According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are currently about 12.9 million American children living in single parent families as of the end of 2006. This represents about one third of all children under age 18 in the United States. From the time of my divorce in 1993 until my remarriage in 2005 my son and I were part of the single parent family demographic. Raising my son alone from just after his 2nd birthday until he entered his freshman year of high school I have come to appreciate the challenges that single parents face.
While some ultra-conservative political and religious leaders would have us believe that children who are raised in single parent households are doomed from the start I do not believe that this is necessarily the case. By carefully attending to the needs of both their children and themselves single parents can definitely offer their children the same type of loving foundation that will enable them to have lives that are comparable in success and happiness to those of their peers raised in two parent homes.
The basic function of any parent, single or married, is to ensure that the needs of the family are being met. All individuals have a variety of needs including physical, emotional and spiritual. In order to be healthy and successful in life all must be satisfied to some degree.
Fulfilling a child’s physical needs is fairly straightforward. From day one parents are used to preparing bottles when their babies are hungry and changing them when they are wet. Children’s physical needs for food, shelter, clothing and medical care are basically the same whether there are two parents in the household or one. The challenge for the single parent is associated with meeting those needs from the combined perspectives of time, logistics and financial ability.
The emotional needs of children are slightly more difficult to fulfill but again not new territory for any parent, single or otherwise. Most parents seem to instinctively know that children need love, comfort, security, praise, encouragement and discipline in order to be mentally and emotionally strong.
And finally, spiritual needs which may or may not include formalized religion but almost certainly include instilling values, morals and a sense of right in wrong in children which will allow them to be at peace with themselves and get along with those around them is an important part of any child’s development.
I think that the greatest danger for single parents is in ignoring their own needs in the mistaken belief that this type of sacrifice is always best for their children. While it might be true that a good and unselfish parent will forego some luxuries in order that their children might have the things that they need, parents who neglect their own health and emotional well-being are probably actually doing their children a huge disservice. In the same way that airline flight attendants caution passengers to put on their own oxygen masks first in the event of a loss of cabin pressure before assisting others, single parents would do well to remember that they must take the steps necessary to keep themselves in top condition in order to best meet the needs of their children.
Sleep, nutrition and regular exercise are probably areas where single parents shortchange themselves the most. The pressure to “keep up” in terms of shuttling children to multiple after school or weekend events and the constant tug-of-war between job obligations and parental responsibilities causes many single parents to resort to unhealthy shortcuts. A steady routine of late nights, fast food and no exercise are unhealthy for both parent and child. Cutting back on weekday activities for both parent and child might go a long way in making room for having relaxed, nutritious (and less expensive) meals at home and earlier bedtimes for both the single parent and the child.
Eating healthy meals at home and getting more rest should result in a higher level of energy and a heightened sense of well being for the single parent. A healthy, well rested parent may also feel more inclined to incorporate exercise into his or her day. This exercise can be done with or without the children, providing either a good respite for the parent or a healthful, low cost activity that parent and child can enjoy together.
I have often heard it said that the most loving people in the world are those who have themselves been well loved. Similarly, the single parent whose emotional needs have are being met has more resources to draw upon when it is time to offer emotional support to his or her children. However, assuring that our own emotional needs are met as single parents, when we may have recently suffered the death of a spouse or experienced a painful divorce or break up can be especially challenging.
I think that two of the most common pitfalls for single parents to avoid are:
Expecting the children to fulfill all of the parent’s emotional needs
Ignoring emotional needs entirely
Part of the problem may lie in the fact that when we think about emotional needs from the single parent’s perspective we make the false assumption that romantic or sexual relationships are the only way in which emotional needs can be met. However, this definition of emotional needs is entirely too limited. The need for contact and connection with other human beings can be expressed in a myriad of ways, not simply physical.
Interesting, stimulating conversation and the sharing of ideas are an excellent way to connect with others. And through these connections the single parent may be able to obtain, companionship, admiration, encouragement and support.
While children can, at times be wonderful and delightful companions, by no means should our own children become our sole source of emotional support. When my son was very young I probably made the mistake that many single parents make of avoiding social activities that did not include my son, thinking that it “would be unfair to him” to leave him with a sitter in order to do something on my own. Gradually, however, I came to recognize that even just one or two activities of my own per month provided me with a creative outlet and connected me with other interesting adults which raised my own levels of emotional fulfillment and gave me more reserves of support to share with my son. Even single parents on tight budgets might find low cost activities like public library book discussion groups or volunteer activities to be excellent sources for conversation and companionship.
For many people the mention of spiritual needs evokes images of faith and organized religion, but even for those who describe themselves as “non-religious” spiritual needs may still have relevance. Among a wide variety of synonyms for the word “spirit”, Dictionary.com lists, “Life, mind, consciousness, intention, significance, and purpose.”
Without meaning or purpose to guide us, life can quickly become nothing more than an exercise in despair. Parents lacking any sort of compass for their own lives may well have a very difficult time in providing any type of leadership to their children. Faith and religious worship, dedication to serving others or establishing and maintaining a connection with nature are some of the ways the single parent may seek to ensure the fulfillment of his or her own spiritual needs and pass the resulting sense of healing and renewal on to his or her children.
Ultimately, I think that single parents can achieve success in raising children alone if they simply continually strive to keep their lives in balance. While some sacrifices on the part of the single parent for the sake of the child are appropriate and necessary children are not well served when parents too often neglect their own needs and well-being. A single parent who is physically ill, emotionally drained or spiritually bereft may end up doing their child more harm than good. Taking advantage of various support systems including family, friends, religious organizations or community groups such as Parents Without Partners are just a few of the ways that single parents can enjoy greater success in raising their children alone.