What Not To Say To A Newly Single Mom
Breaking up really is hard to do, and adjusting to life as a single mom in the first few weeks of the transition is like waking up every day with an ice bucket challenge.
The bitter cold reality rushes over my body and mind the moment my eyes open, as my thoughts immediately turn to everything on my newly single mom plate — finding the best possible preschool play program for my daughter, getting a job or starting a company, saving for a car (hey, I was a city girl, I didn't need one until now!) and eventually, for our own apartment or house. But the icy freeze of my reality is most quickly thawed, and my heart warmed, when my daughter arrives at my bedside to greet me and the day. "Hi mama!" She says, "Did you have a nice sleepies? I had a nice sleepies!" She brings a wide smile to my face every morning as I fold her into my arms and pull her into bed for a wake-up snuggle.
Her limited understanding of our situation is actually quite helpful and reassuring. She is calmed by the fact that mama isn't crying any more or mad for no reason (that she can comprehend). She's happy to have all of my attention to herself. She's excited to start "school" soon and meet new friends to play with, and to be close to her beloved grandparents. She misses her father, but she FaceTimes with him every day and knows he will come to visit her often, making that time together extra special for her.
Her innocence makes me optimistic and look forward to our future. It gives me pause from the daunting icy thoughts, and the power to stop that train of thought and turn my mind toward the abundance that I am grateful for: the comfort and safety of my parents' home, a refuge that will cradle us until we are ready to stand up and step forward; my ex's support in that transition; the peace and calm of life in the country; our new neighbors' kind words and warm welcome; my parents' love and guidance, and the support of all of my closest friends and family.
That said, while I'm grateful for the things that are truly helpful right now, there are also efforts and words that are well-intentioned, but not helpful at all.
What is most helpful, especially in those early weeks and months of the transition to single motherhood? First and foremost: alone time for the newly single mama. What she is dealing with emotionally is massive, and what she lacks most is the time alone to process her thoughts and feelings. For most women, the decision to step out on her own probably didn't come easily (if it was even her choice at all), and is usually the lesser-of-evils solution for her own health, sanity, happiness and well-being (as well, of course, as that of her children).
Alone time will give her the chance to process and the time for self-love and self-care — whether that is a yoga class, a run or a long bath — or the opportunity to plan uninterrupted for her business and future, or just a few moments to rest. A newly single mama is exhausted beyond comprehension as she learns to do it all day-to-day-in and day-out on her own. Alone time will give her strength, and that is what she needs most. Without it, she is susceptible to the feelings of "I can't do this!" and that is most dangerous to building a new future.
If you don't live close to her, or just aren't able to offer to spend some time with her child(ren), your words of support and encouragement also mean everything to her, and can give her strength and empower her.
Most of them, anyway. Sometimes, as friends, family and acquaintances absorb the drama and sadness of a single mama's new situation, they end up accidentally saying the wrong thing. Instead of empowering her, the wrong words can cause her to feel judged, pitied and insecure, or push her into an uncomfortable corner of vulnerability that causes her to question everything.
Admittedly, it can be hard to know the right thing to say in this kind of tough situation, and it's better to say something than nothing at all. But if your friend, or sister, or daughter, or niece, or granddaughter is facing a fresh reality as a single mama, here are a five things to avoid saying, and suggestions for what to say instead.
Avoid: "What happened?" Or its passive aggressive nosy sister prompt, "Well, I don't know what happened, but..."
If she hasn't offered up the story of what happened, then of course you don't know! But don't prompt her. After all, something was so bad, so irreparable, that her relationship is now over. She is in a lot of emotional pain and asking her to bring it all up again could be counterproductive to her healing. She may just be avoiding your opinions and judgment, which is her right. When she is ready to share and process the situation with you, she will. Or not. And that's okay. The greatest thing you can do is be respectful of what she needs, and unselfish in your self-perceived need for information (you actually don't need any information at all in order to be supportive or helpful to her).
Alternately, you could say: "I'm here for you if you'd like to talk."
Avoid: "What are you going to do?!"
This seemingly innocent inquiry will almost certainly strike a nerve, as it is the very question a newly single mama is asking herself all day long, every day. Her fear of what she would do on her own might have kept her in an unhealthy relationship longer than she should have stayed, especially if she was a stay at home mom who'd spent some time out of the workforce. But worst of all, the implications of this question perpetuate the stereotype that a woman cannot make it on her own without a man to protect and take care of her. Which, of course, is not true. Chances are that as she figures out her plans, she will be excited and proud to share them with you (and anyone in her vicinity!) and will do so willingly. So, if she is saying nothing about what she plans to do, just leave well enough alone for the moment.
Alternately, you could say: "I know you can do this. How can I help you?"
Avoid: "He was a _______, anyway!" or "What a _______!"
Fill in your opinion of choice here. You may feel you are commiserating with her situation and you may be attempting to communicate that she is better off without her ex. However, dismissing her ex as a bad person, or worse yet insulting the person she chose as a partner and moreover, as the father of her child(ren), will put her on the defensive. The last thing she needs is to protect her ex from your verbal attack. It is extremely counterproductive, both in her healing process, and toward the efforts she should be making to create a healthy and respectful relationship with the father of her child(ren). Whether or not a future reconciliation is possible, she does not need your judgmental words echoing in her ears and it will not make her feel better.
Alternately, you could say: Nothing! This is an instance where you should just zippa-tha-lippa and hold your tongue. It is not your place to pass any judgment.
Avoid: "You're Better Off On Your Own!"
While this realization is what helped tip her over the edge to leave (or accept the end of) her relationship, it is another hot button phrase. As the reality of her new situation settles in, she might not feel better off at all yet (even if she knows she eventually will!). She is likely facing a number of realities that are overwhelmingly hard, possibly much harder than the worst days of her relationship. At the very least, her heart is still in an immense amount of pain. Your compassion and understanding mean the world to her, and she will recognize your olive branches of empathy. But try to avoid telling her what is better or worse for her at the moment; she will figure such things out on her own, in time.
Alternately, you could say: "It seems like you've made the right choice for yourself and your child(ren). Please let me know the best way I can support you in this transition."
Avoid: "Don't Worry! You'll Meet Someone Amazing Who Will Make You Forget About _______."
Whoa, slow down! Chances are, the last thing a newly single mom wants is a new partner. It is definitely the last thing she needs, so if the newly single mama in your life is looking to hop into a rebound relationship, don't encourage her! Remind her that she does not need someone else to take care of her. Rather, reinforce her strength and the importance of moving through this phase on her own. Sure, in time she will meet someone else who will sweep her off her feet, treat her child(ren) as their own and their father with respect and kindness. But a newly single mama is in no rush to reach that place and will not be until long after she has figured out who she is and what she wants and needs. This important time alone is the only thing that will enable her to do just that (and to define those things for herself better than ever before!).
Alternately, you could say: "I believe in your strength and look forward to seeing what you can accomplish on your own. I'm here to help in any way."
Your support is crucial in helping a newly single mama get through her transition into this new reality.
Remember that for the couple (well, former couple) involved, there are more than enough emotions to go around. As parents, the aftermath of a break-up is a minefield to navigate as two lives (plus those of their children) that were once shared and celebrated as one learn to operate independently, but still in partnership.
Respect their efforts and offer your love. It bears repeating that saying something is better than nothing at all, but hopefully these tips will help you to better support the newly single mamas in your life now, and in the future.