My son, Jack, asked me The Question one evening while watching Olivia on Nick Jr. It was triggered by a scene where Olivia's father helps her look for her superspecial red-and-white tights. I opened my mouth but nothing came out. I took a breath and tried again. “Bud,” I said, placing my hand on top of his little chubby one, “sometimes kids just live with their mommies, like you and me, okay?” He didn't skip a beat. He asked again. A pang of anxiety came over me—I felt like I might throw up. “He lives far away and you live here with me, and I love you so much.” I zipped a Matchbox car in front of him and blurted out, “Zooooom!” He's 3. The toy distracted him—for now. I shut off the television and read him a book that didn't have a daddy character. That night I lay in bed feeling anxious and frustrated. Jack's father left when I was 11 weeks pregnant. He has a new family now and, for his own reasons, refuses to see his son. Sometimes I just don't know what to say or how to say it. But chances are that on my street, in my neighborhood, there are other moms and dads dealing with a similar situation.
City by city, the single-parent population is growing: One quarter of all children under 21 live with only one of their parents, and 41 percent of all births in the U.S. are to unmarried women. While a family used to be love-marriage-and-a-baby-carriage, the public does not see that paradigm as the only path anymore. In fact, 86 percent say a single parent and a child equals a family, according to a new Pew Research Center nationwide survey, conducted in association with Time magazine.
As a 30-year-old single mom raising a nearly 4-year-old boy with no physical participation from his father, I couldn't agree more. My son and I are a beautiful, proud family. But there's a lot to navigate and explain to my little guy. As you can imagine, kids have plenty of questions about the complicated yet increasingly common world of single parenthood and co-parenting.
“Is Daddy moving out?”
Divorce is a stressful and life-changing event for the adults involved, but at least we have the capability of understanding what it means—a preschooler does not. “During this time, the child does not have the ability to take on another person's viewpoint. The only viewpoint he sees is his own,” explains Maria Elena Misito, a psychotherapist specializing in adolescents and adults in Wayne, NJ.
You'll want to succintly explain what's going on so the child doesn't come up with his own assumptions, but as a general rule, Misito recommends not telling him too far in advance. “It's important not to share the news with a preschooler the moment you and your spouse decide it's over, because getting divorced doesn't happen overnight and the anticipation of this major change will cause undue anxiety.”
Keep the explanation short and simple: Mommy and Daddy haven't been getting along and someone is moving out. Explain that this change will come with “special” alone time with each parent. “Give specific examples of what will remain the same,” advises Misito. “‘Mommy will still read you a bedtime story every night; Daddy will still take you to your favorite place for breakfast every Saturday.’”
“Who is that sleeping in your bed, Daddy?”
It's inevitable that single or divorced parents are going to date other people, form new relationships, and come to a point where they have to introduce their child to this new person.
Rachel Sarah is the author of Single Mom Seeking, co-founder of singlemommyhood.com, and a former single mom for ten years. “When my daughter was three, I introduced her to the man I was seeing without using the word ‘dating,’” she says. “I said, ‘We're going out for ice cream with one of Mommy's friends. His name is Sean.’”
This G-rated example is a safe way to get your child acquainted with a new love interest, but the reality is things can become PG-13 very quickly. When there's an impromptu sleepover, what then? There is no upside to letting your child see you in bed with someone, says Leah Klungness, Ph.D., a psychologist and coauthor of The Complete Single Mother. “If she does see you in bed, simply ask her what she needs and reassure her that you'll be right there to help. If you make a big deal about being caught, it's your startled reaction that will likely upset the child. Calm, cool, and matter-of-fact is the best way to deal.” But Klungness has this addendum: “While setting appropriate boundaries for yourself is important, you don't need your child's permission to have a fulfilling sexual life.”
“Is that pretty lady my new mommy?”
When Matt Logelin's wife and high school sweetheart, Liz, died 27 hours after giving birth to their now 3-year-old daughter, Madeline, the Los Angeles resident became an instant single father. For several years it was just Logelin and his little girl, traveling, playing, blogging about their adventures. Falling in love was far from his mind. That was before he met Brooke while visiting family for the holidays in Minnesota.
Roughly half a year later, Matt had to tell his daughter that Brooke was moving in. “Madeline didn't know what I was talking about. I could have told her Elmo was coming to live with us,” says Logelin, who chronicled his story in Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss & Love.
“There are cognitive limitations at two years old, so this is as far as Matt could have gone really,” notes Misito. “What the parent should do is focus on all of the wonderful things that are going to happen in sharing a life together as a family, while at the same time reminding the child that the person isn't taking her biological mom's place.” Logelin has done just that. “There are photos of Liz on the walls, and a lot of her things are still in the house,” he notes. And Liz's presence is memorialized beyond just pictures and mementos. “I love to hear the girls in the kitchen together. Brooke tells Madeline that the stool she's standing on is the one that her four-foot eleven-inch mother used to get things out of the cupboard.”
“Why doesn't Daddy want to see me?”
Now that my son is nearly 4, he has some curiosity about the father he's never met. According to Misito, I may never be able to fully satisfy his interest. “Unfortunately, there is not an answer that will completely resolve your child's questions once and for all,” she says. “In fact, the child will ask the same questions over and over again about the ‘absent’ parent.”
Don't panic. Be patient and answer the questions clearly and consistently each time. Avoid bad-mouthing the absent parent, no matter how hard it may be, because your child may develop a relationship with him one day. “The most important thing for parents to remember is that they must keep all negative feelings about their ex to themselves,” Misito says. “Although this is easier said than done, the effects on the child can be detrimental.”
Peggy Drexler, Ph.D., the author of Raising Boys Without Men: How Maverick Moms Are Creating the Next Generation of Exceptional Men, suggests saying something positive—but honest—about the absent parent to address any questions. (“I know he is really good at running, just like you.”) Drexler cautions that showing a picture of an absent-by-choice parent isn't the best move. “A growing child needs to be able to focus on successfully passing through his own developmental stages without distraction, worry, or preoccupations that are not solvable—like an adult who refuses to visit his child.”
Don't be surprised if your child breaks your heart and says “But why doesn't Daddy want to see me?” When he does, try this: “I don't know why your daddy has made the choice not to visit us. But there is one thing I do know for sure: His choice has nothing to do with you.”
“Mom, why do you sit down when you pee?”
Doug Downey, Ph.D., a professor of sociology at Ohio State University, in Columbus, coauthored a study about the benefit of single moms raising daughters and single dads raising sons. Apparently, there is none. “The research revealed no evidence that a same-sex advantage shows up after a family breaks up or even when the children reach adulthood,” explains Downey. While this is excellent news, it doesn't mean we won't get tongue-tied when cringe-worthy questions come up.
“Mommy, why don't you stand and pee like me?” Jack said to me after he barged into the bathroom and caught me with my pants down. “Almost all parents are caught in the buff by their children at some point,” Drexler says. “The best response is to be relaxed and tell them that they've done nothing wrong by glimpsing you.” Wait until your child starts to ask questions, then answer simply: “I sit to pee because I have a vagina, and you stand because you have a penis, and it works best like that.”
Interestingly, when it comes to body parts and bodily functions, single moms don't have it much different than mothers in traditional two-parent households. “In mom-and-dad families, the average amount of time fathers spend with their children is still substantially less than the time spent with Mom,” Drexler says. “My point here is ‘Relax, single moms,’ because for most boys, it's usually the mother who explains issues related to the body.”
When inquiring children want answers to loaded questions, short and sweet is best. “Keep the response simple, factual, and age-appropriate,” advises Klungness.
Finally, consistently remind them that you'll always be there. I've learned there are many ways to do just that. One day when I was loading Jack into his car seat, we both heard faint chirping coming from atop our condo's garage.
“What's that?” Jack asked. When I looked closer, I saw a bird in her nest, surrounded by downy chicks. The mother was calm and still as the little ones mingled around her. “Jack! That mommy bird has baby birds.” I lifted him up to see.
“Whoa. What is she doing up there?” His big brown eyes looked so curious, and a bit concerned, too.
“She's taking care of her babies.”
“Cool!” said Jack.