The Loneliness of Parenting Alone
I pulled into a parking space outside the high school gym and grabbed my purse. I didn’t want to be late for the first varsity football parents meeting. My son had sweated through years of football to get to this point, and I was as excited as he was, until I swung open the gym door to hit what I can only describe as a wall of testosterone.
We live in Alabama, and football is a virtual religion around here. There’s nothing quite like the giddy pride of a father whose son is about to don the cleats, pads, and helmet of a football player and head out to the field to HIT SOMEONE. There I was, a single mom, an interloper at the ultimate macho-dads’ dream day, acutely aware that in spite of a lifetime cheering for the Crimson Tide, I did not have anything to offer my son beyond washing his uniform and wearing his brag button. All around me, dads sat tall and straight next to their wives, nodding and smiling at the coach’s every word. It was all I could do not to cry.
I saw the loneliness of three seasons of football stretch out ahead of me like a dusty desert highway. I knew I would arrive at games alone, looking for someone to sit with, or bum rides off couple friends. I knew that late nights I would replay the highs and lows of the game in my mind, alone. I knew my son would not want to break down the games with his mom (no way); because his dad had died, football would make him lonely too, and there was no way I could fix that for either of us.
God’s perfect intention for parents is made evident in simple biology. It takes two people to make a child – no more, no less, ever. Even though medical science has opened up some alternative avenues to conception, every single child in history, including Jesus Himself, has been the product of two parents. If this was God’s design before sin entered the world, how much more parents need each other now. But of course sin has also broken the very relationships from which children come.
When you conceive a child with someone, there’s only one other person in the world who has the same intense connection with that new little person as you do. I have a photograph taken of my husband when our first child was minutes old. Father and son gaze at each other, my husband’s finger lightly stroking our son’s smooth little forehead in wonderment. I loved my husband before our son was born, but when I watched him become a father to our son before my very eyes, I thought my heart would explode.
When that most profound and intimate connection with your child’s other parent is broken by death or crushed by divorce, you are cut off from the only other person who loves your child as much as you do. (By the grace of God, many divorced couples are able to work together, bound by mutual commitment to their children; for many couples this is not possible.) In addition to bearing the potential loneliness of any unmarried adult (the subject of whole books), parents who are single feel the acute absence of a partner. The single adult who courageously chooses to adopt or carry an unexpected pregnancy to term feels it too. Even the routine parent moments, like team meetings, become reminders of our solitary stand.
Being a single parent rolls a lot of different lonelinesses all into one:
The loneliness of a rainy Saturday when there is no one else to play Monopoly again, of math homework you can’t figure out, of going to church on Father’s Day or Mother’s Day.
The loneliness of figuring out what to do with a complex diagnosis, a call from the school, a backseat full of empty beer bottles – by yourself.
The loneliness of the late-night trip to the ER, the tornado sirens blaring, the negative bank balance – and it’s only you, no backup coming.
The loneliness of your child diagnosed with the flu, with only you to go to work to pay for the medicine that makes her better. How do you go to work with a sick child at home?
The loneliness of the father-daughter dance with no father, the mother who can’t teach her son to shave the face fuzz, the inability to be the parent your child needs but you are not.
The loneliness of waiting up late nights for curfew – hoping and praying teenagers make good choices – with no one to distract you from your worries or at least carry them with you.
The loneliness of freshman year drop-off surrounded by hugging, tearful, two-parent families.
Even the loneliness of a home run, an award, a faint but hopeful hint of developing maturity – with whom do I share these tiny victories? No one else is as invested in this kid as me.
And then I remember…
There is One who invested everything in my child and in me. He left the glory of Heaven and lived a perfect and painful life on earth. He laid down His life, submitting to death on a cross, in order to secure eternity with Him for my child and for me. With or without my husband, I was always completely helpless to protect my kids from sin and death. God knew Who we needed most and gave Him to us before any of us were ever born.
“He who did not spare His own Son but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:32)
We Have the Holy Spirit
When I was a married mom, I relied more on my husband than I realized. Becoming a single parent not only highlighted all my inadequacies, it made me aware that I had depended on my wonderful man for things only God could give, things like wisdom, security, provision, and protection. Before Jeff died, I thought he gave me those things; since he has been gone, I realize that he was one of many ways God took care of me and my children. Because my husband was actually visible, I credited him with the nurturing that actually came through him from God. Just because Jeff is gone does not mean God is going to drop our family like a hot potato.
Trusting our invisible, intangible God for wisdom, security, provision, and protection stretches my faith, sometimes it seems, beyond capacity. Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.
Since I became a single parent, there have been many times I have told God that I just wish He would walk in the front door, sit down at the kitchen table, and tell me what to do with my kids. So far, He hasn’t done that. I know He promises over and over in Scripture that He will never leave us or forsake us, and certainly that’s true. Yet His presence doesn’t look like I want it to – that is to say, I want Him visible, and He currently is not. I love the Amplified Bible’s rendering of Hebrews 13:5: “I will never [under any circumstances] desert you [nor give you up nor leave you without support, nor will I in any degree leave you helpless], nor will I forsake or let you down or relax My hold on you [assuredly not]!”
I am still learning what His permanent presence means, how I live in light of His constant companionship. If I want to experience the personhood of God more directly, I have to spend a whole lot of time reading the Bible. That’s where I learn who He is. I have to spend more time in prayer, both speaking and listening. That’s where I learn to hear His voice. I have to spend time in worship. That’s where the head knowledge I have about God soaks into my heart. I have to journal, both asking and thanking Him for answered prayer. That, for me, is where faith starts to become sight.
We experience the presence He promises not primarily by sensation or emotion, but by His indwelling Spirit. This gets so hard when we feel isolated, when the persistent emotions of loneliness and sadness drown out the still, small voice of our ever-present God. It’s a fight to believe He’s here with me, helping me raise my children, when I am weary, overwhelmed, and alone. This is where I have learned to rely on the encouraging community of other believers.
We Have the Church
Parents come in pairs because raising a child is a responsibility far too heavy for one person, but raising a child to lifelong faith in Jesus requires more than two parents; it takes a church. For a single mom or dad, the church can be a lifeline of practical help and spiritual support. It can also be a place for single adults to find relationship and community with other people who love Jesus.
Here’s the catch: we single parents have to ask for and accept the love and fellowship the church has to offer.
Single parents and their kids often feel like misfits sitting among the two-parent families that seem to be the norm in church pews. It’s hard to concentrate on the goodness of God’s plan for your family when you’re sitting behind a curly-headed little princess perched on daddy’s lap, whereas your own ex-husband hasn’t show up for visitation in two months. It’s brutal to hear announcements about the mother-son Valentine’s tea when your son’s mom died before he was old enough to remember her. These things are hard to bear anywhere, but they seem hardest to bear in church.
As a single mother, I have to put to death the notion that two-parent families don’t fight like WWF wrestlers getting ready for church, that their kids’ life is Insta-worthy while my kids’ lives are on the fast track to years of therapy. Single parents and their children have to battle envy in the church pews (and many other places) because jealousy divides us from people whose love might help us heal.
Pride also keeps us lonely. Psalm 68:5-6 says, “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families…” Specifically, God adopts us into His family through Jesus. If I can’t reach out and ask for either friendship or help when I need it, I am going to miss out on what He has provided for us. I’m not going to lie: Asking for help is really, really hard for me. Admitting I am lonely is even harder. As a single parent, I already feel vulnerable and exposed. Taking the risk of asking for friendship feels way too scary some days, even as I know I am robbing my family of support we need. At times, I wrap my loneliness around me like a heavy black cloak rather than accept the love God graciously gives me through His people.
I have been a single mom for nearly ten years. God’s promise of His continual presence and the belonging we find in the body of Christ have been lifelines of hope and comfort for me, but they are not band-aids or cures for bitter, crushing loneliness. We experience God-with-us imperfectly. Because the church is made up of people who are still learning to walk with Him, those folks don’t always love us right out of our isolation. Add to this the fact that as children grow up every parent, married or not, will experience the loneliness of letting go. Because loneliness doesn’t ever completely go away (for anyone, not only single parents), I have to remind myself of His presence and fellowship with his people often. As the years go by, we are developing a history, God and me, and His faithfulness fills me with awe and wonder.
We can trust Jesus because He knows the agony of loneliness better than we do. His disciples let Him down in His hour of deepest need, as people do, failing to stay awake in Gethsemane and fleeing at His arrest. But Jesus experienced what we never have to feel: when He became sin for us on the cross, the Father turned His face away. He lost the most intimate fellowship of the Father and Holy Spirit in order to draw us into that intimacy. He will hold you and your children secure in that holy closeness forever and ever.
For single parents battling loneliness:
Loneliness isn’t something you fix in five easy steps. Or five difficult steps. Or any steps at all.
Loneliness is something you lament to God. As direct result of the fall, loneliness affects every one of us to some degree. Jesus suffered everything we suffer so that He could be our high priest in everything, loneliness included. Take your crushing loneliness to Him and let it press you into His everlasting arms. His persistent presence means so much because we need Him so desperately. He will never turn His heel and walk out the door. He will never remove His love from you. He will never die; He has already done that. He lives again to be with you for eternity. Read about Him in His word; ask for Him to make His presence real; press these truths into your heart and mind as much as you need to.
And reach out to other people.
You may have to make the first move. Married parents do not know what single parents’ lives look like. They do not know what you struggle with unless you tell them. If loneliness is an issue for you, you will have to ask for companionship. I know, this doesn’t seem fair. You’ve got a lot going on. Ask God for courage to stick your neck out. Ask Him for time to be with other adults! Ask Him to lead you to people who are willing to offer you love and friendship.
Loneliness is sneaky, which is one of the reasons that football meeting was so difficult. I didn’t know I would feel the way I felt until I got there. Anticipate certain times you know you might be lonely, like holidays and milestone events, and plan accordingly. Though loneliness is as tricky as its terrible twin, grief, neither one can surprise the God who never leaves you.
Being with other people doesn’t solve loneliness; connecting with other people helps ease the pain of loneliness. As the cliché goes, you can be terribly lonely in a crowd. Easing loneliness is much more about being seen, heard, understood, and cared for than it is physical proximity to lots of people. Spend time with people who are filled with the love of Christ and develop rich mutual friendship with those folks.
Busyness doesn’t ease loneliness. If it did, single parents would never be lonely.
Being married – or in a relationship – won’t make loneliness go away. Intimate relationships can certainly help, but anyone who has ever been married will tell you that there are times of terrible aloneness even in a healthy marriage. Sometimes seasons of discord are worse inside a marriage. I once had a mother in a grocery store tell me that I was fortunate to parent alone because I didn’t have to fight with my husband about parenting. While I still would prefer not to be a single parent, I heard the loneliness beneath her comment. Simply finding a significant other will not solve this problem, and it could cause a whole host of new ones.
Don’t make your children responsible for your loneliness. If, Lord willing, you grow to a ripe old age, your children can help you care for yourself. But your kids are not responsible to be your friends or companions. You take care of them; do not make them take care of your emotional needs that God meets through adult friendships. For single parents of very young children, this might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s surprisingly easy for a single parent of a teen to turn their child into a confidante or buddy. Again, do not burden your child with any sense of responsibility for your well-being.
There are other people who are lonelier than you are. In the throes of single-parent life you likely don’t have the time right now to visit shut-ins or mentor kids trapped in the foster care system, but they are out there. You can welcome other people to the places you belong. Find a new family at church or a neighbor who has just moved to town. Actively caring for others always eases our own heartache.
See also: The Sufficiency of God for the Single Parent.