One of our favorite holiday family rituals is going to the Christmas tree farm on Brentwood Lane off Fackler Road in Lawrenceville to chop down our a tree. We pray for snow and bring the camera. The owners take you out into the forest in a hay wagon and give the kids get candy canes. Every year we take the same friend of my son’s — a little girl (I’ll call her Grace to keep her privacy) whose mom, Catherine, is single and adopted Grace. When my husband, David, turns Grace upside down, which he usually does in lieu of a greeting, her belly laugh would fill Carnegie Hall. Part of the tradition is that we always bring back a tree for Grace and her mom and set it up in the tree stand at their house (a nearly impossible task for one adult).

This year I began to think what it would be like if everyone informally "adopted" a single parent and helped them out with their child or children. I got the idea at about the same time I got the idea to write a grown-up version of that wonderful children’s book by Judith Viorst, "Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day." Alexander has the ultimate bad day: He gets gum stuck in his hair and his sweater falls in the sink and he goes to the dentist and has a cavity and he visits his dad at work and breaks the Xerox machine and all the while he just keeps saying, "Maybe I’ll move to Australia."

The day I thought of my book idea was the kind of terrible horrible no good day any working mother can relate to. Your alarm doesn’t go off because there was a power outage in the middle of the night. From your bed, you yell to your child to get up. Your child then chooses this moment to mention that he was supposed to build a 3-D model of the Parthenon that was due, uh, today.

You button your blouse with one hand while writing a note about the Parthenon with the other ("Dear Mrs. Mahoney, Mackenzie’s cat went into cardiac arrest and we had to drive him to Philadelphia for emergency surgery — the cat, not Mackenzie…"). And it goes downhill from there — your best friend calls to tell you she’s getting a divorce and the wonk in the cubicle next to you with allergies sounds like he’s coughing up half a landfill every 15 minutes.

And it’s only 10 a.m.

That’s when I got to thinking about Catherine. Catherine never gets a break. Sure, her mom takes Grace once in a while for an afternoon or an overnight with grandma, but that’s about it. And I thought, here I have a husband who puts Mackenzie to bed about half the time and makes about half his play dates and drives him to wherever he’s going about half the time, so actually, we both get breaks.

Catherine can’t do that. Her daughter Grace is among the 20 million children in America now being raised by single parents — more than 27 percent of young people, according to the 2000 census. Catherine and other single parents — unmarried, divorced, single by choice, or single due to the death of a spouse, close to 10 million of whom are single mothers, and over 2 million of whom are single dads — can’t just leave their house for a while. They can’t meet the boys for a drink or go have a girls’ night. They have to show up at the after school program to pick up their kid by six every day; if their car breaks down or a meeting runs late, they still have to get there somehow. And they all work, and some work two jobs to make ends meet.

My husband and I informally "adopted" Catherine, like a Big Brother/Big Sister program, only it’s a single parent who’s getting support, not the urban disadvantaged kid. We started having Grace over on a regular basis, like a sleepover the first Saturday of every month. And my husband helped Catherine out with some home improvements.

The single parents I know are kick-ass parents. Some of them are single by choice — at a certain age and still unmarried, they have fulfilled their dream of having a child; some of them are single by circumstance. All are passionate about parenting; they are dedicated and organized, loving and uncomplaining. They will never say, "I’m tired, I wish I could just go to a movie." And they deserve it, way more than we who have spouses.

Find a single parent and give them a break — on a regular basis. We call up Grace’s mom and say, "We have an extra ticket to a Trenton Thunder game and can Grace come with us?"

This kind of reaching out reaps its benefits for you, too. When my single women friends’ ex-husbands (or grandma and grandpa) have the kids, and they go out on the town to get in touch with their inner adult — they invite me. When I’m stuck for a sitter, I don’t have guilt about asking Catherine. My idea, you see, is about being helpful to others; not feeling sorry for others. There’s a difference.

You probably already know a single parent — or two or three. So, the next time you think you’re having a terrible horrible no good very bad day, get over it: Pick up your cell phone instead and call a single parent you know and tell them you’re taking their kid to chop down a Christmas tree or go caroling or sledding on Sunday.

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