“For the Divorced Single Parent,” Ensign, Sept. 2006, 18–23
After agonizing decisions and many months of trying to determine the right thing to do, my husband and I divorced. I raised two children alone. Family, not fault, is what I focus on now as I look back and try to share some of what my experiences have taught me. I earnestly pray that you will never need this information. But I know that even if you are not a single parent, you will have friends, ward members, and family members you may be able to help.
Based on my experience, I would suggest three areas of consideration for a divorced single parent:
The gospel and the Church
Be there. It’s where you belong. Sit closer to the front than you usually do. Arrive early enough so you can greet people as you go to your seat. Sing the hymns. Have your children close beside you. Hug them and hold their hands so they will recognize church as a safe, comfortable, happy place to be. On the way in and out, assign yourself to smile at and speak to several people. Remember, you belong.
When I moved to a new ward as a single parent, our new home teacher had been my bishop 10 years earlier in another city. He was perfect for us. He had a son the same age as mine. When my home teacher signed his boy up for Little League or soccer, he signed mine up too.
Our home teacher and his wife attended my children’s dance recitals and track meets and invited us to dinner. He told us all that we were terrific, and gradually we learned to believe him. Over the years he gave my son a baseball mitt, priesthood blessings, his ordination to the priesthood, advice on starting a business, and the perfect example of what home teaching is. He gave my daughter tennis lessons, flowers when she won the track meet, her first job, and the perfect example of gentlemanly kindness. He attended their weddings in the temple and exulted over the births of their first children. Long after having moved from the ward, he still remains a friend and a mentor to all of us.
Shortly after the divorce, when the children were just five and one, I found it hardest after they were tucked into their beds at night. Often my loneliness seemed unbearable. I discovered that the classical music station on the radio soothed my troubled soul.
Prayers became more earnest and more pleading, and the scriptures became a lifeline to sustain me through the maze of complexities I faced each day. Both prayers and scriptures brought revelation and comfort and hope. I will never know, but I sometimes wonder how long the despair might have lasted if I had not had music and prayer and scriptures.
Even at this time of potential financial challenges—especially at this time—keep your tithing current that you may have access to promised blessings.
Serving gets us outside ourselves. It opens the windows of heaven and teaches principles that may not come any other way. I’m reminded of the terrible first week when my husband left. I didn’t know where he had gone or what would happen next. I was the Spiritual Living teacher in Relief Society, and the lesson was on the Prophet Joseph Smith. No one in the ward except the bishop knew my husband had gone away, and I determined that I must teach that lesson. I had served a mission, been married in the temple, finished graduate school, and borne testimony of the truthfulness of the gospel and the Prophet Joseph Smith many, many times. Yet on that day, in the sunny room of our ward Relief Society, I was allowed to know, to feel completely, to recognize with a surety beyond question, that the Prophet Joseph Smith had restored the gospel of Jesus Christ in its fulness. I remain forever grateful that I was allowed to serve on that day when my world was crashing down on every side.
Later I was called to be Primary president in my new ward. I couldn’t believe the courage of the bishop in calling me to lead the little children. I felt I was not a good role model, and I thought such service would be denied me forever. Then I remembered a wise bishop years before who, when I was serving as Young Women president, had fielded my concerns about calling a Laurel teacher who was married to a nonmember. “It’s not where she is right now,” he said, “but where her heart is. She longs to be married in the temple. She is a good example to the Laurels.” And as I came to know her, I fully agreed. Could it be that if my heart was right I could serve in such leadership callings? From my current vantage point I say yes.
Reviewing those sacred eternal promises again and again eventually helped me focus on their meaning and gave me new perspective. After a long time I volunteered for sealings and heard the words I had heard at my own temple marriage. This time they took on new meaning as I tried to look at the promises from the viewpoint of someone who had never received them in this life. I think of temple work as the ultimate service, allowing us to get outside ourselves for the sake of someone else.
Preserve as much of the familiar as possible. Establish a routine. For example, each day we go to school, eat dinner at six o’clock, and read scriptures together before we go to bed. We also practice the piano, do homework, and play on the soccer team.
Keep as many family traditions as you can. Have special dinners and birthday celebrations. Listen to friends’ suggestions and find some new traditions that you can make your very own.
When my son was six and his sister was two, they would race to their daddy as he drove into the driveway to pick them up. By the time my son turned ten, he would stand at my side struggling with where his loyalties should be while his six-year-old sister still flew out the door to welcome her daddy. A few years later my maturing, manly son of fourteen could stride out the door to welcome his father while my now ten-year-old daughter would stand by my side struggling with where her loyalties were. No matter how far away they got from the initial pain, they had to process what they were feeling in an age-appropriate manner. As I grew to understand that, I was better able to encourage them to be themselves and to reach out across what could have been awkward situations.
After a divorce, children develop an unusual maturity in some matters. I remember driving down the freeway with my children when, out of the blue, my son said to me, “We will all have new jobs now.”
Wondering where he was going with that, I asked, “What do you mean?”
“Well,” he responded, “it will be your job to be in charge of everything. And I will help you. And it will be Gretchen’s job to make us laugh.”
To this day I am astonished at his wisdom. That statement got us through many a hard time. Sometimes, after some messy project we would find Gretchen in, he would jump to his little sister’s defense by telling me, “Remember, Mom, she’s just doing her job!” And we would all relax in laughter, remembering his comment about assignments.
Don’t criticize the absent parent—ever, but especially not in front of the children. I was blessed with a friend who taught me that very early in my pain. She was older, and her aging mother had come to live with her. My friend said her mother, who had been divorced from her father many years before, complained endlessly about her father’s faults—his drinking, his attitude, his personal habits, his clothing. My friend then said, “Guess who I feel sorry for?” and “Guess who I identify with?” My friend said it didn’t matter how much truth was in her mother’s statements; she began, after all those years, to side with her father.
That’s when I remembered again that the commandment is “Honour thy father and thy mother” (Exodus 20:12). And I knew that if I did my job right, my children would love their father.
Write down the delightful things they say. Talk about your feelings for the child at different ages and different stages. Keep a box of treasures for each one. Tuck in some of their drawings or their notes to you as they grow. Keep family photo albums or scrapbooks. I was gratified with the importance of those simple snapshots when the children each brought the person they eventually married into the living room and shared the family albums and all their childhood memories with them. We all laughed and remembered and began to love each other as extended family.
So many people still love you after your marriage ends. For me these include every member of my husband’s family. One of my husband’s brothers and his wife insisted that they stay in my life. My sister-in-law called me every day at first, just to be sure I was all right. She proved to be trustworthy, offering help and ever able to keep a confidence. My brother-in-law offered priesthood blessings to my children and simply raved over their accomplishments. I came to know that those dear people had hearts so kind and good that they could appreciate my children without feeling any threat to the worth of their own. Never at any time did I question their love of their brother, my former husband. What I learned was that they could love us both. Family and friends really don’t have to line up behind one of us or the other and take sides.
I had grown up being afraid of the dark. When I became the only adult sleeping in the house, I worried about that. My washer and dryer were in the garage, and I didn’t dare go out there to change the clothes from the washer to the dryer if it was dark outside. Now that I was alone with the children, I realized I couldn’t indulge in that fear anymore. I knew I couldn’t risk frightening my children, nor could I face a world where I was afraid after sundown. So I took it to the Lord. I explained how I was afraid, how I needed to be braver, and I pleaded for Him to take the fear away. He did. The fear was gone—simply gone. I didn’t even have to think about it anymore. Since then I have confronted darkness many times and have not been afraid.
Another fear was the financial one. During those first weeks of heavy burden, even though I had a master’s degree, my feelings of self-worth were so low I could see nothing possible but the most menial jobs. Not knowing how to get a meaningful job in that frame of mind, I chose to return to graduate school to open job opportunities again. For me it has been a heaven-sent decision, offering opportunities I never could have imagined.
Make quilts, go to a ball game, paint pictures, take a hike, bottle fruit, start a business, write a book, do family history, build bookshelves, paint rooms, go back to school, read biographies, take tennis lessons, practice the piano, plant a garden, learn to use new computer software, sing in a trio, take bicycle rides, walk every day. Do something. Give yourself purpose at something you like to do or want to learn. Start anywhere. Just start.
There is simply no point in wasting time or energy or thought on bitterness or revenge. Life is too short. Besides, such sentiments leave their deepest scars on you, not on your former spouse. Accept the fact that you’ll get better at it over time, and begin as early as you can.
Everything seems to get better over time. Just as our miraculous bodies bear the ability to heal themselves, so do our marvelous minds and spirits, if we let them. Be patient with yourself and with the children’s emotions. I worried for 13 years about the day my son would speak in church before leaving on a mission. But when the day came, I was able to walk into the audience before the meeting started and greet my son’s father. It was good for my son. It was good for me.
The court may say the divorce is final, but if you have children, the worlds you and your former spouse inhabit will likely keep circling into each other. One surprise to me is that now my grandchildren come with questions. “Why didn’t you and Grandpa stay married?” “What is divorce?” “Will my mommy and daddy get divorced?” The pain comes again in an entirely different context, and I return to my knees to ask the Lord for right answers to their queries.
Writing is often therapeutic and is always useful. If you write what you are feeling, you will find over time that you are progressing. Looking back, you will discover you are not quite as sad or as confused or as desolate as you once were. Here is a place to plead with the Lord, to explore your thinking, to understand your own struggle. In my journal I can dream, explain, explore, and come back another day and find I was completely off base. It helps my sanity and my testimony.
These ideas have helped me deal with the adversities of living in this telestial world. Do I wish this particular adversity hadn’t happened? Oh, yes. But it did, and I have learned many things.
I think of Joseph Smith and the adversities that came with restoring the gospel of Jesus Christ, and I hang onto knowing that “all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good” (D&C 122:7). I think of the Savior Himself in the council in heaven saying, “We will prove them herewith, to see if they will do all things whatsoever the Lord their God shall command them” (Abraham 3:25).
The gospel of Jesus Christ is true. The plan of salvation allows each of us to choose to return and live with our Father in Heaven again. Choosing is the key to who we are and where we are going. I want to live with Him again.