During most of my first marriage, I believed the lie that if I were ever to become a single mother, it would negatively impact my children, or that it would be so difficult on me that I couldn’t handle it. For that reason, I forgave things that most people would never dream of forgiving. But then one day, when our youngest was only 6 months old, I found out that my then-husband was having (yet another) affair, and something in me snapped. I kicked him out of the house and never looked back.
Several months, and several thousand dollars later, I learned that money can, in fact, buy happiness — when it is spent on your freedom via a good divorce attorney. While my children and I really flourished once we were out of that toxic environment, I will verify that single motherhood was just as difficult as I feared it would be. I was one of the lucky ones, though. I had an incredible community of people cared about me and my kids. I had both friends and family offer everything from babysitting and hot meals to a shoulder to cry on and a place to stay if I ever needed it.
And while those acts of kindness will always mean more to me than I can ever speak into words, it actually wasn’t the things that made life easier on me that were the most helpful. The most important and meaningful support I got was what I needed most: These four things that made life easier on my kids.
1. Speak Positively About Non-Nuclear Families in Front of Your Own Children
As you talk about other families, please remember this: The way you speak about divorced parents, single moms, etc., in front of your own children will, I guarantee, influence the way your children speak about the children of families on the playground and at school. We all know that peers have a tremendous amount of influence on the way that children feel about themselves. Speaking kindly at home will help train your child to speak kindly and could make a world of difference to a child who is going through a difficult time.
2. Use Inclusive Language
We have all said something along the lines of, “Where are your parents?” or, “You need to ask your mom and dad,” right? But while these may seem like responsible and innocuous phrases, consider replacing “parents” with “adults” or “grown-ups.”
Without realizing it, using “mom and dad” may cause a child to feel abnormal or stop them from getting your point because they’re too focused on a painful situation at home. Using inclusive language instead prevents uncomfortable moments of friction and allows children to focus on a more important message.
3. Don’t Make Assumptions About the Other Parent’s Involvement
There is a popular myth that single parents have positive relationships with their exes because once the relationship is over, they can focus only on the children. If that were true for all uncoupled parents, that would be wonderful. However, the reality is that this isn’t always the case.
Unfortunately, the reality is that often those relationships are incredibly challenging and even sometimes riddled with a history of physical or emotional abuse. What’s worse, not every parent is a good parent to their child. Because of that, you need to make sure you’re not making assumptions, positive or negative, about the other parent’s involvement. It can actually be something that causes a great deal of pain for the child.
Here’s an example: Let’s say you know a child in your kid’s class just won the first prize in an art show. You also know she has divorced parents and you normally see only her dad. If you were to say to her, “I bet your mom and dad are so proud of you! Maybe you guys can all go out and celebrate over ice cream!” that might seem like a nice thing to say, but you may be reminding the child of the fact that she has barely seen her mother over the last six months and she has no idea why. Can you imagine someone bringing up something so terribly painful to you in casual conversation? It’s important to focus on the positive things in a child’s life and the parent in front of you.
On the flip side, if you find out that the other parent isn’t really involved, isn’t paying child support, or is behaving badly in other ways, it’s best not to discuss it in front of the child. While as grown-ups, we know that adult’s bad behavior isn’t a reflection on the child, the sad reality is that kids don’t always feel that way.
4. Offer the Right Kind of Encouragement and Support
One of the hardest things about being a single parent is that you have to be your child’s everything. That takes an incredible amount of energy, and when people make comments that open up old wounds or force someone to have to legitimize their family situation, it is incredibly draining. Ultimately, this takes energy and can be extremely hurtful, especially when it’s brought up in front of the kids.
On the other hand, you can also use the power of words to help build up single parents. Think about how you feel when your partner tells you how great you’re doing. Single moms and dads rarely get that, so if you’re able to, offer a kind word. I’ll share some examples.
Things You Should Never Say to a Single Parent:
“I have no idea how you do it.”
“You’re so lucky you get a break from your kids.”
“Don’t worry; I’m sure you’ll find someone who can help you with the kids.”
“I wonder if you and their dad might ever get back together?”
“My husband travels for work a lot, so I’m basically a single mom too.”
“Kids really need both parents.”
Things You Should Say to a Single Parent:
“I notice how hard you work for your kids. If they don’t already, they’re going to see how strong you are.”
“I love seeing the way your kids smile at you.”
“You’re doing a great job.”
“You’re teaching your children such important lessons.”
“It really inspires me to see how much you love your children.”
If you know a single parent in your life, please be patient with them and know that they’re likely working overtime to try to keep their heads above water. If you see them struggling, it’s probably because they need a little extra support. Offering physical help is incredibly kind and always helpful, but at a minimum, keep these things in mind so that you can support them and their children emotionally.
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