Extended family networks and only-parents

It’s no wonder single parenting can sound a little lonely sometimes – the one thing about the name that sets it apart from any other kind of parenting is the suggestion of ‘aloneness.’ This can mean that new single parents may feel intimidated or overwhelmed, but it also means that it’s hard to tell from the outside just how important of a role extended family members can play in the lives of single parent household  – either as a huge help or as a whole new challenge.

The importance of extended family for single parents

  • Support for you: Single parents face a range of challenges, from the practical – half as many hands, just as much Baby – to the emotional. Having a co-parent means having someone who wants to hear all about your little one’s adventures in learning to walk or the funny sounds they make along the way when learning to talk. Single parents who don’t have co-parents, though, or whose co-parents are involved in their children’s lives in a more limited way, can feel isolated and lonely when they don’t have someone to share both the best and the more difficult parts of parenting with. Many single parents want or feel obligated to be as self-sufficient as possible, but building a strong network of extended family members or close friends who want to be an active part of your family on a regular basis can help support your own mental and emotional well-being as you raise Baby.
  • Support for your child: Building strong relationships with extended family or friends can also help Baby as he grows. Having healthy relationships with different adults – who have varied experiences and ways of looking at the world – is important for all children. The children of single parents can particularly benefit from a few close, supportive relationships with some of the adults who you trust and care about, but who will also reflect a view of the world that’s different from your own back to Baby.

Extended family inside and outside the home

In the U.S., most households that consist of extended family members living together include grandparents and grandchildren. According to the 2012 U.S. census, about 3% of households are home to both grandparents and grandchildren. In some of these households, grandparents are their grandchildren’s guardians, but in about two thirds of them, grandparents live with their grandchildren right alongside their grandchildren’s parents. Living with an extended family member – like a parent or sibling – can be a great way for new single parents to settle into parenting before striking out on their own or can even be a good long-term arrangement.

And extended family members that live nearby can also be a key part of a single-parent family, while still leaving you and Baby a bit more space to figure out how to be a family together. Extended family members can provide invaluable help in terms of childcare, but they can also make a huge impact on your family life by even just occasionally joining you and Baby for dinner or for a trip to the park. When Baby is as young as he is, just having another adult around the two of you for a few hours now and then can make a big difference.

Challenges with extended family members

Though single-parent families are more common than they’ve ever been, research by the Pew Research Center in 2011 confirmed what many single-parents already knew or suspected – that there are still plenty of people who aren’t totally supportive of single-parent families. If your family is going to encounter this lack of support – which may come from older family members and can be difficult to hear – you may want to limit just how much you allow such family members into your life with Baby. And that’s your right as Baby’s parent and primary caregiver – you get to decide who gets to be a major part of your family, and people who aren’t going to support you and Baby can move to the sidelines of your family life.

Building extended family networks

Just how much extended family members become involved in the lives of single-parent families tends to happen naturally and is often determined by the kind of relationship the parent has always had with their family. For single parents, though, it can sometimes be helpful to make that involvement a little more explicit. To even talk to just one or two members of your extended family about making a commitment to be a little more of a steady presence in you and Baby‘s lives can make a huge difference.

It’s not always possible, but depending on what your relationship with them is like, it can also sometimes be worth reaching out to Baby’s other parent’s family – if Baby has one, and even if the other parent isn’t a part of his life. Whether or not to reach out to Baby’s relatives who you’re not related to is definitely your judgement call to make, but if you and Baby are lucky, reaching out to them could be a way to add more people who love Baby into his life.

At this point, when Baby is so little, you’re probably still a big part of any time he spends with his relatives, and it can feel awkward getting to know the people who are a part of Baby’s extended family but who you may not know well yet. But this is also a great time for you to get to know these people so that Baby can grow up around them, but without the specific memories of these early days when you were still working out the best way to have his extended family be a part of your family’s life.

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