Going It Alone — The Path of Single Parenting
"You are living my worst nightmare," declared my friend Helena last fall as we sat down to dinner in my kitchen.
"What do you mean?" I asked. Helena was living through a difficult period in her own life and had moved into my house for a while to help regain her balance as she faced a divorce.
"It's hard enough to go through a divorce," she reflected, "but to have to build a life on your own and raise a child….
"I watch you go through your daily life," Helena continued. "You are strong, Linda, but look at what you have to juggle: working enough to make money to support yourself and your child, while at the same time, as little as possible to be available to parent your child; finding the time or space to take care of yourself; finding dependable, safe, and reliable childcare to create space for you to do anything in your life; negotiating and trying to work it out with an ex-spouse who, while estranged, is still the other parent of your child…"
As someone who was just doing what needed to be done, I was aware of how stressful my life felt at times. However, I rarely stepped back and saw the picture of reality Helena was painting. Far more poignant was the larger reality that many, many people – women and men alike – face these very challenges each day in a society where nearly half of all marriages end in divorce. How many parents live with incredible stress – both inner and outer – as they juggle countless pieces, trying to keep everything together, creating the best life they can for themselves and their children, but probably not the life they imagined having when they were a little girl or little boy?
As I have spent time with the parents of my now-five-year-old son's friends and schoolmates, I see how much even married parents go it alone. If one parent stays at home while the other works outside of the home to earn the money the family needs, the at-home parent may have early mornings and long days without the company and active involvement of their partner. One of my son's friend's mom commented to me, "Some of the challenges you face as a single mom I face just by being a parent in today's world!"
So, while I am focusing in this article on the path of the single parent and the many challenges of going it alone, I am very aware that many partnered parents have some of the same feelings and experiences. It really does take a village to raise a child.
Challenges Along the Path
To help elucidate the experience of single parenting, I spoke with five single parents. Two of the five did not want to be interviewed for this article, because the pain of their experience was still too raw. One of these people had an adult daughter and wished to leave her experiences in the past. The other person had been separated for just a year, and felt things were too fresh to discuss. The other three graciously consented to allow me to share some of their stories to help others.
I found both some common challenges that many single parents face, and some very unique stories. Economic challenges were more or less significant for most of the parents I spoke with. However, living in an era where many families need two incomes to survive or thrive, the single parent faces the challenge of earning enough income to take care of self and their child/children all alone. Some single parents receive child support. Others do not. The single parent may be more limited in the kind of work they do or the number of hours they can work in order to be available to their child/children. And when they work, they face both the logistical and financial challenges of childcare.
Donna Bigony is 42 and lives in Newton, MA. She has been separated from her husband for six months and has two boys who are ten and four 50% of the time. Donna is in the fortunate position of being able to stay at home.
"We homeschool," says Donna. "My kids' dad is committed to that philosophy and he can afford to support me to stay at home so I don't have to work. I have been pursuing some work that fell into my lap, but that is more for my sanity – to do something productive and creative on my own – more than for the money. I don't have the financial worries that a lot of other single parents do. The one financial part that is difficult for me is that my kids' dad used to do all the bills. And it is totally overwhelming and scary for me to take that over."
In contrast, when Susan Meeker-Lowry, 49, of Fryeburg, ME, and the mother of three boys who are now 24, 22 and 19, first separated from her husband, money was one of the most difficult issues in her life.
"It seems like I was always a single parent," reflected Susan. She and her kids' father separated when her youngest boy was 4 or 5. "At first my kids' dad wasn't sending child support. That was very difficult. Not sending me money gave him control over my life and what I was or wasn't able to do.
"Living a non-traditional life as a writer and activist, trying to support myself was very difficult," Susan continues. "I couldn't speak at a conference unless someone was willing to pay child care so I could come. I was on welfare for a while."
Another economic challenge can be legal costs when parents meet in court for custody battles. Erik Zutrau, 42, of Watertown, MA, and the father of a 10 year old boy and a 7 year old girl, has learned this first hand. "We have had to deal with the courts' inefficiencies. It is easy for people to spend $50,000 a year trying to get through the system. If that doesn't make you crazy, I don't know what will. It's almost as bad as a catastrophic loss."
Yet another economic challenge Erik has faced is "trying to make up for the split," which often leads to overspending. "For an adult the easy solution is to try to buy your way out of the situation. But soon you learn that is not really the palliative that children want, anyway. Yes, they want stuff. But more than anything, they want time with you. You can tone down the spending by putting yourself in there more. It took me a while to learn that quiet, close time at home had its own very special value as much as an eagerly anticipated event or trip."
The loss of the family unit brings with it many challenges. When there is animosity between parents, tension, fighting, uncertainty and scary situations are abundant in the lives of children who are supposed to be having the childhood experiences of learning, growing and playing in a safe, nurturing environment.
"One thing I remember being very difficult," recounts Susan, "is when the divorce was happening, there were custody issues and there was always something. The angst you are in during those moments is profound. There are certain things you do because you have to. But the angst gets in the way of the creative things. It's like a hook on your insides. There is so much emotional energy tied up in it there is little energy left for anything else. And you are being robbed of so much time."
One prays that divorced parents can rise above animosities and work together for the highest interest of the children, and in some cases this is possible. In other cases, the very reasons that led to the breakdown of the marriage are only exacerbated in the estrangement of divorce. Even when parents get along, kids still face many losses including having two part-time homes instead of one constant home, moments of focused contact and marked separation with each parent, holidays and vacations being chopped up into pieces or divided up from year to year instead of unified family times.
Donna spoke of the loss of the emotional connection that comes with a partnership. "One of the things I notice a lot is when Tyler and Cole do something interesting or cute or fun – something I want to share with somebody – the only person who is really going to appreciate it as much as I will would be their dad. And I do share things with him sometimes. But it's not like I can call him every moment and tell him all the things that happen. When we were married, every day he'd hear that kind of stuff or he'd be here and witness it and we'd see it together. And now it's just me seeing those kind of milestones. And on the end other, I miss things when he has them. That's the hard part about not having the connection anymore.
Donna continues, "When the father of a family travels a lot, it is also hard, but different from being a single parent. The father can call home on his business trip and talk to his partner and kids more. The mom has her partner. They have the emotional support of each other. They know they have someone who is there for them even when they are not physically together. The emotional attachment is missing as a single mom. The intimacy of communication around the joys and challenges of having kids is a huge piece that is missing."
Traditionally, when two parents share the responsibilities of supporting the family and raising the children, many moms take over the household management and childcare responsibilities while dad focuses on work. For Erik, becoming a single dad offered him a new context in which to structure his life.
"Maybe I'm speaking for all men," says Erik. "I know I'm speaking for myself. Because I own a business and I work, I think one of the lessons for men is getting into a rhythm of dealing with your children's needs on a daily basis. I think men have to learn this because we have a different mindset most of the time with work being a primary focus. When children become an equally important focus, we have to realize that for children, this rhythm thing is important. We can't just be late because we have another commitment. They have to be fed at a certain time and they have to go to bed at a certain time."
Each parent has particular strengths and weaknesses, places of experience, and limitations in skill. Living as a single parent often shines a spotlight on the weaknesses and limitations. Susan had a hard time with some of the day to day things like homework and discipline as her children got older. Fortunately for Susan, family friends helped fill the gap.
"Scott and Patty had been family friends in my married years and they had kids the same ages as my kids. Scott was a good friend and a father figure to the kids. His skills and experience helped where I felt a limitation or lack. Scott was a stabilizing influence for many years. The boys are still in touch with him. They are still connected."
Friends, a new partner, family and the community at large can often help make up for the loss of a parenting partner. However, the shift from nuclear family to single or shared parenting is usually more or less a permanent one for all those involved.
A painful reality for the single parent is the stigma associated with parenting alone. Donna remarks, "Even though the divorce rate is really high and there is a good number of single parents out there, there's still a stigma attached to being a single parent. The stigma says, 'Our family isn't complete anymore. It really takes two parents and children to be a complete family in this nuclear family society we live in.' We single parents are out on our own and sort of blazing a new trail, but without a whole lot of societal support. Before it happened to me I don't think I understood what single moms went through or how hard it was."
Erik added another light to this topic. "It's cool now to have kids. In the 80's if you had a Ferrari or a fancy BMW you were cool. Now if you have kids, you must have done something right. If you have nice kids, it's seen as an accomplishment. However, there are times when you are home alone at night and you say things like, 'What about me?' You are alone. Your children are your priority, but there are definitely those times when you feel alone."
"On the other hand," Erik continues, "this kind of situation can be a catalyst for your own development. Because you don't have the luxury of wasting time anymore, not just because you are older, you see that time is valuable. And the busy circumstances of single parenting force you to organize your life so that everybody's needs can be met, including your own. You work harder for it. You think more about it. And you get more creative."
Suggestions for Single Parents
When I asked the single parents I interviewed how they might coach others to work with the challenges of single parenting, the number one response was to create a support system. Parents draw from their children's school community or activity-related groups, relatives with children, friends, and support groups for divorced or single parents.
Donna felt strongly, "Asking for help is important. That's the one thing I'm not good at that I'm trying to get better at. I can't do everything myself and I need to ask for help. A friend of mine offered to help me with stuff around the home that needed fixing. I never would have asked. He offered. It's a new habit I have to get into. What I am trying to teach myself is that I'm not incompetent, I just have a lot on my plate as a single parent."
Erik notes, "My sister has two children who are the same ages as my two children, so we swap kids. I take her two and she takes my two for overnights, for trips. She or I may have some extra work to do. It's convenient to have a sister close by with a family."
Having friends or family to do child swaps, with whom to share activities with or just to spend time with eases both some of the logistical struggles and the aloneness of single parenting.
"Stay on top of community events where both children and adults can interact," coached Erik. "Since single parents are usually forced to economize their time, so you can accomplish two things at the same time – good parenting as well as expanding your own social horizon. You can't just plan events for your children and then find someone to babysit them while you go off by yourself all the time. You have to integrate. And always in the back of your mind is the need to model yourself in a good way in a new relationship because you know that you didn't do it right in the last one and the kids are waiting to see that."
Finding time and space for self-care is also essential, though sometimes complex. Erik reflected, "Your children are happy when you become happier. They are into hanging out with you even if they are not being entertained. They want to be around your excellence, whatever you excel at. Some kind of pride kicks in – a role model and an energy."
To take care of herself, Susan put a lot of energy into her work. "My work was my life. In some ways it saved my life. Now to some extent I feel a little bit guilty about it. As the kids got older it might have been better to be more present at times when I wasn't – and not just physically. I could look back and say I wish I had put more emotional energy into my kids. Yet you have to do what you love too. You have to find that emotional balance yourself. What will keep you the most sane? You have to balance your sanity against what you think the right thing to do is. As my mother said, "If you don't take care of yourself, you can't take care of anyone else."
"To really be there with my kids when I am with them has gotten me through all of this," acknowledged Donna. "To have fun with them, to make it joyful is important. These kids are my greatest joy. So the times I have with them I want to spend it abundantly with them even if other things pile up. I can do that catching up later when their dad has them."
The most important message of all was to reach out and ask for help so that the children's needs could best be met. "We shouldn't let the burden of our circumstances fall on our children," stated Erik. "Try to understand what the other parent is doing. Children have their fundamental needs which need to be met. We have to reach out first to the other parent, if possible, and to family, friends and the community."
Linda Marks, MSM, is a body-centered psychotherapist practicing in Newton and author of Living with Vision: Reclaiming the Power of the Heart (Knowledge Systems, 1989). Living as a single parent, she knows its challenges and builds her life as best she can around the needs and schedule of her five year old son, Alexander. She can be reached at (617)965-7846 or LSMHEART@aol.com