When I decided to adopt a baby on my own more than nine years ago, I knew that single parenthood would be difficult. But I also knew that I could count on the love and support of my parents to guide me through the tough times. If one (or more) of your children is a single mom or dad, here are some ways to help:
1. Ask your child what is needed. Single parents tend to juggle more roles and duties than their married counterparts, and are grateful for any support grandparents can offer. Ask specifically what the parent needs, and do your best to be flexible, especially if the answer is not what you expected. Sometimes, single parents just need you to give them a regular, reliable break. For example, Larry Goldfarb, 69, drives from his home in San Francisco to Oakland each Monday to pick up his 8-year-old granddaughter, Mae, from school, while his daughter, Rachel, works and then enjoys some free time. Goldfarb hangs out with Mae as the girl does her homework, and then the two have dinner. Grandfather and granddaughter have had this weekly date for several years, and Goldfarb says his role has changed as Mae has become more independent. "When she was younger, we used to go to the playground and spend a lot of time interacting," he says. "Now, she does her homework on her own, while I read a book beside her." Still, Goldfarb and Mae keep their weekly date, a time both the girl and her time-strapped single mom look forward to.
2. Be dependable. Whether you live around the corner or across the country from your grandchild, be realistic when making promises. Young children thrive on stability — and so do their single parents. Also, when children have single parents, it's important for other adults in their life to be reliable. "It’s better to offer to do a small thing predictably, than to take on more than you can handle,” says Leah Klungness, a psychologist in Locust Valley, N.Y., who is coauthor of The Complete Single Mother (Adams Media), and a founder of singlemommyhood.com. If you are unable to take your grandchild to the park every weekend, commit to doing it once a month. If you live far away, commit to a once-a-week phone call or e-mail — just to check in — and arrange for longer visits when time permits.
3. Support household rules. Sometimes grandparents are tempted to step in and take on the role of the "missing parent" by applying their own disciplinary rules and values, Klungness says. But receiving mixed messages can be confusing for children. Also, in any family, children who detect different parenting or discipline styles can be tempted to "divide and conquer" adult family members to get what they want, Klungness adds. As a grandparent, support the rules your son or daughter has set, whether it's bedtime at 8pm, or a no-candy household policy. When you back up your children's rules, especially on disciplinary strategies, you make a major contribution to family unity and stability and show your children that they can count on you to take care of their children as they would.
4. Stay positive. If you need to discuss a sensitive family issue with your child, or if you have something negative to say about your child's former spouse, be sure you do so in private, Klungness says, because it's never healthy for young children to overhear criticism of people they may love. "Children in single-parent families need to view their family in a positive light," says Lee Varon, a licensed clinical social worker in New York City, and author of Adopting on Your Own: The Complete Guide to Adopting as a Single Parent (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) who has raised two children on her own. Whether a single-parent family has been created by choice, or by circumstances such as divorce or death, it should be honored as a complete unit — not as a "tragedy" or "fractured home," Varon adds. Grandparents should reinforce this message by speaking about difficult situations matter-of-factly, and stepping in if necessary. For example, if your granddaughter's father can't take the girl to Father-Daughter Day at school, tell her with enthusiasm that "Grandpa would be happy to go with you.”
5. Enjoy the good times. One of the beauties of having grandparents intimately involved in a child's life is that they get to share each wonderful milestone, from a baby's first steps to a first report card. Anne Brown of Stuart, Fla., is the grandmother of six, including 10-year-old Anna, who lives with her single mother in Brooklyn. "We send e-mails back and forth, so we always know what’s going on," she says. Across the country, Goldfarb tries to attend as many of Mae's weekend soccer games as he can.
"Being a single parent can sometimes get lonely," Varon says, "so this close connection with grandparents is invaluable."
How well do you get along with your grandchild and other family members? Want to know if your personalities mesh?Find out here.