In a world where families come in all sorts of configurations — two moms, two dads, blended by divorce, you name it — you’d think that single moms would pass unnoticed. But they don’t.
Despite a marked increase in single-parent adoptions over the last two decades, I’m frequently questioned about my family and the “missing” parent.
When I became a single, adoptive mom, friends treated me as if I were either crazy or a saint. I’ve had reactions ranging from curious, nosy, and confused to approving, critical, pitying, or some combination of the above.
Most children live with two parents. You know that, others know that, and your child knows that — or learns it quickly enough in preschool or kindergarten. Those who choose single parenting still cause alarm, and some people don’t hesitate to express concern, especially about how the mom-only child will learn to relate to men.
“The Daddy Question” comes from children and adults, acquaintances and strangers — often innocently, sometimes not. Here are some strategies for answering in ways that work.
Keep your explanations simple and relaxed.
Children under five are naturally curious and spontaneous. They think egocentrically and literally and are greatly influenced by messages from others. To common questions from playmates such as “Why doesn’t she have a daddy?” or “Where’s his daddy?” you can reply with a short and simple “Oh, I’m not married” or “Our family doesn’t have a dad.”
Said with a smile and a cheerful tone, it will often be enough. Show your comfort with the question through your voice and attitude. Your casual statements are models for your child. Later, you may overhear your child saying, “Oh, we just don’t have a daddy.”
Help other parents understand.
As your child gets older, rather than ask you directly, your child’s peers are more likely to ask their own parent(s) about your family. Many couples have a hard time understanding how a single parent can juggle both a family and a job. They wonder how you cope and what it’s like for your child without a dad.
To the degree that you’re comfortable, let them know how you manage single parenting, drawing parallels so they can identify with you instead of seeing you as a different species. “It may seem impossible, but it’s not that difficult,” you might respond. “Look at it this way: I have only my child(ren) to deal with. You have to accommodate your child and your partner.”
Find male role models for your child.
Research shows that children of single, adoptive parents grow up healthy and well adjusted. In 1983, sociologists William Feigelman and Arnold R. Silverman checked in with single- and two-parent adoptive families they’d surveyed six years earlier and found that children developed just as well in both kinds of families.
Still, all children need more than one adult in their lives. Find male role models — grandfathers, uncles, neighbors, other kids’ dads, men friends, and coaches — for your son or daughter. Don’t be shy: you can recruit your own mentors for your child.
Reassure your child that she, and your family, are “normal.”
Every child was conceived the same way and, in that regard, every child has a father. When your child starts understanding reproduction, that fact becomes important. Yet having a biological father isn’t the same as having a dad in your life. Some children only think about it from time to time; others are more preoccupied with this fact.
If you and your child are of different races or ethnicities, it helps him to know his father’s — and his own — heritage. If you don’t know his father’s background, discuss the possibilities. When it became evident over time that Carrie’s son was biracial, she said, “You are a handsome combination. From your looks, I’d guess you are white and Latino.”
Tailor your response to your child’s age and level of understanding.
Consider age and cognitive development when your child asks why he doesn’t have a dad. Take cues from your child, never give more information than needed, and ask questions. Sometimes a child’s desire to have a dad comes from wanting what other children have.
Sometimes it has to do with wanting toys perceived to be from fathers, toys such as a new bike or baseball mitt. Try to understand what your child really wants. Maria’s son told her a dad would buy him “a million trucks, just like Rusty’s dad, because you don’t want to, Mom.” An older child may regret the absence of a second parent to go to when he is mad at his mom.
Show your child that there are many types of families.
Some single moms avoid picture books with traditional families or skip pages where a dad is shown. But avoidance just feeds the stigma and pity sometimes felt by a “fatherless” child. Instead, describe families as they appear.
“That family has a mommy, a daddy, a son, and a daughter.” “Oh, look, that family is like Brenda’s. They have two girls.” “That boy looks like Drew, except he has a mom and dad instead of two dads.” The message is always the same: Some families are like ours, some are like hers, some are like these, some are like those — all kinds are O.K.
How complex children and relationships are! How they stretch us! Your child needs to learn that families come in many varieties, that all children want things they don’t have, grief is natural, and expressing feelings helps us deal with them.
Show that you understand that living without a dad is a challenge—and that you’re in this together. Above all, let your child know that it’s O.K. to ask “The Daddy Question,” and that you’re always there as a confidant and consultant. In talking about it, you’ll discover what makes your family special, strong, and complete.