What Not To Say To A Single Parent

Among other accusatory and downright rude questions from both strangers and acquaintances, Wendy Fontaine is mostly tired of having to answer where her daughter’s father is.

My 6-year-old daughter, Angela, has always been good at making friends at the playground. She meets kids her age at the swings or on the slide, says hello, and almost immediately asks, “Hey, you wannabe friends?” A few seconds later, they are in the sandbox, digging and chatting like long-lost pals.

I watch from my seat at a nearby picnic table, listening to their imaginations run wild and hearing their tiny voices make conversation. Their talk inevitably comes around to the same old question, asked bluntly but innocently from my daughter’s new friend:

Where’s your dad?

I cringe when I hear it, wondering what Angela’s answer might be, whether the question itself will upset her, and planning a way to manage her hurt later on, after we leave the playground.

Angie’s answer is always the same.

New Jersey.

What does New Jersey mean to her anyway? I doubt she could find it on a map, or even spell it, if I asked her to. It’s the place she lived only briefly before her father and I split, when she was just 2 years old. Afterward, she and I moved to Maine to be near my family. New Jersey is just a couple of words to her, a nondescript descriptor for a place where she has no memory of having lived and no visual image in which to place her father. It’s her way of dismissing a question that should never have been asked.

Kids say stuff like that, though. They mean no harm. They have no sense of what might hurt another person’s feelings or trigger painful memories. Sometimes their parents know better, but sometimes they don’t, as many have asked me over the years the same question, only in hushed voices, with sideways glances and a certain tilt of their heads.

Where’s her dad?

I wonder if they want the truth, the gossip, or an answer that makes them feel better about their own situations. Either way, I don’t feel like explaining.

New Jersey, I say.

When he was a single dad, my friend Edwin often got a variation on the same question.

What happened to the mom, people would ask, implying that the only time fathers get full custody is when something is seriously wrong with mom.

Others asked who styled his young daughter’s hair. They offered advice on clothing or tried to bring food to his house.

“The assumption was always that men don’t know how to dress and feed kids,” Edwin said. “I always took care of my kids before the divorce, after, and now in remarriage. I am a very involved, confident father, and I hate being reduced to a sitcom caricature dad.”

In the years since my own divorce, there has been no shortage of people who jump to conclusions about my marital status, including the receptionist at the pediatrician’s office who calls me Mrs. Fontaine and asks for my husband’s insurance card, and the lunch lady at my daughter’s school who says I’m selfish for having only one child.

Being a single parent, particularly a single mother, and identifying yourself as such, means constantly being open to criticism, not only from other parents but also from politicians, family members, and even strangers. At the root of their criticism lies the stereotype that we are careless and irresponsible, that we are raising our children on our own by some choice or consequence, and that we are welfare-collecting dropouts falling short of some arbitrary bar of societal expectation.

In reality, 79% of single mothers and 92% of single fathers have jobs. Many live on low incomes but most receive no public assistance. More than half of us are raising only one child. We are responsible adults raising independent kids who respect themselves and others, who value education, show kindness and compassion, and have the confidence and grace it takes to make friends at the playground.

This is my list of what not to say to a single parent, not because single parents are looking for reasons to be offended or because I want to discourage conversation between parents on the playground, but because adults, like children, sometimes don’t understand that what they are saying is inappropriate or just plain rude.

Don’t worry. Some day you’ll meet the right person.

This implies that the person we were with, who helped create our adorable children, was somehow the wrong person. My daughter’s father and I were married 12 years, most of them quite happy. I have a beautiful, intelligent, and adventuresome child to show for it, and for that, I have no regrets.

I don’t know how you do it.

I have no other choice. There is no second string, no relief pitcher. No one else is going to come along and pack the lunches, make the doctor’s appointments, or change puked-on sheets in the middle of the night. On the flip side, no one else is going to get that bear hug when she’s student of the month or the Valentine’s Day card she made in art class. Single parents, like most parents, don’t think about what they need to do. They just do it.

I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.

Really? I don’t have cancer or a flesh-eating virus. I have a vibrant child who brings me joy every day. I’d rather be her single mom than not be her mom at all.

I’m a single mom this week too.

No, you’re not. You might be parenting solo, but there’s a huge difference between being on your own until Friday and being on your own forever. The woman who says this doesn’t mean anything by it; she’s simply responding to the natural human desire to connect with another person. But to be more authentic and less assuming, maybe say this instead: Facing the responsibilities of parenting alone is tough. When my husband travels for work, I feel overwhelmed.

If you need anything, just give me a call.

This is a nice thing to say, but it’s even nicer to mean it. Single parents are used to doing things themselves, and for some, asking for help is like showing weakness. Instead, be specific. Tell your single friend when to drop the kids off, and don’t take no for an answer. When I was newly divorced, my single dad friend Justin watched my daughter for a few hours so I could go to yoga class. Afterward, I felt re-energized. It was one of the best gifts anybody ever gave me.

If you can’t think of anything else to say, just say this:

Your kid is awesome. Keep up the good work.

Because no matter what our marital status is, we can all use a little extra encouragement.

Wendy Fontaine’s writing has previously appeared on the Huffington Post, Utne Reader, Brain Child magazine, Mamamia, iVillage Australia, and a handful of literary magazines. You can read more of her here at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/wendy-fontaine.

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