Above: Collectively, single parents across the state are some of the most vulnerable during this crisis, says Dr. Mary Twis, assistant professor of social work at Texas Christian University.
Before the coronavirus, America already had an epidemic: According to a 2018 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, one in five Americans say they often feel lonely. Surprisingly, the majority of those study participants were under age 50—not the elderly, who are commonly considered to be at the highest risk of feeling isolated.
And now, there’s social distancing. Let’s pour some fuel on that fire of sad solitude.
I’ve been in an up-and-down relationship with loneliness since my marriage ended four years ago. A couple of months ago, it became my new bedfellow after a broken engagement and swift end to cohabitation and a house full of kids.
I’ve been physically and mentally affected by that experience and the innate isolation of being a single parent to my 8-year-old daughter. But a few weeks ago, I stopped crying every day. I noticed the animal shapes painted in the clouds while running at the park. Just as I started to imagine what could be instead of what I’d lost during the past year, COVID-19 came along.
About 35 percent of children in Texas live in single-parent families like mine. Those families experience varying degrees of solitude even though they’ve got a kid or two (or three) to beckon for their time and attention. And the stress of single parenthood—especially for the 34 percent of single-parent households in Texas living below the poverty line—is an assault on the immune system.
“Single parents are often exposed to chronic stress, and chronic stress takes a toll on the physical immune system, physical health, and mental health,” said Dr. Mary Twis, assistant professor of social work at Texas Christian University. Over time, loneliness can weaken immune cells and make it harder for our bodies to fight off viruses—the very thing every Texan needs most drastically right now.
After I got divorced, people told me:
“You’ll love being alone.”
“Just embrace the solitude.”
I’m still waiting for that to happen.
When I was married, we were in it together, whatever “it” might be. Now “it” is a global pandemic with forced isolation and an uncertain, scary future, and that’s something no one wants to face solo. There’s something irreplaceable about looking over your shoulder in the morning and seeing your partner lying there beside you. Having a person there, physically in your house, to share your fears, joys, and burdens, can’t be replaced.
The 48 percent of single adults living in Texas right now probably feel the same way, as dating apps across the country are experiencing a sudden surge in engagement and downloads.
That clicks with what we know about ourselves as humans. Twis says we’re social creatures and the effects of extended social isolation on human beings can be profound.
“Social distancing in the time of a pandemic is really without precedent in modern America,” Twis says, noting that the long-term effects are impossible to quantify.
But what we do know, she says, is that “single parents—especially single mothers—are at increased risk of depression, anxiety, and other forms of psychological distress.” There is a reason why the families who are most likely to experience poverty in America are single female head of household families—this phenomenon in and of itself is called the feminization of poverty. These are single mothers who are trying to do it all, and that experience of living on the edge is extremely stressful.
Collectively, single parents across the state are some of the most vulnerable during this crisis, says Twis. We’re also some of the most resilient because we’ve already gone through so much shit and figured out how to survive. Day after day.
Today, and probably for the next month, I’ll keep my community of support at a physical distance. There’s nobody here to take care of me if I get sick. No chicken noodle soup brought to my bedside, or my favorite flavor of Gatorade poured over ice. But hey, that’s more than OK. I wouldn’t even let my 71-year-old parents in the door now if they begged. It’s too big of a risk.
I know I’m so very lucky; I’m young(ish). My paycheck as a college professor isn’t impacted by the virus, social distancing, or the temporary shutdown of so many small businesses in Fort Worth.
Social media has become the best way to find connections and fight loneliness. I’m part of a Fort Worth Facebook group called Tanglewood Moms, which connects women with resources, advice, and really anything and everything local. Recent posts range from fears about the virus, stories of women who have gotten sick or lost their jobs, educational videos for things to do with kids, and ideas to support small business. Group founder Victoria Wise says the group’s engagement rate from its 17,000 members has more than doubled in the past 28 days, with plenty of messages of hope and humor. “That’s what will pull our community together and help people feel less alone and isolated,” Wise says.
She should know the value of hope. On March 18, her husband received positive test results for COVID-19 from the CDC; she was sick and most surely had it, too, but with so few kits available, health officials only tested him. They’re feeling better now, thankfully.
The social isolation of today motivates me to be even more socially active when this pandemic ends. Netflix will never again win out over a coffee date with friends or a first date at a local restaurant just reopened for business. For now, screen time is the closest real time I’ll have for connecting with my parents, friends, and community. But I’m already planning where I’m going to eat (Cannon Chinese Kitchen) the trips I’m going to take (Fredericksburg wineries) and the people’s hands I’m going to hold even tighter when the streets of Fort Worth are again filled with friends.