So far, we’ve discussed single parenthood through the lens of divorced/separated relationships. Some single parents and their children completely break free from their non-custodial parent/former significant other with minimal anxiety. However, many researchers, such as Ulrike Zartler of the University of Vienna, suggest that most members of single parent families want some kind of unification, either because they miss features of the nuclear (two-parent) family, or because their friends or larger society overtly/covertly suggest that nuclear families create the most successful, healthy families. Therefore, many single-parent families either imitate nuclear families by creating reunification in public or private settings, or attempt to adapt current roles, take on new roles and/or include new custodial members in an attempt to compensate for the contributions of the non-custodial parent.
But what happens if the separation process between parents left severe scars, emotional or physical? Or worse, how do we speak for young widows and widowers?
Take Chas Tenenbaum. Chas’ wife, Rachael, died in a plane accident, and at the beginning of his story, The Royal Tenenbaums, we see Chas (played brilliantly by Ben Stiller) awakening his children to a midnight fire drill, timing his boys’ (Ari and Uzi) efficiency at leaving the home, practicing for another disaster, lest the remaining family members receive a similar fate as their mother. Chas refuses to let his boys talk about their mother, and meets similar resistance when other family members attempt to address her loss.
Zartler, in her article “How to Deal with Moral Tales: Constructions and Strategies of Single Parent Families”, published in June’s Journal of Marriage and Family, mentions a third resilience skill that single-parent families use. Rather than attempt to imitate or compensate two-parent families, they shut out other two-parent families (including their own family members), if not completely withdrawing from the world. Zartler refers to this process of creating boundaries between custodial parent/child and the rest of the world as delimitation, and describes two ways single-parent families can achieve this.
First, they can strive for complete withdrawal.. These families avoid talking about the absence of the non-custodial parents. Children may bring up memories of their absent parent, only to find their custodial parent withdraw into anger or silence; they learn quickly not to bring up the subject again. The closed-lipped approach of the family transfers into the child’s educational and social experiences, where he/she tries to invisibly blend in and say as little as possible to teachers and peers. Many of these parents find themselves in Chas Tenenbaum’s shoes, overprotecting their children from fantastical disasters, closing them off from the outside world in the name of safety.
Second, these single-parent families openly criticize other two-parent families, namely their own. Royal Tenenbaum, Chas’ father, comments on the closed-off family structure of Chas and the boys and tries to take Ari and Uzi out for a day of excitement:
Chas has no idea, by the way, that Royal has encouraged the boys to ride dangerously on moving vehicles and commit misdemeanors with him; nevertheless, when they return, Chas flips out on his father:
Part of the humor of the movie involves the young adult generation of Tenenbaum’s deal with the neuroses of Royal. Royal encouraged his children to become experts in certain fields (Chas was a young stock broker) rather than creating emotional connections with them, so thirty years later, he brings Chas and his siblings to his home as an attempt to make up for lost time. All of the children catch onto Royal’s plot and resist his efforts in some way, but Chas’ resistance toward Royal is the most significant, particularly when Royal attempts to discuss Rachael.
Delimitation is one of the more powerful resilience strategies a person/family can use. If I don’t talk about the pain of separation, I don’t have to think about it, and I can convince myself it didn’t happen. If I don’t let others in, nobody has to get hurt further. Delimitation creates family secrets, where children learn they must hide information from the outside world in order to protect their parents (or themselves). Holding these secrets establishes a dangerous, stress-filled precedent where children learn to hide other bits of information, stunting their ability to develop healthy relationships. Family therapy can be a useful, safe place for these families to share their experiences.