My mom and I moved to a small house in the Northeast when I was a little girl, after a difficult divorce from my father in the 1980s.
After the closing, the man who sold my mom the house had his say on his way out the door.
“Well, I wish you luck!” he said. “You’re gonna need it! A single woman owning a house!”
She still laughs every time she repeats his words. If anything, he fueled her fire to succeed even more.
Despite the seller’s comments, single parent homes aren’t so uncommon. Almost a quarter of US children live with one parent and no other adult, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center analysis of US Census Bureau data. That’s a rate that has been on the rise since the 1970s.
My mom and I faced challenges as a family of two, but I learned a lot of important lessons that can be applied to any family, including my own now that my husband and I have children. These are the things she taught me:
Hard work counts
I knew money was a source of frustration for her. I was aware when something was a necessity and when it was a luxury. The mortgage, food and clothing were the top priorities, of course, but over the years, my mom slowly made home improvements.
I remember when we got an automatic garage door opener that took the sting out of frigid winter evenings. Later on, we added our first dishwasher, renovated the bathroom and had central air conditioning installed. Each upgrade made our lives easier. Each accomplishment taught me the benefits of her hard work and saving for what she needed.
Show my children that they matter
My mom worked full time. Babysitters greeted me when I got off the school bus and, as I got older, my mom helped start the first aftercare program in our area so we could benefit from consistent care. When I was a teenager, she switched careers to one which gave her more flexibility but required her to work weekends.
Despite my mom’s evolving schedule, if I needed support, she made herself available. When I had a challenge with schoolwork or friends, she focused and listened with a concerned ear. She valued my thoughts and opinions. She rarely missed a school performance, and she supported my interests to the best of her ability.
A committed parent is what children need, according to psychologist Bella DePaulo, author of “Singled Out.”
“Demeaning stereotypes about single parents and their kids mislead us about what really matters,” DePaulo said. “Kids with a parent who is loving and caring and can be counted on to be there for them have a lot going for them.”
Strong families spend quality time together
Some days, my mom and I didn’t catch up with one another until the evening, but those times were special. Picnic dinners on the floor of our living room — we even laid out a tablecloth — were a treat. We often spent time together on an unfinished puzzle in my bedroom before the day was done. A few more puzzle pieces made me feel I was getting a freebie after my scheduled bedtime.
When we needed a break from our routine, we took an impromptu drive to the beach about an hour from our house and sang at the top of our lungs as we rode down the parkway together.
That quality time matters, according to Jo-Ann Finkelstein, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Chicago.
“How you spend time together with your kids is more important than how much time you spend with them,” she said. “Quality trumps quantity, and there’s research that backs that up.”
Focus on people, not things
Our home didn’t have a formal dining room, so my mom put the dining room table and chandelier she got in the divorce settlement into the spare bedroom on the first floor.
We squeezed extended family and friends into every corner of that room when they came over for celebrations. Once you were seated, there was no getting up to stroll around. The year I graduated kindergarten, my mom miscounted seats and told me the graduate had to stand. I believed her until she laughed and gave me a big hug.
Our house was small, but we had an open-door policy for friends. From an early age, I was encouraged to have play dates. Looking back, sleepovers during my teen years were like less expensive birthday parties but some of my best childhood memories.
Kids need consistency
My father was in and out of my life when I was younger, but I don’t have many fond memories of those experiences. I usually felt unsettled after one of his infrequent visits. But because my mom and I had a consistent routine, it was easy for me to feel comfortable as soon as I was back home again.
I was busy with schoolwork, friends, clubs and extracurricular activities that overshadowed external stressors. And my mom did a good job of limiting my exposure to any arguments between her and my father.
That’s the right call, DePaulo told me.
“The kids who are more likely to be at risk for bad outcomes in life are the ones raised in families that are cold or inattentive or are constantly fighting.”
My grandmother and great-aunt lived 10 minutes away, and I spent a lot of time at their apartment. They visited often and occasionally slept over. When I got older and learned to drive, I helped them with their errands, which gave me a sense of responsibility.
Aside from extended family, my mom found ways to get involved in our community by volunteering her time. She became very active in our local Rotary Club and was one of the first female presidents of the group. Those positions helped us meet people in town and grow our circle of friends while giving back to the community that helped raise me.
“Some people treat single mother homes as though they’re inherently dysfunctional or lesser than, when in reality, there are wonderful parents and nurturing homes of all types,” said Nicole Rodgers, executive director of Family Story, an organization created to protect the many ways people create families.
“Some single mothers are able to build rich communities of support around them, while some married parents feel relatively isolated and unsupported,” said Rodgers. “We have to stop thinking about families in such black and white terms; there is no one size fits all.”
My mom moved out of my childhood home years after I graduated from college. When I’m in the area, I still drive by the old house and smile. I love the life we had there and the lessons she taught me.
My mom proved that previous owner wrong. We didn’t need luck. We needed determination, a good sense of humor and a lot of love.
I remember the excitement of accomplishment with my mom’s success in business and my achievements in school. I always felt safe in the care of my mother and our family. I could say we didn’t have much, but we did. We had love, family, caring and a happy home. To me, my mother succeeded in the best way possible.