When You’re Mom—and Dad


Being successful as a single parent

The problems of single-parent families are receiving increasing attention, both in and out of the Church. Comments such as these are common: “It’s hard being both mother and father.” “My worst problem is money—there is just never enough.” “After working all day—then coping with wound-up kids, making dinner, and cleaning house—there’s no time or energy left.”

Even Church programs can seem burdensome—with endless chauffeuring to Young Men and Young Women activities, ironing, shampooing, and cooking on Saturday to get ready for Sunday. Sometimes the very programs intended to aid families can seem more like demands than opportunities for growth.

How can a single parent turn his or her home atmosphere around, feel more successful as an individual, and become a better parent and church member? As a divorced mother of two children—Mandi, 15, and Peter, 13—I have experienced over and over these frustrations. But, because we have been on our own for over twelve years, we have found a few answers. Perhaps what works for us can help others.

Rely on the Lord

The single most important lesson I’ve learned as a single mother is to rely on the Lord. Like the Psalmist, I can say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress: my God; in him will I trust.” (Ps. 91:2.)

One evening in the temple, the Spirit spoke to me with the warm invitation, “The Lord is your priesthood holder—depend on him whenever you need to.” As I have slowly turned my trust over to him, our family has been rewarded with guidance in relationships, money, jobs—whatever is our current need—as long as we are staying worthy and working hard.

I refer to my patriarchal blessing frequently and find different passages significant with each reading. Once I was especially impressed with its injunction to always remember my secret and family prayers, and its attendant promise that the Spirit would be felt in my home. At the time, I was concerned because my children were fighting as well as resisting family chores. As we committed ourselves to regular family prayers, our family unity greatly increased.

Single mothers need not go without priesthood blessings. My home teachers and my brothers have always been more than willing to give needed blessings to our family. One fall, I had some trouble filling two openings in the day care center which at that time provided our basic income. Weeks went by with a decreasing number of responses to our ads. I grew increasingly nervous and began to doubt the Lord’s concern for our needs. Finally, one Sunday in October, I asked my brother John to give me a blessing. Among other things, he assured me that the Lord was eager to bless me, but that I must guard my thoughts and that I would be blessed according to my faith.

Suddenly, my path was clear. The Lord was not withholding needed income as a test or punishment, but simply couldn’t bridge the gap created by my doubts! I prayed sincerely the next two weeks, guarded my thoughts, exercised my faith, and our last two openings were filled. Then, unexpectedly, my ex-husband sent a generous amount of volunteered child support which filled those financial holes.

My sister-in-law Janice, a single parent for many years before marrying my brother, has confided that she remembers poignantly the blessings and special closeness with the Spirit that a single parent has access to. I can also testify that this is true. If we are worthy, working diligently to solve our problems and fulfill our duties, the Lord will be there for both spiritual and temporal blessings, if we will exercise our faith.

Live the Gospel Fully

The second lesson we had to learn was to participate in all Church programs to the best of our ability, not just the ones that were most convenient. For years, I paid only half of a family’s assessment for ward budget and something for fast offering. But we always paid a full tithe, so my conscience was clear. Then I realized that I had been fooling myself. We now meet the bishop’s requests and have doubled our fast offering. As we have done this, we have been blessed with another improvement in family spirit, plus the means to provide for all our needs and many of our wants.

Similarly, I had never felt able to afford much food storage. Then a neighboring single mother inspired me to try commitment first and worry about money second. With the little money I could scrape together, I bought several twenty-five pound bags of staples. A few weeks later, a friend preparing for a move to Alaska offered to sell me three hundred pounds of wheat in containers for thirty-six dollars. It was too good to pass up. When some furniture I had been advertising for sale sold, I bought the wheat.

I also began buying a couple of extra cans of soup, fruit, vegetables, or meat each week. I knew it would take a long time to get a year’s supply, but at least I was doing something. I began saving milk cartons, washing them out, filling them with water and a few drops of bleach, and storing them under my son’s bed.

Then came the real bonanza. I had typed a book manuscript for a friend who still owed me something on it. When she moved away, she offered me fifty pounds of high-quality powdered milk and a wheat grinder for the balance. You never saw a deal accepted faster than that—I had been wanting a wheat grinder for ten years! We don’t have a full year’s supply yet, but it’s steadily growing—thanks more to our commitment than to money.

In a blessing, my brother suggested that I didn’t have to do anything more to receive the blessings I sought than what I already knew to do—personal and family prayer, scripture reading, and keeping the Sabbath day holy. My conscience was pricked because I had used my single-parent status to excuse irregular scripture reading, family prayer, and family home evening lessons. I had used the excuse that I was too tired or didn’t have enough time. So we scheduled family prayer and scripture reading. The kids added a private morning prayer upon arising in addition to the bedtime prayer they were used to. I was already praying morning and night but resolved to increase my diligence here too.

We agreed, where possible, to hold Sunday for rest, church work, and, most important, studying the gospel. If we didn’t study the gospel on Sunday, I realized, when would we do it? I checked biographies of Church leaders out of the library for afternoon reading.

We also planned a family home evening lesson for Sunday evening—early if Mandi or I had a fireside, later if we had late afternoon visitors. These lessons may not have been from any manual. Instead, I identified a problem or deficiency I was concerned about, then used pertinent scriptures, as well as stories from the Ensign, New Era, and Church News to address it. We discussed our feelings and personal experiences and, just before prayer, closed with some resolution to work on during the coming week.

One lesson that stands out in my mind was on dissatisfaction with circumstances. I read aloud a story that I had used in a Relief Society Spiritual Living lesson years before about a young woman who was unhappy about almost every aspect of her life. She sought counsel from an older woman whom she saw as happy and successful. This woman counseled the girl to try an experiment, to spend twenty-four hours imagining that Christ was beside her and to live as he might in every situation. The girl learned that the seeds for change were within herself. We discussed the story and its relevance to our own particular dissatisfactions.

The next night we assembled on Peter’s bed to compare notes. I noted that our home became much more harmonious as I controlled my tone of voice and tried to be extra patient. But it was Mandi who had had the most startling experience. She had been struggling with a serious problem of contention with a girl at school who continually taunted her about her appearance and who kept daring her to fight. Mandi had refrained from answering her back, but she was at a loss as to what to do about it. After praying about it, she felt prompted to ask another friend, whom this girl greatly admired, to discuss the situation with the girl in question. The belligerent girl had immediately stopped her hostilities, and she and Mandi had even become friends! Then, as she was walking down the hall that day, the Spirit whispered to her, “Try to be more positive.” She tried it, had a great day, and made another new friend. That night Mandi was truly grateful to Heavenly Father for helping her with her problem. She was well on her way to building a testimony of her own.

I had read all the standard works soon after my conversion ten years ago. Then my scripture reading had lapsed. To make time for study, I switched my early-morning exercise period. My mornings were then devoted to reading each day from a section in the Topical Guide in my Bible. I started with “Thankfulness,” an attribute I felt in need of. I became more thankful for my health, the gospel, my family, and the blessings of living in a free nation. Then I moved on to “Charity.” My study time has become an oasis I love to visit.

Nurture Good Family Relations

Communication and respect have to top my list of important principles of family relations. I have always encouraged my children to be honest and forthright. “Mom, you’re sure crabby today.” “I’m upset because so-and-so doesn’t like me.” “Why can’t we get an Atari?” Honest communication doesn’t prevent frustrations from occurring, but it does help if there’s someone around who’s willing to listen and share the burden. Keeping the channels of communication open is a real key to family happiness.

I try to respect my children’s individual tastes and temperaments. If Mandi wants a purple T-shirt or seagulls on her bedspread, that’s her prerogative. If Peter isn’t comfortable performing in front of others, I don’t try to shame him into being something he’s not. My children are not rubber stamps of me. On the other hand, I expect to be treated with respect too. On the many occasions when I must play the firm parent, I ask to be obeyed without back talk. My children feel free to respectfully question my decisions. But, once the time for discussion is over, I expect them to accept the final decision with grace, or at least silence! After all, it’s a difficult job to be a parent, but God gave it to me and I have to do it the way that seems best to me.

I have also found that financial worries undercut my nurturing ability quicker than anything I know. Having a steady income and stable budget frees me from those knots of worry that wake me up at 3:00 A.M. wondering how to pay my car insurance. I make my employment a matter of prayer, then we live within the budgeted income that my job provides.

Keep Expectations Realistic

I have come to realize that I simply can’t do it all—be a good mother, homemaker, neighbor, ward member, writer, and individual without drastically streamlining the basic chores of daily living. I plan menus a month at a time and shop only once a week. We do laundry once a week and have one short cleaning session on Saturday, in addition to a few daily chores such as washing dishes, sweeping, and vacuuming. We work together so that no one is anyone else’s servant. Spending only three to four hours daily on cleaning, cooking, and dish washing leaves blocks of time for working with the kids on creative projects, reading, or gardening. I am also able to pursue my long-cherished dream of writing a series of simple phonetic readers for children.

Acknowledge Emotional Needs

Single parents shouldn’t deny their need for allowing others to be a part of their lives. This means not only accepting help from a home teacher who can fix our car, but also caring for our neighbor’s pet while she goes on vacation. We and our children need to give and receive service regularly. Other single parents are a source of companionship and insight into common problems. Relatives can often be a great strength also. My children have friends from school, church, and the neighborhood. While there is a certain void in our hearts that only a husband and father can fill, we feel blessed to have many social resources to draw on.

This brings me to the difficult position that a single parent is in, emotionally, trying to raise children. In a happy, two-parent family, the romantic love and companionship between the parents is the well from which the whole family can drink. The spark that puts a twinkle in dad’s eye and the lilt in mom’s voice is also a source of emotional nourishment for the children. A single parent must somehow find the creative and emotional resources to provide his or her family this food for the heart and spirit, in spite of a built-in emotional unbalance.

I regularly find myself with whining children, a huge pile of bills, and nothing but bleak emptiness inside. I’m supposed to nurture my children, but who nurtures me? While there are no easy answers for this, I have found that service, creativity, relaxation, and spirituality all help refill the emotional well. And whenever I humbly lay my need before my Heavenly Father, he sends countless little miracles—a phone call from a long-lost friend, an unexpected check in the mail, an opportunity for service, or a day so hectic that cares fade as the washer and vacuum cleaner start humming.

The well is also filled by dreams—personal and family dreams that keep us stretching and changing into better people. I discovered some of mine one summer when my children went to visit their dad for six weeks. I spent many evenings writing my personal history while outside were the homey sounds of sprinklers and children laughing in the distance. It was a sweet experience, sorting through my complicated and eventful past. Out of it came a clear focus on my basic identity as a woman and my main goals for the future. I reaffirmed the kind of marriage and home I was building and preparing for and the goals of service I had held for a long time.

On a more everyday level, my daughter began dreaming of a waterbed just a year after we had bought her a canopy bed. I wasn’t very sympathetic, but I told her that if we could sell her bed and matching dresser for enough to pay for a waterbed, we would make the switch. We prayed and advertised for weeks and were about to give up when a woman offered to buy it and pay $30 a week, until it was paid off. The total price was $265—only $20 less than the waterbed that we found on sale, complete with bedding. We bought the waterbed on time (so as to have something to sleep on), but paid it off within ninety days, thereby avoiding a finance charge. We paid the slight difference in price out of our regular budget. We both enjoy the waterbed’s comfort, but even more we remember the lesson that dreams can come true.

Try Unconventional Solutions

On two occasions we have gone without a car because the budget simply would not support both us and it. We found, however, that between bikes and buses, we managed quite well. I could even get a full one hundred dollars worth of groceries home in a supermarket cart borrowed from our apartment manager.

I have done a great deal of second-hand buying and selling in the last eight years. Our couch came out of our dumpster—its only flaw neither dirt nor damage, but pure ugliness! With twenty-five dollars worth of fabric, some sewing here and there, and my trusty staple gun, we now have a hide-a-bed couch we aren’t ashamed of. My typewriter is an old electric my dad gave me because no one in the family used it anymore. Overhauled, it works perfectly. I found a copy machine for fifty dollars and a color television for one hundred dollars, both in perfect working condition. We have bought and sold bikes, held yard sales, and even sold other people’s discarded furniture for extra cash.

Unusual living arrangements sometimes help bridge the financial gap. Some single mothers group together to share housing. Children can benefit from the pseudo-sibling relationships, and both moms can enjoy more adult companionship and flexibility in being able to go out. Single-parent families can also double up with relatives. Twice we have lived with my parents for six months while making a transition between jobs or locations. It has been a wonderful breather and provided many precious memories.

There are paths to our dreams and goals, but sometimes they are not the well-traveled ones.

Live in the Present

It has taken me years to truly learn that the time to be happy is now. It’s unlikely that a princely priesthood holder will swoop into my life, carry me off to the temple, and save me from my miseries unless I am already radiant with personal happiness and fulfillment.

No more do I say, “When I get married the kids won’t argue anymore,” nor, “When I get married, I won’t be lonely.” (What if he’s out of town on business for a week or plays golf every Saturday?) No more do I say, “When I get married, I won’t have to worry about bills, bills, bills!” The time to learn family harmony is now, the time to call a friend is now, and the time to learn wise money management is definitely now.

After all, all parents in the Church—single or not—have the same problem-solving tool: the gospel, and the sure promise of reward for effort and righteousness. If we place our trust in the Lord, we will truly reap the blessing promised in Jeremiah 17:8: “For he shall be as a tree planted by the waters, and that spreadeth out her roots by the river, and shall not see when heat cometh, but her leaf shall be green; and shall not be careful in the year of drought, neither shall cease from yielding fruit.” [Jer. 17:8]

[photos] Photography by Michael M. McConkie

Janet Kent, a writer and mother of two, serves as single woman transition leader in her Orem, Utah, ward.