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Single Parenting Advice: A Primer for Solo Moms and Dads
Whether you're newly divorced or dealing with an unplanned pregnancy, our guide to navigating child support, custody, finances and more
You're Newly Single, with Kids...Now What?
When I found out I was pregnant -- three months into a new relationship -- and then found myself suddenly solo, I panicked. I felt completely unprepared and soon found myself neck-deep in parenting books trying to absorb both the Mom and Dad chapters. Now my son, JD, is about to turn three. We've come a long way; he refers to us as "a team" and indeed we are.
Read on to learn some of the most important things newly single parents need to know.
File for Child Support
Whether you recently broke up with your partner or got pregnant Knocked Up-style via a one-night-stand, both Mom and Dad have a legal obligation to financially support their child, no matter what the parents' relationship is. This is no time to be proud; you're not asking for a handout, you're asking for financial support that will benefit your child.
"Child support is calculated based upon two main factors: the amount of money each parent earns and the amount of time each parent spends with that child. The court can also order each parent to pay one-half of extras like daycare/school tuition, health insurance and extracurricular activities. The amount of child support and duration of the order is governed by the rules of the state where the child resides," advises, Celeste Liversidge, family law attorney and co-author of Last One Down the Aisle Wins.
There are serious consequences if parents don't pay up. Liversidge explains: "He or she (yes, moms can be ordered to pay if the child lives with dad) can be held in contempt of court, which, in most states can carry a criminal penalty. If a payor owes more than $2,500 in child support, he cannot obtain or renew a passport. Unpaid child support can be reflected negatively on a person's credit report. Additionally, any state or federal tax refunds can be intercepted to pay child support arrearages and unpaid child support cannot be discharged through bankruptcy. In most states, liens can be placed on real property in order to secure outstanding child support."
For more information on child support visit Administration for Children and Families or contact your county's family court.
Learn About Custody Arrangements
A kid isn't a CD collection you can split in half and be done with it. You'll need to hammer out a living arrangement, and there's a range of possibilities. Liversidge breaks down the different types of custody enforced by the courts:
- Sole Legal Custody: One parent has all the decision-making authority when it comes to things like medical care, education and religious upbringing.
- Joint Legal Custody: Both parents have equal decision-making authority when it comes to things like medical care, education and religious upbringing.
- Sole Physical Custody: Where the child/ren spend most of their time with one parent, with some visitation to the other non-custodial parent.
- Joint Physical Custody: Where the child/ren spend significant time with each parent according to a timeshare plan that the parties have agreed upon, or that the court imposes.
Live Near Your Support System
If you can live near the other parent, family or close friends, do it. Being a single parent can be overwhelming -- think screaming baby, no milk in the fridge and torrential downpour outside. There will be times when you'll need a hand, and knowing you have a shoulder to lean on -- or a free babysitter -- is comforting. My son's godmother lives in our building. When he spiked a 105 fever at 10pm, I called the pediatrician, then her. She helped with the lukewarm bath and stayed with me until the fever broke.
Aliana Sheer from the Ms. Single Mama blog has support nearby: "When my son was 18 months old, I moved back to the city. I lucked out and found an apartment within 80 feet of my best friend, also a single mom. With her so close I could drop Benjamin off if I was in a pinch, and she could drop her daughter off when she needed help. We aren't just there to help each other with the kids, but for the much-needed emotional support too. As a result, our children call each other brother and sister. I'm not sure what I would do without her."
If there was ever a time to get on top of your finances, this is it. After all, you're totally in charge of the checkbook now. Create a budget -- get a savvy friend to teach you if you're spreadsheet-averse -- and get a clear picture of where each and every dime goes.
Also, now that your situation has changed, you'll need to alter your will or draft one if you haven't done it. And since we're being morbid, have you thought about how your child will survive financially in the event of your untimely demise? I have. I took out a $500,000 life insurance policy that names JD the sole beneficiary. Judith Ward, Senior Financial Planner for T. Rowe Price, believes life insurance is a must for single parents. "A policy is typically needed to replace the income lost when a parent passes away. It should cover current and future expenses -- and even future needs, such as college tuition and housing.
A child born in 2009 will cost around a quarter of a million dollars, or about $222,360, to raise, according to the Department of Agriculture. Eek. Ward recommends a Roth IRA for the child. "They offer children tax-free growth and withdrawals after say, 18 or 21 years of compounding. This will come in handy for a car, college or travel." Ward cautions about 529 college savings plans, which don't offer much flexibility: "529 Plans provide tax-deferred growth and tax-free distributions if used for qualified college costs. If the child doesn't go to college, the account can be transferred to other family members who do, or worst case, take unqualified distributions and pay taxes on earnings and 10% penalty."
Teaching your tot about money early on is a good idea too. My insider tip is to buy a clear piggy bank, and let your child slip coins into the slot each week. If he's like JD, he'll get excited about his growing savings. Once it's full, we head to the bank and use the fancy coin machine, then deposit the total into JD's savings account.
Lean On Parent Friends
Single or married, moms need other moms to help keep their sanity. I had zero mom friends from the time JD was born to the time he turned one and I didn't really care, either. I attended brunch in stilettos while JD napped in his Bugaboo -- it was like a chick-lit novel and I was the heroine single mom. Once he got older and more active, it occurred to me that I couldn't subject him to long, non-kid-friendly outings -- it wasn't fair to him or the adults. I slipped on some sneakers and hit the local park. I made several mom friends who all have kiddos JD's age, and I hang out with them pretty much every afternoon.
"Parenting can be isolating even when you're not doing it alone, so it's especially important that single mothers make understanding friends. You'll feel less alone if you've got a buddy, preferably one with kids your children's ages, who doesn't mind going to playgrounds and restaurants where they hand out crayons," says Jen Singer, of MommaSaid.net and author of the Stop Second-Guessing Yourself Guides to Parenting.
Learn How to Communicate With Your Ex
Sometimes breakups are ugly; sometimes they're just a matter of two people growing apart amicably. No matter how you feel about your ex, you still share something real and beautiful -- an innocent child. Said child will undoubtedly be influenced by how you treat his other parent, so tread carefully.
Deborah Roth Ledley, PhD, licensed psychologist and author of Becoming a Calm Mom: How to Manage Stress and Enjoy the First Year of Motherhood says the trick is to put yourself in your ex's shoes while still voicing your own concerns -- without getting nasty. "Whenever communication occurs, use an assertive style. This involves voicing your own needs and desires, while also being respectful of the needs and desires of your ex." An example: "Can you please have Jane home on time on Sunday night. I need to get her ready for school. I don't mind if she's later on Wednesday, so feel free to go out for ice cream after dinner."
Of course, communicating with an ex who cheated, abandoned your child or filed for divorce when you wanted to work things out isn't easy. If you just can't bring yourself to communicate in a way to serves the best interests of your kiddo, then Dr. Ledley suggests having a mediator or lawyer as the go-between.
Deal With the Pain
Divorces and break-ups are hard. They're even harder when children are involved -- especially on the parent who assumes all or the majority of the caretaking -- because there is no time to examine and work through feelings of sadness, loss and depression. There are block towers to build and diapers to change and dinner to make.
"When people have painful experiences, the natural tendency is to push it away and focus on other things -- what needs to get done in the moment, things that are associated with better feelings. Moms can get into trouble if they say to themselves, 'I can't think about that now, I have to focus on my baby.' When people push thoughts away, negative thoughts can come back with more frequency and with greater intensity," says Dr. Ledley.
To combat feelings of guilt and pain, Dr. Ledley suggests that you address them ASAP. While having a good cry at the playground might not be appropriate, she does recommend you come back to that feeling later in the same day, maybe when your child is entertained (and contained), while watching Dora."Write in a journal (no holds barred), talk to a friend on the phone, see a therapist. Any method works so long as you let yourself experience the thoughts, even if they result in anger, sadness or anxiety. They will become less intrusive and less intense over time," says Dr. Ledley.
Get Over the Guilt
First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage is a cute song. But it's 2010 and we live in the age of the modern family, which doesn't have to be traditional. Just because you're a single parent doesn't mean that your family is broken or that you failed your kids.
Dr. Ledley advises: "In reality, a failed or broken home is one that is abusive or neglectful, not a single parent who takes her kid to the park every afternoon and makes him eat his broccoli. Fact is, the vast majority of single parents create a wonderful, loving, caring, supportive family environment for their kids."
Set an Example
It's important to think about what your family might have been like if you stayed in the relationship or force an unwilling parent to participate. "Having two loving parents who are respectful of one another is, of course, great for kids. It sets a template for them of how they relate to other people in their lives from childhood friendships right up to adult romantic relationships. Having two parents who do not respect one another, who fight constantly, who cheat on one another, sets a disastrous template for future relationships. Single parents can shift their beliefs to recognize that they made a choice that was best for their children and themselves, rather than staying mired in guilty feelings about the past," says Dr. Ledley.
What Do I Tell My Child?
Oh, the agony! Trust me, as a single mom I understand the dread that accompanies questions about why Daddy's not around. But, rest assured, for the most part, adults spend more time worrying about this than their young kids do.
Dr. Ledley advises: "A child's worries and thoughts are much simpler than ours and the last thing we want to do is start projecting our own worries and negative thoughts onto them. So, when very young children ask questions about their absent parent, try to be very simple and general. Something like, 'sometimes mommies and daddies don't get along well and they decide that everyone will be happier if they live apart,' or 'some kids live with their mom and dad, or just their mom, or their grandma. Families are all different.' Then, ask the child for their follow-up questions. As the child grows, the discussion will too -- one day at a time."
Balance Work and Family
Most single parents can't afford to be stay-at-home-parents, but working out of the home can be a challenge, especially when the child is sick or off school. The juggle can be especially difficult if the other parent isn't involved at all. Should you give your employer a heads up that you're a single parent? Yes.
"All good relationships are characterized by openness, trust, aligned goals and mutual needs that are satisfied in both parties' judgment. The employee should be clear what their needs are and make sure the employment opportunity allows them to be met," advises Jack Harsh, Vice President of Human Resources at a specialty chemical supplier, with 35 years in the field.
Be proactive about your career choices too. Working Mother's 100 Best Companies is a good source for family-friendly companies that provide flexibility.
OJO Images for Getty
Be Proactive With Daycare Providers and Teachers
Before anyone could make assumptions, I marched right into my son's preschool and explained to his teachers I was a single mom and his dad was not involved. As a result, he makes his Uncle Brian a Father's Day gift each year, and it's no big deal.
Brooke Mendel, a first grade teacher in New Jersey, appreciates when parents fill her in. "If a parent has any concerns, they are invited to contact me before the family projects or holiday gifts start." Bottom line: Don't ignore family trees or Mother's Day/Father's Day projects because you think bringing up an absent parent will be hurtful. It will be more hurtful if your child's caught off guard. Work with the teacher so she can work with your child to ensure a comfortable environment.