Single Parent Stresses


I am a thirty five year old woman, recently divorced. All the Rabbonim who I consulted felt that divorce was the necessary step for me to take, and I am quite relieved to be out of the marriage. However, in recent months, I’ve been having difficulties with my older son in being able to discipline him. He also has mixed feelings after visits with my ex-husband. The truth is, I feel that I don't have the patience to deal with him. I feel overwhelmed, and I don't seem to have a minute for myself. Any response would be helpful.

Answer: By Shira Frank, LCSW

The plight of a single parent is very difficult under any circumstance. There are multiple stresses involved that would make anyone overwhelmed. You do not mention if you are working outside your home, as this adds an additional stress in relation to your available time with your children. Anyone who works many hours and returns home with strong familial needs, is going to feel emotionally drained. On the other hand, if you are relying on government agencies to sustain your family, a sense of “poverty” can be experienced, adding additional stress. Families often need to relocate after divorce – another change – often to “lower conditions” of housing. Possible feuds can be existing with your ex-husband and in- laws, besides possible court cases.

In general, children's emotional conditions are weakened due to events leading to single parenthood (be it illness or divorce). Doing homework with a child can be a monumental task, given the above outlined scenario. No person can possibly respond adequately to each and every crisis.

And yet, what is vital to attempt to create is a viable support system, consisting of relatives and close friends. A parent is validated by another adult (usually one's spouse) and grandparents' validation is not sufficient or available on a day to day basis. In relation to concrete help (as babysitting services to help create time for yourself), or places to receive “adult feedback,” this support system is of great importance in fortifying your family with additional sources of strength.

In relation to your older child, it may be quite difficult to maintain an authoritarian role with him, as you may need to often rely on your children in order to keep the house running smoothly. More teamwork is needed as an adult's help is missing. It is difficult to be called on as a responsible young adult to help and then to be reprimanded as a child. An older son can be consciously (or unconsciously) be called upon to act as “the man of the house” - be it bringing younger brothers to shul or making kiddish on Shabbos, yet later he may be “ordered around” by his mother which he finds irritating and confusing.

A way to deal with this problem is by delineating actual tasks and functions of older children. To specify a parents expectations clarifies a child's role, even in a more complex familial situation, such as a single-parent family. If you need to ask a child for help, let the child's responsibilities be clear – knowing when he/she will have free time and to generally know what is not overstepping boundaries in relation to his mother. A parent is overtly bestowing this role on their child, rather than this occurring in response to a crisis. This child is rewarded through approval  and recognition, as to keep in mind that a child is doing as essential favor rather then a pseudo-parental obligation. This keeps the role diversions more intact.

In relation to your son’s mixed feelings, a strong sense of ambivalence occurs after a divorce. There is a sense of divided loyalties. “If  I'm loyal to my mother, I can't be loyal to my father” - this may be something that your son feels. Its' important to let your son know that parenthood is “non-divorce able” both parents are yours forever and that each side of any story has validity. This includes any occurrence between his father and you. Sometimes professional help is needed to further work with such feelings.

Divorced parents often appreciate the decrease of tension, when severe marital strife no longer exists in their home. Being able to work with one opinion (instead of spouses fighting towards non-existent unity) can often strengthen families after divorce. I am sure that there are things that you have gained from and will continue to work with during this difficult period, and you will see fruits of your labor.

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