One winter night a few years ago, I found myself lying on the bathroom floor, pausing between bouts of vomiting and diarrheoa to listen out for my toddler who had whooping cough. You could say it was not one of my better moments.
But in the midst of it all, I suddenly found myself worrying about the lawn. It was alarmingly long, I had no lawn mower and couldn’t afford to buy one. Even if I could, my daughter was terrified of the noise so what would I do with her while I did the job?
The practical needs of a solo parent can be overwhelming. On top of the jobs common to all mothers, single mums, for example, have total responsibility for home, garden and car maintenance. Most, even on the benefit, have to work at least part-time; and making all the decisions all of the time is a heavy burden.
Lesley Williams, manager of single-parent support agency Birthright, says most people parenting on their own are chronically tired.
“Single parents are under an enormous amount of stress, there are so many demands and so many balls to keep in the air.”
So where can single parents turn for practical help?
There are three basic avenues: family, friends and community organisations.
Even the most dysfunctional family can often provide love and concern – and give you a hand fixing the roof. Involvement with the extended family is also positive for your children.
Be considerate however – don’t ‘over-use’ family members and always be thankful for whatever help you do get.
One option to ease the strain is to move back home – if the grandparents are willing. It’s not easy, but as paediatrician and author Dr Christopher Green says in Toddler Taming, “This is not a time to be difficult or choosey. The advantages of returning to a familiar home patch, with help in child care and an emotionally secure environment for children, make diplomacy a course to consider.”
If family members live far away, consider moving closer. This sounds dramatic, but the advantages could be enormous. Or, be creative and ‘advertise’ for grandparents. I know of one single mother who did this and found a gorgeous older couple only too delighted to have a little family to love and assist.
Friends can be lifesavers in just about any situation. As well as providing practical help, they can also give advice, help you make decisions and assure you everything will be alright. Other solo parents can provide huge support – for example, swapping babysitting favours.
Hesitate before asking to borrow money, however. Mark Twain once described friendship as “ that enduring institution that will withstand anything if not asked to lend money.”
It’s also well worth getting to know your neighbours. I sometimes look after the little boy from over the fence, and, in return, his Dad (who works in pest control) has de-bugged my house and helped me shift heavy furniture.
Community groups can be really helpful or really not, depending on those in charge and the resources available to them. Organisations which may be able to offer practical assistance include the Salvation Army, Plunket, Barnados, the Open Home Foundation and Lions or Rotary groups. Citizens Advice Bureau can give you more of an idea where to go in your own town.
Birthright is a good place to start. The low-profile organisation was set up in 1955 in the post-war era to offer support to lone-parent families. Today there are 16 branches around the country offering single parents assistance with everything from budgeting to providing Christmas presents.
“We’re intensely practical,” says Lesley. “When someone approaches us we start by trying to identify their most pressing need: do you have enough food, do you have school uniforms, is your house warm enough.”
Birthright also refers people to many other services.
Another idea is to contact a local pastor. These days churches don’t seem to be very good at reaching out to those in need – but in most cases, they are more than willing to help when asked. Christian women’s organisations, such as the international group Women Aglow, are often filled with willing and caring volunteers.
The point with all of these options is that you have to ask! People are not mind-readers – but most have good hearts and will help, or at least point you in the right direction.
Birthright – Support Group for Single Parents
This is an excellent national support group that works to support, strengthen and advocate for single parent families. You can read more about their services and contact details in our article Birthright.