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Understanding Family Structures and Dynamics

Single Parents

family structure
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
It's important for you to try to maintain a relationship with your ex-spouse for the sake of your children.

If you've just experienced a divorce, a separation, or the death of your spouse, you may be totally overwhelmed with your loss and with the new responsibilities that go with being a single parent. There you are, totally in charge of decision-making, finances, breadwinning, and nurturing. It's no wonder newly single parents often feel fatigue and depression.

Most single parents today are women, who may face a somewhat lower income than their male counterparts. They often must rely on child support and government subsidies. Often, they must move to smaller, less expensive quarters to make ends meet. Coupled with the financial problems they may already have is the hard truth that many employers are biased against single parents because they think they're less reliable.

The newly divorced or widowed parent doesn't face these changes alone; children also experience loss and a disruption of routine. Toddlers may be affected more by how the parent copes and by changes in routine than by the fact of the divorce or the death.

When a parent dies or leaves, children need attention, affection, and reassurance; they need to be told how important they are. Without such assurance, your child may fear losing you, as well. Do your best to maintain schedules and routines as much as possible, and don't be lax about rules because you think the situation is hard enough on your child. Children need limits to feel secure; dispensing with rules is like dispensing with routine -- it's unsettling.

Separated or Divorced Parents

After a divorce, try to make sure your child sees her other parent regularly. It's important for you to try to maintain a relationship with your ex-spouse for the sake of coordinating visitation. Cooperation and flexibility are essential, no matter what your personal feelings may be. It's also important that you don't say anything negative about your ex-spouse to your child. You need to support your child's contact with her other parent and with your former in-laws as well.

If you can, seek support for yourself from relatives, your church, and social groups. If you have no support, the stress of being a single parent is especially high. Parents Without Partners, Inc., is a support group for single parents, with chapters in most communities and on the Internet.

If you are what is referred to as the noncustodial parent (you don't have custody), you must also be willing to maintain contact with your ex-spouse, despite your personal feelings. You must support your child in her relationship with the custodial parent. If you are not allowed visitation, you must continue to let your child know you are there for her. This may seem futile, but at some point, when she is old enough, she will know how to contact you-and she will. If you have been granted visitation, you must find ways to continue having a parenting relationship with your child. Don't structure every moment spent with her as fun time; if you do, time spent won't be very real, and you and your child will never really know each other. The two of you need to talk quietly and be reflective and honest. An unending succession of amusement parks and zoos will make this difficult.

The concept of coparenting, or joint custody, works best when both parents live in the same community and they are able to maintain a very cooperative relationship, with high levels of communication. Joint custody is emotionally easier on fathers, who traditionally have not been granted custody. It allows them to remain involved in decision-making about their children. (Noncustodial fathers may back out of visitation and child support payments because they feel uninvolved with and unable to affect their children's lives.)

Sometimes the noncustodial parent lives in another state; this parent may still be involved with the child, but contact is limited to infrequent visits, telephone calls, and letters or e-mails. For this contact to have much of an impact, the parent must master the arts of letter writing and phone calling. Writing creative, entertaining notes the child can easily read and providing stamped return envelopes if using regular mail can keep communication going. Phone calls should be made at times convenient for everyone.

When an ex-spouse is completely uninvolved, the single parent often doesn't know what to tell the child. It's important to allow a child to continue trying to contact a parent until she realizes the parent isn't going to respond. Often, the inclination is to prevent this to protect the child from being hurt; this backfires because the child interprets this to mean one parent is trying to keep her away from the other. Once your child realizes that Mommy or Daddy is gone and isn't coming back, you can help by allowing her to talk about the parent as a way of working through her grief.

Never-Married Mothers

Many of today's single mothers have never been married. An increasing number of women spend their 20s establishing themselves in their careers and do not seriously desire children until they reach their 30s. By then they may feel that if they wait until they meet a suitable marriage partner, it may be too late for childbearing. The idea of having a child outside of marriage is also becoming more widely accepted by younger women.

family structure
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.
More women outside of their 20s are becoming first-time mothers.

Some women who opt for motherhood without marriage choose to become pregnant by means of artificial insemination. But many discover that some doctors are unwilling to artificially inseminate an unmarried woman. Some who choose artificial insemination genuinely do not want to become emotionally involved with the father of the child and feel this would be inevitable if they knew him. Others, predominantly lesbian women, choose artificial insemination simply because it does not require a personal relationship with a male partner. Still others want to raise the child alone and fear that if they knew the father, he might later make claims on the child.

Some women who want a child without getting married select a partner who is willing to father the child with no strings attached. Others agree the acknowledged father will be involved in the child's life although the parents will not marry.

Whatever their choice, however, these mothers are free to raise their children according to their own ideas and values, and they reap many of the rewards of parenting. On the other hand, they undertake heavy responsibilities and risk the loneliness of parenting without a partner with whom to share both the burdens and the good times. For this reason, support groups for such single mothers have begun to spring up-at least in several major cities (and also on the Internet).

Widowed Parents

How well a family adjusts to the death of a parent depends a lot on how the parent died. When a parent dies after a short-term illness, the family may adjust more quickly than it would if the death were sudden or from a long-term illness. Other families may find that dealing with a long-term illness has given them time to work through some of their grief before the family member dies.

Children go through essentially the same stages of grief as adults: shock and numbness, followed by grief and depression; then an emotional distancing from the loss; and finally creative adaptation to the loss. It's important to remember that children display these feelings differently than adults do. Even children younger than three years of age feel the loss, although they may not understand the finality of death. Children may deny the death, they may act angry toward the deceased parent, and they may feel guilty, thinking they did something to make the parent go away.

To help children cope, explain the death to them in language they can understand. Don't use euphemisms; they add to confusion and lead to questions like, "If we lost Daddy, why aren't we looking for him?" Explanations that are too gentle can confuse and even frighten a child; your child could fear that if he ever gets sick again, he will die, too.

When children become depressed, they often develop minor illnesses such as colds and intestinal upsets, or they play less, or they become more clinging and dependent. Understand that your child feels the loss and needs to feel more secure. Be open and willing to talk to your child about his fears.

You will undoubtedly need to find support for yourself, as well. You may get some from the children, depending on their ages, but you also need adult support. If you can't rely on family-who may tell you to get over your grief and carry on with your life-we urge you to contact your local Widowed to Widowed group, where you can open up and find support in dealing with the changes you are experiencing. It's not uncommon to need two to three years to adjust to the loss of a spouse.

There are other concerns for parents who decide to have children later in life. We will consider this situation in our next section.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.