The number of married couples becoming separated and divorced in the United States is astounding. Over fifty percent of first marriages end in divorce and seventy-five to eighty percent of second marriages fail. These ended marriages include Christian men and women who, in their new circumstances have unique needs. What does a single parent look like? Here are some descriptions:
I am a professionally trained worker. My weekdays consist of waking, dressing, and feeding the children; getting them, each, to day care, pre-school, and school; and going to work myself. At the end of the “work” day I pick up all three, prepare and clean-up from supper, play with and bathe the children, bed them down and pray with them, do laundry and housecleaning and then collapse — emotionally and physically exhausted.
I am a work-at-home-mother. I have many skills but they are not marketable. I’ve been unemployed and out of the “work environment” for too long. I have no car. I receive public assistance (and feel humiliated). I cannot afford day care for my pre-school children. Financial support payments from my former spouse are inconsistent and are always too little too late .
I am a custodial father. I’ve had to learn new roles very quickly. My children want to know why Mommy doesn’t visit or call. I don’t know what to say and I don’t know how honest to be about her unfaithfulness. I am confused. I am also angry at my circumstances and fearful of both the present and the future. I don’t feel whole.
There is a grief process
A single parent has suffered loss—whether through death, desertion, separation or divorce. She/he will exhibit all the stages of grief: shock, anger, bargaining, acceptance, and—hopefully—forgiveness. When a marriage partner dies there is the death of a relationship. There is a culturally ordained and defined grieving process. Friends, family and others gather to encourage those who mourn. People provide food, drink, hospitality, and heartfelt concern. Then there is a final closure to the relationship with the actual funeral service. In the same way, when one spouse separates from the other, the relationship dies. He/she says “it is over.” However, here there is no socially accepted mourning period with many supporters coming alongside the grieving spouse. There is mostly aloneness and confusion. There are few, if any, comforters. And there is rarely any closure to the relationship. In fact, one counselor says that there never is closure: “You try to bury the marriage but your spouse’s body keeps popping up out of the grave.”
What do I need to know?
The non-custodial parent may be inaccessible. In most cases there is a sudden lack of financial support and a decline in financial security. In addition, there is a usually a noticeable decline in the support of friends, family and church. The single parent faces chaos and change. The single parent faces fear of the future and worry about today. The single parent has great concern for the children’s needs, like how they deal with change, fear, abandonment, reactions of friends and family. They are also concerned about how the children will respond to visitation (before and after) especially, if there is a history of abuse or drug/pornographic addiction by the non-custodial parent.
What can the church do? Here are several ways a church can help:
- Remember, first, that you are ministering to a family. It helps to understand what single parents are going through in order to provide the individual care they need and respond in healthy ways.
- Establish a relationship with this "new" family and shepherd them. Many times single parents are estranged from biological family. Church can integrate single parent families into the body life of church.
- Ask permission before sharing appropriate information or advice
- Give reassurance of your love and availability
- Encourage open communication
- Do respite care. Churches can provide child care for a parent "time out." Single parents act as both mother and father in the home. In two parent families one parent can provide a break for the other. That is not possible for a single parent.
- Provide meals. The predominant single parent is a working mother who, generally, has difficulty making ends meet. Knowing that someone else has cooked (from time to time) is a tremendous encouragement. Casseroles are easy to make and can be frozen for future use.
- Create new extended families. Church families can become adopted aunts, uncles, and grandparents. There are many ways to love and accept the single parent family.
- Provide recreational opportunities for the children
- Watch out for the children's needs. Children are in the middle of a domestic battle that lasts for many years.
- Listen and show special concern. Giving an ear is very important to the single parent.
- Holidays are difficult. Surprise the single parent family with special gifts and attention especially around Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, birthdays, anniversaries, etc.
- Donate toward appropriate needs: Auto maintenance, plumbing repairs, carpentry, electrical work, and legal help. Churches are filled with talented people. Let them give back to God by helping.
Remember the Children
Marital break-ups are traumatic, and as children experience their sights and sounds (angry and/or violent), they experience pain, sorrow, and even brokenness. Friends and relatives can help by becoming involved and developing a trusting relationship over time. Remember, their parents—people they trusted the most—have hurt them horribly. They need others they can turn to. Give reassurance that the separation/divorce/death is not children's fault. Help equip them to deal with conflict and stress. Help them grieve (give them permission). Give them hope.