The Single Mom's Guide To Raising Strong Kids

No matter where dad has gone or what dad has done, mother, mom, mama, makes the difference. Mama must forge ahead with her children on her back and dreams in her gut.

Everyone focuses on the absent parent, the father, who is no longer around to make a difference in the child’s life, but if there’s a solution for single mother households, it lies within the parent who’s still involved in the child’s life--the mother.

We can’t afford to spend another minute pontificating about the effects absent fathers have on society, because it takes attention away from the most urgent issue of equipping mothers with what they need to carry on.

Missing Daddies, Angry Mamas, And A Self-Perpetuating Cycle

My own mother’s example inspires, but I’m also inspired by stories of mothers around the world. (This is not just an American women’s problem.) I’ve chosen two stories as examples of what can be done to carry on when dad is gone.

Victoria Young

Victoria Young is an 11 year old piano prodigy. She’s one of the Jack Kent Cooke Young Artists featured on NPR radio where she shares her gift and her story, a story spoken in a humble, innocent, articulate voice. On the radio program, Victoria talks about her love for modern art, and world class museums, and blesses the crowd with a stunning piano performance. But Victoria’s feature on NPR strikes more than just a piano chord.

Even while on a world stage playing Johan Sebastian Bach and discussing infamous paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, Victoria identifies the struggles in her life. She recounts her father selling her piano without her knowing. She remembers her home on the brink of foreclosure. She explains how she managed to continue practicing the piano even though she and her mom had to take refuge in a domestic violence shelter far away from her school. Yet, despite the tough times, this 11 year old girl hasn’t given up on excellence.

So much about Victoria’s story evokes admiration, but one daily ritual shines as a testament of what it takes to thrive. Every afternoon, Victoria and her mother commune over a cup of tea. In Victoria’s own words:

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“It’s really exciting. We go and we talk, and we eat at the same time. . . . We have a lot of fun.”
Of course we don’t hear Victoria’s entire story on the radio. We only get fragments. But they are significant fragments because in them is shimmering hope for all mother-daughter duos. The bits of Victoria’s story that we do have, show us at least two essential parenting practices:

Spend quality time with your children, and have deeper conversations with them.

Victoria’s mom understands the need to consistently offer her time and her ear to her daughter. Notice that their quality time is very simple. They don’t even have to leave their house. They spend nothing more than what they would normally spend on groceries, which is important for single mothers who often need to save every dollar they can.

What makes their time together effective is that it’s consistent, genuine, and it’s about Victoria the daughter. It’s not about the occasion or the event, like a concert or party. Victoria is the center of her mother’s attention, and she can count on that attention every day.

Epiphany: The Importance of Putting Yourself First

What’s your version of afterschool tea time? Consider the everyday tasks you do with your children. How can you turn those moments into quality moments if they aren’t already? As single mothers, already short on time, you try to maximize every second, but you may be losing quality time with our kids.

When you’re around your kids, minimize the time that you’re on the phone talking to adults who don’t need your attention the way your kids do.

Make time for quality conversation about their interests, their fears, and their opinions.
Our days are filled with these kinds of mundane tasks that could be turned into quality moments with children. Determine what works best for your family.

Victoria gives parting advice to young people: “I would tell them not to give up, and just keep going because there’s still hope, and try as hard as they can because they still have their future ahead of them.”

This advice to young people is just as true for their mothers.

Esperanza Spalding

Perhaps a more recognizable name, Esperanza Spalding is a famous jazz musician launched into the national spotlight when she won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 2010. Spalding began her performance career at the age of five, released her first CD in 2005, and just released her latest album, Radio Music Society, in March 2012.

I recently read a profile about Ms. Spalding, “A Day in the Life of the Jazz Star,” by Abigail Pesta on the Daily Beast. Pesta emphasizes Spalding’s committed work ethic as the primary reason for the jazz musician’s success. Unlike some, Spalding was not born into a musical dynasty. As stated on her official website, Spalding grew up in Portland Oregon “in a single-parent home amid economically adverse circumstances,” even dealing with a childhood illness that required her to be homeschooled.

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So what did Spalding’s mother do that might have contributed to a prosperous life today?
According to Pesta, Esperanza Spalding, “credits her mother, a single parent, with her early interest in the arts, recalling childhood evenings together spent reading books like The Little Prince, and later the biography of abolitionist Frederick Douglass. She listened to the ‘oldies’—Motown and British rock bands from the ’60s and ’70s—because her mother didn’t think the modern stuff was good for her.”

This example reveals another essential practice:

Provide a deliberate education.

I don’t mean you have to become a certified, public school teacher and stand at a chalkboard while your child buries their head a thick textbook.

I do mean this: Decide the values and life lessons you want to instill in your children. Then determine several positive methods for modeling these values and lessons.

For example, reading with your children can show them the value of reading, but selecting certain material can make the experience about more than just the act of reading. Depending on the content, reading time can also teach children about various themes presented in the text, such as compassion, hard work, generosity, and perseverance. The same is true with music, movies, and television. Even shopping trips can be utilized for modeling financial responsibility.

Just like Esperanza is able to point to her mother’s reasoning, children should not have to guess what values are important to you. Parents may think values and lessons are obvious, but that’s like asking, “Can’t you tell I love you by my actions? Why do I have to say it?” You don’t have to say it every time you speak, but be direct and open about your values and priorities.

The fourth essential practice I glean from Esperanza’s story:

Don’t dwell on what’s missing. Allow your family to enjoy life.

In Esperanza’s own words:

“I’m sure my whole life we were under the poverty line, you know, but I still felt rich. I had a rich upbringing, rich in the sense of a lot of love, a lot of education, nature, music and art, and laughing. . . . It’s not just about the income you make.”

Esperanza Spalding’s mother provided her with rich experiences that countered, even outweighed, the negative side of her reality.

I think this is the single mother’s first order of business, as it was with my mother.
Don’t allow yourself or your children to languish over the absence of a man, or the absence of financial resources.

Whether or not your child is a musical prodigy, they still deserve the best of you. I hope you’ve found some inspiration in these stories that will keep you hopeful in your parenting journey.

Sarah L. Webb is teaching college writing in Louisiana, working on a collection of architecture poems, and blogging about books on writing and other off topic issues at S. L. Writes.

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