Single parents are not often thought of as good parents.
I became acutely aware of this fact when my children were young and I was dealing with the challenges of being a single mom. An "expert" told me that the increase in the number of dysfunctional families was directly related to the increasing number of single-parent families. The statistics proved it.
I was taken aback. I had never related dysfunction to the number of adults in a family. In fact, I was aware of many families that functioned better when one of the parents was no longer present.
His comment did make me stop and think, however. Were single parents really the cause of many of society's ills? Or was that a misconception? I felt that I needed to answer that question - not for society as a whole, but for my family.
To begin, I took a long, hard look at myself. Was I still a good parent? Were we functioning in a healthy, balanced way? Or were my children suffering from the "unnatural" situation of living with only one parent?
As I tried to see it all objectively, some things became clear to me.
First, I realized that I was not perfect. It was important for me to be able to acknowledge that, because there had been a time when I could not allow myself to fall short in anything I did. I had felt the need to be everything to everyone - the perfect mother, good housekeeper, reliable employee, involved citizen. I had felt like a failure because I could not possibly live up to my image of what I was supposed to be.
Then slowly, I had come to realize that it was okay to be less than perfect. I relaxed. I learned to set priorities and to let other things go. That set me free to devote more energy to the things most important to me, including my relationships with my children.
The second thing I realized was that I was a better parent than I had been before. Oh, I still made lots of mistakes. The challenges of single parenting are overwhelming. But it is easy to get so bogged down in the problems that we forget to notice our successes.
In fact, our family was much closer and stronger than it had been before. One of the greatest differences was that we talked to each other more than we had in the past. Part of this was due to he ages of my children (they were 10 and 12 at the time), but in many ways, our closer relationship came out of necessity.
When we were suddenly 3 instead of 4, it was clear that we had to communicate more in order to function. Our financial situation had changed and although the burden was mine, it required an adjustment in my children's expectations as well. At home we all needed to pitch in to keep things running smoothly, and that had to be coordinated. Emotionally, we had all gone through some major changes and my main concern had been that my children not develop negative feelings about themselves or the adults in their lives.
All of this required many hours of talking as a family and also one-on-one. We developed the habit of sitting down to discuss things whenever a problem arose or a decision needed to be made. We had family meetings regularly and they provided a practical way to take care of family business, such as deciding upon house rules, chore assignments or how to spend some fun time together. In the process, we learned how to work together as a team and to stay in touch with each other's feeling.
So were my children harmed by growing up in a single parent household? It is really a mixed bag.
Yes, they missed out on the experience of having both parents at home, for which I still carry some sadness. At the same time, they became thoughtful, caring, responsible people, who were sensitive to the needs of others and accepted responsibility with grace and good humor. Most important, they lived every day in a home that was filled with love and laughter - and that is worth a great deal.
Thinking about our experiences and what I have observed in other families, I have come to some conclusions. I would like to share these with other parents who are facing similar challenges.
1. Families can function in a balanced, healthy way, regardless of the number of adults who happen to live in the home. The key is not how many people live under the same roof - or their ages - but the ways in which they relate to each other. Communication and mutual respect are major factors.
2. Every person in a family has intrinsic value and his or her ideas need to be considered regardless of age. Children and teenagers usually have good ideas and want to have responsibilities long before many parents realize. If we recognize and accept their contributions, we will be enriched and at the same time, we will help them to become more responsible, caring people who feel good about themselves and their world.
3. As parents, we don't need to be perfect. We know what the "ideal" mother is like - cheerful, patient, with lots of time to give lovingly to her children in a neat orderly home, where she prepares delicious, well-balanced meals and keeps everything running smoothly at all times.
In fact, it is not possible to be that ideal parent and home-maker while also carrying the full-time responsibility of earning a living, yet many single parents build expectations of themselves around that image. This often causes a lot of guilt and frustration for people who are doing the best they can to raise their children in today's society.
It's okay to make mistakes, to be inconsistent once in a while, to leave dirty dishes in the sink - in other words, to be human. The most important part of the job of parenting is the relationships with our children. Let the rest fall where it may.
4. It is never too late to change the ways in which we relate to one another. We have all made mistakes along the way, but we parents are learning and growing just as our children are. Sometimes the best thing that can happen in family is to admit to one-another that what we have been doing isn't working, and to agree to work together to find a better way.
The important things are:
- to be real with each, other,
- to respect each other's feelings,
- to say "I'm sorry" when it's needed - and mean it,
- to ask one-another for help and to give it in return,
- to work together to help each other to grow.
None of these things can happen if we are angry, frustrated or resentful.
The only way to create good, positive relationships is to relate to each other from our hearts, bringing the energy of love into every conversation - no matter how frustrating our day has been.
So how do we do that? It's tough out there, and by the time we get home, we're tired, frustrated - sometimes angry.
That's the very reason we HAVE to do it - because our children deserve better from us than what's left over at the end of a work day.
It doesn't take long to shift our energy. We can do it in the car on the way home. The important thing is what we focus on.
If I think about all the things that went wrong at work today, I will walk through that door in a really bad mood, and my children will pay a high price.
If, on the way home, I think about something my child did that upset me, I will re-create the energy of my anger or disappointment, and that is how I will greet my child when I get home.
If I decide, however, to take responsibility for the emotional energy in our home, I will focus on things about my children that please me - things I appreciate. Then when I walk through that door, I will bring the energy of love and respect, and that will create an environment in which my children will respond to me and to each other in the same way.
So, what kind of parent do you choose to be? It IS a choice, you know. We make it every day - many times a day.
We can be the kind of parents who confirm the statistics - or we can defy them.
If we live from our hearts - if we allow love to guide us and if we learn to trust our own inner wisdom - we can raise our children to be loving, responsible, emotionally balanced adults. In the process, we will be blessed many times over.
Pat Downing has many years of experience counseling teenagers and their parents, conducting family mediations and leading workshops and support groups. She is co-author of the e-Book, "Feel Good Parenting: How to Use the Power of Your Heart to Create an Extraordinary Relationship with Your Child." For more information on how to create relationships that are peaceful, harmonious, cooperative and joyful, you may go to go to http://www.feelgoodparenting.com to sign up for a free e-Course and a free e-zine for parents.
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