''We know single parents have made it when they stop looking back to the thing that put them there - being widowed or divorced - and start looking ahead to their lives as single parents,'' says Ginny Nuta, spokeswoman for Parents Without Partners, an international organization for people raising children alone.
One out of every 5 families - over 6.5 million, nearly 6 million of which are headed by females - fall into this category, according to the Census Bureau. This is nearly double the number 10 years ago, they say, largely because of the higher rate of divorce.
But feeding, clothing, and housing these children is a challenge for many in a marketplace where women still earn only 62 cents for every male-earned dollar. Median income for female-headed families in 1981, says Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, was $10,960 - versus $22,388 for all families. ''Another way to look at this,'' says Ms. Edelman, ''is to examine the poverty of children. In 1981, almost one out of every five children lived in female-headed families, and they accounted for 52 percent of all poor children.''
Deborah Mulkey, a former welfare mother of three outside Washington, D.C., talks of how she manages on a tight budget: ''We go to the park, or the zoo - that's free - and watch TV instead of the movies,'' she says in her third-floor walk-up, charmingly decorated with second-hand-store furniture. ''I go to a lot of thrift stores for my clothes, but whatever's left over after paying the bills , I spend on the kids' clothes. I like them to look nice.''
Ms. Mulkey works a flexible schedule at a local grocery-store chain so she can be home when her children return from school, and she has developed a network of other adults - family and friends - to spend time with them as well.
''You need your family around you at this time,'' says Stan Fabian, the widowed father of two young children in Arlington, Va., ''because you'd use up friends fast by asking them for the kinds of things you have to ask for.'' Like Ms. Mulkey, Mr. Fabian relies on his parents to be there when he can't be.
''But I'm still the parent; I make all the decisions,'' he says. ''We talked about that for a while before my parents moved in here.''
Taking full responsibility presents challenges, says Connaught Marshner of the Child & Family Protection Institute in Washington, D.C. ''In a two-parent situation,'' she points out, ''there is more flexibility for the parents to deal with a child's needs.''
Ms. Marshner suggests that schools should act as a backup to the single parent by supporting school-age child-care programs, cracking down on truancy, and setting high standards of behavior: ''It is more than a pity, it is devastating, if the school does not back up the mother's desire for and attempt at discipline and standard-setting.''
Even though many single parents are busy managing economically, all those contacted for this article pointed with pride to the extra steps they take to get involved in their children's lives. Mr. Fabian, for example, heads up the local Brownie troop for his daughters, and is a vice-president for their school parent-teacher group, ''because you have to let them see that you care.''
He also devises methods for getting his daughters to extra-curricular activities (''Tiffany knows every taxi driver in Arlington'') and plans his business around his daughters' schedules. ''The women at work love me, because I'm so tolerant,'' he says. ''When one of them says she has to take off to go to a parent-teacher conference, I shoo her out the door.''
Being a single parent does not automatically mean you are less involved with your child's school, says Cheryl Hayes of the National Academy of Sciences, who recently reviewed the existing social research on working families. She cites a study done in Berkeley, Calif., that showed working mothers equally as involved with school volunteer work as their stay-at-home counterparts.
Being a single parent also does not mean you're less involved in your child's life. Says Rachel McKenzie, an eighth-grader in Montgomery County, Md., who has been a member of a traditional, a single-parent, and a blended family, ''Being in a single-parent family means you have more time with one parent and can share more of your life with her. I really got to know my mom at that point in our lives.''
This can have drawbacks, she adds: ''Single parents sometimes treat you as an equal and lean on you emotionally. This can make you feel needed, but I think schools should form groups for single parents so they don't have to depend on their children so much.''
Mr. Fabian finds that a network of friends fills a great need. A great many of his friends are mothers, he says, who advise him on ''little things - where to buy a certain dress, which kids my daughters should be hanging around, whether a particular class is worth signing up for. I tease and say that it's me and the other mothers against the world.''
Finding such support can be tricky, though the number of single-parent groups seems to be growing. But Ms. Nuta, the spokeswoman of Parents Without Partners - perhaps the largest and most organized single-parent group in the country - says that those in urban areas ''can usually find the support they need in places they regularly go to - the office, their child's school, and particularly their churches or synagogues.''
Establishing a network with other parents, as Mr. Fabian did, gives you a ''wonderful support tool,'' says Warren Collier of Portland, Ore., who took the Parents Without Partners international award for Single Parent of the Year in 1982. Mr. Collier, a noncustodial parent, played a supportive role himself to his children.
''I spent a lot of time letting them know I was still their father and still cared about their lives, and they would come over and spend weekends with me,'' says Mr. Collier. He thinks divorcing couples should try ''as hard as they can to set up some kind of joint custody. You can't really get to know your children just by taking them to the zoo on Saturday.''
Two of his children eventually came to live with him during their teen-age years, ''though they worried about leaving the old neighborhood and all their friends,'' he reports. ''So I moved to that neighorhood and bought a house.''
He points to the tendency some divorced couples have of using their children as a battleground between them. ''You should try to focus on the needs of the kids,'' he says, ''and not on your desire to be the favorite parent.''
Doing such, he believes, ''and letting the children take a top priority in your life'' makes things go ''smoother than you would think. I really enjoyed living with my kids,'' says Mr. Collier the single parent, going forward.