Spring 1984, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp. 47-55.

Monika K. Hellwig:
      Christian Spirituality for the Single Parent

The extraordinary pressures on single parents strongly tempt them to adopt a spirituality of renunciation, but instead they must choose one of thankfulness and joy in the present.

Dr. Hellwig is professor of theology at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., and author of ten books and numerous articles. She is also the single mother of three adopted children -- a girl and two boys.

SINGLE parents have special problems and special needs and generally receive very little help from church or society in meeting these needs. That is in part because it is very difficult for those who have not had this experience to put themselves in this position and understand what is involved. The intention of this article is both to help and encourage those who are single parents and to inform and urge those who are not, so that they may gain better understanding of how the Christian community ought to support and give companionship to single parents.

It is not accidental that from earliest times it was recognized as a particular responsibility of the Christian community to care for widows and orphans. However, it is important to realize that the special needs of single-parent families are not satisfied when there is no material want. It is true that most American families headed by women are poor materially, but all single-parent families, whether headed by men or women, are poor in important social respects. That puts tremendous demands on the single parents in these families and suggests a need for understanding from the Christian community.

The most obvious and most urgent need of the Christian single parent is for a deep life of prayer because of the loneliness of the situation. For most women and men constant interaction with children has its satisfactions but is on the whole severely draining. Couples generally find it refreshing to have some time together away from their children -- to go out together for an evening, to be together after the children are in bed. They affirm and reinforce each other's need for adult companionship and conversation, for the sharing of interests, worries, and joys, for intimacy in a setting of genuine reciprocity. Most single parents must learn to live without such moments and opportunities. Unless they are very fortunate in having extended family nearby, they are, so to speak, never "off duty," and are drained to exhaustion by constant demands for attention, sympathy, enthusiasm, a listening ear, personal services of all kinds, transportation, school meetings, doctors, dentists, clothes, food shopping, and so on, usually with the youngest children always tagging along and becoming fretful, demanding, disruptive, while everyone turns accusing eyes on the parent who cannot cope with the situation and has broken the unspoken rules by bringing small children along.


Most single parents have to work at a full time job to support the family, as well as try to be two parents and run the household, take care of outdoor and automobile maintenance, plan the family budget, take care of tax returns, permits, licenses, insurances, and so forth. They come home from a full days work to begin the night shift at home, day after day, night after night. Most do not get enough sleep -- ever. Most do not get the minimum of private time that we all need -- ever. Yet many of these same single parents are constantly called on to take care of other people's children, on the assumption that they have nothing better to do on weekends and holidays.

This kind of treadmill existence is hard enough for those few of us who have chosen it because, as single persons, we have adopted children; but most single parents have not chosen this. They could become very bitter, resentful, and discouraged from the demands of the situation, the loneliness, and the insensitivity of others who ostracize them or impose on them. There is need for a constant striving to keep things in perspective and in proportion, to set priorities and to hold to them. This calls for a more than usually strong and persevering prayer-life, all the more difficult because of the fearsome pressures of time and fatigue.

When one is chronically dead tired, prayer does not come very spontaneously. Single parents especially need the stimulus of spiritual reading that can be done easily in small installments. Snatches of the liturgy of the hours taken from favorite texts of the day in a single volume breviary are a very good way of doing this. Some popular contemporary authors are also good, but they must be such as write simply and can be read in very small sections with profit and inspiration.(1) Some classical religious texts are also very helpful in this way.(2) Similarly helpful are prayer groups that meet regularly in homes, but these often grow out of situations in which only married couples can participate or are invited.


Most single parents have great difficulty in establishing their right to some private time of any sort, including any time to pray. They also have difficulty establishing rules in the house. In a two-parent family there is, so to speak, a foundation of civilized society against which demands and behavior can be judged and measured. In a one-parent family, courtesy and decent behavior and respect for the needs and rights and wishes of the single parent are not so easy to establish. Children assert themselves absolutely and aggressively unless and until boundaries are established. A single person who is always totally physically and mentally exhausted and subject to many outside demands is in a very unfavorable position to establish those boundaries, or even to trust her or his own judgment against the aggressive insistence of the young barbarians who have not yet understood that there is more at stake than one person's will or whim against another's.

It is the complete and permanent exhaustion that makes it so difficult, because the parent is often in the same position as a prisoner who is being brainwashed. The fatigue and consequent depression are indescribable to anyone not constantly subjected to it. Paradoxically, it is this terrible state of inescapable fatigue that makes it almost impossible for the working single parent to resist the demands either of the children or of outside forces because it takes a certain degree of self-possession and personal focus to say no. The greatest temptation of the single parent is to give up and let the children do what they want, whether or not it is good for them or for others, reasonable in itself, or manageable for the parent. This may be complicated by a great variety and number of other unreasonable demands made by telephone at the most inauspicious moments, when the single parent is the only controlling factor in the house and everything falls apart because the parent is distracted by the telephone at a crucial moment and there is no one else to maintain the routine and order of the household.

It is, of course, very difficult to keep one's sense of reality in these situations, the more so because most single parents feel guilty and spend their lives apologizing. They apologize constantly on the job, for being late (which is often unavoidable), for having to absent themselves (because one or other child is ill), for not being as productive as others (because they are doing two full jobs), for being distracted (because there is no one to share worries or decisions). They apologize to the school or schools for not being able to attend all sorts of meetings, for not being chaperones for class trips, for not baking or sewing for the bazaar, for not volunteering to drive for various trips, and so on and so forth. Most of all they apologize to their children constantly and in many ways for not being two parents.


The spirituality of the single parent really has to be one of humility, courage, and trust in God, because the single parent is so constantly being condemned by everyone. This is, of course, especially true of women who have borne children out of wedlock for whatever reason (even in cases of outright rape), and of Catholics who are divorced or separated (even if they have never been remarried or entertained the possibility of remarrying). But strangely enough it is also often true in the case of widows and of single persons who have adopted children. The children themselves often feel that the parent with whom they live is responsible for the loss or absence of the other parent and must be made to pay for it. Others often convey the attitude that there is something wrong with the situation and that the single parent is responsible or guilty and, in any case, to be avoided tactfully.

In all of this there is the greatest need for spiritual discernment on the part of the single parent. In spite of the helplessness of the colossal fatigue and sense of unreality of everything, and in spite of the distorting factor of the pervasive sense of guilt, there are important decisions to make, and not to decide is to decide irresponsibly. Moreover, it is necessary to distinguish between the false sense of guilt that pervades everything and genuine sinfulness. Because of the brainwashing effect of the excessive demands and exhaustion, and because of the isolation in personal decision making and in private life, such discernment becomes very difficult. It would seem that good spiritual direction is a greater need for single parents who want to lead a truly Christian life than it is for most others who have better opportunities for sharing and comparing.

If spiritual direction is urgently necessary in the situation, it is also, however, available only to a privileged few. This is, in part, because we still look almost exclusively to priests for spiritual direction and most diocesan priests are neither trained nor personally suited to give spiritual direction to others. Nor are they well placed to have even a remote idea of the life-style, demands, needs, and decisions that shape the existence of the single parent. Meanwhile, however, there are increasing numbers of lay persons who have the aptitude, experience, and understanding to fulfill this role. There are even centers that undertake to train lay persons to offer spiritual direction to others.(3) However, some of the best spiritual directors of the past, such as St. Catharine of Siena, Dame Julian of Norwich, St. Teresa of Avila, Cornelia Connelly, and Janet Erskine Stuart, had no specific training for this role. They considered themselves Christians performing ordinary works of mercy such as counseling the doubtful and heartening the discouraged.

The experience of the wonderful history of such Christian counsel and comfort seems to suggest that we might seek spiritual guidance and support from wise and good and reasonably well-informed Christians without requiring that they be ordained priests. This, of course, vastly increases the possibility of finding good spiritual direction, though an individual must still search. Single parents may be least well placed to do this kind of searching because their contacts are likely to be either business contacts or contacts required by their children. There is soy little time or energy to have any personal friendships or to belong to any group that is for one's own benefit. Yet it seems that this quest should have very high priority for single parents because of the many factors of discouragement and of distortion of judgment and decision.


For many single parents there is an important challenge to be forgiving. It is important not only because forgiveness is a central Christian virtue which is foundational to the redemption of human society, but also because forgiveness is healing for the one who forgives. Those who have been divorced or separated have been deeply hurt in their sense of self-worth and dignity. This is so even in the friendliest and most courteous and considerate divorces and separations. But most divorces and separations are not considerate and friendly and courteous, because the stress of a marriage breakdown tends to evoke more childish behavior from adult people. Thus, the divorced and separated always have much to forgive and transcend, in order that the children may acquire a sense of identity and Christian vocation that is rooted in both their parents and is a basis for reconciliation and peace. But it is also important because forgiving is an act and attitude of mercy and compassion towards the now separated partner, and because it is a necessary foundation for personal peace and orientation to the future for the one who forgives.

However, not only the divorced and separated have this special need to forgive. Women who have kept and ,are raising children whom they bore out of wedlock are carrying two people's burdens because the other partner is free of the consequences of the union. Indeed, American statistics show that the fathers of such children seldom even pay child support, so that the mothers and children frequently live in great poverty, while the fathers have gone on cheerfully and forgetfully to make their way in the world, achieving what financial success they can in their unburdened condition. There is much to forgive here in the mothers' daily struggle for economic, social, and psychological survival against heavy odds.

Even widowed parents and solitary adoptive parents are not wholly spared the need and the difficulty of forgiving. Widowed parents are frequently tempted to go over and over the unanswerable question: Why did it happen to me? They see others enjoying the consolation of marital life and drawing strength from it for the raising of their children and the other burdens of life. They see that, for others, the burdens and decisions are shared. They also see that it is not only the drain on time and on energy and personal resources that becomes so heavy, but that single parenthood makes them economically much poorer just when they need more support services for which they must pay. This is especially so for most women in this situation. It is difficult to forgive God, to forgive the dead partner, and to forgive all those who do not share the tragedy, strange as all these positions may sound.


Adoptive single parents have some special difficulties of their own. They take over problems made by others. The children assigned to single adopters are usually those whom couples will not take and for whom the adoption agencies and courts conclude that any family would be better than none. These are children whom eligible couples are unwilling to adopt because they are older and have had tragic experiences, or because of their racial identity, or because of physical or mental handicaps. Adoptive single parents are usually people who have responded to a special appeal on behalf of such children, and who have responded precisely because couples were not willing to take the children. It is therefore a special challenge to forgiveness and reconciliation when these single parents find that they are frequently blamed for what they have done both by their children and by others who consider single adoptions presumptuous and even sinful. In moments of crisis and emergencies it can be very difficult when others hold aloof from helping because, as they will say, this is what these parents chose and they must manage. If they cannot cope, then they should not have gotten themselves into this situation. It is particularly difficult because single parents, by definition, have no "in-laws" and are likely to be even more lacking in support from relatives than the separated and divorced and widowed. Moreover, all the difficulties continuously compound one another, and the children (most of whom began with special difficulties in behavior and adjustment) react to the tension by aggressive behavior against the parent, who is the person they can reach in order to vent their frustration.

In any case, all single parents are so constantly beaten upon by various accusations and condemnations, that they know that their lives have to be lives of fierce and unremitting renunciation whether they choose it or not. There are two temptations in this. One is to become very bitter and, in surreptitious ways, self-centered and demanding. The other is to pursue a spirituality whose essence or center is renunciation. This last looks respectable but is Gnostic or Manichaean and not Christian; and it is also not healthy for any of those concerned. We all know that people subjected to brainwashing can come to think of themselves as worthless, despicable, and guilty of all manner of things which they are ready to confess abjectly. What may not be so obvious is that the same factors are at work in more subtle situations that are closely akin to brainwashing because of the exhaustion, the isolation, and the steady flow of accusations and condemnations, balanced by very little affirmation.


A spirituality for single parents must, above all, be a spirituality of basic gratitude to God and a will to enjoy life as an expression of gratitude. A sense that life is worth living is important for everyone, and it is especially important to convey this to one's children by one's own mode of living. In the face of great and constant difficulties, this requires both vision and courage; and both require a very solid life of prayer and whatever community support can be found in the situation. Because of the peculiar situation of single parents, it is easy for them to get the impression that all enjoyment is wrong. Sexual intimacy is excluded. Privacy is largely excluded. Consorting with friends of one's own choosing always appears as a selfish failure to be with the children or at the job or busy with the housework or other chores. Spending money on anything for oneself always appears improper. Drinking is not a good idea in solitude. For women, interest in clothes or personal appearance is inappropriate. Sports and athletic activities and even walks in the woods are selfish, unless it is what the children want to do. In other words, it is very easy to identify not only pleasure but joy with the forbidden.

Yet there cannot really be a loving way of life that is not built upon self-acceptance and gratitude for one's own existence. This is expressed in a quiet willingness to accept life within the limiting circumstances of the situation and to deal with it creatively and with readiness to enjoy whatever can be enjoyed in nature and culture and human relationships. Perhaps the most important aspect of this is the commitment to live in the present, to live the life that is possible and presents itself. It can be so tempting to live in the calmer, easier, more cheerful past, or to live the life that might have been. But to live in the present is to hope for the future, while to live in the past and in the might-have-been is necessarily sterile for all concerned.

In difficult situations it becomes difficult also to believe that God creates us for our own happiness, and that God does not really throw anyone aside as waste, or use anyone simply as instrumental to the purposes of some other. It is, in the last resort, this conviction of being loved and wanted for one's own sake by God, and therefore being free to get on with life under any circumstances whatsoever, that sustains Christian faith, hope, and love.

  1. Thomas Merton is a good example. Some people find John Powell very helpful. Others draw inspiration from Mark Link, Louis Evely, Carlo Carretto, and many others whose works are readily available in paperback from Paulist Press, Doubleday Image Books, Argus, Dimension, and other presses.
  2. Favorites are Teresa of Avila, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, the Pilgrim, Julian of Norwich, and many more. Paulist Press has recently reissued many of these small treasures of classic spirituality in pocket-sized paperback booklets in the Spiritual Masters Series.
  3. Examples are the Jesuit spirituality centers in Wernersville, Pennsylvania, and Guelph, Ontario.