Church is a place of labels. Some are useful—for example, we wear name tags so we can more easily engage with others in fellowship, or sometimes we’re categorized into groups so we can be pastored more easily. But some labels are burdensome to the bearer and scary or embarrassing to the reader—unless you know what to do with them. Then these labels can become a signal for knowing how to love and care for that person.
‘Single mum’ is just such a label. Of course, there are single dads as well—I can’t speak for them; I can only speak to my own experience. But I’m assuming a lot of what I say here will resonate with them too.
A first step in ministering to single mums is to recognise that single parenting is not a rare thing. Sadly, in Australia, 22 per cent of families are single parent families, and 87 per cent of them are lone mother families. It is unknown how many single mums currently make up our church congregations. It is likely lower than the general population average, given that the number of divorced or separated people outside of church is 12 per cent and only 6 per cent within the church. But however many single parents are actually in our churches, we need to show those we’re ministering to that we know they’re not alone; that it’s not just ‘them’.
The next step is to understand a little of what a single mum might be feeling. Again, I can only speak from my own experiences and recognise this won’t be the same for every single mother, but here are some of the things the single mums in your midst may experience.
There is terror. This is real. A single mum faces financial, social and logistical challenges that place her in danger of poverty, unemployment and homelessness, and this is not just in the poorer areas we imagine. At one point in my post-separation journey, I had no job, no money, no prospects and came closer than I realized to losing my house. I live in a pretty cozy middle-class area. I was absolutely terrified. The worries crowded in, one on top of the other, and there seemed no end or solution in sight.
There is loneliness. We can be surrounded by beautiful Christian community. But at some point, they go home to their families and you are left alone. You wonder who your family will be.
There is exhaustion. The logistics of taking care of kids can be hard, especially when you are working full time which most single mums have to, to make ends meet. The physical tiredness and emotional exhaustion. Doing all the parenting—disciplining, counselling, loving, teaching, cheerleading, supporting, dinner times, bath times, bed times, school drop off, school pickup—all by yourself is draining. There’s no back up. It’s intense and relentless.
There is love. When it’s just you and the kids, the kids become everything and my heart pumps for their kindness and joy and humor.
So what can you do to help? With these things in mind, here is a list of ways single mums may appreciate your support. I am incredibly blessed to say that the kind of support I suggest here are not things that I have lacked personally. So often, my sisters and brothers have just appeared and met a need I didn’t even know I had. These people are living out the biblical principles of kingdom community, and “how good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity!” (Ps 133:1).
Sometimes we need your material support. When I was in need, every so often I would come home to an envelope with money or bag of groceries on my doorstep. Another friend from time to time tells me she’s bringing dinner over. She doesn’t ask me if I need it, she just brings it and drops it off with a smile and a hug. Trust me when I say Centrelink does not stretch far, and these kinds of gifts have got us through many a week.
Open your home and your family. Every second Friday is a hard one for me. I come home to an empty house. But I have beautiful friends who bring me into their home. It’s not a dinner party; I just join their family at their table. It’s inclusive, it’s normal, it’s joyful.
Give us a reason to get dressed. Some days it can be easy to sink your head down and let the depression take over. A friend of mine one Saturday asked me if I’d like to join her and her friend for coffee. I didn’t feel like it, but I went. We’ve been meeting almost every Saturday since. It gives me a reason to get up, get dressed and get out into the world when I’d otherwise be on my own.
Cut us some slack on the ‘hallmark’ days. A lot of churches do things for Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and even Valentine’s Day. For many of us, these are hard times. We find it hard to come to church those days.
Don’t assume we can’t or don’t want to serve. It’s often going to be hard, but there are things we can do. Not everyone will want or be able to, but some single mums appreciate help in finding a way to keep serving. It’s very easy to become isolated so these things can keep us connected. (Sensitively) asking us to serve also tells us that you value us and that our ‘label’ doesn’t also say: ‘Sinner. Failure. Not to serve.’
Sometimes we need ‘dad jobs’ done. I have learned how to do a lot of things that I never knew how to do before. But sometimes there are things that just stump me—like putting new door handles on, replacing a kitchen cabinet door, or replacing windscreen wipers. Sometimes we just need a Christian brother or sister to help us with practical around-the-house things.
Don’t assume we are looking for new husbands. This slightly amended first line of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudicecould have been written for the modern church: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single [woman] in possession of [children] must be in want of a [husband].” This is so often what people assume. Yet I personally decided very early on that I would not be in another relationship, partially for theological reasons and partially for personal reasons. Others may decide differently. Single mums don’t come to church (on the whole) like it’s a weird singles bar. We come to be encouraged in our walk with Jesus. Help us to do that. Because ultimately, in our time of need, heis what we need.
Help us to live in our singleness for the gospel. Singleness in the church can be difficult whether you have never been married, or are divorced, separated or a widow(er). We need help to discover the potential and purpose in our singleness so that we can grow as disciples and live for Christ.
Jesus says his community of believers is his family (Matt 12:49-50) and in the book of Acts, we see the community of first believers living with strong bonds of unity. I have this family of believers around me. They saw the ‘single mum’ label above my head and used it as a bridge to come into my life and treat me with grace and gentleness and understanding.
The thing that unites and bonds us is Jesus, the most gracious and gentle person of all. Everything I have mentioned here helps women like me to keep going and to keep our eyes fixed on him. Help us to stay in church. Help us to stay connected. The kindness of Jesus’ community in action shows us a present and real picture of the gracious love of God.