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Parenting solo, single parents rely on safety net of friends, family

Mom & Son Jennifer Van Guilder of Snoqualmie became a single parent abruptly, following her only child's open-heart surgery when he was 10 days old. The resulting stress shattered an already-fragile marriage, and Jennifer's husband left. Reluctantly, she put aside her self-sufficiency: "I had to reach out and say 'I need help,'" she recalls.

Van Guilder and her tiny son moved into her brother and sister-in-law's basement. She paid the couple for food, rent and child care while continuing her management job at Costco. Cared for by relatives who loved him, Van Guilder's son formed strong ties to his cousins that continue to enrich his life 13 years later.

In the palm-moistening, stomach-tightening high-wire act of single parenting, a big net stretched underneath can literally save a person's neck. That net is a safety network, an intricately woven mesh of family, friends, employers, newly acquired skills and helping hands from other parents who know the ropes.

For example, Van Guilder eventually found another single mom with whom she could share housing. "We helped each other," she recalls. She made the difficult decision to exchange her management job for hourly work in order to have more time with her little boy. Selling Mary Kay cosmetics to make ends meet, Van Guilder looked to the women around her for help and emotional support.

"They never minded if I brought my son to meetings," she says. "I also reached out to my neighbors and traded child care, and later to the parents at my son's school." Van Guilder says she repeatedly found that support was there for the asking.

When her son was 8, Van Guilder returned to a salaried position at Costco after the company encouraged her to come back to work. "I laid out the perfect scenario for myself, explaining what I needed as a single parent, and they said yes. Costco really understands the value of family -- whatever I have wanted or needed from them, I have had," she states, acknowledging that such an understanding employer is rare and an enormous part of her single parent's support network.

Locally, the number of single-parent families is increasing: According to U.S. Census figures, 24.1 percent of all households in King County with children were headed by single parents in 2000, up from 22.3 percent in 1990. The number of families headed by single dads in King County rose from 8,339 in 1990 to 12,321 in 2000. Many single fathers, says Laura Doerflinger, MS, LMHC, director of the Kirkland-based Parent Education Group, "are left out in the cold because there really isn't a Daddy network -- men are incredibly isolated and don't have the established support network to reach out to."

Not surprisingly, the issues facing the growing number of single-parent families vary widely according to individual circumstances. Former spouses who share joint custody must help their children move between households as seamlessly as possible, polishing communication skills they may have lacked during the marriage or strained during the divorce. Parents with sole custody struggle with the lack of respite from parenthood's incessant daily tasks, often fighting to accomplish basics like grocery shopping, homework and getting to work on time. Personal needs like sleep, friendships, relationships and even time to grieve are postponed, sometimes indefinitely.

Single parents with sole custody carry the anxiety of wondering who would raise their children if they died. "Single parents clearly must be ultra-responsible. Often times, there is no back up, thus making sure wills are put together and that their child is provided for in the event of their death is very important," Doerflinger explains. "Once a single parent has done all they can to prepare for such an event, worrying about the possibility of death is a useless expenditure of energy. Your child needs you to be available and truly alive -- not caught up in worrying."

Some single parents long for backup when holding the line with a testing teenager. "Single parents have the challenge of trying to understand their teen without the input of another adult. It can be confusing and crazy making! You have the right to listen, help put life in perspective, as well as turn off electronics, hold back rides, refuse to buy goodies or pay for those expensive shoes, or even give permission for outings," Doerflinger advises, adding that parents also need to "listen and observe. Instead of offering your opinion, offer your ear. Hear your child out when they are faced with a dilemma instead of going straight into problem-solving mode."

Single moms struggle to facilitate male mentors for their growing sons, as single fathers face such milestones as bra shopping and menstruation with their daughters. The magnitude of single-parent life is by its nature overwhelming, especially for a parent without close family nearby. Reaching out and re-defining 'family' can fill this gap. "Traditionally, children were raised by a wide variety of adults and all the burden wasn't put on one person,"Doerflinger says. "So create a community, enlist family, and keep your mind open to the experience of your opposite sex child. Then, once a 'rights of passage' comes, you'll be open, the child will be open and the experience will feel comfortable."

Some single parents ease their load by hiring support in the form of nannies, housecleaners and restaurant meals, but such parents are a tiny percentage of the total population. For many parents who are stretching one income, even an occasional babysitter is cost-prohibitive.

Doerflinger objects to the label "single parent" for those with joint custody, pointing out that these former spouses are no longer married to each other but are still co-parenting. "When we become co-parents, we are still in a system together and yet we have let go of our influence in the other person's system. The only way to get it back is to collaborate," she explains. "If parents can collaborate through the rest of their kids' lives, they are giving those children an enormous gift."

Collaborating can mean planning out how the child's transfer from one parent to the other will be handled, working out a plan for getting the child's pet from one house to the other or negotiating the details of the child's school situation. Collaborating former spouses are able to serve as a safety net for their kids and even for each other, Doerflinger adds.

She recommends family counseling "to help the family as a unit," adding that family reconciliation services are available through Washington Department of Social and Health Services for families in any income bracket. "Educated people still need continuing education" on parenting skills, Doerflinger stresses, especially during a divorce when the parenting landscape is changing. She also strongly advocates the collaborative divorce process, explaining that it "engages a team of lawyers, psychologist, financial analyst and coaches to devise a win/win situation for a whole family."

To form a support network, Doerflinger advises single parents to "get involved with your kids' friends and activities and prioritize staying involved with married and divorced people in your community. Participating in school activities gives you an instant social circle."

For many years, Jennifer Van Guilder has been involved with the Single Parent Family program at Westminster Chapel in Bellevue. The program is geared for parents who are divorced, never-married, widowed or abandoned. It draws a multiethnic mix of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons and those of no declared faith for practical hands-on skill training and support. The program is non-evangelical -- less than 25 percent of those who participate in Single Parent Family programs also attend church services at Westminster.

Parents in the program credit its success to director Theresa McKenna, a single mother who found no such support service when she was raising her own children two decades ago. McKenna has created a place where "everyone understands what I am talking about," Van Guilder says. "The program is geared for single-parent issues with significant support for single parents just coming out of crisis. It meets single parents where they are."

The goal, McKenna says, is to "help single parents invest in their own well-being and to help them get unstuck. Our program builds community -- good, safe, healthy friends -- who are good models for each other, and builds empowerment through competency." McKenna encourages parents who participate in the program several years running to assume leadership roles, teaching classes and mentoring new attendees.

For example, Van Guilder facilitates "Parenting With Love And Logic," one of a series of classes Westminster offers each Tuesday evening, following a healthy dinner for both parents and kids. While parents and a facilitator work through issues like "One Parent Plus Kids," "Core Communication" or "Boundaries," younger children and teens split off into their own skills-building sessions.

Parents at the weekly dinner exchange tips informally as they fill their children's plates and gather around tables. One mom praises Dinner's Ready, a commercial kitchen in Issaquah where for a reasonable fee she was able to pre-make a month's worth of dinners for herself and her son. Another, tending three little girls, says that finding Westminster has been "a big relief." A newcomer nods in agreement as the mom sitting next to her says, "When you become single you step into another world." The strong sense of community these parents share, their empathy for one another and their willingness to share advice, helps illuminate the unfamiliar landscape of that challenging new world.

Westminster also co-sponsors Single Family swimming and games nights and a yearly "Learning For Life" seminar with the Bellevue Family YMCA. Classes teach concrete life skills like pitching a tent, how to use a fire extinguisher, simple cooking and basic car care that might have been handled by a former spouse. The Northshore YMCA in Bothell sponsors similar events.

Westminster also offers the Gap Guys, church members who Van Guilder says "are there to help us by standing in the gap." An email summons these volunteers: Gap Geeks help with computers, Gap Garage Guys fix cars and Gap Guys handle household maintenance issues. The services are free and available to everyone in the Single Family program as well as church members. The goal is to help single parents weave a support net through skills competency, mutual support and personal empowerment.

"It's OK to take, to voice what you need," Van Guilder says. "Being a single parent requires that you speak up and build your own community."

Phil O'Brien of Seattle, a single father with kids ages 9, 11 and 14, also advises single parents to reach out. O'Brien has discovered that other parents, married and single, are his best first-line support network -- if he asks. "I've learned to be assertive and to humble myself and ask other parents for help," he says. His children are also part of his circle of support. "Trust your children and their ability to be flexible. If you communicate to your kids that you love them and they are your highest priority, they will make the best of any situation."

Special events for single families also provide an instant social circle. Jewish Family Service Single Parent Family Program hosts family events in Seattle and Bellevue that provide a cultural or educational focus for single parents seeking to foster a positive Jewish identity for their children.

"Single-parent families logistically have a harder time getting out and making connections," says Program Director Marjorie Schnyder. "Single parents prioritize very carefully how they choose to spend their limited time." Jewish Family Service events -- including a yearly all-day retreat, Shabbat dinners or baking Hamantaschen cookies for Purim -- allow single parent families to build community and evolve a natural support network. Community, Schnyder points out, "puts to rest the fear of being the only one."

Jennifer Van Guilder explains the concept of weaving the single parent safety net with one succinct word: ask. People who respond and meet the single parent's needs, she says, "are blessed in the giving. Everyone is blessed when you reach out."

Paula Becker is a Seattle historian, freelance writer and mother of three.


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Originally published in the May, 2006 print edition of ParentMap.

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