What Does It Take to Be a Successful Single Parent?

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Today's epidemic of divorce and single parenthood affects many people, Christians included. How can you be successful as a Christian single parent?

Many of you reading these words are single parents. But even if you're not, chances are you know family members or friends who are single parents. It's now so common that it's hard to not know any single parents.

A third of American babies are born out of wedlock. Statistically, half of all American children under age 18 will live in a single-parent home at some point in their lives.

Currently about a fifth of all Canadian and South African children live with just one parent. Britain, France, Germany and Australia aren't far behind. In Jamaica, St. Lucia and Haiti, more than four in 10 households are headed by a single parent. In Denmark and Norway, it's close to half.

It's doubtful that many of our readers chose to be single parents. It's not the point of this article to judge single parents for what brought them to their current circumstances. Some were widowed, others had children out of wedlock, some divorced or were divorced, others are separated. What we want to focus on is where to go from here.

Let's begin by defining what we mean by "single parent": If you carry the day-to-day responsibility of parenting one or more children without the consistent, hands-on support from a partner, you're a single parent.

Even a married person may be a part-time single parent, if his or her spouse is physically disabled or behaviorally dysfunctional (from drug addiction or substance abuse, for example). The same is true when a spouse's work takes him or her away for extended periods.

The prevalence of divorce adds greatly to embedding single parenting into our culture. One shocking study concluded that most children born in recent years will have more spouses in their lifetimes than children of their own.

Think for a few moments about what that means to our children and our grandchildren.

It means a lot of pain for them (and for us). Since they are likely to have at least one or more children along the way, it also means that they will be or will raise single parents.

Most are mothers

Most single-parent households are headed by mothers, perhaps for many reasons. But probably chief among them is the perception that the mother is the nurturer.

In testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Human Resources in 1992, Ronald Henry, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney, testified about the shifting sands of American culture. He noted that throughout most of the nation's history, family law awarded custody of children to the father, who was viewed as central to educating children, providing for them and preparing them for adult life.

After World War I, however, family law adopted the view that the mother was the primary nurturer of children in their early years, meaning that she was typically awarded custody of young children.

Since the 1970s, courts have been making a slow swing back toward the center, theoretically willing to award custody to fathers as much as to mothers.

But in reality few fathers have sole custody, though the numbers are growing. In any case, the win-or-lose adversarial approach of divorce court does not meet the needs of children, who truly require both parents.

Thus we see the increasing tendency toward joint custody, which divides the children's time between their parents. It's an attempt to try to "make it all okay."

In contrast to the nurturing mother, the father's contribution (after the initial spark of life) is perceived to be the financial support the child needs. Increasingly, then, the role of the father is thought to be just as easily fulfilled from a distance as in the same home with his children.

America the fatherless

"The United States is becoming a fatherless society," writes David Blankenhorn, founder and president of the Institute for American Values, in the introduction to his book Fatherless America (1995). "A generation ago, an American child could reasonably expect to grow up with his or her father. Today, an American child can reasonably expect not to."

U.S. Census Bureau statistics from 2003 show that almost one out of four American children under 18 live with only their mother.

"Yesterday, when a father died, our society affirmed the importance of fatherhood by comforting and aiding his family. Today, when a father leaves, our society disconfirms the importance of fatherhood by accepting his departure with reasoned impartiality.

"Historically, we viewed the death of a father as one of the greatest tragedies possible in the life of a child. Today, we increasingly view the departure of a father as one of those things that we must simply get used to" (p. 24).

The implication is that a single-parent home is the same as a two-parent home. But your children, your emotions and your finances tell you there is a big difference! (Single-parent homes headed by mothers are statistically low-income ones.)

Anger issues

Many single parents feel a heavy burden of guilt for being in their situation. Perhaps those striving to follow Christ feel it even more strongly.

Even when it may be evident that they did little or nothing to break up their family, their strong sense of responsibility causes feelings of guilt. They place a high value on marriage "'til death do us part," not just out of loyalty to their spouse, but also out of an even stronger sense of loyalty to God. These dedicated people want to please Him above all and thus feel that a failed marriage has failed Him.

Single parents might well also have to deal with bitterness, which is the outgrowth of unresolved anger. A single parent may be angry over the behavior of his or her former spouse that led to the present reality of single parenthood. There may be anger over being rejected as a wife or husband. It's not easy to apply the premier godly counsel on anger management: "Be angry, and do not sin. Do not let the sun go down upon your wrath" (Ephesians:4:26, Modern King James Version).

Yet we must deal with anger so that it does not become a "root of bitterness" (Hebrews:12:15) with the power to destroy us spiritually, as well as to do serious harm to our children.

A parent who harbors resentment toward the other will transfer that to the child, even without consciously trying to do so. It comes across in the tone of voice, the look in the eyes—even in the awkward silences. It is so much healthier to let go of the anger, with God's help.

Understanding the reason for your anger can help. Divorce is often called "the death that never ends." It brings grieving over your loss, and anger is part of that process. It's often accompanied by a sense of betrayal, which sparks and then fuels anger. The spouse who pulled the plug on the marriage is often viewed by the other as having betrayed his or her trust.

The marriage covenant is implicitly a lifelong one. When a person proposes marriage or accepts a marriage proposal, it is a profound compliment. It essentially says, "I know you well, and I love what I know. I trust you with my feelings, hopes, dreams and future. I trust you to become the father [or mother] of my children. I trust your judgment. I am comfortable around you at all times."

The announcement "I want a divorce" is a cancellation notice, a revocation of all of the above. No one in his or her right mind enters into marriage with the thought of simply trying it out for a year as one might lease an automobile instead of buying it. Marriage by nature is a purchase of the heart. So when two who became one become two again, it is inevitable that it breaks the heart of one if not both of them.

Issues of faith

The shock of sudden single parenthood can also shake the spiritual faith of the believer who might wonder Why did God allow this to happen to my child and to me? But God didn't do it! While it takes two people to enter into the marriage union, it takes only one to break it apart.

God truly blesses the people who commit to marriage the way He fashioned it, as laid out in Genesis:2:24: "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh."

God's blueprint for rearing children is the committed marriage of their biological parents. Two committed parents support each other, reinforce each other, balance each other—and occasionally, they give each other a break. But God doesn't force people to make a commitment that they choose not to make, or that they choose to break.

The believer has an inner trust in the biblical statement in Genesis:2:18 that "it is not good that the man should be alone." This is not just something that "works for some people," it is the way God designed us at the emotional, mental and spiritual level.

But if you are in a single-parent situation, can you be okay? Can your children do well, or are they doomed to an unhappy existence?

Children are amazingly resilient. So you can rest assured that indeed you and your children can be okay and that they can have happy, enduring marriages and successful lives. We cannot minimize the task before you to accomplish this, but we can help you understand the factors that will help both you and them succeed.

Your children can do just as well in school as any other children, if not better. But that is predicated on you as a parent being an educated and able person, and to a lesser extent on having adequate income and ability to provide a quality environment for your children.

What to do

What happens in the mind and heart of a child when his parents break up? He experiences the typical stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, eventually, acceptance. As noted earlier, in some ways the loss of the immediate presence of one parent is comparable to a death, and children react similarly.

Their grief may present itself as shock, sadness and feeling ashamed or abandoned. It may even manifest itself in physical pain that has no connection to disease or injury. Schoolwork may suffer and children may exhibit aggressiveness toward their playmates. That doesn't mean you simply excuse inappropriate behavior. You need to provide the loving boundaries that teach them self-control.

They will quite likely feel guilty, thinking that something they did—or did not do—caused their parents' breakup.

Children can be made to feel more secure by knowing where you are and how to reach you, by your being on time to meet them, and by your keeping your word. If you aren't going to be able to keep a promise, don't make it.

Give your child structure through routines and schedules. With all the time pressures facing you as a single parent, routines are essential to reduce the stress on you as well. In your own personal routine, plan free time for your child every day. Keeping the home clean and neat is important, but spending time with your child is more important. Strive to be consistent with your discipline and in your relationship with your child.

Emphasize reading. Read to them when they are young, and have them also read to you. That will boost them emotionally and academically.

Understand your child's need for a relationship with the other parent. Facilitate that where possible. Don't make it difficult by running down or showing your anger toward the other parent. That confuses the child who loves that person you may not love in the way you once did.

Also, resist the natural, subconscious inclination to dislike your child due to reminders you see in him or her of the parent with whom you no longer have a partnership.

Make visitations pleasant. Your young child may want to take along a favorite toy, stuffed animal or book. Don't use these times when you come face-to-face with the other parent to confront him or her about disagreements. Accommodate the normal conflicts in scheduling that arise so as to make visitation possible. Never block visitation without a valid, legal reason to do so.

If it isn't possible for the child's father to be in his or her life, make sure that a stable, responsible and nurturing man is. He might be an uncle, a grandfather or a trusted friend. Please be extremely cautious about the latter. (For more tips, see "What Happens When Fathers Are Not Around?" . And to understand the importance of male father figures in children's lives, be sure to read the article it accompanies, "Where Have All the Fathers Gone?" .)

Involve your children in making decisions about their world, but resist the tendency of some to treat them as equals or buddies. They need you to be a parent. Single parents often fall into the "buddy trap," probably due to their loneliness and desire for companionship.

Many of today's young parents grew up hearing a philosophy that diminished setting firm and clear boundaries, so they are not inclined to do so. But the results of this philosophy have not been good. Many social scientists, as well as the Bible, point out the dangers of parents not setting loving boundaries. Eventually, they will reap the chaotic results in frustrated, demanding and undisciplined children.

The single parent may not realize the harm done until a situation arises that requires asserting parental authority—perhaps for the child's safety—only to discover that he or she doesn't have any authority in the child's eyes. Of course, you should always deal with your child with love and respect, but as a parent rather than a peer.

Care for yourself and look to God for help

While it's crucial to care for your children, it's also vital to take care of yourself. Keep up your physical, emotional and spiritual health. Maintain healthy friendships with other adults. Cohabitation, for example, is unhealthy on a number of levels—not least of which is that often it endangers your child.

Be with people whose companionship lifts you up. Exercise regularly and eat responsibly. Both will help you be at your best in caring for your child. Do not indulge yourself in self-destructive habits such as over- (or improper) eating, alcohol or other drug abuse.

Parenting is too multidimensional for you to think, I will be both mother and father to my child. You cannot do that. But you can be a good parent. You can provide nurturing, structure and discipline.

Hal Runkel, licensed marriage and family therapist, writes that parents who drift into the stereotypical pattern of one being the nurturer and the other the disciplinarian ("Wait till your father gets home!") are making a mistake. He advises all parents to do what single parents must do—some of both. Nurture at all times and discipline when necessary. (See "What We Can All Learn From Single Parents," http://singleparents.about.com ).

Single parenting can be successful. It will present great challenges, but God can help you meet every one. Think on His promise, "I will never leave you nor forsake you" (Hebrews:13:5). Even when other people disappoint us, there is One who absolutely will never go back on His commitments to us.

We can depend on Him, but there is reciprocity—He has to be able to depend on us. That is, we receive His benefits in a lasting sense as the outgrowth of a relationship rather than as a handout.

Notice the wise counsel King David gave to his son Solomon: "Know the God of your father, and serve Him with a loyal heart and with a willing mind; for the Lord searches all hearts and understands all the intent of the thoughts. If you seek Him, He will be found by you; but if you forsake Him, He will cast you off forever" (1 Chronicles:28:9).

If we remain loyal to Him, we have His ironclad promise that He will always hear, always answer and always help. GN

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