Earlier this week, I was trading text messages with my friend Tim, a widower raising three sons and a daughter on his own. We were commiserating over parenting issues (I have the inverse of his family, with three daughters and a son) when Tim mentioned that he knew a thing or two about raising daughters…and had the toe nails to prove it. Hmmm…toe nails?
Tim’s 8-year-old daughter, Mary, wanted to gain some experience with nail polish and decided to practice on her Daddy’s toes. Bright pink polish. (You need to know that Tim is 6’ 3” to fully appreciate the image of him with flamingo-colored toe nails.) Mary finished his left foot and decided to stop. One foot was all she wanted to do.
Tim’s been walking around for a few days with his pretty, pink toe nails. I guess he’s enjoying them too much to find or purchase some nail polish remover.
That’s life when you’re both Dad and Mom to your kids. Parenting is full of some of the sweetest moments of unrehearsed whimsy, but single parenting can also be a bit like having fewer hands than you need, and two left feet, minus the pretty polish.
Sure, my children have their Dad in their lives, an evening a week and every other weekend, but it’s not the same as living in a household with both Mom and Dad.
I have no argument over the value of two-parent families. I believe two parents are optimal for children, wherever possible. But it’s frustrating to have single parents, particularly single mothers, held up as the causal factor of various societal ills such as gun violence.
Like it or not, single-parent households are a reality in the United States where 13.6 million parents are raising 21.2 million kids on their own, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics. That number represents just over a quarter of the children under the age of 21 in the U.S today.
Those single parent households statistics include families like Tim’s, who’ve lost a spouse and parent through death. And those single parent household numbers include my family, through divorce.
I wince over the label “single mom.” I’m afraid it conjures up negative images and (shall I say it?) binders full of women: Unemployed women. Women on welfare. Undereducated women. Promiscuous teens.
The term elicits disparagement or pity from people, and I cringe over the thought of being the recipient of either sentiment. But it’s my reality; the label that technically fits, even if the stereotypes don’t.
I don’t intend to delve into measures and programs and policies that might help to lower the number of single parent households in America. Interesting topic, but not one for me to take on right now. Instead, it might be helpful to share some thoughts on what I’ve learned about being a single parent.
It takes time—and time for yourself—to get it together
You know that speech flight attendants give about securing your own oxygen mask before assisting those around you? It’s relevant to single parenting as well. In the immediate aftermath of death or divorce, there’s so much to handle….everything from legal tasks, to household issues, to your kids’ needs. Unfortunately, there’s no child-pause switch to activate when you’re overwhelmed by it all.
I came down with pneumonia a few years ago and, in desperation, planted my kids in front of the television so I could sleep for a few hours. I awoke to my 4-year-old, Katie, standing by my bed poking me. “Are you done being sick yet? I’m hungry,” she told me.
A friend listened to me share my concerns about my divorce’s effect on my children and my fears about not having enough time and energy for them. Then she said to me, “The best thing you can do for your kids is to take the time to be solid and stable yourself.”
She was right. You can’t assist your children with their oxygen masks if you’re passed out on the floor. I had to be sure I was exercising, eating well, and getting enough rest (ha!). I’ve learned to streamline household tasks and decline extra activities that just can’t be maintained in a one-parent household.
Initially, it felt selfish to hire a sitter to go out to eat or to see a movie with friends, but then I remembered that these actions are my way of securing the oxygen mask to my face. Sure, there are extremes: Parents who are constantly out taking care of their own needs while their kids struggle through on their own. It’s a fine balance of making your kids your priority, but taking care of yourself in the process.
It takes a village
More than ever, I’ve needed a village: a community of church members, neighbors and friends who help to fill in the gaps. These are people like my girlfriend Judy, who drove 30 minutes to my house and then 40 minutes over to Gig Harbor to take my daughter Megan to a Halloween party when I was down with pneumonia.There were neighbors who came over to my house to stay with a sick child when I needed to be in the office for a meeting.
I don’t know what the mom/son equivalent is to dads-painting-toe-nails-with-their-daughters, but I do worry about raising a son in a female-dominated household. My son, Ryan, might have been 3 or 4 years old when he came up to me one day and told me he couldn’t find his panties. Yikes.
I wish that was the last of it, but just last year I discovered I didn’t know a thing about boys’/men’s underware. I thought there were boxers and there were briefs, only to find out there was a third category: boxer briefs. How did I not know this? And which ones to buy for Ryan?
I consulted mom friends with sons and husbands who know these things and was advised that Ryan needed boxers or boxer briefs before he gets to the locker room.
I know, crazy example. But it’s the stuff that keeps me up at night!
(By the way, I laughed my way through a recent story on public radio’s The Vinyl Cafe where the mom was utterly perplexed when her son told her she neglected to buy an item on his sport’s uniform checklist: athletic support. She had checked it off assuming she was his athletic supporter!)
Moreover, I need a close community of families where my son and daughters can interact with other fathers; where they can see how husbands and wives relate to one another. Keeping my own circle of friends ensures that I’m not tempted to turn my children into my confidants. I love spending time with my kids. They’re funny and mature, and it’s a blast to talk with them. But end of the day, I’m their parent and they are my children—children who need to be kids without having to be my friend or assume responsibilities for me.
It takes hope
Finally, I’ve learned my kids can adapt and even thrive despite adverse situations. A relative of mine sighs and murmurs to my Mother every time she sees her over how sad it is that my kids will be “so damaged” because of the divorce. She means well. She’s full of sympathy and pity for us, but it’s hard for her to fathom how much power we have to choose our response to difficult things.
I wish my children got to experience growing up with both of their parents under one roof. I wish my nieces’ father didn’t pass away when they were so very young. I wish Mary could paint Tim’s toe nails…and her mother’s as well.
It makes me long for another home; A different world. But for now, perhaps what my kids gain from the losses is a clearer understanding of what it takes to make a marriage last from their parent’s mistakes. They’ve watched me struggle, but maybe they’ve also learned that it’s not the end of the world when people leave or someone dies. In the hard stuff, maybe they’ve witnessed what it means to have a peace that passes understanding and composure regardless of life’s circumstances. I don’t know, but this gives me hope.