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ASK LINDA, PSYCHOTHERAPIST, SINGLE MOM:

My partner Jane and I planned to have a baby together, and she carried our son, who is her biological child. When James was 9 months old, Jane – who never really took to being a mom – told me she couldn’t deal with parenting anymore and she abandoned us. I think she may have been suffering from depression. James is now 17 months and I’m the only mom he can remember. It seems pretty clear Jane is not coming back, at least not anytime soon. How should I talk about this with my son as he grows up?

Linda answers:

First, please know that although it’s more common for fathers to leave their children, mothers do it, too. This choice – child abandonment – is about the individual parent and their mental health and coping skills, not about you or, of course, your child. There are many single dads out there who have been left to bring up their kids, who have the same questions your son will likely have.

It is very important that your child hears a cohesive, consistent, and honest story from the beginning. Secrets and lies can be very damaging. Don’t wait to have a big conversation in grade school – incorporate parts of the true story from the beginning. This means that you, your family and friends need to be on the same wavelength, because he will ask everyone as he grows older.

Reassure him: ‘I will never, ever, ever leave’

It might go something like this, and will evolve in stages as your son gets older and asks more questions: “Both of your mommies wanted you very, very much. When you where born Mommy Jane didn’t feel well. She went away to get better. She didn’t explain why she needed to go away, so Mommy Emma doesn’t really understand it. All I know for sure is that I will never, ever, ever leave you for any reason. However, I do know that Mommy Jane loved you. For some people, it is really hard to be part of a family. Yes, it also makes me sad and I also miss her. Let me show you this story book that I made of us before you were born and tell you some of my favorite stories about her.”

You may feel very hurt by and angry about Jane’s actions, and understandably so, but it’s important, as in any parental breakup, to keep the child’s needs in mind. In this case, even though James may not remember Jane, she did provide 50 percent of his DNA and she was a presence in his early life. It may be tempting to downplay her role in order to protect him, but Jane was not an egg donor or a surrogate. She had planned to be and was a mother, and then she abandoned that role. That’s not a truth you’ll be able to hide forever. This was a loss for James and must be handled honestly. Also, if James learns negative things about Jane, since she is is biological mother, he may feel that part of him is “bad.” So that’s why it’s crucial that he hear positive stories about Mommy Jane.

Help him feel a positive connection to that side of his family

It’s also important that he have contact with Jane’s relatives, if they agree to it. Sometimes in these cases, the extended family will distance themselves from the child, out of embarrassment or denial. If that happens, make it clear to them that the door is always open, by sending holiday cards or emailing photos periodically.

As your son gets older he may ask if Mommy Jane is going to come back. You might think about answering something like the following, “I really don’t know, but if she does ever come back that will be something we all can work on together.”

He may very well want to search for Mommy Jane when he is older. If he does, help him set expectations of both the positive and negative situations which might arise. Help him find support groups that help children who are searching for missing parents and attend with him. Empathize and join him in his journey as much as you can. Help him see the part of him that is his Mommy Jane, by consciously mirroring her positive behaviors and characteristics and sharing as much of her story and history as possible with him.

HAVE A QUESTION FOR LINDA? Sent it to info [at] singlewith.com, and put ASK LINDA in the subject heading. She may use your question for an upcoming post!

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child abandonment

This New York winter has been brutal. Mr. Groundhog found his shadow and indicated there will be six more weeks of winter, but he didn’t let us know we’d be in for record lows and everyone getting sick. As February inched into March I too started sniffling and sneezing, and I had a splitting sinus headache the other day. I decided to do something I normally don’t: lie down.

It was a weekday afternoon right before all of the good shows come on ESPN, so I found myself watching Friends. I have seen every episode so many times that within thirty seconds I can tell you which episode it is.  The other day I once again relived the story arc in which Rachel gets pregnant and doesn’t want to tell Ross. Shortly after he finds out, Rachel goes on a date again and Ross freaks out (sounds like every episode from the first four seasons but yeah…). Ross is sitting with Joey and explains how he thought that the next time he became a father, life would be different. I hadn’t seen this episode since becoming a single parent, so it kind of hit home.

Ross goes on and on about how after his first marriage didn’t work out, he had this picture in his head of what he thought his future life would be like. He would be married, they would be a family that was together – not a blended one. That made me think about when there was once a picture in my head…

All while my daughter’s mother was pregnant I told her that within eighteen months of our first child being born she would want to do it all over again. She didn’t believe me. Then September 2011, about seven months after Cydney was born, she’s staying at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, being monitored for a few days while undergoing aggressive treatments for terminal cancer. I had just gotten off work and went straight there. She did me a solid by letting me watch the Yankees game and a commercial came on about children. With just a little bit of hair on her head growing back after her chemo treatments being changed and weighing about eighty-eight pounds she said to me, “I wouldn’t mind having another child now.”

I responded with a laugh and said, “Damn, I gave you eighteen months and you couldn’t even make it eight!” She laughed and externally that was the end of the moment. But that was the day my picture changed. Being that she was undergoing chemo, there would be no more children from her. I knew that. I’d had flashes of what the night she passed away would be like, all while looking at my daughter like, “Hey, it’s just you and me and we’re gonna just make sh*t happen.” At the same time, while I thought it was a long shot, I always had faith that one day she would be all right and she, little Cydney, and I could be a regular family in the end, with an amazing story to tell. Somehow, hearing her express a wish for a second child, for that perfect picture, was my confirmation that one day the woman I loved and the mother of my child would leave us.

Going back to the Friends episode, Joey asks Ross: When he sees that picture, is Rachel the woman?  Ross responds he used to think so, but at this point that person no longer has a face. I play around and pretend that I’m going to be a single dad/bachelor for the rest of my life, but even George Clooney got married so but I don’t that’ll be me forever. I have seen a face before. I have pictures of the three of us together and it kinda looks like we’re a family. Somewhere between being a cynic, realist, not wanting to count all my eggs before they hatch, limbo, and faith I try to see it as nothing more than that, for now.  At twenty-five years old I learned what most don’t until much older in life – that there are no guarantees and tomorrow isn’t promised.  While that family of three is what I see and I want, and I’ll pursue that by all means, I’ll also just enjoy the ride. The picture could change.

All of this is to say that almost no one envisions themselves as a single parent. Whether single parenthood came to us by divorce, artificial insemination, adoption, loss, or whatever; no one thinks about themselves raising a child on their own.  We aren’t wired to have that picture in our heads. It’s a bittersweet dream deferred but you love it, nonetheless. Sometimes you need that picture in your head to be the driving force and the reason you don’t give up…even if it doesn’t turn out the way that you’d like it. We all need something to aspire to.

In the meantime, the ones with us and the child(ren) we love dearly are amazing enough.

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Photo by  Matthew Ronder-Seid on Unsplash

ASK LINDA, PSYCHOTHERAPIST, SINGLE MOM:

Dear Linda,

My husband was the love of my life. Or so I thought. We’re divorcing after 12 years together and I just can’t stop crying. I want to pull it together for the kids, but I often am just overcome with grief. I feel like my best friend – and my life plan – have both died. To make it worse, the kids are reacting to the tension and are acting out. Which just adds to the stress and sadness and makes it harder for me to hold it together. How I can cope?

Linda answers:  

I am so sorry that you are going through this major loss. Your grief, tears and feeling overwhelmed are normal for the trauma you have suffered. These emotions are part of the mourning process, which will eventually lead you forward in your life. The “airplane safety demonstration” provides a key life lesson on the importance of taking care of yourself during a crisis such as this. The flight attendant says, “Put your oxygen mask on before placing an oxygen mask on your child.” Why? If you do not take care of yourself, you will not be here to take care of your children. When you have a major life stressor, you might forget to take care of yourself.

Your kids feel your pain and stress and are having their lives turned upside down, too. Talk with them. Let them know it is OK to feel sad. It is OK to cry. It is OK to be angry. Explain that both your emotions and theirs are real and that it is OK to feel whatever they feel. Here is the tricky part: What you do with your emotions is where you have choices. To help overcome difficult emotions, MOVE: exercise, play physical games, go skating, biking, running, play kickball, or play hide and seek. Move and get those feel-good chemicals activated in your body. Also, make sure you are all eating well and getting enough sleep.

Often when emotions become overwhelming, you might get caught up with repetitive thoughts and get “stuck in your head.” One simple and great technique for moving through these emotions is to start naming all the colors that you see. You can do this by yourself or with the kids. Try this for about 5 minutes, when you or they start to feel overwhelmed. It’s a mindfulness trick, sort of a mini meditation break: When you are concentrating on the colors and their names, you cannot simultaneously stay trapped in your negative thoughts.

Divorce or breakup is a loss, and you will need to mourn. It takes time, but you are a survivor and you and the children will come through this. A qualified family therapist might help guide you through this process together. I recommend that you seek out this kind of support for yourself and your children, since it will help you to “normalize” and move through the mourning process.

HAVE A QUESTION FOR LINDA? Sent it to info [at] singlewith.com, and put ASK LINDA in the subject heading. She may use your question for an upcoming post!
DID YOU LIKE THIS POST? Please go to the Singlewith Home Page for much more, and sign up for our weekly newsletter in the box (above, right)! You’ll get great new essays, advice and ideas by and for single parents, coming to your email inbox. Also, register for our Singlewith Forums, to become part of our community and start connecting and getting support from fellow single moms and dads. Like us on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter (@singlewith) and Instagram (singlewithphotos). In short, JOIN US!
Photo by  Marcel Strauß on Unsplash