Single mothers combat stress by engaging with children, new study finds

Published: Sunday, Aug. 19 2012 3:00 a.m. MDT

Julie Osterman finds delight engaging with her two daughters, Rachel, 5, and Emma, 2, in the spirit of playfulness.

Windy Sky Antake

Christina Robert, a 44-year-old single mother, is headed out the back door of her home in the outskirts of Minneapolis to fill the dog bowl before it gets dark. But before she does, she turns to her 3-year-old daughter, LuaClaire.

"Do you want to come with me or stay here?" she asks.

"Come!" is her daughter's response 99 percent of the time.

Though it will take her twice as long to finish the task, Robert regards this as valuable one-on-one time with her daughter. And if asked her opinion, she'll tell you time spent together is not only to LuaClaire's pleasure, but also her own.

Spending time with children combats the daily stresses that single mothers face, a new study led by a team of doctorate students at Kansas State University found.

"Being a single mother and being a parent in general is very exhausting," study author Blake Berryhill said. "But if a mother is willing to spend time with her children, it can reduce her parental stress because she will feel that in her role as a mom, she is doing an adequate job."

Single-handed super women

Compared to married mothers, single mothers are twice as likely to experience a bout of depression and higher levels of chronic stress, according to a study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine in 2001. The study also found that these women have less contact with family and friends and less involvement with church or social groups.

"Single mothers can feel constantly overloaded and overwhelmed at being a parent and trying to fulfill all of their responsibilities," Berryhill said. Being a single mother brings extra stress, caused by decreased economic resources, longer work hours and a limited social support network.

As a mother with two jobs and a shared custody arrangement, Robert understands the pressures of single motherhood.

"Your life is so stressful," she said. "I had no clue when I became a mother that my life was going to change as much as it did and I had no clue that being a single mom was going to be as hard as it was."

The study followed children, ages 1, 3 and 5, to focus on parental engagement, stress levels and child temperament. Researchers found that spending time with a child through daily activities, such as reading stories, playing games or putting a child to bed, can reduce parental stress by instilling confidence that the mother is doing an adequate job in her role as a parent.

"The time that I have with her is really valuable and really meaningful, and in doing that, I try to set aside the negative things that have gone on and I allow that joy to rejuvenate me," Robert said. "It is healing. Kids are so innocent and unconditionally loving."

Brittany Phelps, a dental assistant living in West Linn, Ore., and single mother to Peytyn, 3, has found that the most simple of moments can ease her stress.

"I was actually thinking ... when I took my daughter to the park how awesome she is and how perfect our afternoons together are after my days working full time," she said.

Author of "Confessions of a Scary Mommmy and mother in Baltimore", Jill Smokler, says she feels less stressed when she feels her life is not so off-balanced. She enjoys the day-to-day routine that allows her to see her kids before school and several hours after school, before bed and during dinner together. "That is perfect for me, having them in big doses but also having space to myself."

Consistency, the study showed, reaped benefits far more noticeable than time spent intermittently together.

"Our research showed that those daily things, spending time with the child in a daily routine, putting the child to bed, or reading stories to them were what really made the difference," Berryhill said.

Creating a family unit

While a single-parent home can be unconventional, mothers such as Phelps work hard to maintain a strong sense of unity.

"We'll do typical family activities, just the two of us," Phelps said. They get their family portrait taken once a year and have family prayer together each night.

Robert tries to create a sense of community and a sense of family that goes beyond the two of them. She schedules play dates with other single mothers and their children, and they spend time with other adults she and her daughter have a positive relationship with.

"There's almost this extended sense of community and family that comes out of this," Robert said, "because we don't have that at home."

"No matter how much I may miss parts of who I used to be," Robert wrote on her blog, "the little girl who calls me Mommy fills an amazing spot in my heart that no one else can ever replace."

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