How Do We Do It?
I was late getting home from mymeeting the other night. Too late to help my daughter prepare for herSpanish quiz. Too late to massage her shoulders after softballpractice. “Do Not Disturb,” read the sign on her door. Hernight-stand light was on, but Samantha was already asleep.
Disregarding her warning sign, I entered, andpulled the covers over her. “Sweet dreams,” I whispered, and I kissedher forehead. I knew from our car-phone talk that she had had a goodday. Still, until I saw Samantha myself, her hair neatly pulled backwith a barrette, I could not rest. At nearly 16, my daughter isaccustomed to making her own meals, putting herself to bed. Thebalance of power has shifted: I need the good-night kiss more thanshe does.
I’ve been a single parent a long time now. I knowa lot about it. When Jewish organizations need a speaker on singleparenting, they often ask me — and I’ll be at the Westside JewishCommunity Center this Sunday for the daylong conference, “CreatingFamily Life as a Single Parent,” sponsored by Jewish Family Service’snew Jewish Single Parent Network (818-762-8800.)
Fifteen percent of all Jewish households withchildren under 16 are single-parent, according to the soon-to-bereleased Los Angeles Jewish community population survey. That’s aboutone in six. We may have fewer teen pregnancies than the surroundingmainstream community, but lots of divorce, lots of widowhood, lots ofsingle parents by choice.
And the questions I’m asked most often are: “Howdo you do it?” “How do you make choices about the child’s welfarewithout someone to bat the ideas around with?” “How do you play goodcop/bad cop by yourself?” “How do you get any time for yourself aftera long day’s work?” “How do you retain a social life that doesn’tleave the child feeling excluded?”
The single answer to all of these issues changeswith time. Raising a child alone is so overwhelming “There’s noschool for parenting,” my mother used to tell me, and single parentsare even more in the dark. Whipped about in the heady winds of achild’s emotions, I’ve had no one else to provide an anchor. Yet,somehow, homework gets done, new Adidas get bought. We get throughthe school semester. We get over our tantrums. We get our hugs. I getby, with a little help from my friends.
I’m not kidding. Some nights I can’t bear theweight of the worry. And some days I have to kvell out loud. Ineither case, I talk: to the pillow, or to Marika, Jane or Willie. Orto God. I hold back nothing. My advice to single parents is: Pickyour friends wisely. Forget the meaning of shame. And learn themeaning of pride.
It’s about pride that I want to make a specialpoint. A single parent’s life is generally deemed to be one of pity,sadness, handicap. The prevailing attitude of our synagogues andorganizations, and of married couples who belong to them, is that wesingle parents are “broken,” while they, of course, are “intact.” Ina series of focus groups sponsored by Jewish Family Service in LosAngeles, single parents reported that they felt “unwelcome” in Jewishlife. There’s a bias toward the nuclear family; anyone who doesn’tconform is a challenge and a threat to community norms.
Perhaps it goes back to the biblical commandmentof caring for the widow and orphan, but single parents carry, inaddition to extraordinary financial and emotional obligations, aweighty psychological burden to prove their wholeness. The Jewishsingle parent is regarded as a war veteran, like the one-legged guywho stands on the highway with a tin cup. Battle-scarred, needinghelp.
Wrong! The aura of handicap that hangs over singlefamilies not only hurts parents, who ache with a sense of their owninadequacy, but it destroys the burgeoning confidence of Jewishchildren.
There are plenty of stumbling blocks in a parent’slife; let’s get rid of the crazy ones. We have to see single parentsfor who they are: strong, tireless, persevering and role models ofselfless love.
The community, rather, could honor us not withpity but with support, including low-cost synagogue membership andb’nai mitzvah fees, and scholarships for summer camp. But the biggestboon to single parents would come when the Jewish world begins toredefine “family” according to the realities of today. After all, theLos Angeles community survey demonstrates that only 23 percent of allJewish households are in the traditional “Leave it to Beaver” mode:Mom, Dad, kids.
Well, my house is part of the new majority. Ididn’t exactly plan to raise my child alone, but, even so, it is arewarding life. I was lucky to do her bat mitzvah alone, without aspouse to argue with over “how Jewish” it would be. I have vacationswith my daughter each year that are the envy of many two-parentfamilies. We have closeness and intimacy and friendship. I love her,and she’s still talking to me, so I can’t be doing too bad ajob.
I’m a single parent, sure. Glad of it.
Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of TheJewish Journal. She hosts the Jewish community chat Thursday eveningsat 8 p.m. on American Online. Her e-mail address email@example.com.
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