Harvest House Publishers
Brookies Cookies is to Bigfork, Montana, what the Empire State Building is to New York City, the Golden Gate is to San Francisco, and the Arch is to St. Louis. Whoever you are, when you are in Bigfork, you go to Brookies and you buy a cookie.
Besides being a local landmark, Brookies is a place where locals congregate. It is also a place where I commandeer a corner table and work when a change of scenery helps my creativity. On one such occasion I had the following conversation with another of the regulars.
“What are you working on now, Cynthia?”
“A book to help the single mom.”
(Derisive snort.) “I met one yesterday.”
“She was a bell ringer for the Salvation Army. I asked her if she got paid for ringing the bell. She said she did, said she needed the money to support her six kids.” (Enough snorts to get a Snickerdoodle caught in his sinus cavity.) “I walked away in disgust. I mean, she got herself pregnant six times.”
And so the stereotype goes. According to that fellow, the woman was a blight on society and most certainly a drain on our social services. Further conversation with the man made his position clear: In his eyes the woman represented one of the many things wrong with this country, by golly. The hapless mom on the sidewalk must be weak, uncivilized, too ignorant to keep her legs crossed at the ankles, or worse, milking the system. If you ask me, he failed to notice one rather remarkable accomplishment, something that should warrant profound amazement—she got pregnant all by herself six times! Right. And pigs fly.
I don’t know if you have one child or six—or sixteen for that matter. And, frankly, I’m not going to put too much energy into the reasons why. We will look at the many faces of single mothers, but why and how you became one is not my main concern. My objective is to help you to live your life as a single mom and to live it well. I am going to do that by helping you get through today. That’s all. “Today” is where I will invest most of my energy and where you should too because in case you haven’t noticed, there’s a lot of work to do.
Face it! In spite of the emotional stew you may be marinating in, in spite of the big, overwhelming picture of getting your kids through childhood in one piece (and in reasonable mental, physical, and emotional health); in spite of the bills, the loneliness, the laundry, the cranky car transmission; in spite of your boss, your mother, and your ex; your colossal challenge is to get through today. Tomorrow is soon enough to cope with those matters, and cope with them you will, but your path to tomorrow goes smack through today. My question to you is this: Do you want to stand on tomorrow’s doorstep with both feet planted, hands on your hips, and a bring-it-on glint in your eye? You can. Let today reign. Make the steps of today matter, and let tomorrow take care of itself.
Has it occurred to you that tomorrow never comes? You can catch a cold, you can catch a bus, but you can’t catch tomorrow. It will always be ahead of you, teasing or threatening, just out of reach until you finally get close enough…to grab nothing but a fistfull of air. Tomorrow vaporizes as quickly as it begins. You go through the door and presto! you’re right back into today. Let me help you to live for this day, not in a careless manner, ignoring the weightier needs of your future or of sound plans, but in the way and words of the Master. Jesus said, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34).
Living well—regardless of who you are—is a critical testimony to a watching world. Besides, who wouldn’t want to live well? Sign me up, Cynthia, and show me how! Great—the first step is to understand what I mean by “living well.” If you’ve read previous books of mine, you already know that by living well I mean living according to God’s purpose for your life, understanding that He is in control regardless of your circumstance, and finding joy in that understanding. Joy even in the face of adversity.
Wait a second! Are you telling me that God’s purpose for my life is to be alone? To have suffered loss? To be stuck in a rut so deep I’m wallowing in muck and gasping for air? To run myself ragged while dealing with snotty noses, snotty children, and snotty feelings that grip me by the throat and shake me till I lose any sense of worth or equilibrium? This is His plan for my life?! Forgetaboutit!
I don’t know. I’d need a Doctor of Divinity degree to figure all that
out. We’d have to consider the matter of free will, of sin, of straying from His original plan for your life. By the time I found myself a single mom, I’d messed up plenty and had never given God’s plan for my life the time of day. (Or my own plan. Didn’t have one.) I didn’t even believe in God much when I was first homeless with a young child. (That’s right—homeless.) Though those were hard years for me to live through, I look back and see redemptive grace working in my life in spite of my skepticism and rebellion. I have learned that regardless of our circumstances or how we got in them, God still has a plan for our lives. Foremost in that plan is our relationship with Him, followed by bearing His image to a hurting world. Next in His plan is a no-brainer: He gave you a life so you could live it—and live it well.
Bringing God into the picture is necessary because I do not believe you can succeed in the natural world without the spiritual. I am holistic and cover a lot of bases in my books, ever aware of body, mind, and spirit. How can anyone live well by ignoring one- third of who she is? I am aware that many women eschew anything religious, sometimes for good reason. Some women have suffered at the hands of supposedly religious people, including their husbands. But that doesn’t change the importance of attending to your personal relationship with God one bit.
Certainly living well includes more than living according to God’s purpose for your life in a spiritual sense. Living well also means having a life: paying the bills, eating healthy meals, living in healthy bodies, and keeping a relatively happy and harmonious home—with children. We have a lot of ground to cover, so let’s get down to business by looking into the many faces of the single mom.
As I begin, let me get something straight: I did not live well as a single mom. I survived. I survived through sheer grit, dumb luck, the grace of God, and the kindness of strangers. I eked out a living, but I didn’t fare so well emotionally, physically, socially, or spiritually. (Picture me rocking in a fetal position on my kitchen floor and drooling.) Though I seemed to be holding it all together on the outside, I was a mess on the inside.
I want to get something else straight: My stint as a single mom lasted less than two years, barely giving me enough experience to weigh in on this issue, though those were profoundly difficult times for my son and me.
My time as a virtual single mom, however, spanned from the birth of my son through his seventh year. My years as the daughter of a virtual single mom spanned my entire childhood.
“Virtual?” asked my friend Holly. “I’ve never heard of a virtual single mom.”
“Just made it up.”
“You see, Holly,” I continued, “a whole lot of women are single moms in spite of being married.”
“Yeah, like who?” asked Holly.
“Well, like women whose husbands are in the military. Or in prison. Or ill. Or never home. Or emotionally absent. Women married to those men are virtual single moms.”
“Ah…there are a lot more single moms than I thought.”
There are a whole lot more single moms than any of us thought. Until now, just like Holly, many of us think of single moms as women who are alone through divorce, death, abandonment, choice, or family circumstance. (Roughly ten million strong, according to government statistics.) But that’s only part of the picture.
I’d wager that ten million can be easily doubled to reflect the virtual as well as the actual single mothers out there. That’s a lot of millions. Who are all these women? A cursory glance at my family and some friends gives us an inkling:
• I was a single mom through divorce. But prior to divorce, I was a virtual single mom due to a husband who could not emotionally grasp the full responsibility of being a husband and father. I was mother and father to my son.
• My own father could not cope with marital or parental responsibility and seemed only to be able to tend to himself. My two sisters and I were raised by a virtual single mom.
• My mother’s mother, direct from Poland, raised five children in spite of my Polish grandfather’s inability to cope with life. Beaten by the Russians and left for dead, my grandfather’s spirit was dashed to smithereens long before he immigrated to America. My “Babci” was a virtual single mom.
• The exacting demands of graduate school kept our grown son marginally distanced from his family until he received his doctorate. At times this put pressure on our daughter-in-law to persevere as a virtual single mom.
• A friend suffers from multiple sclerosis, another from the ravages of alcoholism, another from a brain injury. The wives of these three men have been forced to act as single moms to their respective children.
• One young friend bears the responsibility of small children as her husband serves in the military. Another friend raised children while her husband spent months on submarine duty. One friend had to cope with her husband’s debilitating depression after he returned from Vietnam.
• One friend’s father checked out emotionally because of his inability to cope with the demands of a mentally challenged child.
I could extend this list indefinitely; these are a sample from my immediate family and friends. For an example of an “actual” single mom, my mother-in-law lost her husband to a drunk driver when her son, who would later become my husband, was five years old.
Actual or virtual, single moms are everywhere. The U.S. Census Bureau claims that 61 percent of all children will spend some time in a single-parent household, most of those households run by women. This statistic is an eye-opener. How and why did this happen?
About half of all marriages end in divorce. That includes marriages blessed through religious ceremonies. (I’ve read that the only group of couples that show a marked improvement are those who pray together.) The preponderance of marriages that end in divorce have produced children. Shazam—single moms. A lot of them.
Divorce can come as a result of prolonged strife, it can come from out of the blue, and sometimes it can come as a colossal relief. Is divorce sometimes necessary? Unequivocally, yes. Especially as a result of unrepentant infidelity (including pornography), threat to the family through crime or addiction, or abuse. (In my estimation, some other versions of abuse are as destructive and painful as physical abuse.)
It happens often: A hapless, worn-down, desperate mother struggles to keep the family together while a derelict or emotionally unfit father runs his family into the ground before he runs off (or is carted off by the law). And who is left with the mess? Mom. What happens next? Sometimes the woman is vilified, often she is shunned or abandoned, and routinely she is overlooked by those who should be rushing to her aid.
It happens often: A wife is living her dream, maybe with a tiny intuitive pull in her spirit that something is amiss, when one perfectly normal day the announcement comes. “I don’t love you anymore. I’ve found someone else. I need to get on with my life, and you don’t fit in my plans.” Thunderstruck, she staggers like a zombie through the system: property division, child support, visitation rights, papers to sign, anniversary dates to face, children to raise, lunches to make, snow tires to put on, electric bills to pay. Sometimes she clings stubbornly to illusions of reuniting and will not—cannot—let go.
It happens often: A wife wants out of the marriage. Freedom, fulfillment, lack of love or intimacy, new horizons—whatever the reason, the husband is sometimes blindsided by a wife who calls it quits and takes the children with her.
It happens often: Relationships hit tilt. All the counseling in the world is not going to redeem two hearts that are polarized with rancor and strife. You just want out; he just wants out. The kids will just have to adjust.
“It’s better for the kids,” you convince yourselves. “Anything would be better than for them to be exposed to such stress and animosity.” You may be right. I heard one TV psychologist state that kids would rather be from a broken home than live in one. Maybe yes, maybe no. I’d rather put it this way: Children may be from a broken family (in the traditional sense), but they never need to be from a broken home.
I’ve spoken to children who welcomed peace into their homes and were glad their father was out of the picture. Did they long for a father deep down? “Well sure, but not the way it was. Maybe—you know—a real dad, or parents who got along…family…everybody a family.” Conversations became wistful and eyes tended to drift away at that point.
I’ve also spoken to kids who were positively devastated by divorce and missed their fathers desperately regardless of the visitation arrangements.
And I’ve spoken to kids who have settled into divorce with a shrug because it is commonplace.
Marital breakup is built into our culture as one of many reasonable life-affirming options. Divorce is so mainstream that our six-year-old granddaughter—who lives in a secure family environment—engaged me in a telling conversation:
“Gram, if you and Pop ever split up…”
“Gram and Pop will never split up, Ellen.”
“Oh, Gram, you never know!”
I feel compelled to make an appeal for reconsideration in your decision for divorce.
Do I feel marriages should stay intact because of the children? One young man I spoke to thought they should. One older teen told me he felt valued because his parents chose the hard task of staying together for his sake. I’ve spoken to kids who recognized the supreme sacrifice their “warring” parents were making by trying to stay together.
Children ideally need both a mother and a father in a safe and nurturing family environment under one roof. (Key words: “safe and nurturing.”) Slow down if you are in the throes of divorce. Don’t be too quick to terminate solely on individual rights that supersede the rights of your family. We have become nearly hysterical with traditional- family phobia in our earnest desire to uphold individual rights over any inkling of responsibility to a greater cause. Family is our most basic and fundamental social structure. I believe it was the essayist Wendell Barry who wrote that families live on compromise, sacrifice, kindness, love, fortitude, goodwill, and growth. These attributes are also necessary in the greater social cause—the families we call our neighborhood, our town, our country, and our planet Earth.
When I speak of a traditional family, I speak ideally of a mom, a dad, and kids. Because some bad characters and wrong thinking entered the family dynamic, bad press and phobia have sprung up toward what many postulate as ideal. Some women have suffered, trying to hold together a traditional family. This suffering continues as millions of virtual single mothers carry the burden of household management or child rearing, at times because of the husband and father’s dereliction. This in no way discredits the value of both mother and father in the healthy development of children. Those who claim Christ should be vanguards in establishing healthy models through behavior rather than through rhetoric. We scream that we want traditional families, yet we fail to follow the biblical precepts of self- sacrifice, respect, and unconditional love. Family is too important for cheap sloganeering. It is the most important thing we have.
I’m not going to weigh in on the argument of what makes a modern family, nor would I suggest that women must have a man in order to be complete or for their hardships to be over. When I was a child, my family was essentially matriarchal. Your family right now is matriarchal by virtue of your single-parent position. Yet any way you look at it, family is vital to the furthering of society. We learn to function within society first by how we navigate our family environment. Lessons should come from sound and healthy modeling by both parents.
These days we bring not only dysfunctional backgrounds into marriages but also a checklist of unmet needs. Hand in hand with dysfunction and unmet needs comes the constant cultural mandate to “love and fulfill ourselves.” I am first in line to campaign for strong self-worth, but I worry that we can easily misappropriate exhortations to “love thyself.” When we fall for “self above everything else” propaganda, our fulfillment might be accomplished at someone’s expense. In a family, that someone can be the three-year-old who finally learned to hold a fork and not eat Jell-O and whipped cream with his mitts anymore.
Can the virtue of strong family be modeled within a single-parent household? Of course it can.
Let me shout from the rooftops for those of you who are divorced and raising children on your own: I am a realist; I am on your side. I intend to do my utmost to get others on your side too, if only by awareness of your plight, your fears, your loneliness, your unmet needs as a woman, and your desire to do a superb job of raising your children.
I cannot begin to understand what the death of a husband does to a woman’s heart. I can guess, I can approximate, but I cannot begin to know your pain. Or your anger. To have your lover ripped from you …especially now, when the children are still young or at home, can only feel wrong and cruel—even if death seemed a merciful end to suffering. You are alone, and your bed is empty. I’m sorry.
On top of this insurmountable loss, you may be denied your rightful expression of grief. The children need baths, meals, discipline, new shoes. They need your strength and support in order to face their father’s death. They need hugs, piano lessons, and T-ball. They need. How will you manage to meet their needs? Let me tell you this with confidence: You will.
He found out you were pregnant and that was the last you saw of him. Or he rejected you and your child outright. Maybe you thought the baby would bring him around, stir some fatherly responsibility or duty, or cause him to recognize how much he really wants you. And now he’s completely out of the picture.
Or you found yourself pregnant and kept your child. You never, ever planned it this way. And here you are: alone. Well, not exactly alone. You have your child…or children. And you may still be a child yourself, or barely into adulthood. Regardless of your age or your circumstance, you find yourself abandoned. Life may be upside- down, inside out. Maybe you even want out. What do you do? What you do is pick yourself up and get on your feet. Then you put those feet one in front of the other and head down the road to motherhood. If you like, I’ll walk with you.
Some women parent alone by choice. Altruism, life experience, distrust of marriage, biological clocks, and not having met a soul mate are some reasons women go it alone. Many women have sacrificially taken foster children into their homes and have adopted older children and babies alike. This is a worthy purpose for life.
On the other hand, to have a child for the sake of completing one’s self, or as a necessary accessory, would not be on my list of noble and purposeful endeavors. I read the work of one person who made the choice to be a single mom sound like blissful self-realization and regarded fatherhood as archaic, oppressive, and clearly unnecessary. Needless to say, that author and I are not in agreement. In my opinion, the role of a father or of a healthy male role model cannot be overstated. Chapter 3 will expand on this.
I interviewed one woman for this book who brings a totally different perspective to single mothering: rape. Date-raped at 16, she conceived and bore her first child. Her courageous choice to use this experience to create awareness of date rape and pregnancy does not diminish the fact that she had emotions to confront and became a mom at a tender age. Though not originally by choice—and because of a violent crime against her—this young woman has become another in the ranks of single moms, one who cares for her child with utmost love and dedication.
Reasons abound why grandmothers suddenly find themselves at the helm again. According to the Census Bureau, 2.4 million grandparents have the primary responsibility for their grandchildren. My hope is that this book will act as a refresher and an update for those women who have welcomed a new brood into their arms in mid to later life.
Let’s pull the drapes back and take a closer look inside some seemingly intact and functioning families.
Your husband is ill. This puts you in the position of caregiver and virtual single mom. Managing the care of someone who is disabled or sick while meeting the demands of parenting is a huge task. Perhaps the father can still play a viable relational role with the children and even provide some help, if only to share responsibilities in spirit. This situation is a double-whammy. While you take “in sickness and in health” seriously and would not dream of complaining, yours is a very full plate.
At this writing we are at war. With or without war, many women find themselves virtual single mothers as husbands are called to military duty. One small solace in this arrangement is the network of other mothers with whom to share child-rearing issues, other women who understand the knot in your gut as you count the days for your husband’s tour to be over. Another consolation is that, as one military wife put it, many of these women knew what they were getting into. One not-so comforting fact is that divorce rates spike when spouses go off to war.
Wives of military personnel, law enforcement officers, and firefighters share a dubious distinction: Their husbands are in the line of fire. The phone might ring, and a grim stranger may appear at your door. This concern weighs heavily as you do your best to create a normal, happy environment for your children.
It happens. Men go to prison. The stigma of divorce has dramatically diminished, but the stigma of your children’s father being in jail is another matter. Women are often secondary victims of their husband’s crime as they are suddenly left holding the bag (which is usually empty). These are big hurdles to jump: making a positive environment for your children, offsetting any negative modeling that may have come from the father, and holding your head high while you try to get by.
Does any wife of a PhD candidate or medical resident in the world not feel like a virtual single mother at times? Or the wife of a man who spends untold hours away from home by virtue of his occupation? (Worthy of mention are the wives of pastors who bear up under constant interruption to their family routine and who live in a fishbowl.) At issue is the unrelenting monster that grips your husband and wrings him dry as it demands more and more time and energy. The decision to power through for the degree or to stay the course with the job is mutual and for a season. Regardless, mom is still in charge, virtually caring for the day-to-day routine by herself. We need some sort of honorary title for women who selflessly work toward the same goals as their husbands. Parenting solo is no less hard for them.
I have firsthand experience as a daughter of a virtual single mom and as a virtual single mom myself. I married a man similar to my father, who lacked the ability or interest to involve himself in parenting. As a restaurant worker, my dad was often gone, his work taking him away from our home every evening, his dalliances often keeping him away all night. We children quickly learned the discipline of silence when he was home lest we wake the sleeping man who smelled like a deep-fat fryer. In my case, my first husband also was not able to participate in meaningful parenting.
Many women are married to men who live within the same walls and provide financially but have removed themselves from the family emotionally or conversationally. Whether glued to an easy chair and the ball game, out fishing, playing golf, or on the Internet and the like, these men do not involve themselves in either their marriage or their children, leaving the mother a virtual single parent in a two-parent home. The wife and mother finds herself in a profoundly lonely situation.
I wanted to put a face on each type of single mom. (If I left you out, this book is for you too!) Above all else, I wanted you to understand that you are not alone because many mothers have walked before you, walk next to you, and share your circumstance. I have tracked down women just like you and interviewed them because I wanted their voices—voices like yours—to be heard.
Whether you are divorced, you are a single mom by choice, or your husband is in jail, all I want to do is help you. As I said before, you have work to do—the most important work you will ever face and most likely the hardest work you will ever face: You have children to raise.
Another reason I identified different types of single moms is this: In order to understand yourself today, you must understand that you are as much your past as you are your future. Getting in touch with your past will help you be fully present now and experience more of what God has in mind for your future.
To be sure, single mothers live, work, struggle, and succeed in the now. Each day brings enough to keep you busy, each buzz of the dryer brings enough laundry, each little emergency and tearful face brings enough drama, each visit from the mailman brings enough bills.
But recognizing how you got to now, how you formed your world- view, how you think about life, and how you look at your circumstances all has to do with what you have experienced before. That is why I wanted you to take a peek at who you are. Unless your husband’s sudden death thrust the role of single parent upon you, chances are that you have plenty of background that brought you to where you are.
Think about this: Some women have cluttered homes. Curiously, much clutter is old stuff that no longer serves purpose. The same can be said of hearts. At times, much of the clutter in broken hearts comes from old stuff (jumbled thoughts, dashed hopes, lost relationships, and other life experiences) that no longer serves any purpose. How does a room look once clutter is removed? The very appearance of an uncluttered room causes the spirit to soar. What if a cluttered heart was swept clean and renewed?
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right
spirit within me.
Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thy holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of thy salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit
(Psalm 51:10-12 RSV).
I’ve interviewed many single mothers and integrated their comments into this book. One particular voice stands alone—Marcie’s.
Marcie is a composite woman. Her quotes represent verbatim statements as well as shorthand versions of the feelings or struggles of the mothers I encountered. I use Marcie for a little sass, a little humor, and a whole lot of honest sentiment.
Church Initiative, headquartered in Wake Forest, North Carolina, was founded by Steve and Cheryl Grissom. It is a nondenominational, nonprofit ministry that equips local churches to help people recover from life crises. A phone call or a visit to their website may lead you to an active group near you. (1-800-489-7778 [US and Canada], 919-562-2114 [local and international], email@example.com, www.churchinitiative.org) I highly recommend you consider one of their excellent programs:
DivorceCare is a seminar and small group resource designed to help churches to effectively minister to people who are hurting because of separation and divorce. (www.divorcecare.org)
DivorceCare for Kids is designed to bring healing to children of divorce and to give them hope and the tools to develop healthier relationships within their own families. (www.DC4K.org)
Before You Divorce is a ministry strategy to help save failing marriages. (www.beforeyoudivorce.org)
GriefShare is an innovative resource to assist churches in offering effective ongoing ministry to those who are grieving the loss of a loved one. (www.griefshare.org)
National Domestic Violence Hotline offers crisis intervention, information about domestic violence, and referrals to local service providers through qualified hotline advocates who offer help in English and Spanish. Hotline advocates have access to translators in 139 languages. (1-800-799-7233, TTY: 1-800-787-3224, firstname.lastname@example.org)
Single Moms on a Mission is an organization with a mission to improve the quality of life for single parents and their children by providing resources to strengthen the emotional, spiritual, and financial state of the one-parent family. (www.singlemoms.org)
Focus on the Family offers an endless assortment of books and resources to help mothers cope in nearly every aspect of life. (www.family.org)
Pastor’s Wives’ Support Board is a Web page sponsored by Rock Dove Publications. It is filled with helpful suggestions, advice, support, and encouragement from other women who are pastors’ wives. (www. rockdove.com/pw21.html)
Grandparents Rights Organization is a national volunteer nonprofit organization that educates and supports grandparents and grandchildren, and advocates their desire to continue a relationship threatened with loss of contact. Though not specifically intended for grandmothers who have custody of children, its newsletters may be of help. (www. grandparentsrights.org)
Visit the Military Wives website (www.militarywives.com) and click on the branch of the Armed Forces that applies to you. These sites are filled with data and information from daily inspiration to craft ideas. A monthly e-newsletter is available.
Kari West and Noelle Quinn, When He Leaves: Help and Hope for Hurting Wives (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2005). Includes information on the issues of infidelity and pornography.
Tricia Goyer, A Life Interrupted: The Scoop on Being a Young Mom (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 2004).
Rick Warren, The Purpose-Driven Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 2002).