The Single Mother's Book: A Practical Guide to Managing Your Children, Career, Home, Finances and Everything Else By Joan Anderson (Peachtree Publishers, Atlanta); 304 pp.; $12.95
Like Apple Pie, Mom has been devalued as a symbol of the American Way of Life. Apple Pie has been made obsolete by the two-pronged attack of trendy desserts like tiramisu and the craven fear of cholesterol and sugar. And good old Mom-with-flour-on-her-hands has been fragmented into Working Mom, Single Mom, Fighting-for-Custody Mom, Welfare Mom and Yuppie or Affluent Mom, the subject of three new books.
By far the best of these is a pleasantly unpretentious paperback written by Joan Anderson, a single mother who helped organize a support group for other single mothers at the Vanderbilt University Child Care Center in Nashville, Tenn., four years ago. Anderson offers sensible advice on all sorts of problems. The chapter on dealing with ex-husbands about the children is especially good, with its specific tips, such as: What do you do if talking to him always makes you lose your temper? Write, don't phone, she says. But be reasonable and flexible, she urges, since he might be right some of the time. And never use the children as intermediaries. It's okay to have some rules you don't negotiate with an ex-partner, such as how much notice he has to give you before he takes the children out of town. Don't delay taking action if a child support payment is missed; if the missed payments mount up astronomically by the time you do take your ex-husband to court, the judge will feel sorry for him and reduce the amount. If you need a lawyer, she suggests, call a well-known and expensive woman lawyer in town and ask her to recommend some other, less expensive but able lawyer.
Money is a constant concern in this book. Twice Anderson tells us that after a divorce the single woman's standard of living goes down 73 percent, while the man's standard of living goes up 43 percent.
Children of single mothers often fare worse than children in a traditional family and are even less apt to finish high school, she says. But Anderson reminds her readers that the basic needs of children are food, shelter, clothing and love. "If you can provide these . . . you are doing your job. People live through good times and bad together and they grow stronger for it."
Some of her advice on child-rearing, discipline and building a child's self-esteem would be helpful to any parent. So would her practical counsel on things like how to assess a day-care center. (One of her tips: Schedule a visit and a talk with the director, then come back for an unscheduled visit.)
Anderson discusses the single mother's inevitable personal problems -- loneliness, exhaustion, constant worry about money -- and offers more practical advice. She deplores the lack of financial aid for single mothers who want to go back to school so they can get better jobs. Children of Paradise: Successful Parenting for Prosperous Families By Lee Hausner (Tarcher, Los Angeles); 279 pp.; $18.95 Lee Hauser has been a psychologist for the Beverly Hills Unified School District for 14 years and obviously has seen many troubled children from affluent families. Where Anderson is warm and folksy and makes it clear she has had to cope herself with the problems she writes about, Hausner is a professional counselor and her stance is distant, her style clinical. But she has a point and makes it clearly.
She lists the factors she thinks put advantaged families at risk. Parenting, she says, takes a special set of skills, and those skills don't come from the board room or the office. "Management mentality," in fact, is not conducive to good parenting. Affluent parents are often away from home, and Hausner stresses that good parents spend time with their children. She says money is so readily available that children in affluent families don't know its value.
Hausner outlines nine steps to becoming a good -- if rich -- parent. Like Anderson, she emphasizes developing a child's self-esteem. She recommends formal family meetings in learning to listen to children and how to talk with them.
Under "Brat-Proofing Your Child," Hausner discusses the horrors of a child who always gets his or her own way and accumulates unneeded material possessions. Her advice is brief and not particularly new: set limits and learn to say no. Parent vs. Parent: How You and Your Child Can Survive the Custody Battle By Stephen P. Herman (Pantheon, New York); 244 pp.; $20.95 Herman is a pediatrician, an adolescent psychiatrist and consultant on custody cases to courts in New York and Connecticut. His book is unexpectedly interesting reading and an excellent guide for those involved in a custody dispute.
Herman points out that 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce, and 10 percent of all divorces involving children end in litigated custody proceedings, which are adversarial situations. He regards custody as a flawed process and emphasizes that his book is not a guide to "winning" a custody battle. Curiously, until the late 18th century, mothers never got custody of children; fathers had ancient and absolute rights over them. Nowadays, the principle of "the best interest of the child" is supposed to rule.
Like the other two authors, Herman uses many case histories to make his points, but they are horror stories that show clearly how damaging custody battles can be to children. Herman describes the litigation process step by step, explaining how difficult it can be and how expensive. The richer the couple, the longer a custody battle takes, he says. He has concrete advice on matters ranging from how to dress in court (conservatively) to what to do if you don't like the way your lawyer is handling the case (say so). And he offers tips on living with the court's decision, for the "winner" and the "loser."
Ann Waldron is a writer in Princeton, N.J.