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.’”