Parents who are single need community and connection. Here's how you and your spouse can help them.
Before I was a single parent, I had no idea how different life was for those who don’t have a spouse in their lives … mostly because I didn’t really know many single parents. I didn’t have any single parents in my social circle. The single parents at my kids’ school seem to exist in a different orbit, floating in and out of school functions alone and unattached, accompanied by neither friend nor spouse. Because I never made the effort to get to know any of them, I assumed this was their preference. Now, I know better.
Everything from social interactions to school functions is lonelier and more complex for single parents – largely for the simple reason that in many circles, especially Catholic and Christian, single parents just don’t fit in. But regardless of the circumstances surrounding their family situation, we’re called to love and embrace one another other as Christ did. Looking back, I wish I had made more of an effort to include the single moms I often saw struggling to make things work — because now I know exactly how much even the smallest effort means to a single parent. So if you have some single moms or dads in your community, here are a few ways you and your spouse can support and encourage them as a married couple.
1Sit with them at school events
I know this sounds like it’s not a big deal, but walking into a school function and seeing bleachers full of couples and groups of couples can be incredibly isolating for a single parent. It almost feels like being thrown back into the high school or junior high cafeteria, when you’re holding a tray full of food and looking desperately for anyone to open up a chair and wave you over.
Fortunately, I was blessed by the parents of one of my daughter’s friends. At every track meet, volleyball game, and soccer game, they went out of their way to say hi and invite me to come sit with them. In doing so, they eventually carved out a place for me in the tight-knit circle of sports parents and in the broader school community. What might seem like a small act of kindness can actually be transformative for single parents.
2Go beyond small talk
Small talk is an important stepping stone in developing relationships. It helps us learn more about others, both factually and temperamentally. But small talk is also just that — small. Sure, it’s safe and easy, but if you’re not willing to go beyond small talk eventually, it can become a barrier to friendship and compassion.
Having been on the married side of the equation before, I wasn’t surprised by how many of my fellow parents avoided conversations that might (even inadvertently) touch on the subject of my divorce or my single-mom status. On the contrary, I both expected and understood it. After all, divorce is painful no matter what the circumstances are, and nobody in their right mind thinks the dissolution of a family is a great topic for halftime conversations.
At the same time, the conversational gymnastics that married parents engage in to avoid touching on anything remotely related to divorce or single parenthood is, frankly, downright awkward. I can remember doing it myself. I once asked a single mom down the street if her son was staying home for Christmas or “will he be going to, like … is there another, um, place he goes or … someone?” Despite the astonishing incoherence of the question, the mom knew exactly what I was trying so hard not to say. She answered quickly and directly, using as few words as possible to confirm that yes, her son was going to his dad’s. We stood in awkward silence for a few more minutes before she made her escape, because when a person is made to feel other, however inadvertently, their primal response is to flee. Humans are social creatures, created to live in community and solidarity with each other. Paradoxically, when we try to avoid topics or conversations that might make someone feel like an outsider, we also inhibit the connections that build solidarity and forge community. The single greatest gift married parents can give a single parent is connection — even if the conversations are awkward at times, it’s infinitely better than isolation.
3Invite them to family and multi-family gatherings
One of the hardest parts of single parenting is seeing your kids feel the effects of unintentional social isolation. Social events I took for granted before, like multiple families getting together with their kids for birthday or block parties, are a rare occasion now. Don’t get me wrong, my kids aren’t pariahs by a long shot – in fact, I can barely keep up with their schedules of parties, playdates, youth group events, and Bible studies. But while kid-centered events and activities are a vital aspect of social development, they’re not the only aspect. Spending time with other families helps broaden kids’ awareness and understanding of family dynamics, parent-child relationships, and sibling interactions.
Most importantly for kids in single-parent homes, it gives them the opportunity to see (hopefully) healthier examples of married relationships. All parents long to give their children a better foundation for their future lives as adults — nowhere have I felt this longing as keenly as I do here. I want my children to see that marriage can be as God created it to be — the living reflection of Christ’s unconditional love for us, his Church. As married parents, inviting a single-parent family to your gatherings and celebrations is more than an act of generosity. It can also be a powerful conduit of grace.