Last Sunday was Mother’s Day—throughout the week I’ve been thinking about families in general, and single parenting in particular. I read Sheryl Sandberg’s Facebook blog on women raising children alone. She is new to the experience (just 1 year), while I’m on the ‘other side’ of it; my four children are adults with their own families.
Sheryl touched upon many of the issues and challenges presented to the single parent: there is pain and loss with powerful feelings of both sadness and anger whatever circumstances brought it about; there is the cultural fantasy about the ‘ideal family’ to struggle against; and for many there is inadequate finances and the absence of a helping hand. Sheryl admits she was fortunate to avoid that last double category yet she still found it difficult. (My journey included them all). It sounds daunting because it is! –Yet it is more than just a slogan to say that struggle builds character. (That is if you survive it.) Since I’m on the other side of single parenting I can attest that it was a gargantuan struggle, yet I can look back and find value. …And yes, I can even say “Thank You”.
I can identify specific gains for myself and my children that very likely may not have been had the unsuccessful marriage continued. I have a studio picture taken of the family shortly before my husband left and recently at a family gathering, as we looked at it, each of us could now recognize the unhappiness registered on the faces hiding behind the photographic smile.
Here is a brief cameo of the circumstances of my marriage’s end: after ten years and four children, my husband ‘fell in love’ with a young woman (19 or 20). When I learned of it and confronted him he announced he did not love me nor find family life satisfying and that it was his “right to be happy”. He offered to “keep up appearances and stay with the family but would not give up the love of his life”. I declined the offer, stating he had to make a choice; my wish was to go to counseling and try to re-build a marriage. He chose to desert the family, move to another state and thereafter have no interaction with any of us. At the time my oldest was 8 and youngest 1. We had a home in Atlanta GA, a thousand miles from both families. A few months prior I had returned to part-time work as an Occupational Therapist. He left me no money. After two years we divorced. At maximum the only support he provided was $10/per child per week. It was before ‘dead beat dad’ laws and he was many states away so I was told by the courts they couldn’t help me, I’d have to secure a private lawyer—needless to say that was financially out of the question.
There is much to be said about those early years but I’ll leave it at saying it was hard, very hard—I cried and prayed a lot—it took perhaps ten years to come to feel I had safely ‘made it’. How did I make it? A line from the Bible sums it up—1Kings 17:16 “. . .for the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry. . .”
My folks helped with the kids while I returned to college to get my Masters and good jobs followed. Ultimately I got a teaching position and the ten years at Palm Beach Community College as my kids grew to adulthood were the happiest and most rewarding of my life.
Earlier I stated I see value in the struggle and I feel blessed. There are three essentials that enabled us to survive and thrive as a family: 1) Love, respect and concern for eachother, 2) consistency of expectations and effort by all, and 3) a foundation of faith (demonstrated by prayer at meals and bedtime) and church affiliation. In support of the third essential, I give this advice: I don’t care how you imagine God, nor what name you give a ‘Greater Power’ (I choose God) but a child needs some measure of goodness to aim for—daily they are exposed to the bad. If you are resistant to the idea of a personal God, then make it a small ‘g’ and add another ‘o’ and pray for the pursuit of the ‘good’—(that being love, truth, justice, hope, kindness . . . etc.) Invent a new prayer, i.e. “We pray that goodness be increased in life” . . . or “I welcome love, truth and kindness into my life” . . . or “May love and goodness surround us always”. . . something, but pray with your child.
Now back to how and why I see value in the struggle and would not change it if I could. Because we were ‘alone together’, no father in the house, money was scarce, and nearest relatives were 1,000 miles away, they came to understand early that we needed to support eachother. When still in grade school the three big ones came home after school to an empty house and were expected to do chores and homework, assisting whoever needed help—the youngest was in day-care till she entered school and then the bigger ones were her care-takers until I got home from work. (In today’s world I’d be in trouble for that). They were serious students and got along well together. We had ‘family council’ meetings to talk out problems when tensions got high (they hated those, so made effort to avoid a need for them). As each became old enough, they got after-school and summer jobs. Each graduated from college (two with the help of scholarships). Each married (none younger than 25) and are still married to the same person. I think the evidence that says we succeeded at ‘family’ is our gathering at Christmas every year. Yes, every year we have gathered for several days together; we rotate states as each lives in a different one, but I have had the privilege of being surrounded by my four children and their families every Christmas since their leaving home to build their families.
My point is not to tell a ‘they lived happily ever after story’; of course there were conflicts and disappointment and bad judgment calls and losses, but my point is to say families aren’t less just because they aren’t the ideal, families are what you make them—it is hard work and being a parent is the most demanding job you will ever have—but it can also be the most rewarding.