When we marry and have children, it is normally with the expectation that we will raise our children together with our partner. When things go wrong, even if the break-up was his or her choice, the parent with primary care of the children can feel ‘left holding the baby’ - literally.
If you are the resident parent, the first sensations after break-up can be complex and traumatic. Realising that you now have the responsibility for raising the children alone, combined with having to cope with not just your own emotional experiences, but your children’s as well, can be overwhelming.
The vast majority (90%) of single parents are women and most are raising children alone after a marriage or relationship breakdown. There are currently 1.75 million single parent families in Britain (one in four of all families, and 8% of all British households according to the General Household Survey of 2002). Despite the commonly held belief that most single parents are young unmarried mothers, only three per cent are teenagers. Nearly 60% are actually divorced, separated or widowed women, and one fifth of single parents are over the age of 25.
During the initial period after break-up, particularly if your partner was unfaithful, it is quite normal to feel an enormous wave of anger and resentment if you are the parent left caring for the children. While this might help you get by in the short term, allowing yourself to become bitter or even vengeful can be unhealthy for both you and the children in the long run. One of the main problems for the parent who has been left is that they can often feel a sense of rejection and low self-esteem and therefore have a strong need for reassurance. If you are experiencing this problem, you may find yourself initially turning to the children for that much-needed support. Bear in mind, however, that this may place an enormous strain on the children who are probably already traumatised by the break-up, and that this could in fact make your relationships with them overly dependent in the long term.
How can I cope with my emotional needs?
The first rule is not to try and do it all on your own. Look to your family, friends and others for support when you need it. While you will need a wide range of supportive relationships, these can be especially difficult to maintain if the children are young and you are in the position of being tied to the home. However, don’t be afraid to approach your parents, brothers, sisters and friends to create a network which can provide you with immediate understanding and practical help. If you are used to being the ‘giver’, this may be a bit difficult at first, but it is important for your own recovery and growth that you learn to ask for help from others even when you are feeling down and vulnerable.
Keeping in touch and ensuring that your children remain in touch with other family members, including those on your ex-partner’s side, is usually beneficial for the children as it should give them a feeling of stability.
If you are short on family members who can help out or simply listen to you, there are many organisations around who help newly single parents network with one another and provide advice and counselling (see the Directory on the next page). It really does help to talk to other people who are in a similar position to your own - you can also offer to trade on baby-sitting so that you can have some time to yourself. It is important to have something to look forward to even if it is only one night a week.
Take care of yourself
Taking care of yourself is vital - try to get some exercise, eat well and enjoy some adult company. If you are feeling depressed after the break-up, it helps to set some goals which you feel you are capable of achieving while not putting too much of a demand on yourself. Try to avoid getting too stressed out and remember that it is important to look after your appearance which can in turn help to boost your self-esteem. If you feel that you need to talk, to have a break or relieve some of the pressure, don’t be afraid to reach out.
What are the potential effects of break-up on my children?
If is often difficult for parents to realise that their break-up can be the equivalent of the whole world falling apart to the children. Their senses of loss and fear may not be fully formed and these feelings can trigger different forms of behaviour. It is also important to note that some children, particularly very young children, can often hold themselves responsible for the break-up.
Children might also blame one of the parents or another family member for the break-up, so it is important to keep a neutral atmosphere and the lines of communication open.
It is not so much break-up itself which is shown to be damaging to children, but the way in which it is handled by the parents.
The ideal solution, simple yet often difficult to attain, is for both parents to be as amicable as humanly possible over the split and to avoid using the children as weapons against each other. This can be especially challenging immediately after the break-up if you are feeling angry, hurt and, in many cases, betrayed. However, keep in mind that the best way forward is for both ex-partners to get along as well as they possibly can, and to avoid saying anything negative about the ex-partner in front of the children. It is also important to establish a framework in procedures of discipline and to ensure that negative emotions are not openly displayed. For help in agreeing upon arrangements over the children, try contacting National Family Mediation or the Family Mediators Association. Contact arrangements should be flexible so that they can adapt to your child’s changing needs. If you are the non-resident parent it is helpful to give your visiting children their own space and to do ordinary activities when they visit, in order to minimise the disruption to their lives.
At home, you can help your children express their feelings openly by becoming an active listener - this means creating a non-judgemental environment where the children feel free to talk and are encouraged to share their feelings without fear of being jumped on or dismissed. This way, even if you do not give in to your children’s demands, they still feel that they are being listened to. For help in learning parenting skills, you can contact The Parent Network or attend courses specifically designed to help you communicate effectively with your children.
Other services offer support and help within the home and there are still more who can offer you advice, counselling and opportunities to share your problems with other single parents. Gingerbread can be particularly helpful in this area as they run a national advice line which offers a listening ear as well as practical advice.
Gingerbread’s unique feature is that it is a charity run by lone parents for lone parents. Many people join Gingerbread’s local groups when they are going through the changes brought about by becoming a single parent and need to meet others who have been through a similar experience and survived. Their advice line is especially helpful to lone parents in crisis and it also provides information on rights and responsibilities, as well as referral to other agencies when needed.
Most of these organisations also have Web sites with forums for discussion, opportunities for contact with others in your situation, links to other helpful Web sites, and online articles and fact sheets, so 24-hour help and information is only a click away.
Some of these organisations also provide information for those wishing to return to the work force. Two out of three lone parents in Britain are in this situation because of a relationship breakdown and many are forced by circumstance to leave their employment even if they do not wish to. Nearly half of these single parents stay out of the work force for two years or more, and may find it difficult to start again. The National Council for One Parent Families, Working Families and Women Returners’ Network all offer help and advice for parents wishing to return to work.