In 2022, Lizzie Saltsman quit her job and took her children on a summer trip across Europe. She rented a car, and for two months, she and her four children, all younger than 13, drove across the continent, beginning in Paris, with stops in places such as Switzerland, Austria and Italy.
Although she had enjoyed her work as a manager of business technologies at a consumer products company, the death of her husband in 2019 had prompted Saltsman to re-evaluate how she spent her days.
“I was living in this constant switching of priority: being a parent and being an employee. And I think losing my husband made me realize the urgency and value of life,” she said.
Saltsman is one of the millions of Americans who chose to leave their job during the surge in resignations that began during the pandemic, which saw the highest rates in more than 20 years. She also belongs to one of the more than 10 million single-parent households in America (a large majority of that number are single mothers), the country with the highest proportion of children living with one parent in the world. Single parents who choose to quit their jobs face even greater obstacles, as they navigate child care, health insurance and financial concerns largely on their own — but they can also achieve a greater sense of balance. Here are a few of their stories.
Lizzie Saltsman, Park City, Utah
Life insurance payments from her husband’s death provided a “slight cushion” financially, Saltsman said, but she nonetheless prepared carefully before deciding to quit her job: saving money, researching her COBRA health coverage and anticipating worst case financial scenarios. Planning out a European road trip — scheduled for right after her departure from her company — provided the final incentive, she said.
“I thought that going to Europe for the summer would kind of force me to be present, and experience life with my kids, and reset,” she said. The trip was worthwhile, although it didn’t quite provide all the curative properties she had imagined. “I learned very clearly in that trip, that wherever you go, there you are. Life is the same, just in a different country.”
After returning to her home in Park City, Saltsman began doing contract consulting work and embraced a new routine that allowed more time for involvement in her children’s day-to-day lives, and switched from COBRA to her own health insurance at the beginning of 2023.
Was it worth it? Despite her fears, Saltsman said the decision to quit was well worth it. “I think the best is just seeing that it wasn’t as scary as I thought it was going to be. Kind of like this newfound trust in myself that we can figure it out, no matter what.”
J. Marie Jones, Brooklyn, New York
In 2020, J. Marie Jones was working as the digital communications director of a government agency in New York City. Before the pandemic Jones, who is divorced, previously had a team of other people who made it possible to juggle work and parenting responsibilities with her daughter, Kaiya, now 12.
But when pandemic shutdowns began, she was left as the sole adult providing child care. “I would have to say, it was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life,” she said.
Time at home also raised new concerns about her daughter’s school performance, prompting Jones to become more involved in her daughter’s schooling. That involvement had a dramatic effect on her daughter’s academic achievement. “She had a complete 180-degree turnaround academically,” Jones said, noting that her daughter, who has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, is now back in-person at school, reading at grade level, and for a time no longer required medication. (She has since gone back on.)
When her workplace began requiring all employees to return to the office, Jones decided to quit her job and focus on her new online business, selling inspirational journals she has filled with affirmations and scripture verses. In 2022, the business, Affirm the Word Literary, made six figures in gross sales, and she has sold about 20,000 journals, she said.
During the toughest times during the pandemic, Jones said she maintained her spiritual connection through the virtual programming of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, where she is a member. She credits her faith and habits for getting her through. “I really believe in journaling. I think it saved my life, just writing down affirmations every day, scripture verses and prayers,” she said.
Was it worth it? Although getting health care was a major concern, Jones said she was able to find Medicaid coverage quickly through the New York state’s insurance marketplace. She now works part time with another government agency, on a hybrid, remote schedule, while still expanding her business and spending time with her daughter.
“Now I show up to things. I’ve been to all parents and teachers conferences, I’ve walked her to school,” she said. “I think that feeling alone — the very first time I walked to the school — was just surreal.”
Eileen Duncan, Berkeley, California
Eileen Duncan quit her job as a third-grade teacher at a private school in Berkeley at the end of the 2021 school year.
When the pandemic shifted schoolwork online, she began teaching from home, complicating her child care arrangements. Her son Leif, now 7, was beginning kindergarten in fall 2020, which would have made it impossible for her to manage teaching online while he was engaged in his own online classes. Duncan coordinated with her son’s preschool, along with a few other families, to keep him there for another year, so she could continue working.
As the pandemic wore on, the increase in COVID-related meetings, late nights spent recording lesson videos, logistical issues with outdoor classrooms and the general stress of caring for more than 20 students at a time took its toll on her. “I was kind of at a breaking point. It was hard. It was affecting my parenting I think, my ability to be present and rested,” Duncan said.
With financial support from her parents and the help of federal loans, she is now pursuing a full-time master’s program in educational therapy.
Was it worth it? Duncan said the effects of quitting on her mental health have been well worth it, allowing her to enjoy time outdoors and to meet with a parenting coach.
However, the decision has also brought with it some financial anxieties, she said, including the need to find her own health care coverage and the stress she feels about saving for retirement. She was able to find coverage through the Covered California health insurance marketplace and now pays around $300 per month, Duncan said, though the process has been time-consuming. “I wake up worrying about money every day now, which I didn’t before.”
Larissa Vidal, Seattle
Larissa Vidal had worked for the same large brokerage firm as a financial adviser for decades, and had been dissatisfied in the role for some time before deciding to quit.
“I liked the work; I really did not enjoy the environment,” she said, pointing to what she called a lack of diversity and other issues. (Vidal is Filipino American.)
During the pandemic, Vidal was able to be at home with her son, Leo, 16; she shares custody of him with her ex-husband. She said she had found herself more able to deal with the stresses of parenting.
“It’s like night and day,” said Vidal. “It’s such a delight to be able to end the day and genuinely be there to listen to my son and ask what his day was like.”
She finally made the decision to leave when her employer began requiring all employees to return to the office full time, threatening to disrupt the new lifestyle she had come to appreciate.
Vidal quit her job in June 2022, and began a new job the next day, with no break in her health care coverage. Her new firm is employee owned, with better pay and flexible hours, and agreed to provide her with funding to support a diversity initiative.
Was it worth it? “It’s been such a profound change,” said Vidal, who added that she felt quitting had allowed her to see the range of options available to her. It also provided an opportunity to model an important lesson to her son. “I don’t want him to feel trapped in a company where he can’t speak openly. Now I can actually see there are companies out there where he can express himself more freely, hopefully.”
Becky Straub, Hillsborough, North Carolina
Before the pandemic, Becky Straub worked as a project manager at a large academic research center. But when the pandemic began, things changed quickly as her workplace ramped up its capacity to work on COVID-related research, and she took on long hours and increased responsibilities.
A few months later, Straub’s partner, the stepfather to her two teenage children, died from cancer. After taking a brief bereavement leave, she returned to even longer hours while trying to figure out her new life as a single parent.
“My partner dies in July, I take three weeks off, I come back, I’m working more hours than I’ve ever worked in my entire life, with a 13- and 16-year-old who are home, depressed, on Zoom school,” Straub said.
In 2022, she quit and began a new job that allowed her to work from home. After just six months, however, she realized the new job was also not the right fit, and when a physician she worked with at her previous job got funding for a large trial, he asked her if she would return and run it, with a similar salary and the option of working from home.
Was it worth it? “My stress is like a tenth of what it used to be,” Straub said. “I have very clear boundaries, I have a very clear scope of work, I have a much smaller amount of direct reports. I just have a more reasonable workload.”
She also saves time on commuting and preparing packed lunches, and has more flexibility for parenting tasks. “I get like, probably at least 10 hours a week back to myself,” Straub said. “And it just makes parenting so much easier.”