At Bungalow Billiards in Chantilly on Wednesday, about a dozen single parents from Northern Virginia gathered at happy hour to mingle, eat and drink. All were divorced or widowed members of the Fairfax chapter of Parents Without Partners.
Getting 12 people together for a social event on a weekday may seem respectable for any civic organization or support group, but the truth is, only a few years ago such an occasion would have attracted a much larger crowd.
Parents Without Partners, a 47-year-old nonprofit that has helped thousands of single parents and their children, is in a precipitous decline, in part because of competition from the Internet. At its height in the 1980s, the organization counted about 200,000 members in the United States and Canada; today it has about 20,000 members. The Fairfax chapter has about 350 members today, down from about 2,000 when it was combined with a Montgomery County chapter several years ago.
The drop-off in interest is occurring even as the number of single parents has jumped 36 percent nationally, according to the 2000 Census.
Kathie Soucy, vice president for membership of the international group, said a combination of reasons has caused the drop in members.
Civic, social and religious groups are in a friendly battle for people's limited time, she said. Longer work hours and commuting times, increased family responsibilities such as youth sports are forcing people to pick and choose what to do with their remaining spare hours.
"It's the time crunch," Soucy said.
At the Wednesday mixer, Matt Baumgartner, 48, of Manassas, the Fairfax chapter president, said he agreed with Soucy.
Much of Baumgartner's own spare time is spent ferrying his daughter to swimming and field hockey practices and competitions. "That's something that just takes up a lot of your time," he said. "Parents are just busy. Instead of doing the work of one, you are doing the work of two."
Then there is the Internet, which spawned a surge in Web-based groups for single parents, including such sites as singleparentsmingle.com, singleparentmeet.com, singleparentcentral.com, singleparentdate.com and makinglemonade.com. The prevalence of such sites suggests that single parents looking to connect have turned away from meeting through face-to-face group interaction.
Even among Parents Without Partners members, Baumgartner said, "there are a lot of people who mess with" Internet sites for singles. However, he added, "I've seen a lot of them where someone will meet somebody from there, and then all of a sudden they come back and say, 'Nope. It didn't work out.' "
Soucy and Baumgartner said they are optimistic that Parents Without Partners will survive. The Fairfax chapter's board of directors is infused with a new activist spirit they hope will lead to additional members.
"What brought me to [Parents Without Partners] was the desire for fellowship with other singles," said Michelle Burley, 43, of Alexandria, who was at the Chantilly gathering. "It helped me fill that time that my ex-husband had my children, especially on the weekends. It gave me someplace to go and helped me make a network of single friends. I started making a life for myself as a single person."
Parents Without Partners, founded in 1957 by two single parents in New York City, is not primarily a dating resource, Burley said. "Clearly it does lead to dating. You do meet members of the opposite sex who you want to go out with. But I wouldn't compare it to an Internet dating service."
"It's great for the kids, too," Burley continued. "I don't think initially that's what I was thinking about, but very early on in my membership I was taking my kids to things. They really enjoy it. And I think it might be really subtle and indirect, but somehow I think they get something out of it because they are with other kids who are in the same situation that they are in. I don't think they sit around and talk about it . . . but I think they can sense it, and it's important. They are transitioning, too, just like we are."
For more information, go to www.parentswithoutpartners.org and www.pwp715.org