(Let me get this disclaimer out of the way right here: this will be centered mostly on single moms. Because: 1: That's what I am, and 2: When I reached out and questioned people about this, I only heard back from women. Men? Please chime in sometime! Your voices need to be heard too.)
If you are like me, those little wheels in your mind get rollin'. You start wondering how you can help your friend in need. You sympathize, you get mad on her behalf. Your heart breaks for the kids.
"How can I help?" is often the first thing out of our mouths.
Well, I turned to my Facebook page and asked my readers there: When you first found yourself facing life as a single parent, what did people do that really helped?
Here are their answers (and some of mine, of course, because I like to blab), in no particular order. Some are pretty obvious, and some might surprise you.
1. BE THERE FOR THEM. Sometimes, when a person finds themselves sans partner, they feel a bit ostracized. It may be that they have a large group of friends and family so everyone assumes that somebody else is helping. It can also be because people simply don't know what to say or do. And that's okay. All you really need to do is be there. Physically, over the phone, via email...just reach out and let the newly solo person know you're around. Show up and offer to help with the laundry. Take her to the grocery store. Bring over a pizza. Or just give her a hug. Sometimes the smallest gesture helps the most.
2. "BUDDY, CAN YOU SPARE A DIME?"..GIVE A LITTLE BIT. If you can, and want, to help her out with some of the financial burdens that come with single parenting, go for it. I'm not talking about sitting down and writing out a check for her mortgage, though. Sometimes it's the little things that cause anxiety in the single mom's life. She gets the biggies paid, and finds she has little left over for groceries. Her car is running on fumes. Her hair is an overgrown, Michelle Duggar-like mess (speaking from personal experience here..). Single moms are often poor moms, it's a sad but true fact. There was a time, not so long ago, when I rationed out trips in the car just to try and coax a few more days out of a tank of gas. We are a very resourceful group...but I won't lie: help in the form of a gift card or a gas card or even a bag of groceries left on the front steps can sometimes be the reason her kids eat that week (or eat something besides the free lunch at school and the 99 cent box of pasta for dinner).
Here is Liese's story (shared with permission):
"I was a single mom for 2 1/2 years. I lived in a very small town. After a stressful trip to the grocery store with my one year old I was checking out and for some reason a manager was watching a girl check me out. Halfway through my foods, the manager lady interrupted everything and picked up all of my stuff and brought it to the customer service counter where she redid all of my groceries and gave them to me. For free. She made a comment that she was a single mom once and she has seen me shopping and struggling every week."
Now, you know I have my own stories about how people have helped me, and my kids, over the past few years. There was the Christmas That Almost Wasn't: the year I was so broke I had literally no money for presents for my kids (actually, I've had a few of these...). Some anonymous "elves" provided for us that year, and the year after that, and to tell the truth, every now and then they'll still spring a little gift on us. It's humbling beyond belief, and I cannot tell you what an AMAZING lesson it is for the kids. A lesson in giving, in receiving with grace and gratitude, and of all the good that is in this sometimes scary world.
And I can guarantee you this: that single mom you helped when she so desperately needed it? She's going to turn around and pay it forward when she's able to. That's something I hear over and over. Your kindness to her plants a seed. And that's such a good thing.
3. NON-MONETARY HELP IS AWESOME, TOO. I'm a shitty housekeeper. My friends know it, I know it, my kids know it. It's just something about me that is what it is, like freckles or skinny ankles. I have a couple friends who are more on the OCD side of all things housekeepery, and they will come over before something big happens at my house (like a graduation party or a hen gathering) and they'll clean. You can't put a price on that, my friends. Another biggie is hand-me-downs. Kids clothes are expensive, and no matter how little you feed them they just keep growing. I had a friend who lives in Ohio once send me a box of her son's outgrown clothes...I'm talking a HUGE box. That was a few years ago and to this day my boys are still wearing some of those clothes. Do you have furniture that you're getting rid of? Household appliances? They say one man's trash is another man's treasure. The same can be said of couches and coffee makers and even dishes. Some single moms are starting an entire household from scratch and would love to take whatever you have. And don't worry about offending or embarrassing her by asking. Trust me. I have one friend who gives me any and all magazines she gets that feature my boyfriend Louis CK on the cover. She doesn't ask me what I do with them, either. I love her.
4. CARPOOL. This is something that all single moms will LOVE, no matter what their financial situation is. You know why? Because they are just one person, who works, and who has at least one kid who needs to be places when she can't get them there. Whether it's a ride to a sports practice or to religious school or to karate or just a ride home, offer to switch off driving duties with her. Many times the single moms are more than willing to do the later shifts of driving, after she's done with work and tended to the other kids at home or has simply had a little snippet of time to do something self indulgent, like go pee alone.
5. HOOK A SISTER UP. Get your mind out of the gutter. I'm talking about networking here, people. Chances are, you know someone who is in, or was in, a situation that resembles the one your friend is in now. Maybe you have a coworker who survived a tough divorce or a sister who just started the process. Few things in life are as isolating as single parenting...it can be a lifesaver just knowing you're not alone.
6. ALL THE SINGLE LADIES: TRADE, TRADE, TRADE. Hey, maybe YOU'RE a fellow single mom wondering what you can do to help a newly single friend. You may not have a lot of time or money, but there is always something you can do: swap favors. Take her kids for an overnight and have her take yours the next week. Host family dinner nights. If she is still in the dreaded court date phase, offer to sit in there with her...or out in the hallway, ready with a hug and a smile when she exits. Nobody knows what she's going through as intimately as you do.
7. DON'T LET HER WALLOW TOO LONG. There will come a day when you walk into your friend's house and notice that the shades have been drawn for too long, that she's wearing the same dirty yoga pants she had on the last time you saw her and that her kids are needing a mom who does more than feed them and sit on the couch, crying. If you think she may need some help, and you have the time, gently but firmly suggest that she gets some. She may just need a few meetings with a local DivorceCare group*, or she may need get in touch with an actual therapist. If she admits to needing this, you can be the one who nudges her in the right direction (or drives her to the meeting, or watches her kids while she goes, or helps her find a clean pair of yoga pants in the laundry baskets..you get the idea).
Sometimes just opening up the shades, pulling her off the couch and taking her for a walk out in the fresh air will help. Drag her to the gym with you. Take her to Target and spend some time stalking the clearance racks. Coming to grips with being a single parent is daunting, and can oftentimes leave a woman "paralyzed". Trust me when I say, sometimes all it takes is a lovingly annoying friend to help you out of that slump.
*I offer this as a suggestion, but a caveat: there was a DivorceCare group at my church, which a friend said might be helpful. I remember walking into the room, and it was a couple tables full of people who looked like their world had just ended (which indeed, for most of them, it had). A couple of them literally had their heads down on the tables. I decided that misery may love company, but you know what? Joy loves company too. I turned around that day, both literally and figuratively. But I have heard that these groups do help, if you find the right one.
8. MAYBE WHAT YOU DO FOR A LIVING CAN HELP. I'm not saying that if you're a doctor, you give her free prescriptions for Xanaax. But think of what you do, what your abilities are...what you do 9-5 may be just what she needs. A few years back, a fellow mom who happened to be an accountant heard my story, and offered to do my taxes using the Friends and Family program at the tax prep firm she worked for. To this day, she's my tax lady and I love her. I've had friends who are hair stylists cut my hair (and my kids, too). Mechanic friends are utter lifesavers. My BFF who works at a restaurant once brought over leftovers from the kitchen that fed my kids for a week. Another friend has a husband in the roofing biz: he helped out a poor single mama with a leaky roof. My pro-bono attorney was the direct result of another friend (who, unfortunately isn't a friend anymore..and that breaks my heart). Which brings me to the next helpy thing:
9. DON'T GIVE UP ON HER. Your friend is going through something awful. She may make some really, and I mean, REALLY bad choices during this period. She is trying to figure out her place in the world, and it can take some time for her to find it. What she needs from you now is patience, friendship and please: no judging. If you see her doing things that you think might not be in her best interest, the right thing to do is confront her about it. Not in an Intervention sort of way. In a friend way. And please, don't walk away from her. That said, if you see her doing things that are putting her kids, or herself, in harm's way, you must do the right thing, which is to step up and help. Someday she will want to thank you...don't rob her of the chance to do so.
Of course, one of the sad realities of divorce is that it changes everything. And sometimes one of those things is friendships. Some friendships will last, some won't. It's not always someone's fault, or because one person was in the wrong. These things just happen. But..there are some instances where one person does just walk away, without explanation or excuses. And that sucks. Being abandoned by a spouse or partner is hard...having a friend dump you can hurt even more. I've had it happen to me, and unfortunately, I've done it myself. The good thing is, time does heal most wounds, friend-inflicted ones included.
10. WINE. AND MORE WINE. Or margaritas, or martinis or really good beer. This was actually the number one response I got on my little facebook poll. I know the funny/cool thing nowadays is to respond to any life crisis, big or small, with "WINE HELPS" or "IT MUST BE WINE O'CLOCK". But you know..it really does help sometimes. Single moms don't usually have a lot of extra money hanging around, and when they do, it's usually not spent on booze (truthfully? It's almost NEVER spent on themselves at all). I know most single moms in my world love to sit down and gab and have a cocktail or two. Chances are, she got to keep the wine glasses in her divorce. Be a good friend and help her use them now and then.
Annoying but necessary warning here: There really is never an ideal time for any parent to get tipsy...and for single parents, there is NEVER an ideal time. Single parents are usually on duty 24/7, and puking kids or runaway dogs or broken furnaces don't care if you've had one too many or are nursing a nasty hangover. Easy does it, sisters. If you are lucky, there will be a weekend here or there when your kids are in the hands of trusted family or friends or your ex, and then you are allowed to get your yaya's out like a crazy lady. But until then, pace yourself. The last thing you need is a DUI or for people to start gossiping.
11. TELL HER SHE'S DOING A GREAT JOB. Tell her this often, and say it like you mean it. Being on your own in this coupled-up world is tough. There will be days when she feels like she's failing, like there is no way she'll get herself, or her kids, through it. She needs to hear that she's not only doing it, she's doing the hell out of it.
12. BASHING THE EX: TREAD LIGHTLY. During most breakups, separations and divorces, there will come a time when the former lovers have something less-than-complimentary to say about each other. Here's what Amanda had to say about this one:
Sometimes, we DON'T want to hear what a douche they are because there is still a part of us that feels personally attacked when that happens and/or feels the need to defend (afterall, we WERE married to them!). And then, you're in the horrible position of defending someone you can barely stand to talk to (well, if you're overly nice like me, anyway!). Sometimes, just LISTENING rather than sharing your opinion can do worlds of good better than calling the rat bastard a rat bastard.
Well said, Amanda. I will add that there are times when it's okay to point out that she was, indeed, married to a complete asshat. Sometimes it's nice to hear that you're not the only one who thinks he is a turd. There is one thing to be mindful of here though, and that is no matter what you're saying about the ex, please be sure that the kids are not listening. In fact, it's best to do any ex-talk when you are nowhere near the children. He is, after all, their dad, and good or bad, he's half of their DNA. The kids will figure out his true nature (whatever that nature is) in time, they don't need to hear mommy and her friends spell it all out.
13. THE HOLIDAYS. OH DEAR GOD, THE HOLIDAYS. Holidays are fun! The world is decorated and there are lots of commercials the show families celebrating and things come in the mail that remind us that THE HOLIDAYS ARE HERE! Truth is, for single parents, the holidays can suck. If you know a single mom, invite her over to your holiday gathering. And her kids, too. She may not have family in town, she may not have the time or the resources to put on a big holiday whiz-bang gala at home. If you have an extra seat at the table, offer it up to her. Be advised: she may say no. Don't take it personally, and don't let that stop you from offering again. Healing takes time.
And there you have it. Some advice and some words of wisdom from those of us who have, at one time or another, needed and/or benefited from the help of some pretty amazing friends.
I, for one, could have never made it through this without my hens. They are my sisters from another mister, one and all. I'd name names but this thing is too long already. I'm going to leave you with a song that I heard recently, that sums up PERFECTLY how I feel about my girlfriends (and guy friends, too..can't let you guys go unmentioned).
Thanks for reading, and seriously..thanks for wanting to help a friend.