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I brought Darling Daughter back to college this week; the nest is, once again, empty. I don’t expect her to spend next summer at home as she did this year: she’s a sophomore now, and it’s reasonable to assume that my days of having a child in the house, other than for a brief visit, are over. And I’m okay with that.
I’ve been a single parent these past eight years, and I have some thoughts about the challenges of being a single parent. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the special challenge of being an only parent, someone raising children without the benefit of a partner, even a separated partner, who remains a continuing presence in their children’s lives. I know this is far less common than divorced or separated parents, but I know of several cases, and I’ve been thinking about them.
I believe that people come in precisely two sexes, male and female, that men and women are different, and that children benefit from the presence of both a mother and a father in their lives. Boys learn how to be men by watching their fathers, and how to relate to women by watching their mothers and fathers interact; the protectiveness and concern they develop for their mothers will, someday, be expressed toward the other women in their lives. Girls learn how to be women by watching their mothers, and how they should be treated by men by watching how their fathers treat their mothers. Their fathers are the first men in their lives and, we hope, show them the love and protectiveness they should expect in their future relationships.
As a father raising children alone — but I didn’t raise them alone. One of the wonderful things about being a man raising children is that children have friends, and the mothers of your children’s friends feel an irresistible urge to take care of your kids for you. Single men are perceived as generally incompetent on the domestic front (and for good reason), and that incompetence is assumed to extend to child-raising — and, most pointedly, to the raising of daughters. (I raised five sons; my youngest is my only girl.) It takes a stubborn man to resist the efforts and contributions of concerned mothers, and I never was that stubborn.
My children benefited, and continue to benefit, from the influences of other people’s mothers. That works for motherless boys and girls: while mothers are unique and irreplaceable, other mothers can nonetheless shower children with their maternal attention, giving the boys the tenderness and care fathers often fail to provide, while offering the girls the feminine understanding and support fathers rarely even recognize is lacking.
Similarly, young men in fatherless homes can experience the influence of a male role model outside of the immediate family. Extended family, friends, coaches — there are established surrogate male role models for boys without fathers.
The greatest challenge, I think, is for mothers raising daughters without the benefit of a male partner — even an often absent male partner. Because of the different natures of men and women, it’s difficult for young women to safely experience the attention of men: girls don’t have the options of surrogate fathers comparable to the surrogate mothers both boys and girls can enjoy.
None of this is intended to imply that mothers are less important than fathers; far from it. But I think there are more ways for motherless children to experience the maternal influence than there are for fatherless girls to experience the paternal influence.
I don’t have any thoughts about how to address that.