Fran Capo has always been a bit of a tomboy. So when her 11-year-old son, Spencer, asks her to play catch, climb a tree, or go camping, she's always game. Spencer is especially pleased about this since his dad lives several hours away, and they can't pal around as easily.
When Ms. Capo has to work - performing stand-up comedy or writing at her computer - Spencer seeks out Grandma, who is always up for a round of Monopoly. Or, he might strike up a game of cards with his aunt or uncle.
Capo, who has been divorced since Spencer was an infant, is typical of many single parents who rely on support from extended family. In her case, the relatives share a two-family home in New York. This not only gives Capo a little time off now and then, but it also creates a wonderfully nurturing environment for both of them.
It's not necessary to live under one roof with relatives, but it is crucial for single parents to cultivate a broader community of support for both themselves and their children, whether it be among family, friends, schoolteachers, coaches, clergy, or best of all, some of each, say parenting experts.
As the American family continues to drift from any semblance of what was once "traditional," an increasing number of single-parent families are being formed. According to recent Census figures, 26 percent of American families are headed by single parents. Of those, 85 percent are headed by mothers. And it's estimated that 50 percent of all children will experience a single-parent home at some point during childhood.
As a society, we may not like those figures. Most people agree that a happy, loving, two-parent family is the ideal environment in which to raise a child. But many families fall short of this ideal. Situations such as death, divorce, and adoption without a mate often create families headed by one adult. Mothers with sons are often considered particularly vulnerable. One common concern is that without dad around, Tommy won't learn how to become a man.
'There's God, then Mom.'
But William Pollack, author of the "Real Boys" and "Real Boys' Voices" insists there are many things a single mother can do to make up for a father's absence. Reaching out to supportive extended family, as Capo has done, is certainly one of them. But, before ticking off a list of suggestions, he begins a recent telephone interview by declaring that society needs to better value the single mother.
"Single moms of boys in America get the worst rap imaginable," he says. "They are blamed for everything from hangnails to violence." In his books, Dr. Pollack comes to their defense. For this, single mothers often thank him. "They appreciate that I say that loving, well-balanced, responsible mothers are capable of bringing up happy, healthy, masculine boys," he explains, adding that this is not just his theory, but it's supported by independent studies. "Women are not only very important role models for their sons, but they are often their son's heroes."
That's indeed the case in Sue Reddy's household. "I am the sole decisionmaker, breadwinner, and disciplinarian. My word is gospel. There's God, then Mom," she says with a laugh. Her six-year-old son Kalen recently shared a dream with her. "He was being chased by bad guys who were trying to capture him," she says. "He was scared, but he called for me, and I beat them up." Then she adds: "Need I say more?"
Moms may be their son's heroes, but dad's role is far from insignificant, explains Pollack. The father of a teenage daughter, this role is close to his heart. He is dismayed that many two-parent homes resemble single-parent homes because often dads just aren't around much. Every chance he gets, he urges fathers to become more actively involved in their children's lives. "Fathers today are spending more time with their kids, but it's only up to 15 percent of their time from 10 percent in 1979," he explains. "Boys tell me all the time how much they love their dads, but that they aren't home enough."
After divorce, it's still essential to involve dad as much as possible - as long as the relationship is appropriate, say parenting experts. This might mean traveling, as Ms. Reddy and Kalen do three times a year from their home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Seattle for a visit with his father. Or, where parents live nearby, the solution might be joint custody. Either way, such arrangements require parents to "breathe hard and make amends," says Michael Connor, whose teaches a course called "Fathers and Fathering: A Psychosocial Perspective" at California State University at Long Beach, which is always well attended by single mothers of sons.
When amicable co-parenting isn't possible, and even when it is, Dr. Connor says, "Male friends and relatives who are consistently active in the mother's and son's lives can have a tremendously positive influence." Where things start to get tricky, he adds, is when mom has a series of fleeting relationships with men.
The dating game
This is the most difficult aspect of single motherhood, says Melissa Fisher, the mother of a five-year-old. "When I am dating someone who I know would be good for my son, I am often fearful that if things don't work out, it would hurt him more than help him," she explains.
This is one reason family counselors recommend that single parents try not to introduce their children to everyone they date, but instead to wait until things start to get serious.
When Ms. Capo isn't sure about a guy, she simply asks Spencer. "I value his opinion," she says. "He'll say things like 'Mom, that guy is trying to get to you by impressing me,'" or "'He's a little overweight, but so what? People can lose weight. They can't change their personality.' "
People sometimes tell Capo that she talks to Spencer too much like a friend, but she insists that he's mature enough to handle their blunt discussions.
"We all have this image that single mothers are running around 'adultifying' their children all the time, and that's just not happening," says Pollack. "When any parent constantly talks to a child like an adult friend, this can be confusing for both parent and child. But we all slip sometimes."
It's always smart to let children's questions and comments take the lead, says Linda Dunlap, a professor at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who is wrapping up her second book, "Nurturing Children With Open Arms." Boys, she says, tend to be somewhat protective of their unmarried moms.
"They might think to themselves, 'I'm taking care of Mom, so why does she need him in her life?' " All the more reason why unmarried moms need to keep sons informed during the dating process and encourage a dialogue where both of them can express feelings and concerns.
A package deal
Fran Strohm hasn't quite gotten to that point yet. She and her newly adopted son, Yuri, an eight-year-old Russian boy, are reveling in life together as a twosome.
"I always thought I'd meet Prince Charming, buy a house, and have kids," says Ms. Strohm. "When that didn't happen, and I began to get serious about adoption, it crossed my mind that a prospective husband might not like my son. I had to come to peace with that in order to go ahead wholly with adoption."
Now, those concerns have vanished. She has no doubt that Yuri, whom she describes as "quiet but social," would be adored.
And if someone does come along, she adds with a smile, "he'll just have to realize that I'm part of a package now."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society