was to be placed on furlough (due to the shop shutting) at the start of April. Recalling her manager’s reaction, Marilyn described how: “I kind of felt backed into a corner because I was basically telling her I am not prepared to go to work; I’m not bringing my daughter in and I’m not leaving her with anybody else so it makes me unable to work. She wasn’t very happy about it.” After being on furlough for three months, Marilyn was informed in early July that she was being made redundant. Over the subsequent six months, she had regular interaction with a work coach from Jobcentre Plus. However, he often suggested jobs to her that did not fit with her caring commitments, which only allowed her to work part-time during school hours. As Marilyn described:

‘he went through a point where he was ringing with jobs and then they would turn out not to be suitable … he rang me with a few that were weekends and even though my mother is in my social bubble with me, she couldn’t really babysit because she is furloughed but when she goes back to work she is contracted every other weekend, so that wasn’t suitable.’

In early 2021, Marilyn also described how some companies who were initially interested in employing her to undertake call-centre work, lost interest when it became clear she could not attend the required full-time training courses before beginning part-time working-from-home roles.

When we spoke to Marilyn in the summer of 2020, she told us that she had already applied for over 50 jobs and was struggling to find work, an experience she had never encountered before. When we interviewed her again in early 2021, she explained that she had just started a role as a personal assistant, which she had found through a friend. While this job was not ideal, as it involved a lower number of hours, lower earnings, and cleaning, Marilyn concluded that it would “do for now” as it fitted in with her current caring commitments. Marilyn expressed an interest in retraining in the beauty industry at both points we spoke to her, but did not view this as a realistic option at the current point in time.

When we spoke in early 2021, a family member was helping to home-school Marilyn’s daughter, while she was out working. Marilyn acknowledged, however, that, had she been working during the autumn of 2020, it would have been extremely challenging to manage the several periods of self-isolation required of her daughter’s bubble, and that in all likelihood she would have needed to give up her job.

Policy implications

Since the end of the Caring without Sharing research project, the UK has come out of the third national lockdown and for single parents on out-of-work benefits there are renewed expectations for them to seek work through the work conditionality regime and reflected in their claimant commitment. The pandemic has significantly increased the number of single parents on Universal Credit (UC) to 1,271,057 in February 2021; they now make up a quarter of all UC claimants. In addition, UC rules mean that single parents must look for work when their youngest child is aged three. As we discovered during this research project, single-parent unemployment levels are already at 12 per cent and because of the nature of the jobs in which they worked were more likely to have been furloughed than other family types. When the furlough scheme ends, it is anticipated that some jobs will not exist in the same way and as such, single parents face further unemployment as the scheme ends. Policies to support single parents into work and to progress into better-paid employment are needed as the UK moves forward from the pandemic. However, there remain three significant challenges for single parents: limited access to flexible working, particularly quality part-time work; the availability and costs of childcare; and single parents’ concentration in industries that have been hard hit by the pandemic, which may necessitate them to move into new areas of work.

The greater prevalence of home-working which emerged during the pandemic should not be viewed as the only solution to flexible working. Many single parents work in jobs that cannot be done from home. The Timewise Flexible Jobs Index showed that, at the start of 2020, just two in ten jobs were advertised with options to work flexibly (Timewise, 2020). A few months later, following the impact of the pandemic on work including a big shift towards home-working, ‘the dial barely moved in the jobs market’, other than a notable drop in advertised part-time roles. The Timewise Index concludes that there is a fractured job market with part-time work more likely among the lowest-paid jobs. Conversely, home-working and other flexible working options are disproportionately offered at higher salary levels. In other words, those single parents, on low incomes and in part-time roles, who are most likely to lose their jobs in the coming months are the least likely to benefit from the shift to home-working available to many during the pandemic – and so require other solutions to enable flexible working. For single parents, a broader change to how work is structured, including greater access to good-quality part-time work, is therefore needed.

At the end of our research project, we were disappointed that the government’s Employment Bill was delayed; a Bill that offered the legislative push for jobs to be advertised as flexible by default. While we wait for the Bill to progress, the government could legislate through amending the Flexible Working Regulations 2014 to make it a day-one right for employees to make a flexible working request. We also want the government to work with employers and employer bodies to emphasise the business case for greater flexibility in job roles and consider financially incentivising employers to divide full-time roles into job shares. To support this, we urge the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and the Flexible Working Task Force to work together to develop job-sharing as part of the flexible working menu in adapting to new ways of working after the pandemic.

The availability and cost of childcare will remain a significant barrier for single parents entering or moving into employment after the pandemic. The pandemic has had a significant impact on the already volatile childcare market. Coram Family and Childcare Trust (2021) suggest that over a third (35 per cent) of local authorities had reported that the number of childcare providers permanently closing in their area had gone up in the last year and those that remained had increased their prices to remain sustainable. The government’s own figures (Ofsted, 2021) showed that, in the first three months of 2021, over 2,000 childcare providers had closed their doors.

The cost of childcare also remains an ongoing concern for parents, and this is a particular issue for single parents who rely on one income to pay for childcare. While childcare costs can be supported within UC for those on a low income, those single parents who participated in our research who had moved over to the benefit during the pandemic expressed concern about meeting childcare costs and having to claim them back later. Single parents worried about being able to meet these costs when they moved into work or took on more hours of work and that the payment in arrears could push them into debt. The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) needs to change the payment structure under UC so that childcare costs are made upfront rather than paying in arrears. In addition, the government needs to offer greater support for childcare including a national childcare deposit fund to help parents meet any other upfront costs of childcare when they enter work (such as deposits required by nurseries). The level of childcare costs that can be claimed under UC is also capped at a level set back in 2005 which means that, for many single parents, the promised 85 per cent of childcare support is not delivered. These caps need to be urgently reviewed by the Department for Education (DfE).

The concentration of single parents in the industries that have been hit hardest by the pandemic means that they are vulnerable to anticipated job cuts, including when the furlough scheme ends. Back-to-work support needs to address both the requirements of single parents to work and care on their own and the big hit to sectors which may not exist to the same extent after the pandemic. Single parents who were interviewed for the project and who lost their jobs during the first year of the pandemic were often unclear about where they should start in their job search or retraining. Since the start of the pandemic, the government has introduced a series of employment support schemes for claimants including the Restart scheme for those who have been unemployed for at least a year (GOV.UK, 2021). The government has almost doubled the number of work coaches (to 26,500) since the start of the pandemic including specialist support for disabled claimants and young people. Both these measures of support are welcome but there needs to be much more emphasis on tailored support within the government schemes and from work coaches for single parents. A change in mindset is also needed with longer-term job outcomes at the forefront of the design of back-to-work services for single parents. Many single parents will need support to retrain and reskill, and it is vital that this is backed up with affordable access to childcare.


The Caring without Sharing research project provides vital insights into how the inequalities that single parents routinely face in their interactions with paid employment, and how these relate to the care demands they face, were intensified during the pandemic. There is the very real risk that these inequalities will worsen yet further unless policy action is directed at helping single parents to both work and care. While all types of families struggled to work and care during the pandemic our research shines a light on the additional barriers and challenges that single parents faced.

The pandemic has also shown that things can be done better; work can be structured in a more flexible way, and the Government can act quickly to develop new schemes of back-to-work support. But for single parents, the good practice of some employers and generalist back-to-work programmes will not be enough. A holistic view of the needs of single parents in their caring and working roles is needed by Government, in particular legislative change to ensure that more jobs are advertised as flexible by default and specialist back to work support. As the country moves on from the pandemic we want to ensure that single parents are not left behind, that they have the opportunities to move into sustainable jobs, work that makes the most of their skills with potential to progress while giving them time to also care for their children. Our next project, also funded by the Standard Life Foundation (now renamed as adrdn Financial Fairness Trust), will allow us to examine the experiences of unemployed single parents of finding new work and the roles and impact of new government employment schemes to support this.


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