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.
Single parents account for a growing share of families in the United States. But they still often experience “insecurity about raising children alone without help,” as a team of education scholars and psychologists write in a 2018 book about single parenthood in the 21st century. Stereotypes about single parents abound, as do cultural messages about the importance of two-parent families. Events such as back-to-school nights can reinforce to single parents the message society often sends them that their parenting is insufficient or incomplete.
Such events are almost always premised on traditional notions of child-rearing as a joint endeavor, argues Maurice Elias, a psychology professor at Rutgers University who has attended and observed many back-to-school nights over his four decades of studying social-emotional learning and student success. Schools often ask parents to attend back-to-school nights without their kids, but don’t offer child-care options. This forces parents to find a way to fit the one-off occasion into their schedules—and pay for child care—or simply not come.
“There’s a tremendous amount of juggling involved,” Elias told me. “If you’re a single parent for any reason—and you could be a ‘single parent’ because your husband or wife travels for business—then you have to figure out, especially if you have more than one child and the back-to-school nights aren’t coordinated, What am I going to do here?”
“Nothing [in schools] accommodates single parents,” says Sarah Netter, a freelance writer based in New Orleans who’s the sole caregiver, by choice, of her first-grade son, whom she adopted at birth. “The fact of the matter is I just can’t physically be in two places at once.” She told me that her coordination struggles are also felt by families with two working parents.
“Schools aren’t thinking about working parents when they schedule things,” Netter says, noting that other events, such as parent-teacher conferences and bring-your-parent-to-lunch days, rest on the assumption that kids have a parent who doesn’t work or who can get time off, or that parents can find and afford child care. Netter says she’s almost always the only single parent in attendance at school functions.
“I’ve rarely seen a satisfactory back-to-school night,” Elias says, “and one of the issues is that because some parents can’t or won’t come, we don’t know what they would think of back-to-school night if they were there.”
A school, of course, can only do so much to ameliorate the logistical and emotional stress of being a single parent. But some tweaks to back-to-school night could help, Elias and others say—such as providing free child care, allowing parents to make up a missed orientation, or substituting the one-off event with a series of regular one-on-one check-ins between teacher and parent.
“So much of what the school does is catered toward stay-at-home parents,” Netter says. “Hopefully, by attending my son’s events, I can show people what single parenthood looks like.”
* This article has been updated to reflect that Susan Dynarski’s husband died of a heart attack.
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