Q: I’ve been waiting for you to address the needs of a single-parent family in one of your columns. I have been divorced for nine months, and I easily feel overwhelmed. Your techniques sound reasonable, but certain life circumstances need different direction and different goals. My objective is to help create a happy family with healthy children. Any guidance towards achieving that end would be greatly appreciated.
A: The plight of a single parent is very difficult under any circumstances and includes multiple stresses.
If a single mother works outside the home, this may add additional stress by reducing the time she has available to spend with her children. Anyone who works many hours and returns home to face strong familial needs will feel emotionally drained.
Another problematic factor is that of single mothers relying on government agencies to sustain their families, causing the family to experience a sense of “poverty.” Families often need to relocate after divorce — another change — often to “lower conditions” of housing.
Feuds may be ongoing with an ex-spouse and ex-in-laws, as well as possible court cases.
Children’s emotional conditions are generally weakened due to events leading to single parenthood, be it illness or divorce. Doing homework with a child can be a monumental task. No person can possibly respond adequately to each and every crisis.
It is vital to attempt to create a viable support system consisting of relatives and close friends. A parent is validated by another adult (usually one’s spouse), and grandparents’ validation is not sufficient or available on a daily basis.
In relation to concrete help (such as babysitting services to help create time for the single parent), or places to receive “adult feedback,” a support system is of great importance in fortifying one’s family with additional sources of strength.
Regarding older children, it may be quite difficult to maintain an authoritarian role with them, as a parent may need to often rely on her children in order to keep the house running smoothly. More teamwork is needed as an adult’s help is missing. It is difficult to be called on as a responsible young adult to help, and then to be reprimanded as a child. An older son can be consciously (or unconsciously) called upon to assume the role of “the man of the house” — be it bringing younger brothers to shul or making Kiddush on Shabbos. Yet later, he may be “ordered around” by his mother. This can be both irritating and confusing.
A way to deal with this problem is by delineating the actual tasks and functions of older children. Specifying a parent’s expectations clarifies a child’s role, even in a more complex situation, such as a single-parent family. If you need to ask a child for help, let the child’s responsibilities be clear. He needs to know when he will have free time, and to generally know what is and what is not overstepping boundaries in relation to his mother. A parent is explicitly bestowing this role on her child, rather than its occurring in response to a crisis. The child is rewarded through approval and recognition, so that the parent and child can keep in mind that the child is doing a favor, rather than fulfilling a pseudo-parental obligation. This keeps the role divisions more intact.
Strong ambivalence often occurs after divorce, with a sense of divided loyalties. A child may feel: “If I’m loyal to my mother, I can’t be loyal to my father.” It is important to let a child know that parenthood is “non-divorceable” — both parents are his forever — and that each side of any story has validity (including any occurrence between his father and mother). Sometimes professional help is needed to further work with such feelings.
Divorced parents often appreciate the decrease in tension when severe marital strife no longer exists in their home. Being able to work with one opinion (instead of spouses fighting towards non-existent unity) can often strengthen families after a divorce. In time, a balance is created, if a parent consciously works on this endeavor.