Motherhood is a high calling, to say the least. But to raise children (single-handedly) for whatever reason—whether due to death, disability, or divorce—is something that no woman expects.
It is a situation that Anna Meade Harris found herself in when her husband passed away in 2010 after a 15-month fight with colon cancer. Her sons were just 9, 12, and 13 years old.
“I felt so tired, lonely, and isolated all the time for so many years. And my married parent friends did not know what that felt like.”
“Trying to hold my family together, and the fact that our family was suddenly very different from all the other families in our church and community was very lonely,” Anna shares. “That produced a lot of weariness. I felt so tired, lonely, and isolated all the time for so many years. And my married parent friends did not know what that felt like.”
Walking a New, Strange Path
The topic of mothering alone was discussed at The Gospel Coalition’s 2022 Women’s Conference, during a breakout session called, “Mothering On Your Own,” in which Anna was a panel speaker.
“When my husband first died, my three sons and I went to our couch for a family snuggle,” says the editor-in-chief of Rooted Ministry. “And the very first thing I realised when I pulled the youngest one into my lap was that there was no way I could get my arms around everybody and get close enough.”
It hit her then and there how insufficient and inadequate she would feel in the years ahead, as a widow and single parent. “There was never enough—never enough time, attention, money, energy, wisdom, patience. I always felt like I was not enough,” says Anna.
Wendy Alsup, a fellow single mother and panellist, agrees. Not being able to do and be everything her children needed, she says, produced an overwhelming feeling of guilt. “You want to be involved at their school, you want to make sure they have nutritious meals—but you also have to work full-time. And there’s just not enough time in the day,” she laments.
The author and teacher had divorced her husband in 2012. “My husband had the onset of what we would learn was paranoid schizophrenia. It took a very long time to figure out what was going on, and eventually I was put in a position where I had to file for legal separation,” says Wendy. They later divorced after her husband had paranoid delusions and continued to resist medication. Her boys were 8 and 10 at the time.
“We were sort of this perfect little family, and then all of a sudden we were the family people were talking about.”
For Vaneetha Rendall Risner, another panellist, mothering alone came suddenly when her then husband returned home one day and told her he was leaving her for someone else.
“We were sort of this perfect little family, and then all of a sudden we were the family people were talking about,” recalls Vaneetha, an author. “I was teaching Bible study, and people wondered whether I had been living a lie about my marriage. And that was really hard for me.”
The affair and divorce also affected her two daughters, who, hit hard by the rumours in school and church, began to feel angry and questioned God.
What the Church Can Do to Help
Thankfully, all three mothers received support from their church communities in different ways.
1. Provide them with practical help.
For one, babysitting services is a great help and relief to overwhelmed mothers. Church members can help to watch their kids during fellowship time in church. Wendy says church members would also look after them during her Bible study and over meals, giving her enough time to continue with her ministries and routines.
Mothers say practical help with daily needs is also appreciated—whether it is shuttling their kids to activities, cooking meals for them, or accompanying them for doctor’s visits and other appointments.
And if in doubt, church members can simply reach out and ask single mothers what support they need. In Anna’s case, she found it challenging to be the one to speak out and ask others for help: “I have a lot of pride and I don’t like to ask for help, because I don’t want to be seen as needy,” she confesses. “And it has been a real journey for me to admit how much help I really need.”
2. Men, provide a godly male influence to their children.
When a father is no longer present in the lives of his children, it is all the more important for other godly men to step in to mentor them. As a mother to two boys, Wendy found her pastors’ fatherly influence over them most invaluable. “They would take my boys for breakfast and bring them to school. And they would talk, read the Bible, and pray with them.”
Anna agrees. “For me, with three boys without a dad, I despaired,” she says. “How was I ever going to raise godly men if I’m not a man?” Yet in the 11 years since, God has sent godly men to minister to her sons, she says.
“All kids need not only a mum and a dad, but a church. So in a sense, no two-parent family is adequate either. All children need their church family.”
One of them was her son’s pastor. About seven years after his father’s death, her son approached his pastor for advice on what to do with his life. The pastor told him: “You have not yet grieved your father’s death. We’re going no further until you grieve.”
“It totally rocked his world and changed everything for him,” recalls Anna. “That’s something I would have never even known to speak into his life. All kids need not only a mum and a dad, but a church. So in a sense, no two-parent family is adequate either. All children need their church family.”
3. Lift their eyes to their heavenly Father.
Aside from seeking to meet their practical needs, church members can help single mothers look to their heavenly Father as their source of strength and hope amid their grief.
As sole caregiver to their children, many mothers have to shoulder the burdens and responsibilities of both parents while mourning the loss of their spouse. Wendy says this can take a toll on mothers who try to do and juggle everything.
She remembers Jesus’ description of Mary of Bethany when she anointed Him with perfume—“She did what she could” (Mark 14:8). “It’s like my life motto,” she jokes. “I did what I could, but the flipside of that is, do I trust God? Do I trust God with my children? I want to protect my kids from all of these pains, but do I trust God to, instead, use the pain to sanctify them? Do I believe that God will provide the water in the barren place?”
Church members can help single mothers turn to the sufficiency and strength of Christ, by sharing with them, at an appropriate time, what Scripture says about God’s power, promises, and presence. When Anna began experiencing panic attacks after the death of her husband, Psalm 121 became an anchor for her soul. Once, she had a full-blown panic attack while she was driving along the mountains of Idaho a few years shortly after her husband’s death. She and her sons recited the psalm repeatedly in the car:
I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord,
the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip—
he who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, he who watches over Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you—
the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
the sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm—
he will watch over your life;
the Lord will watch over your coming and going
both now and forevermore.
“I was sweating profusely, bawling, and terrified to drive the car. And we read this song for two straight hours,” Anna recalls. “At the time, I felt so much shame that I was completely coming apart in front of my children. I thought they needed me to be a strong for them.”
“As married parents, we might have the illusion that we have a lot more control than we actually do. Some of that gets stripped away when we become single parents.”
Yet, she says she came to realise that that moment was significant for her children, as it showed them how she went straight to the “only thing that could actually get us down the road safely”—the Word of God. “I was falling apart, but God used it as a teachable moment.”
“As married parents, we might have the illusion that we have a lot more control than we actually do. And some of that gets stripped away when we become single parents,” she continues. “But thank God for that, because we can now see the Lord in a way that we needed to see Him before.”
“It’s a long journey and it will always be different for us than it is for two-parent families. But God works in the brokenness, and even though it’s hard, there’s a lot of beauty in it.”