The Young-Parent Balancing Act
Parents can improve their long-term financial stability by working and going to school at the same time. But they need support to overcome challenges that can get in the way.
Left: A photo of Coral Castro and her daughter, Diana, on Diana’s 3rd birthday. Coral regrets the time she missed with Diana in those early years when she was balancing work and school. Right: Coral, now 36, and Diana, now 16, outside their home in Vienna, Virginia. Diana is starting to look at colleges, and Coral wants to make sure Diana doesn’t have to work while she’s in school so she can get the most out of her education.
Looking back, she wishes she could have finished her degree in her twenties. Castro is proud she’s been able to provide for her daughter on her own, but she longs for the life she could have had with a higher-paying and more flexible job—one that would ease her financial struggles and let her be more present through her daughter’s childhood.
“I never really spent as much time as I would have wanted with [Diana], ever since she was a baby, which is something I miss the most,” Castro said.
In 2012, Diana was one of 22.5 million children younger than 13 who had a young parent (someone who had their first child when they were younger than 25). Ten percent of those children, or 2.3 million, had a young parent balancing work and education or training, according to Urban Institute research. Seventy-one percent of those kids had a mom combining work and school; 52 percent had a dad doing so.
Urban researchers explored the long-term trajectories of young parents and the short-term challenges that come with balancing work, school, and parenthood. They found that combining work and education is linked to higher incomes later in life and sets parents up for greater financial security. But young parents juggling work and school need additional support, especially with child care, to succeed in the short term. And the stress of handling so many responsibilities can weigh on them and on their children.
“If combining work and education is something that is good for workers and good for society, we need to make sure it’s also good for kids and parents,” said Gina Adams, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. “We don’t have a support system around families to make sure that’s true.”
Striving for a stable future
Gina Jackson’s face lights up when she talks about her 6-year-old son, Kayden, who she considers her best friend and biggest supporter. When Jackson, a 27-year-old single mom in Fort Washington, Maryland, decided to go back to school for her bachelor’s degree while working full time, she wanted to make sure Kayden was on board with the change. He’s been dealing with anxiety since his father was incarcerated, and she was worried about how disrupting their daily routine would affect him.
Before starting her bachelor’s program online in 2017, she told Kayden, “Mommy's going to come home from work, and I'm not going to be able to play with you as much as I normally do. We’re going to do our homework together. Is that OK?”
Jackson, who works as a special education assistant at Fairfax County Public Schools, explained to Kayden that getting more education would help her make a better life for them. And she tied her goal of greater financial stability to something Kayden would be sure to understand: getting more toys.
Parents who have their first child when they’re younger than 25 frequently lack the same financial resources and education as others because of systemic inequities that disadvantage them from the start. But working and going to school at the same time can help these parents close those gaps.
Combining work and education can increase parents’ incomes later in life because staying engaged with the workforce helps build a solid work history that is attractive to future employers. And obtaining a credential, engaging in coursework, or earning a degree can help job applicants qualify for higher-paying positions.
For young parents in work and school, more time spent in both activities can mean higher earnings in future years. Urban research shows that each 1 percent increase in parents’ time spent combining work and education is associated with a $451 bump in annual family income at age 30 (although there are other factors at play).
Jackson is counting on that long-term payoff for her career. She’s always had a plan for her future: get her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in psychology, then open a mental health clinic for low-income black children. Having Kayden at age 20 may have disrupted the timeline for Jackson’s career plans, but she hasn’t given up on that goal.
“Having a baby made me more motivated because I had someone who depended on me,” Jackson said. “I had someone who was looking at me. I could not fail.”
Left: Gina Jackson holds up flash cards to help her son, Kayden, practice new vocabulary words. On most days when she gets home from work, Gina helps Kayden with his homework before she can turn to her own studies. Right: Gina and Kayden high-five after he correctly defines the word on a flash card.
Jackson’s mother is a big part of her support system, and she often picks Kayden up from his after-school program while Jackson drives home from work. But Castro lacks that family support—her family largely cut her out because they didn’t approve of her divorce, so she has been on her own in finding child care for Diana.
Child care costs are a burden for many families and can be a major source of stress for young parents. Young parents balancing work and school typically spend 14 percent of their household income on child care—twice what the federal government recommends. These costs have been a strain on both Castro’s and Jackson’s budgets. Jackson said, “It definitely is expensive trying to find a place that you're comfortable with that he is comfortable with, trying to find a place that you trust.”
On top of those logistical and financial challenges, the stress of balancing everything can have profound effects on parents and their children.
Jackson is often overwhelmed trying to juggle all these responsibilities on her own, and she’s worried about how it affects her son. “I feel like if anything suffers, it's Kayden,” she said. “Normally, when I come home from having a hard day, I hug him. But if I have a great day, I'm like, I'm going right to homework. But did I give him that time he needs? Did I ask him how his day was? Did I really sit and talk to him? He needs that.”
When Jackson is having a particularly stressful day, or if Kayden is feeling anxious, they’ll go for a mother-son walk at a nearby park. “We have a little mantra: ‘Kayden and mommy don't give up,’” Jackson said. “So if I feel overwhelmed, if he's having a little bit of a day where he's a little anxious, we say, ‘Kayden and mommy don't give up.’ So that's what we do.”