Single-Parent Success Stories
In today's culture of blame, single parents are credited with crime, the welfare mess and, probably in retrospect, the Crimean War.
The news isn't good. A quarter of U.S. children now live with single parents, according to a report released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau. Kids raised by single parents can face some difficult odds; society isn't doing enough to prepare young people for marriage, to discourage teen pregnancy or to nurture the two-parent family.
Still, the growing number of single parents is a fact.
Six years ago, Shoshana Alexander, a founding editor of the Utne Reader and a single parent herself, set out to write "In Praise of Single Parents" (Houghton Mifflin), a book that does not romanticize single parents but focuses on the dynamics of success in the role.
Her first point is that good single parenting is possible and may be preferable to an unsalvageable marriage.
"One woman I interviewed, who had worked hard to earn a doctorate in chemistry, was married to a physically and emotionally abusive husband," says Alexander. "She endured the abuse in part because she believed deeply that the two-parent family was best for the child."
But then, while on a train trip with her daughter, she met an impressive 21-year-old woman -- who had been raised by a single parent.
Knowing now that it was possible, despite the odds, to be a successful single parent, the woman left her abusive husband.
This mother then exhibited one of the three characteristics that Alexander identifies in successful single parents. She gave up the assumption that some shining knight would ride up in a BMW.
"She decided to commit herself to being a single parent," says Alexander. "She deferred her dream of a doctorate and returned to school to earn a teaching credential. She did this so that her work schedule could be coordinated with her daughter's schedule, so that her daughter would not have to be home alone.
"All of the successful single parents I interviewed, all of them, had, early on, decided to make their children the central focus of their lives," Alexander says. "That's the second characteristic of good single parents."
Good single parents, perhaps more than married parents, must sacrifice for their children.
One single father, a lawyer, told Alexander how he had cut back his caseload. His family and friends told him he was nuts, that he had ruined his ability to be a success. But he was determined to put his children first.
Not that it was easy. He was astonished at how poorly he had been prepared to be a parent. "I felt like I was standing on a prow of a ship looking through the fog. I felt totally isolated, not knowing where I was going in the storm," he told Alexander.
Over time, he learned. He began waking up every morning at 5 a.m. to get breakfast for his four children; before he sent them off to school, he would sit down and focus on each of them, talk with them. This ritual became the focus of his day.
Which sounds like a good approach for all parents.
The third element of successful single parenting, according to Alexander, is to extend the family -- to make sure you have a wide supportive web of relatives, friends and institutions.
"One single mom made sure that her close friends became `other mothers' to her child. Her daughter came to call them that, the `other mothers,' and as the child grew into her teens she began to spend more and more time with them." When the mom worried about her daughter, she would call her friends and ask how she was doing. Without breaking their confidences with her daughter, the friends would be reassuring: Her daughter was doing fine, and so was she.
"I came to think of so many of the single parents I interviewed as heroes," she says. "They're heroes in the classic sense, in that the good ones are on a journey not only for themselves but for someone beyond them."
All good parents are heroes, and Alexander does not wish to romanticize single parents. She risks this by focusing too much in her book on relatively affluent single parents -- but she does want to give a little credit where it's due.
Richard Louv is Senior Editor of Connect for Kids and columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune. He is also author of "101 Things You Can Do for Our Children's Future" (Anchor) and "The Web of Life" (Conari).