How to Build Strong Families
Like a bad dream I can’t forget, I will always remember the stomach flu that struck me the first year I was a single mom. Waves of nausea rolled over me that morning. I lay perfectly still trying to shake the nausea then tried to ease out of bed without waking my daughter. But she spotted me anyway. She was eight months old–old enough to stand in her crib and call for Mommy, her chubby arm reaching through the rails of her crib. But too young to understand that Mommy was about to lose last night’s dinner. Young enough to still be breast-feeding, but too old to stay put. It was my worse nightmare.
In between bouts of vomiting I tried to find someone–anyone–who could come and watch her so I could lie still and sleep. But it was hard for my twenty-something single friends to fathom the depths of my agony. Finally, a friend said she could spare a few hours in the afternoon. Her smiling face on my doorstep later that day was the best thing I’d seen in years.
Single parenting has its black moments. But it also has its moments of intense joy–when the sheer delight of motherhood out shines the darkest days. The love we feel for our children compels us to persevere. And when our children spontaneously return that love, our hearts sing.
Healthy loving family relationships. That’s what we all want. Like all parents, we want our kids to grow strong and true and we are willing to do almost anything to help them overcome the devastating loss of a parent. How can we triumph against the odds?
The fundamental dilemma of parenting, a wise pediatrician once told me, is deciding how much you will give your child and how much you must reserve for yourself. This dilemma is even more pronounced for the single parent who is trying to cover the bases once covered by a team of two.
Yet my years as a single parent convinced me that the biggest mistake most of us make is trying to cover all the bases. We end up getting so frazzled that we function on autopilot or so discouraged that we give up. “But it is not hopeless. Single parents can build successful families,” says Dan Ratliff, Ph.D., director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at St. Mary’s University and a former pastor.
The key, I believe, is accepting our limits and taking the time we need to achieve and maintain spiritual and emotional health. It is easier for most of us to focus on meeting our children’s needs. But you can’t build a healthy family without a healthy parent. The emotional and spiritual health of the entire family flows out of the life of the parent. Our wounds color our perspective on everything.
Unfortunately, we arrive at single parenthood accompanied by devastating losses–either death, divorce, or abandonment. “The grief we experience from that loss,” says Carol Golz, a clinical therapist and frequent family seminar speaker from Littleton, Colorado, “must be dealt with. It won’t go away. If you push it away, it will come out later.” Golz knows firsthand–she is a single mom herself.
As we work through our grief our children are set free to deal with their own grief. According to Dr. Ratliff, “Studies show it is as effective for the mother to be involved in a divorce adjustment group as for the child to be involved in the group.” Why? Because kids pick up their parent’s tension and stress. “When Mom and Dad’s emotional needs have not been met, the child intuitively tries to redress the lack,” state Robert Hemfelt, Ed.D., and Paul Warren, M.D., in their book Kids Who Carry Our Pain (Thomas Nelson).
Guilt is another negative emotion that plagues many single parents. “Most depressed single women I counsel believe they have irreparably damaged their children,” says Dr. Ratliff. “They feel tremendous guilt.”
Unfortunately, children are masters at using guilt to get what they want. “Children have conned parents into letting them evade more chores, homework, and last-minute projects by making them feel guilty than by any other tactic,” say Dr. Bruce Narramore, professor of psychology at Biola University, in his book Help! I’m A Parent (Zondervan). Parents who carry unresolved guilt have a harder time recognizing their children’s ploys.
Where do we start? I began by crying out to God, asking Him to heal me. My most intense period of healing came during a difficult time in my life. My daughter, Anna and I had moved across the country. I left family, friends–-my entire support system to move to a town where I didn’t know a soul. I managed to hold myself together during the day at work, but in the evenings after I put my daughter to bed I fell apart. I was incredibly lonely. My only friends were 3000 miles away and I couldn’t afford long distance phone calls.
Night after night I sat in my rocking chair reading the Bible and crying. For years I had avoided my pain by keeping busy, by never being alone. Now I had to face it. Gradually and gently God showed me my wounds and healed my heart.
Take time to assess your own emotional and spiritual health. Do you have habits that tear at your family? Unresolved pain and grief? Anger toward your former spouse or anger toward God? Do you need to forgive yourself?
God will heal you, if you cry out to Him. Spent time with Him. Read His word and ask Him to give you the strength to obey Him. Let Him speak words of love and comfort to your heart.
At the same time, seek a trusted friend, pastor, or professional counselor who can help you process your pain. And ask God to give you the friends He wants you to have. We all need supportive friends–someone who can honestly share our trials and joys. If we don’t take the time to cultivate deep friendship we will end up depending on our kids for emotional support. “I asked God to put people in my face,” recalls Golz, “and He did.”
During my time of intense loneliness God gave me a deep friendship with a married couple and their two children. They were my “family” when my own family was 3000 miles away.
A small group at your church may provide the friendship and support you need. Single parents need friendships with other single parents, because they will understand what you are going through, as well as friendships with intact families. “Single parents and their kids need to see healthy intact families up close,” advises Golz. “They need to see good models.”
“All children,” says Dr. Bruce Narramore, “need substantial amounts of time with their parents.” Single parents need to be more organized, creative, and disciplined to create time together, but it can be done. Ask God to show you creative ways that you can make more time with your kids.
I gave up reading the newspaper when my daughter was little, so I wouldn’t tune her out during breakfast. And I worked part-time–something I could do only by renting a bedroom in the home of a widow rather than paying for my own apartment.
Other suggestions are:
- Moving close to your job or changing jobs to keep commute time to a minimum. Even better, see if you can do some or all of your work at home. My friend Francine created a home-based business so she could be home with her nine-year old son.
- Try to negotiate some flexibility at your job so you can work through lunch, leave work to watch the occasional class play, or meet your kids when they get home from school and then return to work after they are settled.
- Give your kids age-appropriate chores so you can work together and then play together. “This gives them a terrific sense of accomplishment and a sense of the whole family pulling together,” says Dr. Ratliff.
- Commit to spending a specific amount of time each day playing with your children. It doesn’t need to be long. My friend Karen plays with her two girls five minutes a day before bedtime. “It doesn’t sound like much,” she says, “but they love it. We play cards, dominos, or checkers, or I let the youngest one read us a story. Some nights they just want a tickle.” That time is sacred. “If the phone rings, we don’t answer it.”
- Go on a date with your kids. Karen takes each girl on a date once a month. “It may just be to the playground, but they are guaranteed time alone with me.”
- Cook simple meals and let some of the housework go. Or if you have room, consider renting a room to a student in exchange for household help.
- Take a vacation together every year. If money is tight think creatively. “Ask yourself, who do we know in other states?” suggests Golz. Perhaps you can visit friends or relatives–or offer to trade houses with them. Go camping in a nearby state park. Or if you can’t afford to leave home, take fun day trips.
- If you are divorced, remember your child needs time with their other parent. “Don’t close out the other parent unless there is serious abuse,” warns Golz. “Children need to know that the other parent loves them. When my husband left, I was so angry that I wished he would disappear from the face of the earth,” recalls Golz. “But I knew that was not best for my children.”
- ”Have fun with your family,” recommends Dr. Ratliff, recalling the advice a retired minister once gave him. “He told me to play together and pray together.”
Keeping the Lid on Sibling Rivalry
Any parent with more than one child knows that sibling rivalry can turn time together into a nightmare. “One of your most important responsibilities is to establish an equitable system of justice and a balance of power at home,” says noted family expert James Dobson in his book The Strong-Willed Child (Tyndale House). This is even more crucial in single parent homes where children often spend more time home alone. “Make sure the house rules are clear during any unsupervised time,” recommends Dr. Ratliff.
If they still fight, ask yourself, are their needs are being met? According to Dr. Narramore, kids fight when they “feel unloved, unworthy, incompetent, or bored.” Or when parents inadvertently reward their fighting.
“On the inside we all yearn for intimacy and affection, ” say Gary Smalley and John Trent, Ph.D., in their book The Blessing (Thomas Nelson). Physical affection communicates love and acceptance–something we all crave. Shower your kids with physical affection. This is easy with the little ones, but even older children need your touch. If they resist your attempts to hug them, “ask their permission,” recommends Golz. Don’t embarrass older kids by trying to hug them in front of their friends.
Giving It All To God
Finally, give your children to God every day and ask Him to meet the needs you can’t meet. How do we do this? I get on my knees and admit my need. I tell God that I can’t do it. I picture each problem and each child and place them on His lap. I read His word and claim His promises. I remind myself that God is Jehovah Gira, my provider.
If I still struggle, I go to a trusted prayer warrior and ask them to pray with me. Together we ask God to show me the root of my turmoil and ask Him to heal that wound.
During my early years as a single mom, I focused on my need for …..a husband. I wondered why God didn’t bring me one. Couldn’t He see how much I needed a husband?
God gradually showed me that I needed to let Him love me, heal me, and provide for me even more. I have been married now for over ten years, but I will never forget God’s tender care during my years as a single mom. Never forget that God is there for you, too. You–and your children–are precious to Him.