Senior Samuel Chen has a passion not uncommon for others his age: cooking. However, what separates him from those who similarly share his hobby is his necessity to cook for his family every day. Three years ago, Chen’s mom was diagnosed with breast cancer—for the second time.
“She had to go to chemotherapy, and she couldn’t really do anything, so it made me more dependent on myself,” Chen said. “I had to learn how to cook since she couldn’t cook because she had to stay in bed.”
Chen said in addition to cooking for his mom while she was sick, he also had to take care of her at home and keep the house in good condition.
“Some days, when she had to go to the hospital to take shots, she couldn’t drive, so I had to drive her there and back. After the shots, she was very weak, so she had to stay in bed all day. She could barely use any of her muscles, so all she did was stay in bed, so I had to cook for her and get her what she needed, including hot water, food and things to read and do,” Chen said. “In general, I had to help her around the house and do all the housework, like take care of the vegetable garden, vacuum and clean the toilets and the bathrooms.”
For Chen, however, having extra responsibilities as a result of his mom’s cancer diagnosis actually wasn’t a new experience for him. Six years ago, Chen’s dad moved to Utah for work reasons, which already forced Chen to adapt to having many new responsibilities.
“I definitely felt an additional responsibility after (my dad) left to fill his role. Since he was the man of the house, he cut the grass and the trees and did a lot of the labor-intensive stuff,” Chen said. “After he left, I had to start cutting the grass, cutting the trees and fixing the house when something broke like the toilets and sinks.”
While Chen’s situation is somewhat unique—he still has both of his parents but had to serve as the primary caregiver of his household while his mother was sick because of his father’s work situation—the overall circumstance of students being in situations causing them to live with a single parent, and thus having additional responsibilities atypical for adolescents their age, is not unique to Chen. According to a 2016 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, since 1960, the number of children living with single parents has tripled, and 20 million children now live with a single parent, which is about 27 percent of all children in the United States under the age of 18.
In the 1980s, the United Nations began focusing more attention on issues related to the family, and in 1993, the U.N. General Assembly decided to observe May 15 of every year as the International Day of Families. This day was created to reflect the importance the international community attaches to families and provide an opportunity to increase awareness and knowledge of issues and various social, economic and demographic processes that affect families.
Director of counseling Rachel Cole said it is not uncommon for students to face these unexpected circumstances and be living with single parents and said these students often have new responsibilities as a result of the absence of a family member.
“I’m sure that it changes the dynamic some depending on what their support system is just in general, and I’m sure you feel more an onus to some responsibilities that you may have not even thought about in the past,” Cole said.
Additionally, she said the school offers many resources for students in these situations.
“As a counselor, we do a lot of check-ins with (students in these situations) and actually reach out to the parent they’re with as well,” Cole said. “Our social workers have done groups, and then we just keep tabs on them all the way through here. For example, we transfer the information from their freshman to sophomore counselors and make sure they’re checking in, and then a lot of times they’ll see a social worker, too. We like to touch base with them just in case some things are coming up and they want support.”
In November of 2014, junior Meera Murthy’s father died after battling Acute Myeloid Leukemia, an aggressive form of blood cancer, for two years, leaving Murthy, her sister and her mom.
According to Murthy, the immediate effects of her father’s death were evident in the adjustments her family had to make when it came to her and her sister’s extracurricular activities.
“My sister and I were both in a sport around that time—my sister ran cross-country, and I had done gymnastics and had started up basketball that year—so my mom would either miss some of our meets and games, be late to pick us up, have to do something, or we’d have to ask a lot of neighbors or family friends to drive us if we forgot something. Just little things here and there,” Murthy said.
Like Chen, Murthy said she has had extra responsibilities that she didn’t have previously as a result.
“So now I can drive, and my sister goes to a different school—she goes to Brebeuf—so that doesn’t have school buses, so sometimes I’ll have to pick her up, like I am today. Sometimes on late starts I’ll take her to school, but normally it’s just driving my sister around, or I’ve picked up groceries before, or when my mom travels, sometimes I have to be in charge of the house and just do the laundry and some of the small things that she would do.”
Murthy said while the adjustment was difficult at first, especially to keep the house in good shape while her mom was travelling, her family has adapted well to the circumstance.
“I know the first time my mom went to India, my sister and I really struggled to keep the house in line. We have two animals, a dog and a cat, so we struggled with that. There was always garbage day, so sometimes we’d forget to put the garbage out,” Murthy said. “It’s just little things that over the years as I got older and she made that trip, I’d be able to keep in mind, ‘Oh, it’s Wednesday night, we have to put the garbage out,’ or ‘The dishes are piling up,’ ‘We’re out of cereal,’ something like that, just grocery shopping.”
Cole said although everybody finds different ways to cope with the absence of a family member, it is usually a growing experience for most teenagers.
“Students are different in how they handle (these situations) and what they need, but they’re pretty resilient,” Cole said. “I personally feel like it makes most of them stronger.”
Murthy said she has become more self-reliant and compassionate as a result of her situation.
“I’ve definitely become more independent. I also live in a house with three girls now, so it’s definitely a lot of girl power, and I think I’ve become more responsible and more aware of my time,” Murthy said. “I did have a friend that lost a parent, so I was able to understand and be more empathetic on a different level than most people, but there’s never really something you can say or do, just you know what it feels like.”
Chen, on the other hand, said he grew personally in terms of his ability to rely on himself to take care of both himself and his mom.
“I think I became more dependable for other people,” Chen said. “You learn how to be very independent with everything you do and more resourceful by finding other ways to do things.”
Chen and Murthy also said their parents think they are much more responsible now.
Murthy said, “I do think (my mom) has a different level of trust for me than most kids have with their parents, especially just being able to get myself from one place to another and trusting I’m at that place.”
Along these lines, Cole said students who experience the loss or absence of a family member typically develop a more sophisticated outlook on life earlier than others of the same age.
“I would say that they’re less judgemental on some things, but also, they just have a more mature perspective. We’re all going to get there, but they get there a little quicker,” Cole said.
According to Chen, the results of him having increased responsibilities in the household while his mom was sick are evident and lasting; although Chen’s mom is now cancer-free, Chen said he still does more housework and cooking than he did before she was sick.
“I got used to doing most of the housework, and I still enjoy cooking now. Most of the time I just cook for my mom and I, but I also cook for our youth group parties at church,” Chen said.
Cole said hearing these stories and, to an even greater extent, experiencing them firsthand, often remind people to be thankful for what they so often take for granted.
“I just think you never—all of us, not just teenagers—you never appreciate what you have until you see something like that happen,” Cole said. “We need to take time for people more because we don’t know what’s going to happen. When things like that happen, it really brings that to the forefront.”
Murthy agreed with Cole and said her experiences have really shown her the importance of family time and the challenges single parents face.
“I’ve learned that family time is very important and having that time for them is really nice. I’m very social sometimes, so I’m normally out and about and I’m out late and my mom’s asleep by the time I get home, so just having some time with them whether it’s just having dinner, that’s very important,” Murthy said. “I’ve learned that single parent life is not easy and it’s definitely a struggle for a lot of single parents, so just how to be more understanding when they mess up because one versus two is a lot.”
Ultimately, Chen and Murthy both said while each of their respective experiences presented difficulties they had never encountered before in their lives, they helped them grow as individuals in ways they had never previously expected.
“I’m grateful for the experience because it let me become more independent; I learned a lot from it and I think that not a lot of people go through it,” Chen said. “Although at the moment there might be pain that feels like it lasts forever, once you get through it, it will help you grow stronger.”