raising kids alone

Posted on August 2, 2010


I’ve had the fortune, the pearl of great price, to have three kids AND raise them as their father . . . be a father to them. I raised my oldest son (he’s 24 now) alone when he was still in diapers. That was in the days when putting folding changing tables for babies in public men’s rooms had not occurred to public decision-makers; although, it had repeatedly occurred to  those dads that had to get creative with the diaper-changing process whenever in public. My son blessed me with a strong mind and a strong will and an unwillingness to give up diapers for far too many years. I raised him with full custody. Now, for three and a half years, I’ve been raising my 14 year old daughter and 16 year old son alone with joint custody. Rather ironic since all I ever wanted in life was a family . . . unbroken . . . a family that makes a difference in this world.

I find that the loneliness of raising kids as a single parent is a very piercing kind of loneliness; a grinding loneliness full of exhaustion and a cutting loneliness that wishes to break my heart open to greater compassion and wisdom. The trick is to keep my head above water so that my compassion does not end up drowning in my exhaustion. The wisdom of this poem has kept me afloat most of the time. Every time I read it, water rises to my eyes . . .

Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly.

Let it cut more deep.

Let it ferment and season you,

As few human or even divine ingredients can.

Something missing in my heart tonight

Has made my eyes soft,

My voice, so tender,

My need for God,

Absolutely clear.

~ Shams al-Din Hafiz

I’m not quite drowning (well sometimes) but so many are. My heart weeps for all parents struggling to raise kids alone. I’m overwhelmed to tears as I write. Often I think about those parents that are at their wit’s end, fighting loneliness and poverty and education systems and human service systems and health care systems, all designed for them but not by them. How do people continue when the obstacles grow too big? How do they keep on when the heat is turned off, the food is running low, and the money is gone? How do they effectively care for and discipline their kids when nothing works and they are tattered and torn, hanging by a thread?

What keeps them from throwing in the towel and giving up?
. . . daily facing the failure of providing for the family
. . . daily seeing it in the faces of their kids.
The guilt. The loneliness.
The total exhaustion . . . all the time.

Where is their community . . . their circle of support?

I love it when my kids are home. I only wish they could be here all of the time instead of half the time (joint custody). For the first three years, I missed them so tremendously, I had a hard time functioning at all while they were gone. To this dilemma,  Thomas Merton has given me hope, strength, and a path to wholeness in this quote: ‎”It is in deep solitude and silence that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brother and sister,” of course, in this case, I’m learning to truly love my kids. It is in silence and listening that I have learned that “truly loving” begins by opening my heart and seeing and hearing with my heart. Fully present is something that I’ve not always been. It is so easy to pretend I am listening while being distracted by blogging, emailing, facebooking, sweeping the floor, doing dishes, laundry, and on and on. It is in the spiritual practice of silence, meditation, and listening that I learn to be present with my whole heart as soon as they call my name. There is nothing on this earth I want more than to be a great parent to my kids. Nothing. So I’m determined to start with the basics; seeing with the heart, hearing with the heart, and being fully present every time I’m needed. So I’m letting the loneliness cut deeply, opening my heart to greater compassion and wisdom.

Something else I’m learning to do is to get to know them, for who they are.

“The beginning of love is to let those we love be perfectly themselves, and not to twist them to fit our own image. Otherwise we love only the reflection of ourselves we find in them.” (Thomas Merton)

What is the nature and personality they came to earth with? What gifts were bestowed upon them at birth? What impact are their gifts having on those around them? Am I teaching them to listen to their inner light, their inner teacher?

Here’s a story I told my kids from Parker Palmer’s book, Let Your Life Speak. My 14 year old daughter was particularly intrigued and wanted to know more about the book, like she was considering reading it! (bold and italics mine)

“If you doubt that we all arrive in this world with gifts and as a gift, pay attention to an infant or a very young child. A few years ago, my daughter and her new born baby came to live with me for a while. Watching my granddaughter from her earliest days on earth, I was able, in my early fifties, to see something that had eluded me as a twenty-something parent: my granddaughter arrived in the world as this kind of person rather than that, or that, or that.

“She did not show up as raw material to be shaped into whatever image the world might want her to take. She arrived with her own gifted form, with the shape of her own sacred soul. Biblical faith calls it the image of God in which we are all created. Thomas Merton calls it true self. Quakers call it the inner light, or ‘that of God’ in every person. The humanist tradition calls it identity and integrity. No matter what you call it, it is a pearl of great price.

“In those early days of my granddaughter’s life, I began  observing the inclinations and proclivities that were planted in her at birth. I noticed, and I still notice, what she likes and dislikes, what she is drawn toward and repelled by, how she moves, what she does, what she says.

“I am gathering my observations in a letter. When my granddaughter reaches her late teens or early twenties, I will make sure that my letter finds its way to her, with a preface something like this: ‘Here is a sketch of who you were from your earliest days in this world. It is not a definitive picture — only you can draw that. But it was sketched by a person who loves you very much. Perhaps these notes will help you do sooner something your grandfather did only later: remember who you were when you first arrived and reclaim the gift of true self.

“We arrive in this world with birthright gifts — then we spend the first half of our lives abandoning them or letting others disabuse us of them. As young people, we are surrounded by expectations that may have little to do with who we really are, expectations held by people who are not trying to discern our selfhood but to fit us into slots. In families, schools, work places, and religious communities, we are trained away from true self toward images of acceptability; under social pressures like racism and sexism our original shape is deformed beyond recognition; and we ourselves, driven by fear, too often betray true self to gain the approval of others.

“We are disabused of original giftedness in the first half of our lives. Then — if we are awake, aware, and able to admit our loss — we spend the second half trying to recover and reclaim the gift we once possessed.”

“When we lose track of true self, how can we pick up the trail? One way is to seek clues in stories from our younger years, years when we lived closer to our birthright gifts.” (Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, pp. 11–13)

My 16 year old son seems to have adopted the thinking that external influences are exactly that, external. He has remained quite true to his birthright gifts. He is an original thinker, very creative, and very intelligent. Even then, I have found myself, as he questions life, trying to give him my answers. It is quite amazing to watch the dynamic of our conversations change when I cease to give him my answers and encourage him to ask himself these same questions. I do tell him what I think but only with the disclaimer that this is only my opinion. When he knows that he will not be shot down for original or differing thinking, he is more free to speak honestly and from the heart. Actually, he seems to take pride in being considered weird or renegade in his thinking or actions or dress or just about anything.

I am finding that often, when honoring the true self, the soul, of others, the ground rules from Parker Palmer’s work creating Circles of Trust make sense. They allow a person to go inward and seek answers from ‘that of God’ within. When I use these principles in relationships, including those with our kids, it opens things up, so that the child is more apt to share deeper things and be more vulnerable knowing that I, as a parent, am less apt to react as an “Angry Jehovah”. Here are the ground rules: “No fixing, no saving, no advising, and no setting each other straight.” I’m learning to really listen to the soul of my kids by adhering to these rules as much as possible.

This spring, I was at my wits end worrying about the direction my daughter was going. She had some friends that seemed to be influencing her in the wrong direction. She has grown up as a child that was sort of the conscience of the family. She had such a keen sense of right and wrong. She took her responsibilities seriously. School was something that she had to work much harder at than did her brother, but she didn’t bat an eye. She was so determined to do it, and do it right (no matter what “it” was). As a baby of maybe a year and a half, she had not been walking very long, of course. When we went to Silver Lake on vacation, we decided to climb the sand dune next to the light house. I have a picture of her, with her little legs, at the top of the dune, way above the light house; refusing to be carried. If the rest of the family could climb that dune, she could too . . .  and she did!!!

So this spring, when I needed to talk to her about being kicked out of school twice, lying to us, going places without permission (mostly under the influence of an older friend), I had a heart to heart talk with her. I opened it up with what I knew about her as a child, her gifts and strengths. I could see her opening up. She knew who she was. She knows who she is. She needed to be reminded. We talked for several hours, into the early hours of the morning. She had been trying to have a good influence on some of her friends that were struggling with various issues. But she said that it felt like it was backfiring on her. She thought she could stand strong but she was slipping. She then went to her room, looking very tired, to go to bed. I found out later that she wrote out new goals for her life, a full page of them, addressing all of the things I wanted to “tell her” about herself. But if I would have “told her” about herself, the change would have come from an external source (me). I was blown away at the power of our conversation and its transforming affect. To this day, I see a difference in how she is living her life. She said she felt like it was getting out of control. That determined dune-climbing daughter of mine, took charge of her life again. I’m so proud of her. She did it. Not me. And that’s the moral of this story!

My heart goes out to all single parents . . . to all parents, for the sake of our kids . . . our future. I know that sometimes, even though you are married, you feel totally alone in raising your kids. I also know the grind of loneliness, the longing for adult conversation. Where is the humanity in our communities? Why is it so hard to just open up to each other? Why don’t we build communities that work? Why don’t we connect to others so that we can support each other? I know some cultures know how to do this and do it well. I so deeply long to connect with people that know how to be a community and support each other. In the last year, I’ve talked to people from both Africa and Jamaica, living here in America, that greatly miss their home towns and villages because of the loss of community. Well, I say, it CAN be done here. It MUST be done here. Our future is at stake.

Building community requires two things to get started. First, we need people. People that are willing to engage with others in conversation about a better future. Second we need space. Public spaces that are open for conversations like these. I long to have conversations with others about things that really matter. But I don’t know where to go to engage in these conversations. I tried to do this in churches. But I got tired of the blank stares. Once in a while, I’m fortunate to connect with someone over coffee or tea at Schuler Books or in homes, but not on a regular basis. Lately, I’ve been drawn to the Grand Rapids Friends (Quakers) because I think they really get it. I’ve been also drawn to an interfaith Gathering in Faith studying and forming a Circle of Trust.

Community can be created. We can support each other . . . if we intend it.

“‘I believe we can change the world if we start listening to one another again.’ I still believe this. I still believe that if we turn to one another, if we begin talking with each other – especially with those we call stranger or enemy – then this world can reverse its darkening direction and change for the good. And I know with all my heart that the only way the world will change is if many more of us step forward, let go of our judgments, become curious about each other, and take the risk to begin a conversation.” (Margaret Wheatley)

“Since our earliest ancestors gathered in circles around the warmth of a fire, conversation has been our primary means for discovering what we care about, sharing knowledge, imagining the future, and acting together to both survive and thrive.” (Juanita Brown, The World Cafe)

“‘We need to depend on diversity’. . . (this) is a survival skill these days, because there’s no other way to get an accurate picture of any complex problem or system. We need many eyes and ears and hearts engaged in sharing perspectives. How can we create an accurate picture of the whole if we don’t honor the fact that we each see something different because of who we are and where we sit in the system?” (Margaret Wheatley)

“The tragedy of modern industrial societies is the superficiality that they project (and that we accept) as the norm for human affairs. We unconsciously trivialize the human experience with shallow pursuits of money and social status that mask the magnificence of what it means to be a human being.” (p. 116, Voluntary Simplicity, Duane Elgin)

“Neighbors, coworkers, and even family members can live side by side for years without learning much about each other’s lives. As a result, we lose something of great value, for the more we know about another’s story, the harder it is to hate or harm that person.” (Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness, p. 123)

“The essential challenge is to transform the isolation and self-interest within our communities is connectedness and caring for the whole… We begin by shifting our attention from the problems of community to the possibility of community.” (Peter Block, Community: the structure of belonging).

I say this applies as much or more to faith communities as to local communities. If our children are to survive and become future leaders, then our families need to survive. If our families are to survive, especially single parent families, a number that is growing with impending strength, then our communities must learn to support them.

By communities, I don’t mean our institutions like government, churches, agencies, etc.

By communities, I mean you and me forming informal networks of support . . . relationships . . . friendships . . . connections that strengthen each other and in doing so, connections that strengthen our families and our children.