- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 1, 2002

Back-to-school shopping isn't for the faint of heart. There are those high prices, long lines, endless choices and difficult decisions.

A few years ago, Gregory Jones and his comrades from Black Men Raising Girls Alone (BMRGA), a support group for single custodial fathers of daughters, decided to have a go at the mall en masse. The goal: to shore up each other during their journey into the world of girls' fall fashion.

"All of us are clueless about little girls' clothes, so we decided to all go and be clueless together," says Mr. Jones, a financial engineer from Mitchellville, Md., who is the founder of BMRGA. "We didn't buy much that day, but it was a lot of fun. It was the blind leading the blind."

Although these men crisscross demographic indicators of age, education and income, they share a common denominator: single parenthood. They find themselves continually vexed by the myriad issues and responsibilities that are byproducts of doing a job alone that is better suited for two.

Many metropolitan-area single parents have found safe harbors in support and social groups for those who are raising children alone, whether by choice, divorce or death. Such groups, these parents say, offer an invaluable refuge of compassion and understanding not offered by the wider world.

"A support group gives you more of a comfort level with discussing some of the intricacies of single parenthood the types of fears you have, the problems you're facing, the uncertainty and self-doubt," Mr. Jones says. "Support gives you the reassurance that many people have faced the same problem you're facing right now whatever that is. The efficacy comes in the homogeneity. People get to share experiences, and that's what helps you grow."

Finding connections

The latest statistics reveal that 34.6 million households contain children under age 18 and that 27 percent of those households are maintained by a single parent, says Jason Fields, a family demographer at the U.S. Census Bureau.

As probably 100 percent of those single parents will attest, it's a very difficult job.

Many say their financial pinch often is sharper, and they feel isolated from society in a couples-oriented culture. It's double the work, which creates an unrelenting time crunch.

Single parents definitely are more stressed out, says psychologist Janet Kimberling, clinical director of the Vienna Women's Center.

"There's a lot more second-guessing oneself; worry about, 'Am I doing it right?'" she says. "If you're in a stable relationship, it's probably more likely that you're going to be confident that you're doing a good job and the burden doesn't feel quite so heavy. It's just a stronger position if you're in a relationship with a loving partner who's as interested in the children as you are."

Single parents need to have other adults around with whom to exchange parenting ideas and survival tactics, says Andrea Engber, a syndicated columnist and author based in Charlotte, N.C. In 1991, Ms. Engber founded the National Organization of Single Mothers, a nonprofit membership organization that offers parenting advice and mother-to-mother online support.

"Single parenthood is not a disease there's nothing wrong with you," she says, "but you need the support to know that you're not alone. By creating an extended family, you're choosing the best qualities of people."

Damascus mother Karen Greger says she has found kindred spirits to nurture her and her three children, ages 7 to 12, via a local group called Spark (Single Parents Raising Kids).

Based in Montgomery County and serving the greater metropolitan area, Spark boasts a thriving membership of adults ranging in age from their 20s to their 50s. The organization, entirely volunteer-run, sponsors and promotes a wide variety of family and adult activities, from camping trips to poker nights.

Ms. Greger, a divorced high school guidance counselor in her early 40s, says Spark has given her entree into a social network with other adults who understand what her life is like.

"Your social situation can change a lot when you divorce," she says. "Married people are doing things with their spouses, and your single friends don't understand how you're juggling. I really get out not necessarily through dating but with friendships I've made."

Gaithersburg mother Julie Klinkner says she has dated people she has met as an organizer with the national single-parent support group Parents Without Partners, but "the hookup part of it is very low-key. It's more like a social club. People are really pretty much just out to socialize."

Ms. Klinkner, a divorced high school math teacher also in her early 40s, belongs to a "rapidly growing" subgroup of PWP called the Young Set, which is aimed at parents of children ages 18 and younger. She has three daughters ages 16, 14 and 11.

"Joining PWP has been great," says Ms. Klinkner, who belongs to PWP's Chapter 60, which covers Montgomery County and the District. "There's a great group of people, a wide variety of activities one almost every day of the month. You'd not have an excuse to stay home."

PWP activities include educational evenings offering, for example, seminars on how to deal with difficult former spouses or how to handle finances as a single person. Monthly dances, held at a Silver Spring Knights of Columbus hall, are popular, and members of the Young Set have a family house party every month.

"It's a very positive experience," Ms. Klinkner says. "We're having a great time together. My two older daughters have come to some of the picnics with me, which have been very fun. My youngest daughter loves to come to the Young Set parties because she's made a lot of friends there. She looks forward to them. The best thing it provides is that when they go, they know that all the other kids there are from single-parent households, so it kind of makes them feel part of the group."

Finding support

Steven Greenspan of Gaithersburg, a 50-year-old divorced father of two girls ages 17 and 6, participates every so often in family activities via the Jewish Single Parent Connection, a loosely organized offshoot of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington.

He says he plans and attends family activities with his younger child maybe five times a year because he enjoys the adult company.

"The interaction with the child and the adult are big necessities, but when you miss the interaction with the adult, you get lonely. There's a sense of isolation," he says. "I've also heard that people want to show their kids that they're not completely alone, coming from broken homes."

Although he's also a member of Spark and Parents Without Partners, Mr. Greenspan says he generally avoids attending the adults-only activities.

"When I socialize, I try not to go to the single-parent groups the dinners and stuff because I end up complaining about my ex, and others end up complaining to me about their ex. It's not constructive," he says.

A great support group is one whose members take on whatever adversity they have, says Edward Christophersen, a child psychologist at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City and co-author of the recently released book "Parenting That Works: Building Skills That Last a Lifetime."

"I can be negative on my own," Mr. Christophersen says. "I want people who are taking what's happened to them and are building on it. You know that support groups can go both ways. The fact that we're both single parents doesn't give us a whole lot in common. You could impair my adjustment to it."

He suggests that parents visit support-group get-togethers without their children in the beginning and learn how they handle the important issues.

"You want to see what you're exposing your children to," Mr. Christophersen says. "If it's the type that will help you grow as a single parent, then great. If it's not just my divorce but how everything is someone else's fault, that's not going to be good for the kid. If it's a bunch of whiners and it gives you a sour-burp taste in your mouth, don't go."

If it's a good group, single parents can see enormous benefits for themselves and their children because people can see the adaptive strategies others are employing, he says.

"If you're going west, don't you talk to Lewis and Clark?" Mr. Christophersen says. "That's what you're looking for in a support group: People who have a map."

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