Marriage and Parenthood, Rev. Thomas J. Gerrard

Experts estimate that either the father or mother is missing in one out of four American families with a child under twelve years of age. In 80 per cent of those families, it is the father who is missing; in the remaining families, the mother is absent. (Statistics now: Number of U.S. children living in a single parent family 1970-2019. In 2019, there were about 15.76 million children living with a single mother in the United States, and about 3.23 million children living with a single father.)

Several factors are responsible for the tragically high number of one-parent families in modern society. One cause is the death of a parent. In the United States, each year, about 200,000 fathers or mothers under fifty-five die, leaving their survivors with minor children.

It has been estimated that 300,000 children under twelve do not have a living mother or father. Another factor is divorce. More than 3,000,000 families in the United States have been broken by it. (Catholics cannot sue for divorce, but some persons who profess the Catholic faith do so nevertheless. They leave their partners, who may practice their religion faithfully, with the task of rearing the children.)

A third cause is desertion. The best available estimates are that more than 50,000 homes are broken in the United States each year by this factor. Usually the husband is the deserter–often one who cannot stand the responsibility of fatherhood.

Many more or less involuntary separations also place upon one parent almost the entire burden of parenthood. They may last only a few months or as long as the children require parental care. More than a million families are affected by this type of separation at any given time. Some causes of it are hospitalization (more than 200,000 parents are inmates of mental institutions), imprisonment, service in the armed forces, and employment conditions which require the father to be away from home all or most of the time.

In addition to involuntary separation there is what is known as psychological desertion: one parent technically lives at home but is absent in fact or in spirit too often to be an important force in the children’s training. A typical psychological deserter is the alcoholic, of whom there are an estimated 4,000,000 in the United States. An alcoholic parent may live with his family, but is so continually befogged that the sober partner must assume the entire task of rearing the children. Whatever the reasons for the separation, absence of a husband or wife throws extra burdens on the remaining partner.

A child who has lost one parent invariably needs much more security than does the ordinary youngster. A young child accustomed to love from both parents often becomes nervous, irritable and subject to crying spells when part of this love is suddenly withdrawn. Even when children are old enough to understand that one parent has had to go away, their need for that parent’s affection remains.

How a child may react to death.

Young people often cannot grasp the full significance of death; it is fairly common for a child to feel that he was deliberately deserted because he was unworthy of the parent’s love. This feeling that he has been rejected intensifies his sense of insecurity. Loss of a mother is particularly disturbing to a young child, because it usually involves a new environment being created for him. Perhaps a housekeeper must be hired to care for him while his father is at work; however kind she may be, she follows a different routine than the mother did. It may be necessary to place him in a foster home temporarily; this also completely changes his mode of living.

The remaining parent must show great patience, understanding and affection to help a child regain his emotional stability. You can do this by finding opportunities to praise him for his character and his accomplishments; by doing things with him to demonstrate your interest in him as a person; and, where possible, by overlooking mannerisms–his refusal to eat certain foods, his tendency to cry easily, his reversion to undisciplined bowel habits–which reflect his feeling of loss. You will be able to correct these conditions after he has regained what is more important–his sense of security and personal worth.

Your child also needs to retain his faith in his missing parent and you should never belittle your spouse in his presence. Normally it is not difficult for a widow or widower to praise a dead mate. It may not be so easy for a mother to speak well of a father who has deserted her and perhaps abused her physically and mentally. However, she should try to remember that he doubtless had qualities which appealed to her originally; in charity–and considerable charity may be required–she should dwell on these features and leave unsavory aspects of his character unmentioned.

The need to be kind to the memory of the absent one is very important because youngsters often idealize their parents. If a boy believes that his father was worth-while, he will think that he himself is worth-while. If he learns that his father was shiftless, a drunkard and a bully, he may suspect that he himself is unworthy

This need exists not only when a parent has left permanently but also during long absences. The father in one family was a traveling salesman whose job kept him on the road most of the year. In winter, he called on customers in the sunny South; in summer, he visited businessmen in vacation areas of the North.

Through all seasons his wife remained at home, caring for the children and building in her mind an image of her husband enjoying continuous pleasure. She lost few opportunities to complain to her daughter that he relished his job because it freed him from responsibility at home. She would have vehemently denied that she was disloyal to her husband. But the effect was obvious… Her daughter married and made it plain that she intended to avoid being “stuck” with children.

Need for a “Father Image.”

A child also needs someone to substitute for his departed parent. No matter how conscientious you may be, you cannot give what the combination of father and mother, as ordained by God, can provide for his total development. A child without a mother misses the sweet warmth of maternal love which no man can provide. Another woman– aunt, grandmother, older sister, perhaps even a devoted housekeeper– may serve as a substitute.

By example, she can show a girl how women are expected to act and thus provide the image the child needs to guide her to adulthood. A woman has an unquestioned softening influence upon a boy–so much so, in fact, that some authorities assert that the lad reared without benefit of a strong feminine influence almost invariably develops a harsh streak in his character.

Boys and girls need a “substitute father” too. As we noted in discussing the father’s role in the family, a son needs a male figure to show him how he should act when he reaches manhood. Without a father or a suitable substitute, he may fumble his way through the problems of adolescence and young manhood, losing confidence with each step because he lacks an experienced adult of his own sex whose example he can study and in whom he can confide.

When a father is lacking, a wise mother will create opportunities to bring her son into contact with men he can admire. This may be a godfather, an uncle, a family friend, a Scout leader. She will encourage him to become an altar boy and to join other parish societies, where he will come under the influence of priests. If possible, she will choose a high school where the teachers are men– preferably priests or lay brothers.

Finally, your child needs to develop as a normal young person. Even though it may be economically difficult for the family to maintain itself in the absence of one parent, do not impose unfair burdens. An older girl should not be turned into a “second mother,” responsible for the younger children and denied the opportunity to pursue her own life. Nor should schoolchildren be required to devote all or most of their free time to earning income, thus forgoing recreation which others normally enjoy.

Youngsters can thrive without many material things we have come to regard as necessities. Often a boy is not nearly so disturbed about his shabby trousers as is his mother; he would rather play with other youngsters than earn the income needed to maintain a more presentable appearance.

The main sufferer in a one-parent home is often the oldest daughter. She frequently gets the role of substitute mother. She may have to quit school to remain at home with the younger ones. Her opportunities to meet boys may be severely restricted. She is literally on call day and night.

Daughters often resent these forced sacrifices; many grasp the first opportunity to marry simply because it affords an escape from their routine of drudgery. A good principle to observe is that older children should make sacrifices, but should not become martyrs; they should have opportunities to associate with other young people and to enjoy some recreation with them.

Dangers for parents to avoid.

The loss of a husband or wife often gives the surviving parent a sense of shock and emotional emptiness. This feeling of loss is especially acute if the husband or wife has died suddenly. The survivor feels a need to shower love for the departed spouse upon someone else and the objects of this increased devotion usually are the children. Therein lies danger, for the early days of grief may set up patterns of overpossessiveness which endure for a lifetime.

Widows must especially avoid the impulse to indulge in “smother-love.” A mother must realize that her children are entitled to pursue lives of their own with their own friends, and in directions in which their own talents lead them.

Instead of concentrating all of her time and energy upon her children, she might seek to make new friends of her own age, to develop outside interests such as charitable work, and to try to achieve her own sense of independence. By developing her own resources as an individual, she will be better able to provide her children freedom to develop in their own way.

A second danger is that of overprotectiveness. A mother in a fatherless home often is determined that she alone will make up to her children for their loss. One such mother, left with three boys, decided that they would not suffer because of their father’s death. Day and night she supervised their affairs. When they played on school teams, she was at the ball field to be on hand if they were hurt. They could not cross a main boulevard alone to reach church and school; she had to drive them.

The family doctor could always count on her phone call whenever a boy developed a slight sign of a cold. Her two oldest sons are now in the army, and the youngest is in high school. All are inadequate. They are unable to accept responsibility for their own affairs because they have never been required to do so. What is more, all show intense hostility toward her. She is completely confused. She spent her life caring for them, she reasons, and in return has received only ingratitude.

Another danger to avoid is that of being overly strict with your children. Fathers are especially susceptible to this tendency, because by nature they exert the stern influence in the home while mothers incline toward leniency. With the mother absent, no force remains to lessen the stern masculine impact.

One father reasoned that since he could not be at home during the day to correct his children’s misconduct, he would punish them so severely for their mistakes that they would toe the mark, even in his absence, for fear of being found out. Although he lived to an old age and his children appreciated the sacrifices he had made to rear them, his over-severity in their childhood made it impossible for them to feel the true sense of warmth and affection that should have existed between them.

If you must be father and mother, you must also fight the temptation toward self-pity. Some parents appear to enjoy the martyrdom they can assume when they picture themselves as prisoners of their responsibilities.

For your own mental and physical health, get outside yourself. Visit relatives and friends with whom you can discuss subjects other than your children. Take up hobbies. Keep your mind active by reading good books.

Above all, get the food and rest you need. Avoid the common tendency to skip meals when there is no one at home to eat them. This course soon leads to excessive fatigue, nervous tension, and other ailments–and may make you more easily prone to despair over your condition of life.

Above all, do not lose your idealism and optimism. If problems arise with which you cannot cope, seek advice from your pastor, doctor or community services. Fortify your strength through prayer, spiritual meditation and frequent reception of the sacraments.

Never underestimate the power of prayer. If your partner is dead, you can legitimately demand his intercession for you in heaven. But in any event, you can recall God’s promise when you were married that His grace would help you fulfill your station in life regardless of crosses and hardships which might be placed upon you. If you seek His help in your work of bringing His children to an eternity with Him, burdens which otherwise might be unbearable will be lighter on your shoulders.

“A desire to be beautiful is not unwomanly. A woman who is not beautiful cannot properly fill her place. But, mark you, true beauty is not of the face, but of the soul. There is a beauty so deep and lasting that it will shine out of the homeliest face and make it comely. This is the beauty to be first sought and admired. It is a quality of the mind and heart and is manifested in word and deed.” – Beautiful Girlhood, Mabel Hale (afflink) Illustration by


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