This is the third installment in a four-part series.
As many as half of today's children will experience divorce. That means they will also spend a time, short or long, as part of a single-parent family.
Being a single parent is a difficult task, whether we are the "custodial" parent and have our children most of the time, the "noncustodial" parent with regular visitation, or share responsibility in some sort of joint custody arrangement. Though there are challenges to each situation, there are also a number of common factors. Let's discuss these.
Though in our singleness we no longer look to our now "ex" spouse to meet our needs, we need to recognize our children continue to look to both their parents to meet their needs. And as our children struggle with the effects of divorce, these needs will increase.
We may even see some "developmental regression" in which they begin to exhibit needs and behaviors characteristic of earlier period in their lives.
Unfortunately, as our children's needs increase, our ability to meet these needs often decreases. The resources we can bring to our parenting are often seriously depleted by our change in marital status.
We may first experience this in the realm of "parental power." Decisions become more difficult as we lose the coparent whom we relied upon for consultation. Even if such dialogue between exspouses continues, it is usually tainted by the leftover pain and anger from the failure of the marriage.
Implementing our parenting strategies likewise becomes problematic. Who plays the heavy, spelling out rules and responsibilities? How closely are they enforced ("When I'm at Dad's house, he lets me slide past curfew a little.") Who becomes the disciplinarian?
Our parental power also suffers as our children learn it is often easy to "divide and conquer" their already divided parents. Complaining about one parent to the other, twisting what one or the other parent says, failing to pass along information, can all be used by children to try to get around their divorced parents' efforts at exercising control.
Our divorce not only diminishes the amount of power we bring to our parenting, it depletes other resources as well. We usually have significantly less money to spend on our children, whether for food, clothing, activities, or just fun.
There is a lot less time for parenting, too. Household tasks are no longer shared by two adults. Both exhusband and exwife are probably also now working outside the home. Where do we find the time to listen, to comfort, to guide, to discipline, to enjoy our children?
This is painful for custodial parents as they struggle to find time that isn't there. It is just as painful for noncustodial parents who must squeeze all their parenting into a day or weekend.
Yet another resource diminished by our singleness has to do with receiving and giving intimacy. As we no longer share our lives with another adult, many of our needs for closeness, for sharing, for support go unmet. We have less to give our children as less is given to us.
Some parents deal with their own loss of intimacy by trying to "parentify" their children. They look to their children to become miniature adults who will provide the intimacy they need. Sadly, children caught in such a trap will often become their parents' best friends, but lose their childhoods in the process.
On the other hand, when we do build new intimate relationships, we can face another sort of struggle. Our children may resent the time we spend with friends, perhaps even fear we will abandon them. And we may be tempted to overinvest in our new relationships out of our own need for companionship. Or our children may just not like the new adults we have included in our lives (more about this next week).
Recognizing these threats to our positive parenting, there are steps we can take to better care for our children and ourselves.
First, we can recognize our limits. There is probably no way we can do, as single parents, all that we did as married parents. We need, then, to focus on those parenting tasks that are most important to our children and to us.
Second, we want to try to work as much as possible with our exspouse (assuming they are available and interested) to cooperatively parent our children. That involves a lot of constructive communicating, often no easy task for exspouses. Our best bet is to put our past conflicts behind us and concentrate on the here and how job of being parents.
Third, we also need to communicate with our children. We can reassure them that we do love them despite all the changes in our lives. And we also can remind them that part of a parent's love does have to do with setting limits and responsibilities, etc.
Fourth, we must seek out new support systems. We do have needs as adults, we must find other adults to meet these needs. It's not our children's job.
Finally, we can get help when things get out of hand. Some exspouses have even used counseling together to develop more effective parenting. It can work. Despite the difficulties, single parents can raise healthy and happy children. And we owe it to our children to find out how.
• Next week: The Wicked StepParent Revisited