The Chicago-area Catholic school that Susan Walker’s daughter attends means well. When they schedule special events such as couples’ nights and family Masses, they’re trying to be inclusive, not exclusive. They simply want the parents of their students to feel more involved. But for Walker, those special events have almost the exact opposite effect.
“I’m the only single mom out of 62 kids in second grade,” Walker said. “I feel like I just don’t fit in, like I’m missing an appendage.”
Family Masses are hardly the biggest challenge Walker faces as a single parent, but they are emblematic of the challenges she faces as a single Catholic parent struggling to find her place in the Church.
“There’s not much support from the Church for single parents,” Walker said. “There are programs for single young adults and programs for families, but virtually nothing for us. I’m not sure the Church recognizes or understands the needs.”
Walker, in a certain sense, is right. Although there’s nothing unusual about single parenting (U.S. Census data puts their number at 13.7 million), formal, pastoral support for single parents is unusual, with Catholic single parents’ ministries extremely rare on both the diocesan and parish level.
Brian Leandra discovered that in 2002, when a friend complained to him about the lack of help for single parents in the Church.
“My first response was, ‘That can’t be true,’” Leandra told Our Sunday Visitor. “But then I looked into it, and sure enough, she was right. My research turned up exactly one support group for Catholic single parents at the time. And that was in the U.K.”
With the help of the friend who made the complaint, Leandra put together a presentation on the needs of single parents and took it to his pastor. The pastor in turn recommended they talk to the diocese, which greenlighted Leandra’s proposal for a Catholic Single Parents’ Association at St. Thomas More Parish in the Diocese of Austin, Texas.
Today, the group is one of just a handful of its kind in the country. Participants meet monthly (with free child care provided) and have the opportunity to attend additional outings together, such as movies, baseball games and camping trips, some with children, some without. During any given year, 25-40 parents participate.
For those parents, Leandra said, the group serves multiple needs, starting with the most basic: to feel acknowledged by the Church.
“When it comes to their faith, for many single parents the biggest issue is feeling like they don’t have a place in the Church,” he said. “Just knowing the group exists means a lot.”
The group also gives single parents the opportunity to socialize with their peers, people who have children but aren’t part of a couple.
For parents like Victoria Fallon, a widowed mother of seven who lives in Toronto, Ohio, that type of opportunity is rare.
“My friends are wonderful, but it’s difficult to be the third or fifth wheel in a group or to be in conversation with a group of women who are all married and talking about their husbands. I can’t really participate in those conversations any more,” she said.
More than anything else, however, support groups, such as the one at Leandra’s parish, offer single parents the opportunity to talk about the various struggles they face bringing up children alone.
Those struggles range from decision-making (“Decisions are much harder when you’re the only one with a vested interest in the outcome,” Walker told OSV) and dating (“How do you find the time, let alone the emotional energy for the ups and downs of a relationship, when you’re raising seven kids?” asked Fallon), to finances, loneliness, exhaustion and the questions and judgments of others.
“Sometimes, I just want to shout, ‘But I was married for almost 14 years! I didn’t leave. I was the innocent spouse. And I’m the responsible one, the one taking care of the child 24/7 without help,’” Walker said.
Then, there’s the guilt that accompanies all the struggles above.
“I feel a lot of pressure,” said Fallon, “ I keep asking myself, ‘Why can’t I do this? Other people are doing this?’ But I think all of us probably feel that way. It’s just that, as a culture, we’ve grown de-sensitized to it. We don’t think of it as being terribly difficult because so many people do it.”
At Leandra’s parish, single parents have the opportunity not only to share those struggles, but also learn how others have dealt with them in the past. That opportunity, Leandra said, is an invaluable aid in managing the stress of single parenting.
For those reasons and more, he advised Catholic single parents or those interested in helping them to approach their pastor about launching similar groups in their parish or diocese.
“The Church only has so many resources, and the pastor can’t do everything,” Leandra said. “It takes people to recognize the need, step forward, and meet it.”
Unfortunately, not every parish or diocese will or can be as accommodating as Leandra’s, nor can all single parents find the time to attend support groups. Which is where the Catholic community comes in.
When Rob Mendoza, a father of four from Pittsburgh, Pa., lost his wife, Debbie, in 2009 after a grueling three-year battle with cancer, there was no support group at his parish. But there was a solid network of Catholic family, friends and neighbors to whom he could turn.
Along with his co-workers, friends from his parish, his children’s Catholic school, and his Catholic alma mater came together during his wife’s illness and long afterward, supplying the family’s meals, transportation for the children, and the moral support Mendoza needed to parent on his own.
From treating him to special evenings out to phone calls and words of encouragement, Mendoza said that his friends and family “have blessed him beyond words,” enabling him to be the father he needs to be.
“The surviving or single parent needs strength and support so he can be the leader of his family,” he said. “Without that strength, the family will fall apart.”
Fallon’s friends have likewise supported her, both emotionally and financially, since her husband’s death.
At the time she was widowed, Fallon was pregnant with their seventh child, had a 2-year-old with Down syndrome, plus five older children, ages 13, 11, 9, 7, and 5. Her family, friends and fellow parishioners’ generosity made it possible for her to stay home full-time with the children until all were in school.
Today, they continue to offset the difference between her family’s financial needs and the earnings from her part-time job.
“Along with the love and affirmation my friends give me, as well as the willingness to listen, that absolutely has been the most helpful thing people have done,” said Fallon. “The generosity has been overwhelming.”
Regardless of whether it’s something as significant as providing financial support or as simple as volunteering to watch a child for an hour so the parent can take a nap, every gesture of support individual Catholics give, said Walker, does a great deal to help single parents cope with the challenges they face and, equally important, feel like the Church hasn’t forgotten them.
“See the needs and make sincere offers of help — that’s the best thing anyone can do for single parents,” she concluded.
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.