Single parents’ changing relationships
On-going changes in our traditional family structure have meant we need to constantly rethink what it means to be a family. Trends in economy, and greater social acceptance generally, have given greater freedom to single adults who wish to continue parenting their children and raise their families independently. How a family starts out does not predict how they will continue. Many parents experience transitions away from their child/ children’s other biological parent, resulting in changes in the composition, number and size of their family unit.
Although the titles may vary e.g. single, sole parent, only or one-parent family, essentially they are the same thing. Universally, most single parents share common experiences and concerns when it comes to raising happy and healthy children.
What happened to us?
There are all sorts of reasons why relationships between adults break down. Analysing how and at what point things started to deteriorate can occupy significant emotional energy. But whatever changes have occurred within a parent’s relationship, it is vital that any children from the union are prioritised. Even though their parents may no longer share everyday lives, they will always share a biological connection through their children. Establishing realistic and respectful lines of communication, though difficult, is always worth aiming for.
Children benefit significantly when they see their separated parents being civil to each other and able to discuss shared parenting concerns.
Common areas of change
Thanks to our current climate of technological advancement, keeping in touch and being socially connected with each other has never been easier. Awkward face-to-face dialogue or telephone calls are no longer the only way separated parents have to relay information to each other. Emails and texting can offer a workable alternative.
Social networking sites are best avoided, particularly for private matters. These can be and have been used inappropriately, as a venue for public airing of resentment and hurts. It is also important that parents avoid using their children as a messenger service. Even if the separated parents’ relationship is amicable, young children need to be insulated from the (adult) responsibility of transferring important information regarding their care.
Remember – if you criticise the parent you criticise the child
To a very young child, criticism of one parent to the other can be internalised as criticism of themselves. Children can be so intrinsically linked and emotionally connected with a parent that they are simply unable to see themselves as individually distinct. It is always useful to employ strategies of tact and diplomacy when speaking with children about their other parent.
Occasionally, mediation with a third, objective party becomes necessary. Individuals with professional training and expertise can help significantly when it comes to assisting couples in finding workable solutions for parents who are separated.
It’s been said that nothing unites a couple more than shared debt. It is true, however, that debt can also be the cause for relationship breakdown – especially when couples have different spending priorities and habits. Separation and divorce can be a costly exercise. Amongst other factors, it is essential to plan for changes in lifestyle following separation. Dropping to one income and establishing frameworks and budgets for the general cost of living, child support, mortgage / rent / child payments, child care and school fees , health insurance and car maintenance need to be factored in and planned for. Even decisions around pets and their care often need to be included.
Where possible, forming new relationships with other adults is best done slowly; but for many reasons this does not always happen. Young children always benefit from being prioritised by their parents, and dating new partners is best deferred until the family has settled. It is important though, that single parents feel they are not neglecting their own needs for adult companionship and company. Balance is the key.
Blended families have become more common as well. Relationships constantly undergo change through separation, meeting other single parents, dating and often the formation of new partnerships and marriages. What children need to see is that their parents are happy. Older children especially can feel some degree of responsibility for their parents’ breakup and internalise feelings of guilt. Age-appropriate counselling can be very effective in addressing these issues and freeing children from the weight of unnecessary worry.
Sharing the kids’ care
Research has demonstrated that mothers and fathers parent their children differently. Unless the child/ children’s care has been abusive or neglectful, then sharing the decision-making around their care, education and healthcare is valuable. Our understanding of the importance of shared care is changing; mothers no longer have automatic priority when it comes to having custody of the children. Even when non-custodial parents do not wish to contribute physically or emotionally to their children’s upbringing, they are legally obliged to cover shared financial costs.
Moving house is almost inevitable when couples split and it’s not always possible to stay within a close geographical area to one another. This is another, important factor to consider when relocating. Spending valuable time transporting kids for access visits and to see their other parent often becomes a source of resentment. It can be worthwhile to seriously consider all options when it comes to moving, and not let the temptation to move as far away from each other as possible eclipse all practical alternatives.
Sources of support
Often parents feel they need to cope on their own and that asking for help is a sign of weakness. But this is not the case. Friends, family, work colleagues and associates can all provide different levels of comfort and support when it is needed. Many times just asking for help can mean the difference between feeling very isolated and not so alone.
For emotional and psychological support check with:
- Your General Practitioner. Counselling is sometimes necessary, especially if there are grief and loss issues relating to the relationship change.
- Life Line
- Family and Marriage Association of South Africa (FAMSA)
- Family Life Centre
- Marie Stopes Clinics
- Moms Matter Support Groups
- Circle of Moms Groups
- SA Depression and Anxiety Group