From the moment we have a child, the quality of time changes. Suddenly, because of that new, fragile being, we are conscious of our vulnerability and the potential brevity of life. We want to be the best parents that ever walked the earth, and we want to make the moments count like never before.
And then, somehow, at some point, reality intrudes. For some of us, reality is about not having enough time, plain and simple. For some of us, the complexity of our lives seems to define our relationships with our children, perhaps more than we like. For families that have parents struggling to make ends meet, working more than one job, or single-parent families, it can be quite a challenge to organize our lives so that we still make that quality connection with our children. However, with support from the right places, this challenge need not be overwhelming.
These days many parents face the obstacle of having to work much more than they’d like to. Maureen Clare, a family involvement specialist with the Lynn Economic Opportunity Early Childhood Center, was one of them. “I was on welfare…[I had] two of my own, three of my sister’s…Getting me out of the house [was an important first step]. I started volunteering in the classroom…I got very involved. I…got a job as family advocate…for two years. Then this job…I’ve been here twenty years.” Clare knows many parents like her that found their way to the Lynn Economic Opportunity Center, and found a new focus in life, as well as employment, parenting support groups with childcare; a way to help themselves and others, as well. Lynn Economic Opportunity Center, serving 345 families, is one of many organizations across the state that offers a range of services for families in need, services such as: advocacy, citizenship, tenants’ rights, welfare rights, parent trainings. “We incorporate the parents in the programs,” says Clare. “I run a men’s group, to get men involved. A whole new focus. With both parents working, it’s just as much on them…the fathers want to be heard.”
Roberto Powell of Lynn is one of those fathers. A father of three boys, Powell enjoys Clare’s “Good Guys” group, where he can get together with other fathers and come up with ideas for family fun. “We plan for the kids and family, to encourage fathers to spend more time with their children. We plan events to include them. We meet once or twice a month…For Christmas, one [father] dressed up like Santa Claus. The kids painted ornaments while parents did something else.” Often, at the planning meetings, children are welcome and childcare is provided if adult time is necessary.
Just getting out and having fun with other parents, with or without children, is a great need for the overworked mother or father. Quincy Mothers’ Cooperative, serving the South Shore area, offers a moms’ night out once a month, as well as playgroups, children’s activities, and parties for families. It costs nothing to attend the activities offered, and no committment is needed, but the benefits of one night out a month for a single parent can be tremendous.
Parents in stressful circumstances may need to rethink their notions of quality time in order to find satisfaction in their hectic lives. Group activities and participation in classes together may bring working parents closer together with their children. Edna Lazotte, director of outpatient services for the Concord Family and Youth Services, says, “[There is a] misconception that we have to do a one on one.” Quality time can be found within a larger group, a community, or parents and children doing classes together, like swim or pottery classes. In terms of handling chores and errands, Lazotte reminds parents that these can be part of the relationship, not something to get over with. “Older children may be clued in that parents are stressed…Helping with chores [can] teach them things.” Cambridge single parent Karen Hartke agrees that it is just fine to bring your child along with you on errands. Turning that into a pleasurable opportunity to connect with your child is the art part of it. “There is no getting around it [running errands together]. So — I try to make them fun somehow and make them still seem like together time. I also think he ends up learning that way — about things that I’m doing, buying, etc. If I have to go shopping, we play games at the store or just kid around a lot. Or while I’m cooking dinner he sits in the kitchen with me and does his homework. It feels like we are spending time together even though we’re doing different things. I also do things in lots of little steps. I don’t spend hours doing housework or cleaning — I do bits and pieces all the time. And I just push a lot of things aside while he is home with me and do it when he is not. It feels a little unbalanced, but it mostly works.”
Julie Walker, [name changed upon request], a single mom from Brookline, agrees that doing chores together is often a positive experience for her and for her child. “Jay and I enjoy shopping so we do that together. He loves libraries so I get work done.” Despite the challenges her life presents, Walker is pursuing an MLS degree from Simmons College. “I do a lot of crafts. He does things alongside me…I like to make jam. We pick fruit, come back, and I make it. I do one thing for him, one thing for me. I’m lucky, in that he’s always interested in everything. I want him to know what it’s like to be fair in life.”
Walker may be on her own, but she does not go it alone. For the last three years she has found Jewish Big Brothers and Sisters to be a valuable part of her family life. With no family nearby, she has managed to give Jay a big brother experience for the last three years. “They meet at Barnes and Noble and read together for an hour and a half,” Walker says. She also uses an agency called ABC Family Friends in Boston, to give Jay a grandmother- type experience. “For Halloween she’ll bring candy…she wants to know what he’s going to be.” This way, Jay gets someone to fuss over him and to read him stories.
Extending one’s family is an ideal way of finding support, both with childcare and with emotional issues. Lazotte tells parents not to isolate, but to find support systems. Even using neighbors, forming a neighbor- centered babysitting cooperative, or merely befriending someone in the neighborhood who can help, are all ways of getting what you need while trying to raise a family in extraordinary circumstances. Agencies like Lazotte’s Concord Family and Youth Services offer programs for parents in a number of locations, accessible through one main phone number. [See phone numbers at end of article.] Programs like “Mommy don’t go,” dealing with separation issues, and the single moms group, the 40-something moms group, the parents of adopted children group, are very popular and often have childcare available, as well as playgroups and ongoing storytime.
Lazotte emphasizes the need for parents to understand a little bit about their child’s development. “What worked with a two year-old may not work when the child is five or ten.” She also tells parents to set priorities, and to figure out how to care for themselves.
Cambridge parent Hartke similarly notes the importance of doing things involving physical activity are important to relating to a growing son. “We do like to do physical stuff together — basketball, hiking, skating, etc.” But she is keenly aware that she must continually adjust what they do together, according to his developmental stage. “We also like reading to each other a lot. Lately, we’ve been doing more boardgames as he gets older and can handle more complicated strategies for winning, etc.”
Support is one big piece of the stressed-out parent’s puzzle; taking charge may be the other. At statewide Parents Helping Parents — The Round Table of Support, Inc., learning about effective child rearing is a very hot topic. Jeannette Atkinson, Executive Director sees “a wide variety of issues, from feeling overwhelmed with a new baby, discipline issues, desertion of a spouse, money issues…Discussions tend to deal with how do we want to raise our children; and how do we want to raise ourselves…how do we intervene in the schools.” Atkinson finds that the groups are tremendously effective for people, as they gradually come to realize that they are not alone and that they are being listened to.
Connecting with other parents may be the first step towards being able to effectively connect with your children, particularly in single parent families and families with parents working more than one job. If “Yeah, but who has the time?” is the first thing that pops into a parent’s head, then looking into support agencies may be just the way to get that time. Because many of these agencies offer transportation and childcare, as well as a workshop to fit just about any parental need, there are a wonderful variety of ways that a stressed-out parent can find ways to improve his or her family life. Any one of the agencies listed below can put parents in touch with similar agencies in their area. In some cases, these agencies can even help with employment, as with Lynn Economic Opportunity or the Nemasket Group on the South Shore. At Nemasket, families with disabled members can get support, job training, and employment help. The Department of Mental Retardation provides for groups like Nemasket so that families do not need to struggle with too much. Other agencies often hire the very parents they are helping, as with the Lynn Economic Opportunity.
Parents who once received help and got back on their feet often feel a desire to help in return. “I want to give back what I got,” says Maureen Clare. When a program works that well, everybody benefits. But parents first have to realize that they are not alone, that it does not have to be that hard. Only then can we make the most of the time we get with our kids, and be the best parents we can be.
Copyright 2000, Susan Senator