Single parenting doesn’t end when the sympathy cards stop arriving or the legal documents are finally signed. Single parents continue to parent through the mundane and the glorious for years to come. Even if a remarriage occurs and a second set of hands is in the house, there are things that will always be a struggle.
Work and Finances
Maybe there are great financial needs due to the loss of the parent. Maybe the house will need to be sold. That means a lot more than just packing and moving. A non-working parent may suddenly be thrust into the position of a working parent right in the midst of becoming a single parent. New arrangements might need to be made for daycare, after school care, or a host of other things as a result of this change. Funeral costs are outrageous. Like every parent in this day and age, the cost of college is a worry. Setting up a college fund for the kids could allow people to contribute in a practical way that can have the added benefit of easing a long-term concern. Everything might be upside down and those transitions take a long time to adjust to.
The Daily Grind
Single parents who are going it completely alone whether through death or abandonment, they don’t get every other weekend off. Sometimes they might like to just get some rest. Can you watch the kids? Cover babysitting if they ask, but surprise them with the chance to drink a cup of coffee uninterrupted or a gift card to a place they love that comes with your offer of child care. And if you are asking them for the best time, follow-up with them so they know you really want to do this for them. Does this parent need to do travelling for their work and need more extensive child care arrangements?
Ask them if there are areas they need help handling that might not be in their normal repertoire of duties. Maybe they weren’t the one in their house that paid the bills and balanced the accounts, or cooked and grocery shopped. Maybe they have never taken the car to the shop or filed their taxes or braided their daughter’s hair. Check in with them every few months and see if there are new things they hadn’t thought about right off the bat that they would need. Can you set a calendar reminder to check in and see if they need an oil change, or if they just realized now that they have no idea how to hang the Christmas lights? The longer we are married, often the less capable we become in areas we no longer regularly practice. Things I did as a teenager that my husband does now I have completely forgotten how to do, and the world has changed so much that I have never deposited a check on-line or filed an insurance claim. Ask them what they need. and if you can’t help them, see if you can find someone who can. You don’t need to be all in their business and look through their bank statements, but you can call the bank and see if someone there can help walk your friend through the details. Be patient as they learn. Sometimes they just need a sounding board as they think through the kind of decisions that a husband and wife normally discuss and now are all alone in their heads.
Single parents who are sharing custody are in a completely different ball game. Yes, they get weekends off sometimes, but they also are limited in their ability to make decisions without agreeing with a person who they may not like very much at this moment. They are dealing with an entirely different grief, a loss of hopes and dreams, maybe a feeling of betrayal, abandonment, or bitterness. They are maneuvering schedules to accommodate visitation times and experiencing lonely holidays when maybe they feel their rights have been violated. Maybe they would like a place to spend Christmas when their kids are with their other parent. The custodial parent may be trying to make due with a significantly lower income then they have had in the past while dealing with a lack of child support. Money doesn’t stretch as far when it needs to support two households and the kids need duplicates of things as they bounce from house to house. Both parents often feel deprived because they are missing out on certain things while their kids are with their other parent.
Routines and Traditions:
In handling a crisis, many people resort to survival mode. Survival mode means doing what you need to do, when you need to, with no extras or fluff. Survival mode may only last a few weeks, a few months, or a few years. It really depends on the situation and the people involved. While it’s great to aid someone in moving towards a healthier existence, it’s not your job to judge when they should have moved on, even if you went through something similar and were able to “move on” by now. As families work through a crisis together, they may be creating a routine of when and how to function in this new reality. Don’t criticize those routines or try to interfere with them. Just because you think they should come out tonight and “do something fun” and they say it’s grocery-shopping night, be flexible. Don’t expect them to bend. Changing a routine might create unnecessary stress on an already stressful family situation. You want to hang out with your friend? Go shopping with them. Push the cart for them while they sip a latte and fill the cart.
Traditions are going to be different. Everything is different. The first year is the hardest. The first Christmas, birthday, Mother’s and Father’s Day are all times that can become overly emotional. Families may create new traditions for their new situation. Again, don’t interfere with this, but encourage this. Maybe you can find a way to support your friend and even encourage them to find the joy in creating new traditions. Help them find the joy, but don’t negate their grief. They are allowed to feel it.
One thing that is true for all parents, but is often exasperated for the single parents, is the sense of an overwhelming responsibility to raise their kids well. Parents often worry that they are not doing the job “right.” How much greater that fear can be for those parents who are raising kids alone? Reminding them that they can do this, are doing a great job, and you’ll be there to support them (assuming you really are going to be) can help to ease that burden. Sharing with them the great things you see in their kids can help them feel like they aren’t messing things up. Sometimes they need to hear from someone who has already walked down this trying road and made it. This is why support groups can be so great. Practical tips can be really valuable to someone suddenly in this place of uncertainty. One dad told me that he was told to make all doctor, dentist, and eye doctor appointments on the same day three hours apart so he wouldn’t need to take extra days off from work that he might need later for unforeseen issue that would inevitably arise. If you’ve walked this path already, you can offer hope, wisdom, and strength so someone in need of all those things.
I admit that as a woman, I can get rather irked by the “you … like a girl” comments. Stereotypes can hurt both men and women, but these can be all the more frustrating for a single parent. Growing up it was my dad who taught me to sew and braid hair and my mom who taught me to throw a ball. In a society that is constantly throwing away stereotypical views of things, that can be both good and bad. Don’t assume that a single dad can’t fix his daughter’s hair or a single mom can’t show her son how to change a tire. Please don’t insult a single parent by showing shock that they are doing a great job with some aspect of raising their kids. But at the same time, realize that all parents have limitations and often they do fall along the gender lines. Maybe a single dad is worried that he won’t be able to teach his daughter the things she needs to know about hair, makeup, and clothes. Maybe a single mom can’t teach her son about shaving or some of the less talked about things in society like wet dreams.(Yes, I went there.) Aunts, uncles and close family friends can become Godsends. I am sure it’s a little weird to approach a single dad and suggest that you take his daughter out to buy a bra and get her nails painted, but he will likely be incredibly relieved not only to have a women in his daughter’s life, but a woman who is willing to support him in the process. Maybe you know that the Cub Scout Feller Bake-off (men only) is coming up and a scout in the troop doesn’t have a dad around. Volunteering to be that person can be a huge weight off a mother’s mind. Better to have too many offers than none at all.
One final reminder:
Things that intact families take for granted can become major heartaches for the single parent family. Mother-Daughter Teas, Father-Daughter Dances, Father-Son camping trips, and the Mother-Son wedding dance are all things that all bring about sadness instead of pure joy. There will always be moments of, “He should have been here for this.” Moments that will at times sneak into those days that should have been the most joyous occasions like weddings and graduations. Being the person who steps in to ease that loss can be huge. I’m not suggesting that we don’t hold events like these, but an added degree of sensitivity by organizers, and the thoughtfulness of those who see these events approaching can make all the difference in the world for a grieving family. Make a habit of thinking through some of the upcoming events and celebrations in your own life and then think about those people for whom this celebration might have mixed emotions. Be a light to a single parent in your life!
To all the single parents,
Keep on going! Your job is the most difficult job in the world, and you are doing it. It isn’t glamorous, and it feels impossible, but somehow you are doing it every day. If you need a hand, please reach out and ask. It’s not a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of community. Let us be in community with you.
If you missed part 1 you can read about helping with the initial need.
A big thank you to the single parents who helped me in writing this piece. I hope I did justice to the stories and advice you shared. I hope the community that came along side you helped you as you faced the impossible and prevailed.