Susan Dynarski’s husband always took the lead at their kids’ school events, asking questions, getting updates, and advocating for their success. When Dynarski, whose job as a professor at the University of Michigan requires a lot of travel, wasn’t relying on her husband’s “social capital” at these gatherings, she was relying on him as an ally. “The parent-teacher nights were always something we did together,” she told me, even if that just meant they would simultaneously roll their eyes at a teacher or fellow parent. “So much of parenting is reflecting with each other, talking with each other as a sounding board.”
Now “all of that is missing,” Dynarski says. Her husband died of a heart attack in the spring of 2017, forcing Dynarski to attend back-to-school nights for their kids, now a high-school junior and a college sophomore, alone.* Seeing other couples at these gatherings is the hardest part, she says, because they remind her that she’s no longer one of them—that the days of seeing her husband wedge himself into miniature chairs and desks and having backup while she navigated school events are gone.
Back-to-school nights are meant to welcome and orient families to their kids’ schools, giving parents a chance to meet their kids’ teachers, and schools the opportunity to communicate their plans for the upcoming year. But for single parents who have to attend them alone, such events can have the opposite of the intended effect, making them feel isolated and overwhelmed. For those contending with a divorce or breakup—or, like Dynarski, with a death—these emotions may be compounded by grief. Dynarski, whose son is now in college, last year attended a dinner convening parents of incoming freshmen at the school; attendees were asked to go around introducing themselves, and Dynarski says her “stomach began to sink” as it became clear that pretty much every other parent was there with someone else.