Originally published at CatholicMom.com
I am a single mother of five beautiful children. My oldest is 22 and my youngest is 12. I have passed the diaper, potty training and dressing stage. I no longer need to brush anyone’s hair or teeth, rock anyone to sleep or wipe noses. The hefty physicality of chasing toddlers has long passed, and has been replaced by the emotional, psychological and spiritual work of guiding, healing and protecting their minds and souls.
A few years ago, my family fell apart as another woman inserted herself into my role. All the articles I had read listed higher statistics of drug use, promiscuity and high school dropouts in single family homes. I began to panic. How on earth was I going to combat the world’s dark influence along with their father’s public scandal and how could I do it alone? Absolutely terrifying…after many good cries, I knew the first truth: I wasn’t alone. I had family and friends, a good Catholic school for my children’s formation and more importantly I had the Holy Family.
The adoption into the Holy Family was the first part of fighting the continuous spiritual battles, but there was more to understand and there was the simple logistics of how do I answer my children’s questions in a helpful and charitable way. I wanted to tell them that their father was an SOB and his mistress a trollop, but how would that help them heal (they eventually figured it out on their own)? After consulting many priests, an excellent counselor, hours of prayer and reflecting on what I had seen in other similar situations, I came up with a plan and a philosophy that I hold to today:
- VALIDATE YOUR CHILD’S FEELINGS!
This is by far the most important advice I can give any single parent – We chose our spouses, right or wrong, but our children, like us, were given two people to love and live for them unconditionally. Now one of them has decided they want something else. By that parent’s choice, they assert that their needs are more important than their child’s. This is not in accord with nature and can cause deep wounds and insecurities in the child. The world will try to tell your children to adapt. That this happens all the time and that it’s not about them, it’s about their parents. The worst line I’ve ever heard was from a single mom. I’m sure she believed she was comforting her child when she said, “He didn’t leave you, he left me.” The problem with that statement is that he did actually leave the child. He left the house. At night he is no longer there to tuck the child into bed (like mine, he may be tucking someone else’ children into bed), he won’t be there if a burglar breaks in to protect the child etc… They have been left too and if you don’t allow them to express that in a healthy, safe way, they will express it in an unhealthy, self-destructive way. Validate their reality, or you will be undermining your child’s pain and dignity.
- Don’t lie to your children.
I was told ad nauseam to never say anything negative about my spouse to my children. Well, that creates a conundrum, eh? “Mom, why is dad sleeping at your friend’s house? Where’s her husband?” Responding with, “Your dad and I both love you!” is not going to cut it, and trust me no matter their age; they can smell bullsh#@t as well as we can. They don’t need all the juicy, HBOesk details, but the truth none the less. They have the right to know why their lives were completely dismantled. They have that right! If you don’t give those honest answers they will come up their own reason and that usually results in self-blame.
This will be one of the most profound teaching moments of your life. Take some time to pray. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide your words and do your best to answer with love and mercy. These are the moments we show our children what, “hate the sin, love the sinner,” actually looks like. It will be a painful talk, but it can be the most powerful witness you will ever give your children. You are showing your children that you love and respect them enough to be honest, you speak the truth but with compassion for your spouse (“we must pray for him with great love!”) and you teach them that we must own our sins.
- Be Present.
Do not go inward! Whatever you do, don’t do it. Your children need you now more than ever. As difficult as it may be, you must be fully present for them. You are all they have now. Have fun with them! Try to laugh as a family much more than you cry. Let them talk your ear off. If they’re talking to you then they’re not off secretly drinking their pain away. They need to talk, and if it’s to you then they will receive the truth and you will be able to keep a gage on where they are emotionally. Stay connected.
- Ease up a bit on the arbitrary rules.
This is not the time to worry about how many green beans they ate. Make sure that you keep your focus on the necessary concerns. Your children need to be saturated in love, so say “yes” whenever possible and limit nagging. God’s plan for them will not be altered by a couple Twinkies.
- Ease up on yourself.
After the bottom fell out of my home I grabbed my kids and headed for a visit to my parents house. While there I was able to spend 24 hrs at a Benedictine Abbey. In a conversation with one of my childhood priests, I was given some of the most important advice I have ever received. He said, “You are now a single parent. You will fail. Two parent homes fail regularly and you are now a one parent home. You need to decide where you are unwilling to fail…To put it simply: No one has ever been denied entrance into heaven for wearing dirty underwear!” I cannot articulate the weight that these words lifted off my shoulders! Decide what is important and let the rest fall as it may.
- Help your children hold on to the Church with all they have!
Bring your Faith into the forefront of the family. Drench them in the Love of Christ. They will be struggling with feeling unworthy and unloved. Let them know in no uncertain terms how well loved they are by their heavenly Father.
Also, the Church provides us with the healing graces through the sacraments. Take them to Mass and confession frequently. Adoration is a wonderful place to sit and emotionally purge. Make sure they understand that God hears them and wants them to come to Him with all their pain and needs.
If you can, find a good priest to counsel you as a family, although always be prudent in your relationship with priests, it is extremely important for a woman in this situation to not look to the priest as an emotional replacement for her spouse. This will protect your children, the priesthood and yourself.
- Scale back your priorities.
You are one person taking on the job of two. Don’t forget that! Forgive yourself for being “less than perfect.” Perfection is out of reach.
To help ease the load, cut out unnecessary obligations. Little Johnny does not need to play every sport this year (or the next few). Quit the volunteer work for now, etc… Your home needs your undivided attention.
- Keep it together…
Your child’s world is falling apart, therefore it is extremely important that they see your strength and know that they can rely on you. The bathroom is a good and private place to weep. Take advantage of your girlfriends. They are good sounding boards. Also, make sure to rest when you can. You will be more likely to unravel if you’re physically exhausted. If you feel any bit of depression coming on (which often occurs), don’t waste time feeling guilty for a normal reaction, just get your butt the help you need asap. You need to be healthy and helpful. Seek counseling and spiritual direction. Not only will this help you, but it will be a good example for your children. If they see you getting help then they will be more likely to get it for themselves.
- … but don’t become a robot.
Your children and you are suffering through a terrible tragedy. That is a fact. Don’t confuse your children by pretending everything is “honky-dory.” It’s not and they won’t appreciate it. There is nothing wrong with them seeing your pain and hurting with you as long as you remember that you are their rock. It should be an occasional occurrence and not the norm. A few tears, a voiced frustration etc…these are healthy expressions and seeing that you allow yourself these moments of weakness, they will be less embarrassed when they emote. The key is to also allow the children see you doing the work of healing. You don’t want to encourage self-pity and wallowing, so a healing plan should exist. Nothing fancy or formal. Sometimes it may only be a long shower and a nap other, darker times may require a trip to adoration or a call to a priest.
Ultimately, there is no fool-proof equation to navigate such a tragedy. Each child will need something different and just when you think you understand them, they will need something new. Stay alert, be a good example, live your Faith and prayerfully give them to the Our Lady. God bless you!