Facing Life’s Challenges as a Single Catholic Mother
I’ve thought of the famous “Footprints in the Sand” poem often over the last several years. Just the idea that God would say to me, “My precious child, I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of suffering, when you could see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you” has sustained me through many sleepless nights and through many tears.
I have always prided myself on being a strong woman, and I could say that nothing prepares you for the heartache of your world being turned upside down. But I would be wrong. My parents prepared me. God prepared me. Even I prepared myself. How, you ask? While my parents gave me my Catholic faith, I made a choice to live and embrace it.
Though life’s burdens seemed heavy at times, I knew that God was not only carrying me, but carrying my burdens for me.
Understand Your Calling
God calls women to one of three states in life: religious life, single, and married. Some women know from a very young age which is perfect for them. Others have difficulty discerning a vocation. And sometimes that vocation—whether it is temporary or permanent—is thrust upon you.
In Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women), St. John Paul II writes:
The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way. . . . This entrusting concerns women in a special way—precisely by reason of their femininity—and this in a particular way determines their vocation.
A woman is strong because of her awareness of this entrusting, strong because of the fact that God “entrusts the human being to her,” always and in every way, even in the situations of social discrimination in which she may find herself. This awareness and this fundamental vocation speak to women of the dignity which they receive from God himself, and this makes them “strong” and strengthens their vocation.
Thus the “perfect woman” (cf. Prov 31:10) becomes an irreplaceable support and source of spiritual strength for other people, who perceive the great energies of her spirit. These “perfect women” are owed much by their families, and by whole nations.
Imagine living most of your life knowing your calling is to be that model of a strong woman so revered by the Church. Your innate desire to be a good wife and mom and raise and teach children drives all of your actions.
That eventually happens, but only for a while. Then suddenly your world comes crashing down and you find yourself a single mom. Whether that is through death or divorce, the pain is immense—for both you and the children.
How does a single mom make it in today’s world and today’s economy? It’s not easy. Regardless of whether the father helps monetarily, the financial burden is often overwhelming. Taking on the role of major breadwinner is daunting. The financial stress, the emotional stress, and the physical stress all combine to an overwhelming boiling point sometimes.
The Sad Statistics
According to the Pew Research Center, “Twenty-four million U.S. children younger than 18 are living with an unmarried parent. Most (15 million) are living with a solo mother…. Increases in divorce mean that more than one-in-five children born within a marriage will experience a parental breakup by age 9, as will more than half of children born within a cohabiting union.”
In addition, “A recent Pew Research Center analysis found that 30% of solo mothers and their families are living in poverty compared with 17% of solo father families and 16% of families headed by a cohabiting couple. In comparison, 8% of married couple families are living below the poverty line.”
Our society is not always conducive to helping the single mother “do it all” easily. Many families are barely making ends meet with two incomes. So how does a single mom balance a job and motherhood?
Finding a Balance
Before my divorce, I homeschooled my children and worked part-time from home. About a year before my divorce, I began to take on more responsibility at work, and it turned into a full-time job that I loved. So I homeschooled three children while working full-time. It was hard, but I managed because I had some help.
And then my husband left.
I found myself trying to rely on my small salary, yet still do all the things I had done before with the kids. I suddenly had to make sure my salary could pay all the bills. It could not. But I was determined to continue to work out of the home so that I could give my kids the stability they had grown to expect and love. I thank God every day for the support and generosity of my parents, who helped so immensely. Without them, I don’t know what I would have done.
I continued to homeschool for a few years. I would work when the kids did schoolwork. I would work when they played together or when they were at classes. And then I would get the bulk of my work done between the hours of 9pm and 2 or 3am. Those were the quiet hours when I would not be interrupted and when I could get things done. I had people—my children, my employer—relying on me. I couldn’t let anyone down. It was mentally and physically exhausting. But I was determined to be the best mom I possibly could. I still felt it was my calling, after all. And I took it seriously.
I made sacrifices yes, but I did it for the good of my family. My children were my priority. And I leaned on God, on the saints, and on our Blessed Mother. They were my rocks. I knew that God would take care of me if I worked hard and did His work. I said many Rosaries and talked to Mary, knowing that she understood the joys and sorrows of motherhood. I spoke to her mother-to-mother, and I spoke to her as my spiritual mother. She comforted me when I needed it.
As I prayed, I not only said prayers asking for help, but I said prayers of thanks for my job and for all my other blessings. I didn’t want to forget that I still had many. Yet, I couldn’t help but think of those single moms who couldn’t stay home with their kids and who had to put them in daycare when they didn’t want to. I had friends—single and married—who desperately wanted to stay home with their children, but who didn’t have the financial resources to make that happen. It broke my heart because I firmly believe that parents should be the first teachers of their children and that moms—even single moms—who want to stay home should be able to.
In a perfect world, families would remain together as one unit. In a perfect world, moms could stay home with their kids if they wanted to. But we don’t live in a perfect world. We’ve known that since Adam and Eve made the wrong choice.
That’s why we need the Church.
Additional Ways the Church Can Assist Single Moms
In Mulieris Dignitatem, St. John Paul II writes: “Since ‘the Church is in Christ as a sacrament . . . of intimate union with God and of the unity of the whole human race,’ the special presence of the Mother of God in the mystery of the Church makes us think of the exceptional link between this ‘woman’ and the whole human family.”
The Church herself must open her eyes to the needs of her divorced and single parents. When I first got divorced, I wanted to join a group for divorced people at my church, but there wasn’t one. I thought about starting one, but I didn’t have the time or energy. There were other groups in the area—secular ones and ones at churches of different denominations—but I wanted a Catholic group. I wanted to be with people who understood my calling, who understood my fears, and who understood my faith.
I remember one day just sitting in a pew at church in tears, begging God to help me. And it was through constant prayer that I realized that though I could not stop the divorce, I too had a choice. My choice lay in how I reacted to it and how I dealt with it. I could give God my burden and He would help carry it—just like in the poem. And He would help me make an even greater life than before. I just had to let Him guide me.
I firmly believe that building a Culture of Life begins with each one of us and that each of us has a responsibility to do so—and that starts with how we treat our families and then flows out to our communities. So when bad things happen, we must take on a Christ-like attitude, embrace our suffering with bravery, be a good example to others (including our children), and rely on God.
Single mothers definitely have a unique cross to bear. That is why they need the help and support of the Church community—of fellow parishioners, of friends, and of the priests. This support could come in a myriad of ways—from emotional support to financial support. Imagine the comfort a parish could offer if there were a once-a-week group for single moms to get together to talk and share stories—a place where the priest or deacons would stop by and offer words of wisdom and advice and ways to help those women hold fast to their faith. In addition, imagine the relief a single mother would feel if the parish could also offer a night out for single moms, where moms could drop their kids off for a few hours, knowing they were safely taken care of by qualified adults or kids from the youth group. That’s the community coming together to build that Culture of Life!
The church could also help monetarily by taking up a second collection to purchase gift cards to grocery stores and hand them out to those truly in need. Or it could establish a food pantry, a clothing closet, or a toy swap. All of these things make single mothers feel valued and wanted by the community—not forgotten or shunned because they are raising children alone. And finally, and maybe most importantly, the Church must teach us all how to pray and teach us to lean on our Blessed Mother during these difficult times, for she truly knows our difficulties.
Through it all, we must remember that life is about choices. We cannot always change the things that happen to us, but we can control how we react to them. And if we remember that God is there to carry us and guide us, we can be assured that we will make the right choices.
So, as we think of all the single moms struggling to make ends meet, especially at this time of the year, let us raise up our voices in prayer to Mother Mary and ask her to watch over them. Our mother will never let us down.
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Susan Ciancio has a BA in psychology and a BA in sociology from the University of Notre Dame, with an MA in liberal studies from Indiana University. Since 2003, she has worked as a professional editor and writer, editing both fiction and nonfiction books, magazine articles, blogs, educational lessons, professional materials, and website content. Fourteen of those years have been in the pro-life sector. Currently Susan writes weekly for HLI, edits for American Life League, and is the editor of its Celebrate Life Magazine. She also serves as executive editor for the Culture of Life Studies Program, an educational nonprofit program for k-12 students.