“I’m Kathy, single mom to three amazing kids. Okay, so the whole ex-in-law thing is just weird for me I don’t know how to act. I mean, they’re the kids’ grandparents and all but it feels so tense and different. We used to be super close. I definitely saw the ex-in-laws, if that’s even what you call them, like a second mom and dad. We were close and now it feels like none of us know how to act.”
Redefining family after divorce, loss, or transition is challenging, not only because of hurts experienced but because there’s no exact road map for every situation. Family dynamics are complex, no matter how we became single parents, whether through death, divorce, unplanned pregnancy or anything else. Relationships without former extended family, our ex-in-laws, becomes an even more complicated road. One thing we need to keep in mind as single parents is that although we have lost spouses and relationships, our children never do. Those extended family members will always be part of their (and our) lives. Navigating these relationships is tricky and internally conflicting. Depending on where we are in these relationships, the process of moving on to a new normal as single parents is complex. Redefining family community looks different for all of us because our experiences are different.
Some single parents are grieving a change in family community. Some are rebuilding a family community. Some are relieved to have a change in family community.
Three single parents share their experiences with these different dynamics. Single mom, Elizabeth, shared that in losing her marriage, she experienced an extreme amount of grief in losing her extended family too. After divorce, she lost a second set of parents, her ex’s siblings, and nieces and nephews who had come around her and loved her when she got married. Not only did she lose what she had, she also felt like she lost future moments she hoped to have with them too. This loss led to deep grieving. Like many of us, when she got married, she went all in. They shared family vacations together, holidays, and made traditions and memories together. Losing those moments and connections is painful. Even when we can be glad that our children get to continue to experience those things, our loss hurts and can feel lonely but we can’t let our hurt get in the way of redefining family community for our kids. As Christians, we are called to love sacrificially and to find a way, when possible, to be amicable with our children’s extended family, for their sakes’. It’s important to allow our kids to maintain close relationships with extended family members even when it touches us with sadness at our personal loss. We must not allow the grief to prevent us from living out the golden rule, to treat our extended family as we would like to be treated. Practically, we can walk this out by communicating like adults, by honoring the relationships our kids have with ex-in-laws by sharing highlights of their lives in videos and pictures with their grandparents and other family members. We can treat our ex-in-laws with kindness and respect, especially because our kids are watching. It does no good to our children if we do not treat their family with respect, even while we can put up healthy new boundaries in these relationships. While grieving the loss of close family ties, single parents can still move ahead with purpose and godliness as they redefine family community by living out the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
Sometimes, we redefine family community due to circumstances other than divorce. Single parent, Marissa, lost her husband to death and found herself needing to redefine family relationships while grieving that loss. In her case, she had to rebuild family community with her in-laws because relationships were strained during that time. She shared one of the things she had to do to rebuild. She had to have an intentional conversation about putting the past behind them, forgiving hurts on both sides, and choosing what is best for the kids going forward. Even in acknowledging her own loss and the difficulties she was facing as a new single mom, she knew that type of intentional commitment was important for her kids.
If you are a widow or widower, one of the things to consider as you rebuild your family community is that your children’s grandparents have already lost a child. Losing their grandchildren at the same time exponentially compounds that loss. Finding ways to maintain family connections and rebuild that community is important for everyone, not just our kids. As you do this, though, it is okay to remember you are grieving the same time. Finding a new normal is hard at any time but particularly after the loss of a spouse. Be patient with yourself. Be patient with your kids. Be patient with your extended family. Give it time. After loss, nobody is doing well. Offer grace to each other. It’s okay to take your time and step back when needed but remain committed to rebuilding a healthy family community. Your children’s family heritage is part of their identity. Marissa shared that one thing that helped her was remembering to put her ego on the shelf. She had to choose what was best for her kids from a place of love, sacrifice, and delayed gratification and not from ego which is all about me. Instead, as single parents, we must remember what our kids need and act in their best interests as we rebuild family community with their extended relatives.
Like Elizabeth and Marissa, some single parents are grieving the loss of family community and others are rebuilding it. And, some are relieved to see their family community change. These are all real experiences, and in each one, we, as single parents, can seek God for His way through it, to do what is best for our kids.
Former single mom, Kim shared that she experienced a sense of relief in being able to be distant from some former family connections. Sometimes we do find peace in letting go of relationships if they weren’t healthy, if they were contentious, or just non-existent. But, even in our feelings of relief, it is not okay to speak badly of those ex-family members. They are still part of your children’s family. As parents, we have a responsibility to not say anything bad about the other family members. This attitude of respect defines who we are regardless of how we might feel or how others treat us. A key is remembering that God loves them as much as He loves you and your children.
And, our children are watching. Just as Elizabeth said, we must practice the golden rule. And, as Marissa shared, we sometimes need to forgive old hurts and move forward. Even when redefining family community is necessary, and it may feel like a relief to move on from certain relationships, ask God to help you see them the way He sees them. Kindness and love still wins the day for you and for your kids. These family members will always be part of your children’s lives so it’s important to redefine family community in healthy, God-honoring ways.
Need support and encouragement as you redefine your family community? We love to connect single parents to resources that offer hope and help.
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