The word "family" in PA Parent and Family Alliance acknowledges that families come in many shapes and sizes. From nuclear families, to foster families, to aunts and uncles raising children; and everything in between. Every different "type" of family is capable of raising and nurturing happy and healthy children although some are given more respect than others. We sat down with a single mother Alexa Ortega to gain some insight into her experiences advocating for her children as a single mother, and to get some advice on what other single parents can do. This mother of two has been raising children by herself since they were very young babies, and she has learned how to find her voice and make herself heard when it comes to speaking up for them.
Ortega's teenage children have two different fathers; with varying levels of involvement. Her daughter has not seen her father for 15 years and has no relationship with him. Her younger son has a slightly more complex relationship because his father is in and out of his life and at the moment lives across the country. Ortega and her son are expecting his father to move back to Pennsylvania within the next year. Regardless of the relationship between her and her son's father, she will be happy to have him return to be more of an active influence in her son's life because; "it really messed my son up when he moved like that".
While Ortega is still actively raising her children she reminisces on times when things were tough for the family. One of the major hardships has been how difficult it is to take a single paycheck and make it cover the needs and wants of the whole family. "Listen, talking about money and paychecks isn't always comfortable but it is the cold hard truth. Most families need income from two people in order to make ends meet so only having one made for some very difficult times which caused me to get a little creative". Financial hardships are one of he biggest stressors for a lot of families, but one thing that is unique to single parents is one person having to juggle a schedule full of dentist appointments, soccer practices, parent-teacher conferences and a full-time job. When a family has two parents they are able to more easily balance getting to and from all of the events on their calendar and have an easier time "covering their bases". This tag-team aspect that a two-parent family is able to use can help alleviate stress on parents and children.
Without either of the fathers in the picture Ortega was forced to deal with parental challenges all by herself. To make matters more stressful her daughter was diagnosed with anxiety and depression and had trouble getting the kind of education that she needed at school. While financial and scheduling issues are obvious, a struggle associated with single-parent households that is less obvious is a lack of respect; particularly single mothers, receive. "We get labeled a lot and sometimes with labels that are incredibly far from accurate. They labeled me as a mother who wasn't involved and didn't work, which obviously was false. Single dads get props, single moms do not." said Ortega.
In Ortega's case there were many labels she had to worked hard to overcome. She was labeled as "the angry and emotional mother" who did not know how to properly advocate for her children and this only made her more frustrated and angry. School administrators preconceived notions of single mothers made it difficult for Ortega to get her point across and she felt like she was not being heard. Every parent knows that there is no worse or more helpless feeling in the world than seeing your child struggle and not being able to help. This is exactly how she felt when she saw that her daughter was falling behind in class and nobody was taking her or her daughter's needs seriously.
"I was not using the proper channels until I found Allegheny Family Network" , said Ortega. About five years ago when she was absolutely overwhelmed by trying to be taken seriously by her daughter's school she turned to AFN. At AFN she was not able to work with an FPS (Family Peer Supporter), giving her the respect she deserved.
Ortega's biggest piece of advice for a single parent who is having trouble being taken seriously when they are speaking up for their children. "Make sure you have a good team behind you. Build that team around you up so when you do start having to advocate for something you have support. It is your team working with the other team to get what your child needs." said Ortega. "If you have that strong team backing you you will feel less stressed. It is human nature to get emotional when dealing with issues involving your children but if you are prepared and have people to remind you of your child's rights you can take the emotion out of it and get your child what they need."
Anybody who loves and makes sacrifices for a child is a superhero in our eyes. Parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world and while no parent has it easy, the ones who are doing it alone deserve support and recognition for their hard work. Ortega wants to remind single parents that they are the furthest thing from alone. Don't be afraid to extend your arms and reach out for help if you need it, it doesn't make you any less of a parent. If you don't have supportive parents that you can lean on you can always reach out to the Parent Alliance for helping finding natural supports.
We did not get a chance to sit down with Ortega's children to get their perspective on how much their mother has done for them and how grateful they are for all of the sacrifices she has made. However, we did get talk to another young adult who will never forget the kind of love and compassion he got while being raised by a single mother. "She didn't have much, and we struggled but my siblings and I never felt it once. I, to this day, don't know how she did it but every Christmas there were gifts around the tree, and at every soccer game there was a blue chair with my mom in it on the sidelines cheering us on, and don't even get me started on her amazing cooking. I will forever be grateful for the childhood she gave us and I love every opportunity I get to just say; thanks mom".
**the names in this article have been changed**