Single Parenting – Good, Bad, Ugly

According to Custodial Mothers and Fathers and Their Child Support: 2007, released by the U.S. Census Bureau in November, 2009, there are approximately 13.7 million single parents in the United States today, and those parents are responsible for raising 21.8 million children (approximately 26% of children under 21 in the U.S. today).

That represents a lot of potential Presidents of America!

The average single parent is apparently a divorced mom over 40.   Always good to know I’m average.  Have been since birth.  Average height, weight, and intelligence.  Turns out 80% of single moms are fully employed, 90% of primary custodial dads are.  And while that all sounds pretty groovy, here’s the eternal economic gender inequality rearing its head:  27% of single custodial moms live in poverty, while 12% of single custodial dads live in poverty.

In my world, 98% of the single moms I know live at or below the poverty line, whereas my income has hovered about $100/month more than state poverty guidelines.

Now all these statistics are based on the population of folks who are primary custodial (or in my state ‘primary residential parent’) with some child support and/or shared parenting.  So these numbers do not take into account the “other half” – the fact that there are many moms and dads who consider themselves single parents (because they are) during their time with their child but who are the non-primary residential parent.  To me, a definition of a single parent is anyone who feels they are. . . well, unless you are one of those with a committed, loving partner highly involved with your children who happens to be on a business trip for 2 weeks and you say you are “single parenting” it.  Now that is my pet peeve.

I would love comments about this, but I am going to delineate the Good, Bad and Ugly about being a single parent as I have experienced/witnessed.

GOOD:  You get a much more individualized relationship with your child (I’m using singular, but please know I mean childREN as well for those parenting more than 1), as nearly all the time you spend with them is separate from their other parent.  You learn you have qualities like resilience, ability to self care, caregiving instinct, time management, and many women learn non-gender traditional skills like repairing stuff when managing a household.  You have a smidge of time/energy for yourself, that you otherwise would be engaging in a partner.

BAD:  Point 1:  The family law system in America is seriously outdated and broken, in my humble opinion.  I have heard too many horror stories and have participated in the process enough to show me the process alone takes years to recover emotionally from.  And that’s with only 1% of divorces going to a full trial.  Most of these Census Bureau single parents started out parenting in committed relationships.  The system often seems to pour salt over already painful wounds, and the best interest of the child does not seem primary when applying a “win/lose” mentality of legal justice to a viscerally emotional divide within family that leads to a breakup/divorce.  Adequate training for guardian ad litems would be one step in the right direction.  (A GAL is someone who makes recommendations to the court after observing family interactions and supposedly representing the child’s interest).  Both parents are part of the ground that child walks on for the remainder of their life.  It is difficult to think of a system that could perfectly address the needs of all involved, but I’m quite sure ideas exist out there about how we can do much better.

Point 2:  Parenting in general is not valued in our society the way it is in some others in the “developed” world.  If there was an economic index for what parenting efforts/time/money contribute to society, it would represent a huge chunk of our GDP.   And probably if parenting was valued and supported more with outstanding early childhood education, workplace childcare, etc., there would be fewer stresses on families and thus less divorce.

Point 3:  Not having funds to do all the things you would like to do with your child or for them.  No matter what your job, a 2-person income household has more discretionary funds than a 1-person.  I have never been a person to wants to “have” but instead wants to “do” in life, and so I have a list a mile long of things I would like to do with my child and with myself after she is on her own that for the past decade have been out of financial reach.  Like camping equipment, kayaking trips, vacations with me.  But we manage.  She takes vacations with people who can afford to, or I scrimp the airfare for her to go somewhere while I remain at work.  Her grandparents and relatives pitch in for music lessons.  It all helps to provide a full life.

UGLY:  Loneliness.  There’s no way around this one.  I have talked with several people within a 2-year window of their divorces, and they are crazy lonely and/or throwing themselves into new adventures swearing off partnership for as long as they live.  Over a decade at this gig, I personally have gone across the whole spectrum:  Desperate easy dates (kept separate from my child), several month relationships with other single parents based on meeting alternating weekends around respective parenting plans (is that a relationship?), a 5-year hiatus from any dating, and a relationship with someone who spent a week with me and my child in our home. . . the only time in 10 years someone took out the garbage and did day to day chores with me.  That didn’t work out in the long run for a variety of reasons, but that week gave me an inkling of what it would be like to exist in a household with shared labor and daily hugs.  Kind of a portal, if you will, into a dimension in which I have not lived with my child.  Now, this is the dimension I grew up in (a loving 2-parent home), but it seems to have evaded me and that’s okay.  It’s my life path.  I think there is a balance you reach over time where you say to yourself, “If I embrace parenting wholeheartedly, then the only way a relationship can work is if it is respectful of both me and my child and works for all involved, and until that appears on the horizon, I will accept and seek nothing else.”

There are many healthy ways to cope with loneliness, and here are some I have found:

* Join or start a single parent support group.

* Devote as much time to nurturing yourself as you would want a partner to.

* Read, watch films, learn something new.  Let yourself cry at movies if that’s they only place you can let your emotions go.

* Write a journal to get stories in your head out of you, in addition to listing 5 things you are grateful for each day.

* Sit in a library or cafe and people watch.

* Walk, walk, walk.  Or run if that’s your thing.

* Sleep!  Don’t underestimate the power of enough sleep on emotional strength and health.

* Take yourself out to a movie or a restaurant if you can afford it.  If you can’t, make yourself a luxurious dinner (I’ve found healthy, complex food is actually cheaper than a movie and definitely than a restaurant) whether your child cares for it or not.

* Bake bread.

* Get a massage (or if you can’t afford a professional one, borrow an electric massager from someone with a back disability – it has been done).  A long shower can work as well.

* Meditate outdoors, indoors, in your car, on a star, near or far. Thanks, Dr. Seuss.

About Erin W

A sensitive plant, bamboo strong.
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