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Practical Wisdom for Single Parents, Part I: Raising Your Village

My point is simply that you have every opportunity you need to make your life and your family life richer and more satisfying, but you gotta work at it!

© 1998, by Jay Ann Cox

"It takes a whole village to raise a child." Many of us have heard this African proverb, which reminds us that we must work together to make our children's upbringing a safe and sound one. It also warns us that whatever environment our child grows in will inevitably be the village that influences our child; though often isolated, we are not alone. As single parents, this truth cuts both ways -- as much as we would like to do it alone, we really can't, and as much as we need support and help on an almost daily basis, it just doesn't seem available when we need it.

Before our children, many of us found community easily if we sought it. Work and active recreation are naturals for finding friends, but if you suddenly have family ties that might make you late for the tip-off, or take you home rather than to the traditional department happy hour, you might be feeling the isolation that many parents feel.

Honestly, too, some of us are just not "joiners." But now you've got this chatty seven year old who wants to explore her world, or an active toddler who takes you by the hand and pulls you into the frey, like it or not! Remember those goodwill visits in the early baby days? That someone kind, helpful and non-judgmental was a godsend, but as baby's newness wears off, those visits soon taper off to nil.

How do single parents bridge the gap between the need for autonomy as a family and the need to share those wonderful, soul-nourishing moments with an extended circle of friends? And who has the time!?

This article, in several parts, will offer very practical ways to think about your "village": how to use tools and resources you have right now to seek out, build and maintain the community that will get you through the day, the night, and all the wonder years.

In Parts 1 and 2, I'll provide an overview and definition of self-work, books, role models, family, and networks. Although as many of your family members as possible should be working to build community, this article will focus on just you as the parent. I hope these suggestions and ideas can be adapted to suit any situation -- legal, psychological, custodial, or religious status -- or any size family. My point is simply that you have every opportunity you need to make your life and your family life richer and more satisfying, but you gotta work at it!

Break Ground for Your Village in the Library

This section could be miles long because I love books and reading so much. Don't be too quick to pass up books if you have an active family. I have found that the snips and bits of reading I manage to do here and there, ever since my son reached the age of grasping objects and throwing them (i.e., books) have still made a great impact on me. I do think it is an important part of parenting, both to keep up with the latest and greatest ideas as well as the classic parenting wisdom of the ages. Every professional has an ongoing reading agenda, and parents should be no exception. Sorry, no slack just because you don't have enough time! Everyone has 10 extra minutes they can squeak out during a day.

Where to start your parent reading list? I offer just four titles and one email list here, for starters, because the parenting shelves at the bookstores are literally exploding every day with new titles. You can get overwhelmed, and there are probably a lot of boring and misguided resources out there. Several of recent publication offer downright dangerous information, if applied as strictly as the book recommends. You won't find those here!

Whole Child, Whole Parent by Polly Berrien Berends is my all-time favorite #1 parenting book. It offers a very thoughtful, philosophical and spiritual overview of children's needs and how parents are charged with meeting them. Another terrific book is The Good Enough Parent by Bruno Bettelheim. Kids Are Worth It by Barbara Coloroso is an easy to follow guide to discipline that respects your children and you. Finally, The Courage to Raise Good Men by Olga Silverstein is required reading for any family, not just those with boys. Our fathers, husbands, brothers and sons are all affected by the dilemmas explored in this book; likewise the mothers, daughters, sisters, and wives of men are affected.

A unique Internet resource is my read-only mailing list called "Seeds" by familycoaching.com. I started it in July 1998, and several days a week, you can receive a brief quote, idea, suggestion or thought to "seed" your own parenting. The list is free.

Another free resource is a book discussion group listserv that focuses on Attachment Parenting. Check out http://www.tudish.com/jmholmes/apbdl.html for more information.

Keep reading material handy in the car, in the bathroom, anywhere you sit down to nurse the baby or play with the older children. I know one mother who looked forward to her driveway reading sessions. Her twin infants and 4 yo daughter would fall asleep in their carseats while out doing errands. Rather than waking everyone up to get them in the house to sleep, she would sit in front of her house and read until someone woke up. Everyone was happy.

Do your homework on parenting. Research new ideas, form reading groups, gather all the information you need to make informed decisions in parenting. Read for fun and diversion. Read novels, mysteries, travel books, newspapers, magazines. If you will be making new friends to live in your "village," what you have read can be conversation starters and common ground to begin amazing new relationships.

Of course, read to your children! Even just to see you reading, to hear your voice reciting "Goodnight Moon" again, your children can benefit from your reading agenda as well.

Your Village Begins at Home

Self-work can be defined as that needed personal development and spiritual growth work that many of us discovered essential for dealing with our single parent "stuff." Parenthood is such a monumental transformation that what previously seemed to be successful coping strategies got blown out of the water by the arrival of our beloved children. Of course, if you have deep need of psychiatric counseling, then you should get it (and you deserve it!), then work on raising your village once you've healed up a little. Self-work can be:

  • group therapy
  • support groups
  • reading self-help books
  • attending workshops
  • individual counseling
  • journaling
  • spiritual practice

and a wide variety of other methods for healing your wounds and coping with daily life.

In order to attract and maintain the support system of your village, I strongly suggest that you start resolving the issues of any dysfunction NOW, get complete on a less than terrific childhood, and overcome any reluctance to grow up and be an adult or parent. Face it, you are the adult here, and it's your turn to be provide the "parental guidance" for your children.

Some simple ground rules can provide you with the necessary boundaries to do effective self-work. Know your limits and get your needs met, because if you are constantly overtaxing yourself, or sacrificing what you really need, you will be no good at all for your family. This can work both ways, if you cling to a structure that does not serve your new role as parent very well. For example, if you used to take a long, hot bath every night, you might have to reconceive the idea to be a hot shower whenever the baby falls asleep for more than 10 minutes.

If you cannot function without a shower in the morning, then you must find a way to get one. I can remember waking at 3am once, delighted that the baby was deeply asleep for once. I joyfully got up and took a very long shower, washed my hair, did my toenails, and went back to bed with my hair in a towel. I felt so good I shed a few tears, and vowed like Scarlett never to go dirty again! After that realization, I learned to put a bouncy seat in the bathroom where my son could see me, I sang loudly (and badly) while lather, rinsing and repeating, and I was able to take regular showers this way. Everyone's needs got met, and we started to enjoy the bathtime echo chamber singing.

On the other hand, one mother I know has found that she cannot stand a dirty kitchen in the morning. It is non-negotiable because of the negative feelings she encounters at the sink if it's not empty. No matter how late it is, she does her dishes (and enlists help of the family) so that she can wake up to a clean kitchen and a fresh start on the day.

While losing sleep for clean dishes or clean hair might not be the trades you would make, you do have needs. You must honor them, not only to build stamina for the long haul of parenthood over the years, but also to model self-love to your children. Do you want your offspring to be self-sacrificing and whining and martyring themselves all over the house? YECH! There's nothing worse than a houseful of whiny people!

Finally, the last aspect of self-work is simply: Be loveable. If you want to gather people around you, no one is going to cooperate if you are a crabby old sourpuss all the time. If the first words out of your mouth are complaints about whatever is pushing your buttons today, or the fact that you are a long-suffering single parent and life is just so hard, even the most stalwart of your tribe is going to secretly and silently roll their eyes, steel themselves against your negativity, and find a way to head home early, take another call, get off the phone, or suddenly remember a very important appointment with the bowling shoe fitter. Smile a little, ask "How are you?" and connect. Your village has a two way street.

(For more on Raising Your Village, read Part II.)


Jay Ann Cox PhD works with entrepreneurs, women and families to improve the family-work fit. Her home-based business, Sarabi Consulting, offers tele-conference workshops on a variety of topics as well as individual mentoring and coaching. A single mother by choice since 1995, she has a lively home page, is a member of several online communities, an active volunteer at her church, and attends regular LLL meetings. She also has an occasional day of grumpy, robe-wearing hermitism. Jay is an EP Coach and our Single Parenting Expert. You can reach her via e-mail, orher web sites; http://www.sarabi.com, http://www.apbiz.com, http://www.familycoaching.com

 
 
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