Tribes, villages, and networks are essential for Solo Moms
Not long after my divorce, when my children were four and six years old, I became very sick with high fevers, strange rashes, and swollen legs that often rendered me bedridden and made me perpetually exhausted. During the six months it took to diagnose a curable blood disorder, I transformed from an active, playful Solo Mom to a scared, weak shadow of my former self. Without family nearby, I was forced to rely on friends, neighbors, colleagues, and acquaintances who took my kids for sleepovers, brought me groceries, cooked for my kids, helped with driving, did our laundry, and pushed me to get more tests—tests that ultimately saved my life. My web of support was there for me when it mattered the most.
My health crisis drove home to me the importance of having a strong support network. But even after my energy and health were restored, I appreciated and valued my community of support. Since then, I’ve interviewed and spoken more informally with hundreds of Solo Moms who tell me that they often feel overwhelmed, isolated, and undersupported. None of this is surprising. Solo Moms face the herculean task of parenting alone in a society that pays poverty wages, lacks family leave, and has a frayed safety net, at best.
While citizens, politicians, and policymakers work to improve the economic and social landscape for Solo Moms, I urge all Solo Moms to weave a web of support for their own well-being and the well-being of their children.
Unfortunately, single parenthood, divorce, and the loss of a partner shrink a woman’s social support circle. Just when she needs them the most, friends often slip away, take sides, or don’t relate to changed circumstances. For decades, sociologists and psychologists have asserted that people who feel supported and integrated into a community experience less alienation and depression than those who don’t. But we don’t need academics to tell us that. As moms, we wish for our children to make friends, take part in clubs and teams, and make connections that bring a sense of belonging and joy. Solo Moms deserve the same connectedness we wish for our children.
I suggest three strategies of support that will enhance a Solo Mom’s well-being and happiness: 1) find your tribe, 2) create a village, and 3) build your network. It may sound exhausting, but all three goals overlap and ultimately combine to form a personal safety net that no Solo Mom should do without.
Find your tribe
When I first divorced, I felt as if I were swimming awkwardly in a sea of couples. Slowly, my circle of friends contracted and then expanded to include more moms like myself who, for a variety of reasons, were raising kids on their own. Though this wasn’t a conscious process, it was comforting to find a group of women who didn’t worry about me trying to steal their husbands or judge me for the pile of dishes in the sink because I fell asleep reading to my kid and then had to rush to work the next morning. I enjoyed their company so much that I initiated a monthly gathering at a local bar. Everyone in my tribe was invited, and we came to value these evenings for those few child-free hours where we could laugh at ourselves, share our struggles, and temporarily forget that our children depended on us so completely. I knew these Solo Moms had my back, no matter the circumstance.
Finding a tribe means forging connections with those who understand what you are going through. The psychological benefits of belonging to a group of people with shared experiences can be immeasurable. A tribe can be a group of friends, such as the women I chose to hang out with, an organized support group, or even an online group. The essential component is that you can share of yourself honestly without judgment and expect empathy—the type of empathy that usually can come only from shared experience. Solo Mom Navarre Overton writes that as a 16-year-old with a baby, she wishes that she’d reached out to other moms because her single friends simply did not get it and couldn’t offer the support she needed. Jamie Seaton shares how painful it is when one’s family is left out after a divorce. Sadly, just when you need your friends the most, they may feel inclined to turn away. Instead, find your tribe. For Solo Moms struggling with challenges such as cancer, children with special needs, addiction, or abuse, a tribe can make the difference between hope and despair. Chaya Beyla, who found support online after leaving her abusive husband, explains, “The women who supported me after abuse became my everything. The women in my support group understood the dynamics of emotional abuse and the aftershock of leaving an abuser because they were living it too.” For Beyla and other Solo Moms like her, finding a tribe becomes a path toward recovery and well-being.
Create a village
Your village is more extensive than your tribe. Extending beyond shared experience or identity, it encompasses relationships that rely on a common sense of community and understanding. This part of your web may include connections of personal support, friendship, and belonging beyond the Solo Moms you know. The look and character of Solo Mom villages differ greatly based on location. In suburbs and cities, it may be relatively easy to find a cadre of neighbors, friends, and other Solo Moms to meet at the park, solve problems, and socialize. For single moms in rural or isolated areas, it may be tougher to build a village; therefore, they may turn to online networks to expand their village of support. Sometimes villages emerge organically, through social proximity; at other times, you may deliberately seek to build your village through play groups, book clubs, and so on. Regardless of the location or size of the village, Solo Moms derive benefits that they wouldn’t normally get just from their tribe.
Creating a village sometimes requires extra effort. Solo Mom Stephanie Land shares that she moved 500 miles to build a new village. She stepped outside her comfort zone in a new town and forced herself to meet new people: “I had to approach people, I had to let go of hard feelings and insecurities I had about myself.” Land reached out when she needed help and created a community of support. Land counsels, “Go out and meet people—laugh and have fun.”
When you have a tribe and a village, you’ve woven a safety net that will provide personal connection, support, and well-being. But you aren’t done yet! The ongoing process of network building can provide unexpected benefits for you and your children.
Build your network
Everyone knows that networking is important for getting a job or even a date. Networking can also be a huge plus for moms who parent on their own. Sociologists who analyze networks show us that the most effective ones are a blend of people you are closely connected to (strong ties) and those whom you don’t know all that well (weak ties). Strong ties can provide the support you need, while weak ties give you access to information that you can’t get from your tribe or village. For example, a close-knit group of moms might know all the same babysitters and after-school programs, while moms outside your circle may know about resources you wouldn’t otherwise hear about. Similarly, that soccer mom you just met might know about a job opening or scholarship that you hadn’t heard about. In fact, research shows that most people get their first jobs thanks to a weak tie rather than a strong tie. Because every connection you make can yield new information, it’s helpful to continually add strands to your web. A dense network of lots of strong and weak ties offers the most support and information.
Try to connect with people who can offer both practical and emotional support. This usually isn’t the same person. There might be a mom or dad who’s always willing to help with a school pickup, but you would never cry on this person’s shoulder. And then there are those friends whom you can cry with but who are unable to offer practical support because they’re just as overwhelmed as you are. Help can come from unexpected places. Whether you are at a soccer game or an after-school event, accept business cards, exchange phone numbers and email addresses, connect on Facebook, and be open to expanding your network.
If you’re like other Solo Moms, you’re super busy, but you can still meet new people by chatting with others when waiting for a child to finish an activity or just giving a friendly smile. Stay open, be welcoming, and accept help. When you can reciprocate, it will go a long way toward building goodwill. If you are generous of heart, other parents will like being with you and supporting you even if you can’t drop everything when one of their kids get sick.
Another reward of networking is building bridges with folks who aren’t just like you. Create opportunities to learn from a diverse group of people you wouldn’t normally meet in your neighborhood or social circle. I founded ESME to connect all Solo Moms, including widows, women who are divorced or separated, women with partners who are deployed or incarcerated—essentially all moms who parent alone, whether by choice or circumstance. As a sociologist, I believe that all of us benefit from building bridges to a fascinating and diverse group.
Your web of support
Ideally, there will be a day when supportive family and economic policies help to form Solo Moms’ safety nets. Today, however, there are too many Solo Moms who face poverty, distress, and insecurity. Weaving a web of support won’t cure all of these ills. But for many Solo Moms, a tribe, village, and network are essential to their psychological health and happiness. Solo doesn’t mean alone. Together, we can enhance our own well-being and the well-being of our children.
So, get out there and weave your web!
Dr. Marika Lindholm founded ESME.com to ignite a social movement of Solo Moms. A trained sociologist, Lindholm taught courses on inequality, diversity, and gender at Northwestern University for over a decade. After a divorce left her parenting two children on her own, she realized Solo Moms lacked much-needed resources, support, and connection. She built her social platform, Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere, out of this combination of academic and personal experience. The acronym has since evolved to Empowering Strong Moms Everywhere, to encompass all moms. In September 2019, She Writes Press will publish We Got This! Solo Mom Stories of Grit, Heart, and Humor, an anthology of Solo Mom personal essays and poetry edited by Lindholm with Cheryl Dumesnil, Domenica Ruta, and Katherine Shonk. Marika can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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