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Divorcing and Becoming a Contented Single Parent: 6 Stages

From marital discord to satisfying single parenting: 274 life stories

Posted May 23, 2020 | Belle DePaulo, Ph.D.

What is it like to go from being a married parent sharing a home to a divorced single parent who is working and caring for the kids and who is the only adult in the household? To find out, University of Antwerp researchers Dries Van Gasse and Dimitri Mortelmans, with the help of trained students, interviewed 274 Belgian single parents, in person.

Each person’s experience was unique, yet a set of commonalities emerged, too. Getting divorced and becoming a single parent was a process, which typically unfolded in six stages. Van Gasse and Mortelmans described their findings in “Reorganizing the single-parent family system: Exploring the process perspective on divorce,” first published online in March 2020 in Family Relations.

All 274 single parents worked at least part time and had at least one child younger than 18 who lived with them at least half the time. All stayed single rather than repartnering. Most were single mothers, though 19% were single fathers. The single parents ranged in age from 25 to 63. Their divorce had occurred between 1 and 25 years previously.

The 6 Phases of Divorcing and Becoming a Contented Single Parent

In Belgium, divorce has become more commonplace in the past three decades, following important legal reforms. Because of successful economic redistribution, single parents there have low rates of poverty. Nonetheless, dual-earner couples are the norm, and “families in which one parent has responsibility for both the income and the family duties still have difficulties in attaining the same standard of living as other families.”

Phase 1: Initial Contentment and Decline

The process of divorcing begins when happily-ever-after doesn’t seem so happy anymore. Contentment with the marriage begins to erode, and tensions rise.

Those who are judgmental about divorce like to claim that people don’t take divorce seriously enough. Van Gasse and Mortlemans found that none of the 274 people in their research fit that description. Most struggled with the process and took some time to decide to dissolve the marriage.

A 40-year-old woman who had been single for two years said:

“When I thought about being in this situation for another 20 years, I became totally depressed…On the other hand, …you don’t decide such things in a hurry. For me, it took six years…”

The transition to single parenting begins when a definitive decision is made to end the marriage.

Phase 2: Drive Toward Transition

Even if the marital relationship had been a troubled one for a very long time, the initial transition to single parenting can be jolting. The intensity of emotions during the early phase after the split depends on many factors, including the reasons for the divorce, the way the ex-partners relate to each other, the reactions of the children, and the support they all have in their new lives.

Also important is the way the decision to divorce was made. On one end of the spectrum are unilateral decisions that are kept secret until the moment they are sprung, as, for example, when one partner slips away with their worldly goods, leaving the other to return from work to a half-empty house and a spouse who has vanished. On the other end are the decisions that are discussed openly and at length, often in therapy. Most processes fall somewhere in between. Unsurprisingly, the more open and mutual processes tend to be followed by less painful transitions.

Phase 3: The Hazy Period

In the next phase, the authors note, “people live in a haze, liberated from old routines but also short on money and time and uncertain how they will survive as single parents… they must find new ways to organize parental roles, simple household routines, finances, and their work life.” Many look to parents or other relatives or friends for help.

The hazy period can feel overwhelming. Many of the interviewees had difficulty remembering that stage.

Phase 4: Temporary Reorganization of Family Life

After a while, emotions are not so intense anymore, and single parents focus more on the practical issues involved in reorganizing their lives. Some look to create or strengthen ties with a broader network of support, and others strive for more independence and self-sufficiency.

A 34-year old who wanted more closeness said:

“…returning to my birthplace was like anchoring my ship in a safe haven. I know family and friends here will always be there for me, and they are with me every day of the week.”

For a 46-year-old man who had been single for 11 years, the process of divorce was a journey toward independence:

“When the kids were young, my mother was here every day, picking them up from school, doing homework… I started to feel uncomfortable about it, and we had a talk. It turned out we had the same feeling. It was time for me to regain independence…”

Phase 5: Sustainable Reorganization of Work and Care

The early attempts at reorganizing life often turn out to be temporary. In the next stage, single parents figure out more sustainable ways of dealing with the many challenges of earning a living, caring for their children, and maintaining a household. They get more adept at managing their time and their finances. Some find new work or new ways of getting help with chores. They “set up a new system of daily routines that makes it possible to regain further control over their lives.”

Phase 6: New Period of Contentment: Reorganization and Acceptance

Although some single parents continue to struggle with the changes in their lives, they tend to see their current difficulties as less problematic than their former relationship with their spouse. Other single parents “once again have a sense of what they are capable of achieving…They are content with how their lives have turned out.”

The 46-year-old single father whose mother helped him initially said:

“I can make ends meet and don’t overextend myself… the children have landed on their feet… they are nice guys who can stand up for themselves and are doing great.”

A 52-year-old who had been single for eight years said:

“I became unbelievably rich with life, that is, human richness, openness, the warmth, the social life with children, family, friends. That is something that is much more valuable for me now. I give less value to how things look: Your image and material values are less important.”

A 46-year-old woman who had been single for 11 years told the interviewer:

“My image of single-parent families has changed after my divorce… A world opened up for me… I stopped searching for a new partner… I was happy being a single parent.”

The Big Picture: Challenges, But Also Resilience

If you were to think about divorce as something that happens at one point in time, and then focus on that one discrete event, it might seem like an overwhelmingly negative experience. And for many of the adults who go through it, that early phase really can be a true life crisis.

In people’s real lives, though, getting divorced and becoming a single parent is a process with multiple stages. The initial phases can be deeply unsettling for many people, but over time, many single parents create satisfying new lives for themselves and their children. Their story is not one of devastation, but of resilience.

10 Years Old, Tearful and Confused After a Sudden Deportation

Since the coronavirus broke out, the Trump administration has deported hundreds of migrant children alone — in some cases, without notifying their families.

Sandra Rodríguez with her son Gerson, 10.
Sandra Rodríguez with her son Gerson, 10.Credit…via Sandra Rodriguez

By Caitlin Dickerson | May 20, 2020Updated 3:13 p.m. ET

The last time Sandra Rodríguez saw her son Gerson, she bent down to look him in the eye. “Be good,” she said, instructing him to behave when he encountered Border Patrol agents on the other side of the river in the United States, and when he was reunited with his uncle in Houston.

The 10-year-old nodded, giving his mother one last squinty smile. Tears caught in his dimples, she recalled, as he climbed into a raft and pushed out across the Rio Grande toward Texas from Mexico, guided by a stranger who was also trying to reach the United States.

Ms. Rodríguez expected that Gerson would be held by the Border Patrol for a few days and then transferred to a government shelter for migrant children, from which her brother in Houston would eventually be able to claim him. But Gerson seemed to disappear on the other side of the river. For six frantic days, she heard nothing about her son — no word that he had been taken into custody, no contact with the uncle in Houston.

Finally, she received a panicked phone call from a cousin in Honduras who said that Gerson was with her. The little boy was crying and disoriented, his relatives said; he seemed confused about how he had ended up back in the dangerous place he had fled.

Hundreds of migrant children and teenagers have been swiftly deported by American authorities amid the coronavirus pandemic without the opportunity to speak to a social worker or plea for asylum from the violence in their home countries — a reversal of years of established practice for dealing with young foreigners who arrive in the United States.

The deportations represent an extraordinary shift in policy that has been unfolding in recent weeks on the southwestern border, under which safeguards that have for decades been granted to migrant children by both Democratic and Republican administrations appear to have been abandoned.

Historically, young migrants who showed up at the border without adult guardians were provided with shelter, education, medical care and a lengthy administrative process that allowed them to make a case for staying in the United States. Those who were eventually deported were sent home only after arrangements had been made to assure they had a safe place to return to.

That process appears to have been abruptly thrown out under President Trump’s latest border decrees. Some young migrants have been deported within hours of setting foot on American soil. Others have been rousted from their beds in the middle of the night in U.S. government shelters and put on planes out of the country without any notification to their families.

The Trump administration is justifying the new practices under a 1944 law that grants the president broad power to block foreigners from entering the country in order to prevent the “serious threat” of a dangerous disease. But immigration officials in recent weeks have also been abruptly expelling migrant children and teenagers who were already in the United States when the pandemic-related order came down in late March.

Since the decree was put in effect, hundreds of young migrants have been deported, including some who had asylum appeals pending in the court system.

Some of the young people have been flown back to Central America, while others have been pushed back into Mexico, where thousands of migrants are living in filthy tent camps and overrun shelters.

In March and April, the most recent period for which data was available, 915 young migrants were expelled shortly after reaching the American border, and 60 were shipped home from the interior of the country.

During the same period, at least 166 young migrants were allowed into the United States and afforded the safeguards that were once customary. But in another unusual departure, Customs and Border Protection has refused to disclose how the government was determining which legal standards to apply to which children.

“We just can’t put it out there,” said Matthew Dyman, a public affairs specialist with the agency, citing concerns that human smugglers would exploit the information to traffic more people into the country if they knew how the laws were being applied.

On Tuesday, the Trump administration extended the stepped-up border security that allows for young migrants to be expelled at the border, saying the policy would remain in place indefinitely and be reviewed every 30 days.

Chad F. Wolf, the acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said the policy had been “one of the most critical tools the department has used to prevent the further spread of the virus and to protect the American people, D.H.S. front-line officers and those in their care and custody from Covid-19.”

An agency spokesman said its policies for deporting children from within the interior of the country had not changed.

Amid Mr. Trump’s efforts to block migrants from seeking refuge in the United States, the administration has been scrutinized especially for its treatment of the most vulnerable among them — children.

Beginning in 2017, the government traumatized thousands of children by separating them from their parents at the border. Administration officials have also left young migrants to languish in filthy Border Patrol holding cells with no adult supervision and argued in court that the children were not legally entitled to toothbrushes or soap.

Democratic members of Congress argue that the swift deportations taking place now violate the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, a 20-year-old federal law that lays out standards for the treatment of foreign children who arrive at the American border without an adult guardian.

In a letter last month to Mr. Wolf, Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee said the moves had “no known precedent or clear legal rationale.”

Immigrant advocates say their pleas for help ensuring that the children have somewhere safe to go when they land have been ignored. Since the coronavirus was first discovered in the United States in January, 239 unaccompanied minors have been returned to Guatemala, and 183 have been returned to Honduras, according to government figures.

“The fact that nobody knows who these kids are and there are hundreds of them is really terrifying,” said Jennifer Nagda, policy director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights. “There’s no telling if they’ve been returned to smugglers or into harm’s way.”

Some minors have been deported overnight despite an Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy that says they should be repatriated only during daylight hours.

Before daybreak one morning late last month, Pedro Buezo Romero, 16, was taken from his bed in a shelter in New York and told to pack a suitcase so he could be taken to a court appearance in Florida.

Instead, the teenager ended up on four flights over two days. He was able to sleep for a few hours in a hotel room in Miami shared by three adult employees of a private security company hired to transport him and two other migrant teenagers.

Only before boarding his final flight to Honduras from Texas did the adults reveal to Pedro that he was being deported. When he arrived in Honduras, he had to borrow the cellphone of an immigration official to ask his cousin for a place to stay.

Pedro’s mother has not been seen since the shelter in Mexico where they had been staying together was ransacked by gang members. He and his mother were separated during the ordeal, after which Pedro decided to cross the border alone.

While Pedro was in transit, his lawyers had worked frantically to try to locate him but did not receive any response from the federal government. “There were two or three days we had no idea where he was,” said Katty Vera de Fisher, a supervising migration counselor for Catholic Charities of New York.

Pedro Buezo Romero with his mother. Pedro said he was even more vulnerable now than he was when he decided to leave for the United States.
Pedro Buezo Romero with his mother. Pedro said he was even more vulnerable now than he was when he decided to leave for the United States.Credit…via Pedro Buezo Romero

Some of the children who have been expelled from the United States were previously ordered deported. But historically, even children with prior deportation orders have been given new opportunities to request asylum if they entered the United States again. Now, that appears to have changed.

Lawyers representing children threatened with deportation say they are having to engage in 11th-hour legal maneuvers to try to prevent deportations from happening.

Last week, Hannah Flamm, an immigration lawyer in New York, had only hours to try to stop the repatriation of a 14-year-old client after learning the girl had been booked by ICE on a 3 a.m. flight to Honduras.

The girl’s family had not been notified of her imminent arrival. Ms. Flamm managed to secure an emergency stay of the deportation at 11:47 p.m., at which point the girl was allowed to go back to sleep in the shelter where she was staying.

Ricardo Rodríguez Galo, the uncle of the 10-year-old boy who was deported this month, said he was shocked to learn that Gerson had been sent back to Honduras alone.

Mr. Rodríguez said he worried about the boy’s safety in Honduras, where his sister’s former partner had beaten the boy and his mother and withheld food from them. Mr. Rodríguez also wondered about the judgment of American authorities who chose to put a child on a plane without notifying any of his family members, including those who had been waiting in the United States to take the boy into their home.

“I’m not going to tell you that we were going to shower him with riches,” Mr. Rodríguez said. “We’re poor, but we were going to fight to support him. We were going to welcome him like he deserved.”

Kirk Semple contributed reporting.

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