The Relationship Between One Parent and Two Parents (part 3 of 4)

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I just discovered today that Robin Williams will be starring in Mrs. Doubtfire 2, to be released sometime in 2015.

We remember Mrs. Doubtfire–a fun loving, yet fiscally irresponsible dad who turns to geriatric cross-dressing as a way to cope with a pending divorce and the potential inability to not see his three children. Miranda Hillard, played convincingly by Sally Field, struggles to organize her life following separating from her husband, Daniel, and places an advertisement for a babysitter. Daniel, a master of impersonations, creates Mrs. Doubtfire, a Julia Child-esque nanny, who gets the nannying job with her sharp wit, wisdom, and oversized dresses. At first, Mrs. Doubtfire seems content to just connect with the children, taking them for ice cream while encouraging them to get work done around the house. Then, he meets Stu, played by a pre-James Bond Pierce Brosnan, a gentleman who attempts to wine and dine his ex-wife. The children never connect with Stu, something Mrs. Doubtfire notices, and they attempt to split their mother/ex-wife and her new boyfriend apart, resulting in a catastrophic scene involving cayenne pepper and the Heimlich maneuver.

Mrs. Doubtfire provides a glimpse into the often tortuous process of uncoupling, single parenthood, and recoupling (well, attempted recoupling in this case) and its effects on all members: children, residential parent, and non-residential parent:

We’re thinking this week about the challenges of divorce and single parenting through the research of Ulrike Zartler, an Austrian sociologist, who recently conducted research around the reorganization and resilience strategies of single-parent families. Whereas society seems to stigmatize single-parent families less in the 21st century, Zartler observes that single-parent families attempt to imitate nuclear families by reconstructing a two-parent family structure in public (such as the residential and non-residential parents meeting at a child’s dance recital) and/or private (such as both parents having a joint birthday party or holiday feast). However, not all single-parent families successfully replicate two-parent families due to poor communication or residual anger about the relationship, usually to the dismay of the children.

Zartler writes that almost all single-parent families attempt to compensate for the absence of the non-residential parent.

Sarah had four boys, ranging from ages 6-14. When I started working with them, the father to the youngest two was incarcerated, while the father to the oldest two made occasional cameo appearances, enough to remain on his boys’ radar, but not enough to keep the teenagers from obtaining a consistent irritation with him. (The father to the youngest two would leave prison and re-enter the family about halfway through my work with the family.) Sarah played numerous roles: caretaker of an aging parent, banker, emotional thermostat, chauffeur, human jungle gym (for the younger boys), sparring partner (for the older two). There was one meeting where the older boys attempted to gang up on their mother, resulting in a two-on-one wrestling match involving posturing (from the boys), some impressive escape moves from mom, and lots of laughter. Sarah reminded the boys (and myself) that she plays the role of father and mother, male and female adult to her boys. Many single parents compensate by taking on some of the traditional gender roles and interests of the non-residential parent, especially to match the developmental needs of their opposite-sexed children.

Zartler acknowledges that a single parent’s effort to compensate by attempting to play both gender roles often results in exhaustion and loneliness. Many single parents compensate by bringing in a new partner, with the hope that the new partner can fill the shoes of the non-residential parent in some way. In a worst case scenario, the ineffective pattern of cyclical cohabitation exists,  in which a residential parent invites a merry-go-round of significant others into the home, generally for parental support. I’ve discussed the importance of wariness when involving new romantic interests in single-parent families in other blog posts; Zartler reminds us that when new adults are introduced into the family system appropriately, children perceive them as being helpful in their goals of imitating nuclear families.

Single-parent families also compensate by positively promoting the non-residential parents. This resilience strategy can be useful when the separate parents have negotiated an effective process for co-parenting. However, Zartler noticed that few of the children considered this a resilience strategy, perhaps because of the dissonance between this option and their goals of imitating nuclear families, or perhaps because they remember/have heard about the tension between their parents.

Finally, Zartler identified families that encouraged their children to make relationships with adults in the community. Most of the parents surveyed were single mothers, many of whom elaborated on the positive interactions between their sons and older male role models. Single parents also looked to their own siblings to provide same-gendered relationships for their nieces and nephews; Zartler noticed, however, that a single parent often felt they were burdening a potential aunt of uncle who had their own spouse and/or children. Children also seek out these common-gendered relationships amongst family members and peers, often regardless of the boundaries that single parents try to set around these relationships. Zartler suggests that single parents take the initiative to establish healthy same-gendered relationships with their children.

Whereas imitation is a resilience strategy preferred by children (even though they have limited power over this strategy due to their dependence on the negotiation skills of their parents), compensation strategies are used and preferred primarily by the single parent as he/she adapts and renegotiates his/her own roles within the family while filling in potential gaps for the children.

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