“Time and the Single Parent,” Ensign, July 2000, 30
The day I told our six young children about their parents’ decision to divorce was one of the saddest of our lives. One evening a few weeks later I was driving down a city street after a late spring snowstorm. Under the weight of exceptionally wet snow, many branches on the trees had broken off and were lying in the roads. In a neighborhood where streets were usually maintained well, the effect was chaotic and almost surreal, like the aftermath of a hurricane.
A feeling of desolation swept over me, a sense of what the world would be like if the security of civilized routines, so predictable as to be almost unnoticeable, suddenly vanished. Almost immediately I realized those same feelings reflected losing the security of my husband’s presence. Trying to comprehend being alone felt like the sun had gone out. My daughter Becki, sitting several seats behind me in the darkened van, apparently sensed my distress and cried out: “Mommy! What’s the matter?”
That snowstorm experience was one of the first of many times I experienced feeling “as a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit, and [as] a wife of youth, when thou wast refused” (Isa. 54:6). I also began to realize then that the children were even more vulnerable than I was.
To help others who might face a similar situation, I offer a few thoughts on how our family made it through this difficult transition.
When we marry, it is with the intent to stay married. Yet many families experience the heartbreak of divorce or death. Other parents function as if they were single, for all practical purposes, because of abandonment or because their spouses face disability, addiction, mental illness, or other circumstances. Much of that heartbreak is experienced by our children.
Fortunately, we have this promise in Isaiah:
“For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee.
“In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer. …
“For the mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but my kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee” (Isa. 54:7–8, 10).
I believe God supports single parents not only for our own sakes but also for the sake of that sacred calling which He knows we cannot accomplish alone. We have a supremely important work to do, because although for the time being we are no longer wives or husbands, we are still mothers or fathers, and our work has eternal significance.
In the first tumultuous years after the divorce I apparently believed, without quite thinking it through, that I should be able to do just as much as before, with half the time and money.
Because we needed additional income, I threw myself into a career. I traveled a great deal in my job. Once, as I packed, Becki asked me where I was going. I told her and explained that to get there I would have to cross a lot of water. She considered this for a while and then, with memories of mountain streams in mind, asked, “Will you have to roll your pants up?”
Many years have passed since then. The brief time I had when the children were young and their world centered on their experiences with me, when they counted on me to help them make sense of the greater world outside, is gone. What would I have done differently? What lessons would I pass on to other parents?
Essentially, parenthood is and always will be about time: attention, interaction, and daily concern. These components are as subtle, pervasive, and necessary as sunshine. Without them, children simply do not flourish.
If you are a gardener, you know that the garden tended daily is the one that thrives. You don’t have to do much—pinch back a wayward vine here, pull a weed there, apply a little extra water or fertilizer almost without thinking, transplant something that just isn’t quite happy. But neglect that same garden for even a week and the task is multiplied. While your attention was elsewhere, small problems have become big ones. Vulnerable plants have died. Weed and snail populations have exploded.
We are the gardeners of our children’s souls. A sixth sense, fed by daily and seemingly minor contacts, helps us detect when growth needs to be encouraged, redirected, or pruned back; when bruised hearts need soothing; when a situation or question needs to be attended to now. Despite our faults and flaws, despite our children’s vast differences, we have the potential to be the best possible parent for each child—a task that requires daily nurturing.
After the divorce, it took time to put my life back together—temporarily going back to school and working two jobs. Those of us who have faced such circumstances might assume our children will sort of stay on hold, marking time while we get through the present crisis.
But they don’t.
Children do not wait. A short year to us is an eternity to them. They live in a different time zone, a world of their own that brings hourly changes.
An unknown author has said: “We are guilty of many errors and many faults, but our worst crime is abandoning the children, neglecting the fountain of life. Many of the things we need can wait. The child cannot. Right now is the time his bones are being formed, his blood is being made, and his senses are being developed. To him we cannot answer tomorrow. His name is today.”
Children need to be surrounded by their parents’ love and presence as a fish is surrounded by water. No matter how capably we juggle things, no matter what age our children are, there is no substitute for a parent supervising and sustaining most family functions on a daily basis. And children never have a greater need for the structure, reassurance, and security only a parent’s presence can bring than following a traumatic event such as divorce or the loss of a parent to death.
Parenthood requires sacrifice. All parents must give up not only interests and desires but also some seemingly urgent needs. Single parenthood requires still more sacrifice. Single parents must be agonizingly careful about how they choose to allot their limited resources: time, money, energy, and especially emotional support.
If circumstances require us to choose between two good things, even perfectly wholesome, innocent, and worthwhile desires may need to be deferred rather than the truly critical things: relationships, service, and obedience to the Lord. No matter how much we desire to perfect our lives, this simply may not be the time for an immaculate house, a total self-reliance plan, a large garden, or extensive family history. Unless we can involve our children in such projects in positive, loving, security-building ways, we may be able to use our time more effectively elsewhere—maybe even get a little more sleep and reduce stress all around or take a walk in the rain or read an extra chapter of a bedtime story or the scriptures together.
I have always really wanted a clean, beautiful house, but my children do not worry about such matters. One day I was fussing because they hadn’t put the sheet music away in the piano bench. My son David asked, “What does it matter, Mom? Do you want people who come to visit to think we never use the piano?”
David helped me realize that I had succumbed to an illusion: that the purpose of the family was to support the housework, rather than vice versa. We need to remember that the purpose of our children is not to help keep our homes in order; rather, the purpose of our homes is to help us rear righteous children. The purpose of the task (and of the home and of everything in it) is to build eternal relationships. People are more important than things (see Morm. 8:39).
Some of my most precious memories are of my six little children all squashed together on our tiny love seat. This was a really ugly love seat. It had seen years of wear, and the springs and foam rubber were gaping through numerous holes, most of which had been augmented by the children. I was deeply embarrassed by this couch, which seemed symbolic of what I considered my inferior status in life. One of my favorite photographs, however, shows all the children seated together, a tangle of random arms and legs, expressions of pure delight on their faces, riveted to the final scenes of a movie. My youngest child, Michael, is resting his head affectionately on his older sister’s shoulder. As I look at that photo, I realize that old love seat really was, in every sense, a love seat. It has since been replaced by a much nicer couch, but those memories of family togetherness on the old love seat are priceless.
We spent time together in other ways. My five oldest children took piano lessons, and for almost two years I spent time with each one while they practiced. We performed family plays and operas and Christmas concerts. We briefly had a family vaudeville act and orchestra. We were not very good, of course, but we had such wonderful times together. We didn’t just build an appreciation for music and the theater; more important, we grew closer as a family.
The parent who is overextended, who is burdened and distracted by too many other demands, simply cannot make time for many such routines and activities. We tend to direct things from a distance instead, sometimes even from a phone during business. “Brush your teeth before you go to bed.” “Don’t forget to clean your room.” “Be sure to practice a full half-hour.”
Even when physically present, the overwhelmed parent often acts more like a drill sergeant than a loving mentor. Yet it is a parent’s active and unhurried participation and dialogue that makes the difference. This contact must be interactive. Orders, lectures, and instructions are inadequate, as are questions that can be answered with “uh-huh,” as in: “Have you done your homework?” “Uh-huh.” “Did you have a good day at school?” “Uh-huh.” “Did you get that problem worked out?” “Uh-huh.”
Meaningful interaction means dialogue, questions that help the child explore and make meaning out of his or her experiences. “What was the most wonderful thing you saw today?” “What will you do the next time you get angry with your brother?” “What are your plans for bringing up your grade in English?” And it doesn’t count if you are saying “uh-huh” either, maybe while you listen and make dinner or watch the news at the same time. The important part of the dialogue is the listening: respectful, full-attention, eye-contact, putting-down-your-other-work listening, with encouraging nods and smiles and truly interested, respectful, and interactive comments.
When the people of Alma were in bondage to the Lamanites, the Lord’s response was:
“I will … ease the burdens which are put upon your shoulders, that even you cannot feel them upon your backs, even while you are in bondage; and this will I do that ye may stand as witnesses for me hereafter, and that ye may know of a surety that I, the Lord God, do visit my people in their afflictions.
“… And they did submit cheerfully and with patience to all the will of the Lord” (Mosiah 24:14–15).
God did not remove the burdens but strengthened the people so that they could bear their afflictions with patience and grace. That grace may mean simply accepting and living in the present.
I know of no single parent who has not experienced the long, dark night of the soul, feeling forsaken of the Spirit. Yet I am certain that we are never alone. Although we may not be aware of it, heaven is supporting us. Like Israel of old, we have God’s promise that His kindness will not depart from us. No matter how dark it gets or how many other things pull at us, if we raise our children righteously, we will have succeeded. Some other dreams may go unachieved, other desires unfulfilled, and other goals unreached. Yet as with all sacrifices to the Lord, we will find that what we have gained is of immeasurably more worth than what we have given.