Single parents deal with the holiday season
Dec 10, 2012 (St. Joseph News-Press - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
It's the most wonderful time of the year -- if your family has more than one income, doesn't live paycheck-to-paycheck, and makes more than minimum wage.
For many single-parent families in St. Joseph, the holidays are a time of dread as they are faced with the reality that they can't be the Santa to their children.
Sitting in her modest, well-decorated home, Amber Smith counts her blessings.
She has two children, Liam, a 10-year-old computer and video game wiz, and Ryder, a 3-year-old precocious, self-proclaimed dancing machine.
Both children have endured watching their fathers leave. Liam's father is in the military and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, she says. Though he sees Liam occasionally, the reality of his issues is apparent when Ms. Smith mentions him.
"He's stationed close .... He tries, but I don't think he'll ever be present like a dad all the time. He's just not capable of it," she says.
The same can't be said for Ryder's father, who was present for his son's birth and not much else.
"From the moment I found out I was pregnant, he left. He was here when I had him and he left again," she says.
Despite all of this, Ms. Smith has not allowed things to stop her. She's hard-working, spending much of her time in class to become a nurse, and optimistic.
She admits while this wasn't the life she planned, she manages well with the help of her family.
"As a girl, you grow up thinking you're going to have the white picket fence and the marriage. You don't want to be a single mom," she says. "I've been very blessed that even though they have different dads, both grandparents on both sides have taken them in."
Ms. Smith says when she takes the kids to their grandparents, she knows they'll be spoiled with both love and material things. While she provides more than enough of the former, the latter is what she struggles with.
Originally planning on becoming a social worker, Ms. Smith changed her mind after a boyfriend died of cancer. With her mom being a respiratory therapist, she decided to follow in her footsteps to become a nurse practitioner.
This means long hours at school, not allowing for her to work. While it's slowly paying off, as she graduated in July as a licensed practical nurse and will start registered nurse school in January, it's not putting presents under the tree this time of year.
Others in St. Joseph, more than 700 families, to be specific, are feeling the same squeeze, and that's a conservative estimate.
Accepting families for its annual Adopt-A-Family program, staff at the AFL-CIO Community Services in St. Joseph hear many stories, often from those much worse off than Ms. Smith, of heartache and pain approaching Christmas.
"It's very emotional and very stressful for them. They want to provide for their kids just like everybody else. Most of them are struggling on a month-to-month basis anyways," Penny Adams, AFL-CIO Community Services director, says.
It's a pain that can't be explained by the struggling parent to the financially oblivious child.
"They know it's going to be hard and they know they'd like to tell their kids (they can't do it). Kids get a lot of peer pressure. They just want their kids to have a normal day Christmas day and just let their kids feel like all the other kids," Ms. Adams says.
In order to make things work, Ms. Adams said people often will turn to high-interest credit cards, payday loans or skipping several bills, causing their financial burden to widen.
"Sometimes their expenses are literally a handful of dollars less than what they have coming in or it's several hundred dollars over. ... They're always behind. Then Christmas comes along and they take out a payday loan or they skip their gas bill again," Nichi Yeager, director of marketing for the AFL-CIO, says.
While reluctant, many families sign up for Adopt-A-Family to both give their children the Christmas they deserve and allow them to pay the bills. Often times, it helps build relationships between the buyer and the family or later leads the adopted family to pay it back by supporting someone else.
The Christmas spirit goes beyond material goods. Supporting its Give Back Tuesday program, Big Brothers Big Sisters of St. Joseph understands the plight of a working single mother or father and is asking people with time to help and offer to become a mentor to a child.
"Holidays are a time when you want to spend more time with your kids, and if you're a single mom and you work outside of the home, it's very hard to carve out that extra time," Tiffany Miller, of BBBS, says.
It's what has helped in Ms. Smith's childrens' lives. With Liam getting a big brother, he has found a friend to do activities that Ms. Smith says she couldn't. It's to the point Liam says he can't wait for Ryder to grow up to get his own mentor.
"He already wants his little brother to have a big brother once he starts school," Ms. Smith says.
For now, that's the best Ms. Smith knows she can do. Unlike many people in her situation, she says she's blessed to have parents to provide presents, since she can't.
While Christmas ads may tout the perfect family getting all of the gifts they wanted for the holidays, she feels like they're not too far off.
"I feel like they have so much other family that it makes up for it," she says, with a pause. "Hopefully."
Families can apply for Adopt-A-Family through Dec. 12 at the AFL-CIO, located at 1203 N. Sixth St. People looking to be a mentor to a child can contact Big Brothers Big Sisters of St. Joseph at 671-4090.
Andrew Gaug can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @SJNPGaug.
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