More and more women are choosing to parent without a partner (whether through circumstance or choice). There are a number of reasons behind the choice to parent alone. With the ever-increasing divorce rate, more families are ending up as single-parent families. Some women start out in a relationship, but this relationship does not withstand the addition of a child and so they end up being single parents out of circumstance, not design. For others, once they have a child, they may realise that the father of the child is not a committed or capable father and choose to shelter their child from that influence. An increasingly common situation leading to women choosing to parent alone is when women reach an age when they feel that it is important to have a child sooner rather than later and they find themselves with a strong desire for a baby but are without a partner. More women are realising that they do not have to give up their chance at motherhood just because they are not in a stable, long-term relationship.
There is one basic concept that women choosing to be single mothers have to prepare themselves for, and this is not having a partner to help with the everyday tasks, and the everyday decision-making. They will have the sole responsibility for the child and they need to be prepared for all that this involves. They will hopefully have input from family and friends but at the end of the day, the final decision-making and organisation rests with them.
There are a number of common challenges women face when raising a child alone. My research thesis for my Masters degree focused on the Subjective Wellbeing and Satisfaction with Life of Single Parents and I found the most commonly reported challenges were: raising the child all alone, providing for the child’s education, disciplining the child, feeling lonely, financial stress, problems with the other parent, and having limited time for themselves. One of the parents summed up the sense of responsibility very well: “It is a challenge always being the responsible one, the good, the bad, and the ugly all in one all the time.” These sentiments are often expressed in my work with single mothers.
Conventional wisdom says that children need both parents in order to become well-adjusted people. However, many well-adjusted children come from single parent families, and having two parents is no guarantee that a child will be well-adjusted. Whether there are two parents or one parent is not as important as the type of parent that the child has. Two parents is certainly not better than one when the parents fight often, are obstructive and are more involved with their unhappiness with their partner than the needs of the child. The most well-adjusted child is a child with a parent or parents who are supportive and loving, and who provide discipline in an appropriate way.
The single mother will aim to ensure that she provides everything her child needs emotionally. I think parents aim to do the best with what they have and no parent can be perfect. It is important for the single parent is to be connected with the child so that the child feels welcome to approach the parent if there are any problems and so that the parent is aware of any emotional or behavioural changes that would indicate that the child is not happy. This openness is helpful in navigating the role of single parent. If children feel loved, validated, valued and respected then this goes a long way to create emotional stability.
A reliable support system is essential for the single mom. She will need people to help her fetch and carry and for all those everyday things. She will need someone she can call in an emergency. Being a single parent can be lonely and she will need someone to offer a listening ear, a word of advice, a cup of coffee and a chat where she can voice the stresses and the joys of being a parent. She will need to share the excitement of her child’s developmental milestones and the concerns she has for her child with those who love her and her child unconditionally.
When the single mother wants to start dating again, she would need to bear in mind that her child’s life primarily consists of “Me and Mom”. When someone else comes into the child’s world, this is likely to cause jealousy and insecurity in the child, much the same as when a new sibling arrives. The single mother would need to understand this and be patient with the child. The single mother should be comfortable with the new person she brings home and feel secure that it is a relationship that could have some longevity before introducing the child to her new partner. Effort needs to be made to smooth the path between the new partner and the child so that the needs of both are taken into account. The message for the child to receive is that when Mom loves a new partner this does not take away from the love she has for the child.
Children will commonly start asking questions about the absence of their father around school-going age. As a general rule children should be given honest answers to their questions, and they should be given age-appropriate information. Children should be sheltered from private information and the actual details of the break up or events leading up to the breakup. Where possible the mom should try to avoid letting her emotions about the father of the child colour the information given. Effort needs to be made to alleviate any sense of responsibility the child may feel for the absence of the father. It would be helpful for the mom to give an explanation of the reasoning behind the decision to be a single parent or the father’s reasoning for being absent. The mom could say something like, “Your father and I cared for each other but realised that we weren’t good for each other and we could not live together. We decided to live apart.” This needs to be tailored to fit the circumstance surrounding the father’s absence. If he was not prepared to be involved from the beginning then an explanation could be given such as, “Your Daddy wasn’t ready to be a father so I decided to look after you myself.” If the mom went the Cryobank route then the mom could explain: “Mom really wanted a little baby to love but I didn’t have a husband and so I decided that I could be Mommy and Daddy to a child.” All explanations need to be accompanied by the reminder that the mom loves the child unconditionally and nothing can happen that would change this. Moms need to be patient with their children’s questions as children may need to ask similar questions many times over before the concept makes sense and the situation is understood by them.
Many wonder how important it is for children raised by single moms to have male role models around. It is important for children to have male role models, especially as they approach puberty. Much has been written about the difference between the sexes and we can all agree that males and females tend to think and behave in different ways. It is beneficial for children to receive balanced input. A single mother may not enjoy sport but her son may be a keen sportsman and would benefit from a male support figure to attend his sports games and guide him regarding sportsmanship. Teenage boys may have questions they feel shy asking their moms but would feel comfortable asking an uncle or their grandfather. It would be helpful for the single mom to encourage the development of a positive relationship between her son and a reliable male friend, uncle or grandfather, who can show her child what it means to be a man: the challenges, the fears, the responsibilities and the joys.
When the father of the child is involved it is imperative that the relationship between mother and father is sensitively negotiated without harming the child. The central point here is that both parents need to put the needs and interests of the child first. This means not speaking badly about the other parent to the child in an effort to pull the child onto one side – the child should not have to take sides. Both parents need to identify when their behaviour has more to do with hurting the other than helping the child. An agreement needs to be made between the parents regarding the residential schedule, visitation plan, holiday arrangement, the handling of special occasions, contact with extended family and the payment of maintenance. Decisions need to be made regarding which means the parents will use to communicate (directly via telephone or email, or indirectly via a mediator), and which parent will have decision-making power in which circumstances. A parenting plan can be set up with the help of a psychologist, mediator or lawyer. Each parent needs to make the effort to be fair to the other parent and to constantly keep in mind the best interests of the child.