Advice to Single Parents

By Virginia Watts Smith

The transition from being married to being single is traumatic. The abruptness with which some are thrown into a state of singleness may make life even more catastrophic.

Our minds and bodies do not automatically push a button which says married or single. After being married for one year, or for 20, we continue to think married. It is also very difficult to think single with children dashing about the house.

Just as it took time to adjust to being married after being single for so many years, it will be difficult to adjust to being single again
after being married. But the single state in which you find yourself is not at all like the single state you experienced before marriage.

Those individuals who are unmarried parents or single adoptive parents are also in transition. Their transition, however, takes them from a single state to one in which they suddenly find themselves with a family.

Regardless of category, you will find your lifestyle changing. You are now in a special category, one not really well-defined by society.

For Widowed and Divorced Women Only

Society is usually elated when a baby arrives on the scene, and the new mother is showered with attention. However, a woman entering a new life as a widow or divorcee finds little or no assistance from either individuals or institutions, and her needs are probably greater than that of the new mother.

Becoming a widow or divorcee involves more than losing a husband. A woman may also suffer other losses, such as a drop in income, loss of familiar friends, and possibly loss of the family home. If her husband had been a helpful partner she may have lost a gardener, repairman or auto mechanic, depending on which roles he performed.

Women probably experience more role changes than men do, and these sometimes-disconnected changes may result in a lowered self-esteem. The role changes the single parent is required to make will add greater strain–a further blow to an ego that is already somewhat shattered.

Identity, which is the development of a sense of self, is important throughout life. Who am I? Where am I going in life? What should I be as a woman? a single parent? These questions are important as we seek to establish a new way of life.

Developing a clear sense of identity takes time and should have a good beginning in childhood; ideally it should have been established in the home. Unfortunately, many homes do not provide a setting in which a youngster may develop a strong self-image.

Besides having a good self-concept, a woman should also have several outlets, or props, in life. If one prop is snatched away-her husband-other props will be readily available to her because they have become an established part of her life. This is not to say that she will not miss her husband, but it does mean that she will be better able to cope with what life brings her.

Adaptability, versatility and a good self-concept, plus several outlets these form a solid foundation on which to build a new life. A woman will not feel quite so “stripped” if she has such a foundation on which to rely.

If a woman has not developed a strong sense of identity as a child or before marriage, she may have real difficulty in feeling like a “whole person” after she has been left alone. Because of this “half-person” feeling, she may rely on others-unnecessarily-to bring meaning to her life.

This reliance may be expressed in trying to lose herself in her family. Becoming completely absorbed in one’s family is neither satisfying nor healthy for the mother or her children. Children are separate, independent individuals and should constantly be encouraged to work themselves out of and away from the nest. To cling to a child is to dwarf both parent and child.

It is exciting and satisfying to know that children are ready to leave home as independent, capable adults and that we have had a part in helping them become mature persons.

As children become older we cannot expect them to be in the home as much as they were when they were younger, nor will a parent be going as many places with them as one did earlier in life. Schedules cannot always be coordinated for the togetherness shared earlier. More important, however, is the scriptural truth that it is normal and necessary for children to grow up and “leave father and mother” and enter into their own independent lives.

A single mother may want to think of new ways to fill her time as she adjusts to her children leaving home. Entertaining friends once again, for example, may be a satisfying experience. Sometimes we forget what fun it is to have a barbecue, buffet or fancy dinner party. Sprucing up ourselves and our home may be just the thing to get us out of the self-pity syndrome (“Poor me, my children are all leaving home”) and into a new and exciting life.

A single woman may also rely on widows’ or single women’s groups. To do so may only reinforce a poor self-concept and negative feelings toward the rest of the world: “No one cares about me anyway.” A woman will certainly want to have widows, divorcees and other single women as friends, but not to the exclusion of other groups of people. Isolation and selectivity may generate greater loneliness and hostility and further delay a healthy adjustment to a new life.

There is also the woman who may find it very difficult to make friends with other single women. One reason is that much of her life has been centered around her husband and children. A second reason may be that she resents being labeled widow or divorcee.

To isolate oneself from such groups or to confine oneself to such groups may mean the loss of meaningful relationships. It is better to begin to develop new attitudes about people—-not thinking of them in terms of men, women or children, but as persons.

Eventually a single woman may want to develop relationships with men. She must realize that society allows single men more freedom to meet new people than it does single women. Then, too, there are more women available to the single male. To further narrow the field for a single woman, we find that an older man may date a younger woman without fear of reprisal, but society, in general, still frowns upon an older woman dating a younger man.

The world is becoming somewhat more tolerant toward women who actively seek legitimate relationships with men, but most women are still very hesitant to be assertive in this area. The story of Naomi poses an interesting example of a godly woman who actively sought out a legitimate relationship with a godly man for her daughter-in-law, Ruth. Can’t you just hear the little community buzzing with the news, “Did you hear about Ruth and Naomi?” “Can you imagine two widows being so forward?” “Frankly, I think it is just plain disgusting.” I wonder if God smiled just a wee bit at the attitudes and inhibitions displayed by the onlookers? Since Naomi’s plan was God-ordained, I assume we may accept her behavior as correct.

An older single woman may feel rather foolish as a relationship develops with a man. She may even express herself as “feeling like a teenager again.” There may be some hesitancy about entering into a dating relationship because she does not want a man to think of her-at least to begin with-as a potential marriage partner. Usually a woman who has been married has a well-defined idea of what she wants in a future mate. She certainly does not want intentionally to hurt a man’s feelings by turning him down, nor does she want him to think she is interested in him if she is not. Mature people do not take dating lightly.”

Demands on a single woman may require new attitudes toward tasks her husband formerly performed and that she may consider unfeminine. These tasks may include balancing the budget, taking the car to the garage for a tune-up, handling household repairs, and dozens of other roles not previously performed by her.

Personally, I believe that children should learn to do many tasks as they grow up in the comfortable setting of their home. These tasks should not be labeled male, female or mother, father. Girls should be allowed to watch and help father fix a lamp, hang a picture or change a tire. Boys should know how to sort, wash and dry the laundry, press a shirt, bake a cake and shop for groceries.

Children who are brought up knowing how to do many tasks and to perform a variety of roles will not find it so difficult to adjust to marriage;nor will separation from a mate, should that occur, be such a shattering experience.

If a woman already feels comfortable paying bills or confronting the garage mechanic, she will feel more secure if she should need to seek employment after becoming single again. Every woman should continue to develop her skills and talents throughout marriage. She will then have these resources to draw upon if she is faced with raising her family alone.

How thankful I was for my typing and shorthand skills. A short brush-up course was all I needed to get me started in a new profession. As an extra bonus I was able to give piano lessons. This not only helped us financially but it also gave me added assurance that I was a capable person and, furthermore, that I could trust God to help me in my new role as a single parent.

For Widowed and Divorced Men Only

Men, too, must adjust to a new lifestyle after becoming single parents. The transition may be different from that of a woman, but it is very real, and just as difficult.

Men usually have more continuity in their lifestyle from youth to old age than women do. Their identity, including roles such as husband, father, wage earner and sportsman, has been established, so they may not feel quite so fragmented after being left alone.

A woman, on the other hand, as has already been suggested, often feels like a “half-person” after a divorce or the death of her husband.

Feeling comfortable in an already settled occupation relieves a man of much of the stress and strain usually required of a woman when she becomes single. But the life of the single male parent is not “all joy.” He has some particular problems and adjustments that a woman does not have.

Men may have to learn to perform so-called feminine roles. A man may never have had to prepare a meal, do the laundry, grocery shop or vacuum the carpet. On top of feeling rejected and less masculine, he may also feel very foolish and angry because he is obligated to assume these unfamiliar tasks.

Though men experience loneliness and grief just as much as women do, society has not allowed them to express grief and loneliness by crying. Men, as you know, are supposed to be strong, unemotional, silent and aggressive. This unnecessary standard puts undue stress and strain on a single man as he seeks to adjust. He may try to run away from his true feelings, or escape into the past, since he is not supposed to express his feelings in legitimate ways.

Edward Dayton, in an essay “On Learning to Cry,” says:

I don’t know when I learned to cry. . . . Perhaps it just happens as you grow older. Life is never easy for a young man, I suspect. No
matter how outwardly confident he appears, inside is the fear the fear of the unknown that lies ahead, the fear of not being accepted, of being “different,” or being rejected. But tears, after all, are for children. . . . I wish I had learned to cry sooner. And I wish our society would let me cry more.

A male single parent may have to make some major financial adjustments. Left alone through the death of his wife, a widower may have to hire a housekeeper, adding financial strain.

A divorced man, on the other hand, has alimony and child support to pay. Child support payments are not tax deductible; his salary is now taxed at a higher rate; and he is maintaining two households instead of one. But he is still on the same salary.

The single male parent has other problems also. He may work many hours a day, possibly to help with the added expenses, or perhaps as an escape. Regardless of the reason, work may become all-consuming but far from satisfying.

For a time, after the loss of his wife, a divorced man may find the company of “the boys” enjoyable; he may even boast about how great his freedom is, but he soon finds this kind of life boring and drab.

The single male, entering into a new social life again, finds it as unfamiliar to him as it is to the single woman. He may, in fact, be
very fearful of any kind of relationship with a woman. For example, a very sincere, innocent compliment may be taken more seriously by a woman than was intended, so the man backs off from what should have been a natural expression of appreciation.

A man, fearing rejection, may also be afraid to ask a woman for a date. Rejection would add to his already diminished masculinity and ego. He may especially fear seeking companionship of an attractive, assertive type of woman, even though he may honestly want to get to know her better.

A divorced man struggles with guilt feelings along with a real sense of loss-especially in regard to his children. Though he wants a loving, meaningful relationship with them, he finds it extremely difficult when he sees them only on weekends or once a month.

Sexual adjustment will probably be more difficult for the single male than the female. In fact, he may find it difficult to maintain a
proper relationship with a woman companion. “The general public is rarely shocked by, or may even expect and be tolerant of, some measure of sexual activity in single middle-aged males, regardless of the nature of the relationship,” states P.H. Gebhardt in a lecture delivered at the Institute for Sex Research on the campus of Indiana University in 1974.

Though research data indicates that women tolerate periods of little or no sexual activity better than men do, the following information was also cited by Mr. Gebhardt in the same address: “There are indications that nearly all divorced females resume sexual activity following the divorce, as compared with about 50 percent of widows. Widows usually are more financially secure, and are subtly inhibited through continuing bonds with in-laws from engaging in sex with other men.”

The Christian must recognize the scriptural teaching that “continence is appropriate” regardless of society’s view on the subject. But further, as Dr. Roger Crook stated in An Open Book to the Christian Divorcee, “Sex without commitment is fundamentally unsatisfactory. . . . To be fundamentally satisfying, sexual intercourse demands love, acceptance and commitment.”

For Single Adoptive Parents Only

Regardless of the joy a child may bring into the life of the single person who has dreamed of parenting, major adjustments must be expected for both parent and child. Since older and physically/emotionally handicapped children are usually placed with single adoptive parents, the time required for proper adjustment may be longer. Older children, for example, generally present more adjustment difficulties, simply because the child’s personality has already developed to a great extent. Many older children have also had earlier experiences of deprivation, abuse and instability, and come to the single parent with substantially more emotional problems. The physically handicapped child may require an even greater amount of care-perhaps lifelong.

Adjustment of both parent and child are dependent on several factors. Much of the responsibility for good adjustment depends on the parent’s own sense of well-being and self-esteem. Research indicates that single adoptive parents take longer to consider a child their own than couples who adopt, and that males take longer to adjust to parenting than females.

The fact that you, the single adoptive parent, will have a significantly restricted social life after a child arrives must be accepted as part of this newly chosen lifestyle. Understandably, there aren’t too many other single adoptive parents with whom to socialize;
you may not quite fit into the divorced or widowed single-parent group; married couples may not be ready to accept you; and your single friends don’t feel comfortable talking about, or being around, children. Now, instead of accepting social invitations, you may find yourself saying more often: “I’ve got to attend a parent-teacher conference tonight.” “Sorry, I can’t make it. Johnny’s sick.” “I’m short on cash this week.”  “The house needs cleaning.” Or, “Sally needs help with her math.” Your social life may include much more family time, both your own and extended-family involvement’s.

Extended-family relationships are extremely important. When extended families respond positively, there is better adjustment, sooner, for both parent and child.

The major new tasks faced by the single adoptive parent, their costs, and time commitments may loom especially large in this transitional stage.

For Unmarried Parents Only

Though the number of unmarried parents is escalating and it seems commonplace for children to be born of these relationships, the transition from the life of a relatively “free” teenager to the life of a teenager with a child is overwhelming.

The freedom a teenager may have hoped to find by having a baby just doesn’t exist. If she felt confined before, she will feel controlled now. If she stays at home, her mother usually becomes the child’s parent. If, on the other hand, she moves away and lives alone, she is trapped by the baby and other responsibilities. Should she decide to finish school, she may find that added responsibilities at home make it impossible to study.

Dating could be a major problem. Some fellows may ask for a date only for what they can get. Others don’t want to date a girl with a baby. Now she can’t just say, “I’m going out for the evening,” but rather, “Where will I get money for a baby-sitter?” and, “Who will take care of the baby for me?” Babies aren’t too popular when taken on dates.

The young unmarried parent has had little experience at fulfilling day-in-and-day-out adult responsibilities. Because of this, the presence of support and mature parenting examples from church, community and family can make the difference between failure as a parent and transition from teenager to successful parent.

Helping Children Through Transition

God created children to have parents of both sexes a mother and a father. This is the ideal! Unfortunately, we live and function in a less than-ideal world. Life today includes death, divorce, separation, desertion, unmarried couples cohabitating, unmarried parents, single males and females adopting. Literally millions of children are involved in these diverse living situations.

A few years ago researchers began to study the effect death and divorce had on children. We are now anticipating difficult questions that children being brought into these complex living arrangements will ask. Paul C. Glick, senior demographer for the United States Bureau of the Census, suggests that “to the extent that the general public becomes adjusted to the prevailing family diversity, children may be expected to grow up believing that such diversity is normal.” But we may be assured that children will continue to ask questions – complicated questions.

We need to consider how our children may feel and react to death, divorce, adoption or being born to an unmarried parent.


Small children have limited ideas about death. They accept it somewhat as a matter of course. Sometimes they feel responsible for the death of a loved one. Children may think that if they are good, the loved one will not die. As they grow older they become more emotional about death. They are very concerned that their mother may die. Children in the 7-to 9-year-old bracket may think of dead people as skeletons or ghosts. One of my nieces, when confronted with the question, “Have you ever seen a dead person?” answered, “Well, only the ones at the museum, with their skins off.” But by 9 or 10, children are able to understand more about death and realize that when death occurs an individual does not breathe.

Each child will respond differently to death. Much depends on how his family responds to the experience, particularly his remaining parent.


Dr. J. Louise Despert, child psychiatrist and author of Children of Divorce, says, “It is not divorce, but the emotional situation in the home, with or without divorce, that is the determining factor in a child’s adjustment. A child is very disturbed when the relationship between his parents is very disturbed.”

Dr. Despert reviewed more than a thousand cases of disturbed children who came to her. She found there were far fewer children of divorce in her group of disturbed children than in the general population; but there was trouble between nearly all the parents of the disturbed children who were brought to her for help. The problem lies in the unhappiness of the parents, which exists even before the divorce takes place. Dr. Despert calls this “emotional divorce” and says it is more disturbing to a child than the actual divorce.

Dr. Despert gives four guiding principles in discussing divorce with a child of any age:

1) Acknowledge that there has been a decision to separate. He already knows there is trouble, and to talk with you calmly and simply about the impending separation will help relieve his anxiety.

2) Acknowledge that grown-ups can make mistakes, and that his parents have made them. He must one day accept the fact that his parents are human; it is part of his growing up. You may be hurrying him a little, but the truth is a more durable basis for his confidence in you than a fiction of your godlike perfection which in any case cannot be maintained.

3) Assure him that he is in no way to blame for what has happened between his parents. No matter what may have been said in anger or impatience, the trouble lies only between you and your spouse and quite apart from him. In this way you help to relieve the guilt that most children take upon themselves when there is trouble between their parents. But be careful, in freeing him from blame, that you do not by implication lay the blame upon someone else, that is, upon each other. “Bad” and “good” are words which have no place in this discussion. His parents simply do not get along with each other. This period of your own emotional confusion is no time to make judgments, and certainly not to a child.

4) Finally and most important, assure him in every possible way that despite your differences with each other, you both still love him as you always have.


Adopting parents may panic when a child begins to ask questions about his own parents and his past. His curiosity is perfectly natural. Answer his questions matter-of-factly and honestly. It’s generally believed that some knowledge of his background is good for an adopted child, when it’s a part of his everyday living. It will help him to learn the good points about his biological parents. Obviously, it isn’t necessary to go into detail.

Your child may want to know why he was given up for adoption. A general idea may be conveyed, “Your parents couldn’t give you the home they wanted to, so they let you come to one that would be better for you.”

Since a large percentage of children available for adoption are born to unmarried parents, your child may be one of them, and this information may come to his knowledge. His questions may be tough to handle. Perhaps just letting him know that sometimes people believe they love each other without a formal relationship will satisfy his questioning. This will be an excellent time to provide some sex education by simply sharing with your child that God’s plan for a loving relationship between a man and woman is only within the framework of marriage. But your main concern is to demonstrate to your child that you accept and love him for the person he himself is.

Your child may want to see confidential records regarding his past. He needs to be assured that his personal identity will never be erased. Sometime he may need to see these records. Chances are he never will. Answering questions as they arise will probably satisfy him. It’s important to tell a child that he is adopted as soon as he can understand at all. He is bound to find out sometime, and if a relative or playmate tells him, it will come as a shock. The security he needs so much may be destroyed. He may think there is something really awful about being adopted. It’s important to be honest. The most important thing you need to share is that you wanted him and you love him.

Unmarried Parent

The questions a child of an unmarried parent ask will undoubtedly be difficult to answer. As with the adopted child, a parent must be as honest as he or she can be without hurting the child. The child will probably wonder why he only has a mother, why his name is the same as his mother’s and grandparent’s name, why his family is hesitant to talk to him about his birth, why he doesn’t know his father’s family. Sometimes families of the child may deceive him by saying, “Your father is in the army,” or, “He was killed in the war.” Honesty is probably the best policy in the long run, even though it may present difficulties. It might even be advisable to simply say, “I made a mistake in getting involved when I was very young. But I love you very much. You are special to me.” 4) Finally and most important, assure him in every possible way that despite your differences with each other, you both still love him as you always have.

(The above information was published by Focus on the Family, 1992)

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