Stand alone moms: Catholic single parents tell their stories

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Article Marriage and Family Women

For Rosa Manriquez, it was the Catholic school’s father-daughter dance.

For Wendy Diez, it was the e-mail from the preschool teacher addressed to “Mr. and Mrs. Diez.”

For Jeannie French, it was schools not offering babysitting on parent-teacher night. And Catholic singles groups filled with men who had no interest in dating a woman with children. And being assigned to sleep in guest room bunk beds with her son when visiting friends or family.

Small slights, perhaps, but ones that reminded these Catholic single moms that they are not the norm. The default expectation in our culture—and our church—is that families have mothers and fathers. While many Catholics have questioned that limited definition of “family” for years, single mothers struggle not only with feeling left out but also with all the practical and financial challenges of raising kids without a partner. As French points out, “Who drives my babysitter home at the end of the night?”

Yet single-parent families are hardly a rarity. About a quarter of all American children live in single-parent households, the vast majority of which (85 percent) are headed by women, according to U.S. Census data. Various surveys show that of all children born today, as many as 41 percent are born to unmarried women, although some of those women may be living with the baby’s father. This compares with 20 percent of births to unmarried women in 1990.

Each of these approximately 10  million single moms in America has a different story, especially since not all women come to single parenting the same way. Though the “single mother by choice” contingent has gained visibility, most young girls don’t dream of becoming single moms. About half of single mothers are divorced or separated, a third have never been married, and a smaller percentage are widowed.

What they have in common are the joys of parenting coupled with the challenges of doing it alone. While Catholic single moms may have the added guilt from their church’s emphasis on the “traditional” nuclear family (and some may face even more serious consequences—see sidebar), they often experience the added benefit of a caring community and a spirituality that carries them through tough times.

‘I am not alone’

It’s 2 a.m. and Jeannie French is up with her sick child. Divorced from the father of her son, French realizes she’s on her own. “No one is coming to help,” she recalls thinking. “But I listen to the ticking of the clock, and think with every tick, ‘I am not alone. God is here.’ ”

Without her faith, French says, she would have never made it through the past 18 years. The former hospital vice president thought she had a healthy marriage when she became pregnant with triplets. One baby died early in the pregnancy and a second died shortly after birth, but the third child, a son, was born healthy. French’s husband left before Will turned 1.

“It was tough, because you’re really struggling, but you also have a child who has a fever,” French says, remembering those early years. “You’re in this emotional whirlwind, and you think you have to deliver this Campbell Soup mom. You either cling to your faith, or you walk away.”

French clung to it. “My faith was kind of like a map that you pull out of the car when you get lost,” says French, who grew up in a large Catholic family on the East Coast.

When she and her husband separated, she lived in a Chicago suburb, across the street from her parish. If she was having a particularly hard day, she would scoop up little Will and head to Mass. “Just to be in a place that was peaceful and where you knew people were trying to get along and do the right thing was comforting,” she says. “I was never alone. There was some place to go.”

French also found other Catholics to be compassionate, including those who helped her through the annulment process. That’s not to say there haven’t been painful moments, too. Catholic singles groups were filled with childless singles, including some men who were borderline cruel about French’s divorced status. At her son’s Catholic school, there were few fellow single moms. The school and the parish tended to assume all parents came in twos.

“Sundays are a particularly tough day if you have a child and you’re single,” says French, who admits she often felt sad seeing families with two parents in the pew. “You want to have this family experience, but it’s just you. Everyone else is busy with their own families.”

So French sought out her own support network. Because she had sole custody, she was able to move closer to her large, extended family in Pittsburgh, where she connected with other divorced Catholic moms—forming a group that still vacations together every year. “We always said we missed our husbands on trash night,” she says. “We would help each other take out the trash so we wouldn’t have to do it by ourselves.”

Today Will is a freshman studying engineering at Carnegie Mellon University and French is working as a parish secretary, still worrying about him. “I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop. He’s potty trained; he can ride a bike; he can drive. But they say that children of divorce often experience issues when they are looking for life partners or get married,” she says. “Still, I’ve been very fortunate to have so many people in my life who have helped me. I’ve been really blessed.”

The ‘only’ parent

Wendy Diez was nine months pregnant with her second child when her husband, Chris, suffered an excruciating headache that sent him to the emergency room. Tests found two masses in his brain, and a biopsy confirmed a diagnosis of very aggressive tumors. Diez got the devastating news while at her obstetrician’s office.

Twelve days later, she gave birth to their daughter, Clare. Ten days after that, her husband died.

He had been recovering from brain surgery to reduce swelling caused by one of the tumors when he lost consciousness and was declared brain dead. Immediately Diez arranged for 30 of his family and friends to gather in his hospital room to say goodbye. Their pastor anointed Chris and baptized their newborn daughter at his bedside.

The parish where they had met—he was the choir director and she sang in the choir—had been supportive with meals and babysitting during the tumultuous weeks since his diagnosis. But it was this personalized ritual that meant the most to Diez. “I believe in the communion of saints, that we’re connected that way,” she says. “But [Chris and Clare] have this special connection. It’s as if they were crossing spiritual paths that day.”

Newly widowed, with a newborn and a 17-month-old, Diez was emotionally numb for about six months. Then the self-described “active griever” started looking for other young widows with children.

“I wanted to see that there was someone out there who had survived and whose kids weren’t screwed up,” she says. “You worry about your kids all the time.”

But when she Googled “young widows” and “Chicago,” all she found were references to a punk band from Kentucky with that name. Eventually she found an online bulletin board and began meeting other young widowed parents—both online and literally right in her own neighborhood.

Most ministries to the widowed are focused on the elderly, or at least those with grown children. So Diez helped start a local organization, Chicagoland Young Widowed Connection, for the growing number of younger folks facing life—and parenthood—without their spouses. “It’s challenging enough for [divorced] single parents who have a co-parent, but widowed parents, or ‘only parents,’ have additional hurdles because they don’t have that extra set of hands,” explains Diez.

Although her mother moved in two years ago to help out, Diez knows that ultimately she is her children’s only parent. Still, she counts herself lucky to have family, faith, and other widowed people as support over the last four years. “My kids are so awesome. They have so many people to love them, although there’s still that void,” she says. “But I asked God to help me get through this, and he did it by putting people in my life who helped me.”

The parish, too, has been a godsend, hosting a memorial concert on the anniversary of Chris’ death and offering tuition assistance for her children, now 3 and 5. While she recognizes that the church can’t address every need, Diez does sometimes feel left out because she’s not part of a couple.

Bereavement ministry, while valuable, usually ends with the funeral. Doing follow-up calls to young widowed people with children or hosting speakers on grief, single parenting, or divorce could help people connect or reconnect with their spiritual lives during such major life transitions, Diez says. “I think it’s just something parishes don’t think about,” she says.

Because it was a ritual she and Chris shared, Mass is usually comforting for Diez. “But every time we get to the readings about taking care of the widows and children, I feel like everybody’s looking at me,” she says. “On the one hand, it’s good because it’s a reminder that we’re out there. But it feels uncomfortable.”

Still she knows that without her faith she could not cope. “I can’t imagine going through what I’ve gone through without having that belief. In some ways I feel that God abandoned me, but in other ways I feel like he’s with me more,” she says. “And knowing that the Catholic faith was so important to Chris, too, gives me an extra motivation to make sure it’s important to our children.”

It’s the small things

When her younger daughter woke up with a fever one morning, Rosa Manriquez knew she couldn’t afford to miss work. Without any sick time and no one else to babysit, she was on her own. So she took the toddler with her to her job at a Los Angeles park, where she laid her on a gym mat, covered her in a blanket, and ran back and forth between her work and her sick child. 

It’s not how Manriquez imagined motherhood would be when she married her Mexican folk dance instructor in 1974. “I thought everything was going to be fine; we’d have a nice houseful of children and a picket fence,” she says.

But when her younger daughter was a year old, Manriquez’s husband admitted he was gay, said he couldn’t stay married anymore, and abandoned the family.

The first priest she approached for counseling scolded her for not coming to Mass regularly, saying, “What did you expect to happen to your marriage?” But Manriquez was not deterred. Acting on the advice of a friend, she tried another parish, which happened to be in a higher income neighborhood.

“I felt out of place and the kids were acting up,” she recalls of her first visit to the parish. “I was getting ready to leave and never come back, when the couple in front of me turned around and with all sincerity said, ‘You have beautiful children.’ I thought, ‘This is the place.’ ”

The parish, the Mass, and the sacraments would be sources of support for Manriquez as she juggled work, kids, and volunteering. A lector, confirmation teacher, parish council member, and Girl Scout leader, she also later adopted the son of her disabled sister, who eventually died of leukemia.

“Now that I’m retired, I think, ‘How did I have time to do all that?’ ” she says. “I realize now I was so tired. I was the walking dead.”

What helped? Manriquez remembers the coworker who would invite her over and make her lunch. “Small things like that: just being included in family celebrations and making sure I wasn’t alone,” she says. “It’s hard to be a single parent, not just in the church, but in society. You’re surrounded by what’s supposed to be the norm, but you’re not the norm.”

One of the biggest challenges was trying to complete required volunteer hours at her children’s school while working full time. “It would have helped tremendously if there had been some understanding that these children were being raised by one parent, not two,” she says.

Though she never was overtly excluded, Manriquez sometimes felt like an outsider. “I always felt like there was a curiosity when I showed up with my children—‘Where’s your husband?’—that somehow my family was not as complete as someone else’s because we happened to not be a man and woman and children.”

Such feelings are intensified now that her grown daughters, both lesbians, face more overt discrimination in the church. “I think the ideal that should be held up is that the family is the place where people love each other. Period,” says Manriquez, now a grandmother of two. “The main thing is that there’s love in that household and that the children can depend on the adults to nurture them, guide them, and protect them. That’s family.”

Manriquez intentionally decided not to remarry, to spare her children any more emotional upheaval and to focus on them. Instead she joined the Immaculate Heart Community, an ecumenical group of men and women who work for peace and justice. Manriquez had been educated by the Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters and had once considered entering religious life.

As painful, lonely, and challenging as single motherhood can be, Manriquez, Diez, and French all found the opportunity to go beyond their own hurts and reach out to others. French did volunteer work, took care of her sick parents, and helped other single moms. Diez formed an organization for young widows and has become a writer on the topic. Manriquez joined a community where she could deepen and share her spiritual wisdom.

“Going through all this has given me empathy for single mothers but also has opened me up to understand that being part of the Body of Christ means being broken,” Manriquez says. “A person who is suffering is not to be judged. Instead of saying, ‘Why did this happen to you?’ we should automatically say, ‘Can I help?’ That’s what we are called to do.” 

This article appeared in the January 2013 issue of  U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 1, pages 23-27).

Image: Tom Wright