One spring morning I woke up to an eerie stillness. My wife was gone. I didn't have to call her name. I just knew she'd left. And in a few minutes, my three little girls would awake, asking where Mommy was. I couldn't bluff my way through this. I'd have to tell them the truth.
Mommy is gone, and she isn't coming back.
After I did, I gathered my girls in my arms, pressing each one into my chest. We cried together, and I held them in such a way as to send a permanent message to their little hearts that this hug — this love — would not leave them.
A few years into my solo-parenting journey, I noticed that I'd never really let that hug go. My children and I had faced such devastating change together, and I felt so awful about the things my girls had experienced that I tried to overcompensate by dropping whatever I was doing to take care of their needs and even their desires. Nothing would disrupt their world again or make them feel uncomfortable. My daughters had become the center of my universe, and I orbited around them.
In my desire to be a good parent, I lost perspective on healthy boundaries that are necessary between parent and child.
The entitlement trap
Healthy, intact families have the parents in the center, with the kids orbiting them. Parents are the "gravity," setting the boundaries and vision that keep their kids secure and grounded. Divorced parents often have a tendency to put their kids in the center of their universe, letting their kids' needs become the gravity.
Sissy Goff, director of child and adolescent counseling at Daystar Counseling Ministries, says it's important for single parents to remain as the gravity of an intact family. "When a single parent orbits his children, constantly shielding them from discomfort and inconvenience, the kids will often start to believe this is how the world works," she says. "Kids gradually become entitled and demanding. This isn't healthy for future relationships."
To discourage an entitlement mindset, I helped my girls differentiate between absolute needs and nonessential desires. I also began to take intentional steps toward training my girls to be more independent and responsible.
These changes weren't always easy. It required letting go of my codependency and relinquishing the belief that I was able to fix all the problems and hurts my girls faced. I had to recognize that I couldn't play God for my daughters, but that the real God was fully capable of caring for and healing our home.
Self-care isn't selfish
We can't give what we don't have. I knew I needed time to recharge. For me, this meant taking up hobbies outside of work. I exercised more. I learned to set aside time to quiet my mind in prayer and meditate on God's Word. The healthier I became, the healthier my kids became, as well.
Although I was a solo parent, I was not built to do life in isolation. I committed to reaching out to one adult a day, calling my mom or meeting with a friend. Having a daily touch point gave me a physical reminder that I was not alone.
Over time, the gravity of our family shifted back to its proper center. And although I could not protect my girls from their painful past, I learned that I could guide them toward a better future.