Single-parenthood is a lonely life

DR T. Berry Brazelton

October 23, 1990|By DR T. Berry Brazelton | DR T. Berry Brazelton,Special Features/Syndication Sales

The number of single-parent families in this country is rapidly increasing for a variety of reasons, including a high divorce rate and an increasing number of babies being born out of wedlock.

Parenting alone is not easy. Single parents need extra support and understanding to cope with the predictable problems of child-rearing, especially with a demanding, negative toddler.

Being an only parent for one's children is lonely work. Days can stretch on interminably, relentlessly, and nights are hard to fill up.

A job may help to break the powerful monotony as well as provide necessary income, but still the chores and crises of a family are all up to one parent to manage. There's no one else to pick up the pieces at the end of the day, no one to start baths or turn them off, no one to answer the telephone while the baby is being changed and, most important, no one but children to talk to.

Children's talk can be fun when it's mixed with other kinds of conversations. But there's a stagnating aspect to it too. Adults -- need their peers for many reasons -- support, stimulation and an opportunity to see themselves through others' eyes.

The responsibility an adult feels when she is trying to listen to a child -- to understand what the child means, what he is trying to say, to support and encourage him and then to lead him on into more complex thinking -- is strenuous.

Single parents who want a rich atmosphere for their children feel an extra responsibility. Some feel they must be everything to each child. They try to be superparents -- but this is impossible.

I admire a parent who tackles this head-on and who wants to understand the pitfalls and the problems which get magnified in such a situation.

I have rarely felt as useful as a pediatrician as I have in supporting single parents and providing an ear for their concerns. I have seen that the second year is a particularly hard year for them and their children.

The first year is very rewarding; each of the infant's new achievements is like a new petal opening up and the problems are those that lend themselves to a one-to-one relationship. The boredom and monotony may be there, but it's more easily overlooked for a while. And, if the mother or father is working, it's usually easy to find a good caregiver for a baby.

Not so for a toddler. As babies become more independent, active and demanding -- and more negative -- they are suddenly cats, not kittens, and it takes a parent to love them much of the time.

This year can be difficult for a parent alone. One of the problems of being isolated is that it fosters the feeling of being unique, with "different" problems from everyone else. Single parents tend to see every slight misstep in their child's behavior as evidence that they are bad parents. Successes in child-rearing are likely to be ignored while failures stand out.

It is important to find outside sources of support, such as a play group, where both parent and child can interact with their peers. Seeing other parents with the same problems can be a real bulwark against this feeling, which is common to all parents. A support group made up of single parents can be especially useful.

A parent could also use the perspective of being part of a group when a child comes to her accusingly and says, "I'm different. I have no father." She must be ready to say, "Everyone has something different to deal with."

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