Three families, three stories: Raising kids as a single parent

The challenges and the joys of the toughest job

Parenting is a tough job, even when two adults are at the helm. When a child is born, the last thing either parent considers is that someday he or she might be raising that child alone. However, nearly 30 percent of New Hampshire children, age 18 and under, are being raised by a single parent. Whether it’s due to divorce or the loss of a parent, the challenges are very real.

Three single parents in New Hampshire share their stories here. While their experiences are different, they share one important commonality: In the face of the unexpected, each put the children first, striving to be the very best parent he or she can be.

Creating a New Life

U.S. Army veteran Jessica Higgins of Merrimack was 22 when she got married. She had just returned home from a deployment to Iraq, and was having a difficult time transitioning. “I got married quickly because I thought that it would solve all of my problems when, in fact, it ended up creating many more,” she said.

Her husband became abusive, and it took the birth of her daughter for Higgins to gather the strength to leave. With her three-week-old daughter in tow, Emma, she left California and moved back home to New Hampshire six years ago to create a new life.

Higgins and her daughter moved in with her family for a year or so. Even with family available during the day to lend a hand, the nights were particularly tough. “There were many nights when I didn’t sleep at all because I was the only one there, and then I would be up all day with her,” said Higgins. “The sheer exhaustion was overwhelming. I felt like I couldn’t ask anyone to take shifts with me like a mom and dad duo typically would. This was my responsibility.”

As she struggled with sleep deprivation and emotional overload, Higgins also faced financial challenges trying to make ends meet while living off of unemployment during the first year of Emma’s life. There were times she could barely afford formula, and although it hurt her pride, her family had to step in financially to help.

The challenges increased as Emma grew older. As she tested limits as a toddler, Higgins felt that she was always the bad guy, setting guidelines and disciplining her. “Now the challenges are related to issues at school, making difficult decisions by myself related to her future, and answering the questions about our situation that she’ll ask occasionally because she is more aware,” said Higgins.

Her daughter was too young to even know her father, and Higgins said Emma didn’t even seem aware anything was different until she was about 4 or 5 and in school. When other kids talked about their dads, Emma began to ask questions. “The parents, including myself, worked together with the teacher to address questions as they came up in class to help the kids understand that there are many different types of families,” said Higgins.

Perhaps the hardest part for Higgins is the guilt she feels, worried that Emma will feel as if something is missing because she doesn’t have a father in her life. “We are very blessed to have many positive father figures,” said Higgins. “However, overcoming this guilt is a process and something I am still working on.”

Her biggest triumph is seeing her daughter become her own person. “As heart-wrenching as it is to see years go by so quickly, she amazes me each and every day in new ways,” Higgins said. She is proud who her daughter is – and who she is becoming as a person independent of her mom. She credits her family for being such a consistent support network throughout Emma’s childhood – and for her as well.

Higgins said Emma is responsible for her own transition into civilian life, helping her to finally bridge the gap that had been so difficult to achieve early on. “I had to learn how to build connections with people and trust again. Had it not been for her, I would have isolated myself in attempt to deal with my difficult homecoming,” said Higgins.

She feels fortunate that during Emma’s first three years she was able to stay home with her, while attending school using her GI Bill and housing stipend. She didn’t go out much during that time, and when Emma was about to turn 4, Higgins made a decision to return to work. “I needed adult interactions, and more importantly, I needed to feel like “me” again,” said Higgins.

Higgins has learned that it s OK to lean on people. She struggled unnecessarily because she was too stubborn and prideful to ask for help. “You don’t have to be supermom 24/7 and nobody is expecting you to be,” she said. “Be kind to yourself and forgive yourself for not being what you consider a ‘perfect’ parent… As long as your child is safe, happy, healthy and cared for, you are doing an amazing job and you should be proud of that.”

A Single Dad with Heart

Larry Agresto became a single parent without warning. His wife, Jody – the mother of his two young daughters – was rushed to the hospital on a Thursday night and was dead by Saturday morning. His girls, Lauren and Julie, were 12 and 8 when she died. They are 32 and 27 now, and the years in between have been ones of dealing with the major loss they experienced and creating a life together for their unexpected family of three.

Nothing could have prepared Agresto for the death of his wife – or to suddenly become a single parent to two grieving children while dealing with his own grief. “Because things happened so quickly, we were devastated and in a state of shock for several weeks,” he said. “Local friends, neighbors and the school system were all very supportive.”

The most meaningful solution, Agresto said, came from the president of his company, a man named Ralph Durante, who allowed him to work from home for the summer. Jody had passed away in late May, and the girls would soon be home for the summer.

Beyond the immediate emotional trauma related to his wife’s death, Agresto said that the most difficult period was when his daughters returned to school in September and he to his office down in Wellesley, Mass., and with clients in Boston. “I had to become ultra-organized to stay on top of everything,” he said. “I developed a plan that consisted of dual daily planners that were duplicates; one went with me to work in my briefcase and the other stayed at home for my girls.” Regardless of how organized he became, Agresto knows he never could have done it without the help of friends neighbors who offered support in many ways.

In spite of the almost 20 years that it’s been since the family suffered the devastating loss, the some scars still linger. “The developmental stages of a child dealing such a tragedy and death can be difficult for them to process and understand.” It was especially tough for his youngest daughter, whom he got into counseling.

While the challenges were many, for Agresto, the greatest achievement was the very basic day-to-day events. “The fact that I was aware enough to understand the importance of allowing the girls to lead normal lives as young girls was probably the greatest triumph; having birthday parties and sleepovers, attend parties and sleepovers, participate in dance and musical lesson, attend social events at school, etc.,” he said. “The girls and I did everything together, from making dinner and walking the dog to food and clothes shopping.” That the girls both graduated at the top of their class and went on to college has made Agresto especially proud.

For those whose children have experienced the loss of a parent, Agresto says, “Don’t hide from your kids, connect with them daily, and be open and sensitive with them. Don’t tell them how they’re supposed to feel; ask them how they’re feeling. Don’t hide the truth about the tragedy or circumstances; be straight and honest with them. They already have enough to ghosts to try and understand.” He said to communicate straight from the heart, not the head, and to share your own feelings with them as it will help your children to understand and accept that they’re not alone.

His own experiences led him to write, “Single Dads with Heart: A Father’s New Beginning,” to provide support, guidance and inspiration for single fathers. He also speaks frequently on this topic and provides one-on-one coaching and seminars.

Finding Structure and Balance

Jessica McLaughlin’s twin daughters we're just two-and-a-half years old when she became a single parent. Now almost 11, they were far too young to understand what was going on at the time of their parents’ divorce. McLaughlin’s first reaction at the time was to start planning. “I was now faced with the new way of life and as scary as it was; I knew that I needed a decent structured plan of how I was going to move onward.”

It was a big adjustment all around, especially with young twins. Given that there was just one of her, and two little girls, she was completely outnumbered in everything she did. “Everything I did, I had to do twice,” said McLaughlin. “There was no more tag-teaming.”

At the time, she was renting a house close to where she worked, but it was nearly a half-hour away from her family. “Being a full-time working mom with a demanding job, the daily schedule was hectic,” she said. The day began at 4 a.m. – getting herself ready for work, the kids up, fed, and lunches and snacks packed for a full day of daycare. The girls would be there all day beginning at 7 a.m. so she could get to work, get through her workday and be back by 5:30 p.m. for pick up.

“Thank goodness we had the best support by their teachers and daycare providers; they were truly amazing,” said McLaughlin. Their evenings consisted of dinner, baths, some play and reading time before bed, along with laundry, household chores and tasks like paying the bills. In spite of how hectic everything was, things worked best when structure and routine was involved.

Eight years later, the challenges continue, but they are different ones. McLaughlin said, “The girls are much more self-sufficient in many ways which helps.” What’s the toughest is the constant worry, whether it’s over finances, household repairs and chores, juggling the work schedule with orthodontist appointments or surprise phone calls from the school nurse’s office. Most important, her concern is ensuring she is present for her kids whenever they need her and then there’s the pull of her desire to be home when they get out of school. She said that finding the right balance is tough.

However, McLaughlin needs to work hard to provide for her family. “I feel like I’m not there for them enough. With that being said, the best part of my day is walking through the door after a long grueling day at work, just to see their smiling faces and be greeted by giant hugs,” she said. Then her “mom” hat comes on after she kicks off her heels and puts her laptop bag down. “Usually it’s dinner on the fly, a few hours of dance practice, and maybe some laundry while they’re finishing up homework while still dressed in their leotard and tights.”

As a single parent, she has to juggle a lot of roles at any given time, as a mom, a disciplinarian, a best friend and a coach. “You have to be everything,” McLaughlin said. “ Meanwhile you lie in bed at night, replaying the day in your head, questioning and second-guessing everything you do; sometimes with tears.”

Creating structure and stability for her kids was her first priority from early on, and about a year after her divorce, McLaughlin purchased a house on her own in her hometown, Nashua, to be closer to her family. “It just so happens that I landed a great home in the same neighborhood that I grew up in, which is where my parents still reside – just about three streets down,” she said. “I wanted the girls to feel a sense of “home,” community and to have neighborhood friends like I had growing up.”

While it’s been tough, the twins are her strength. “They are my purpose in life and the reason why I work hard,” said McLaughlin. While she never imagined she’d be raising the girls as a single parent, she knew that forging ahead in a positive way, keeping the girls’ best interest at heart was the only way.

“My relationship with my ex-husband is very amicable. When we first separated, we both agreed that we’d put the girls first,” she said. “We never wanted to put the girls through an ugly divorce or show disrespect for one another no matter what the circumstances were.” McLaughlin says it makes a difference and creates harmony for both sides of the extended families.

And family has made a huge different for McLaughlin and the girls. Her family is her biggest source of support; especially her parents who she said have been an unbelievable help on all fronts. “I honestly wouldn’t be able to do what I do without them,” said McLaughlin.

When the girls are with their dad every other weekend, McLaughlin takes the time to either enjoy or teach a Jazzercise class, do a little gardening, household chores, visit with family or friends or simply enjoy some quiet time. “There’s plenty of ways to keep busy until Sunday night rolls around and the girls return home,” she said. “Then it’s time for the three of us to reset, reprogram and get back to the routine for the week ahead.”

In spite of the challenges these three single parents have faced, it’s clear that the support of family, friends and neighbors can make a significant difference in allowing single parents to feel they are not totally on their own.

Pamme Boutselis is a N.H.-based writer, a content director at Southern New Hampshire University and a serial volunteer. Follow her at pammeboutselis.com or on Twitter @pammeb.

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