I’ve thought long and hard about what I could share that might be of benefit to single parents. When I say I’ve thought long and hard about it, of course I mean while doing interminable loads of laundry, making food my children scarcely eat, and trying to make sure that I signed everything that I was supposed to for their schools. While many may compare it to a juggling act, it feels more like a high wire act—without the net.
But rest assured that you will survive it (and I will, too). It’s daunting, no doubt, but it’s not an impossible task. Not even on days it feels impossible. For this reason, I’ve decided to create a life hack for newly single parents. It goes a little something like this:
Forget everything you think you know about being a single parent. You don’t know shit. Start there. Once you’ve repeated this to yourself a few thousand times, you’re ready to go forward.
I mean this, though. We all think we know what we would and wouldn’t do as single parents until single parenthood is thrust upon us. The truth is that we don’t know. We may have an idea, but mostly that idea is wrong. It’s like all those ideas we had about parenting before we were parents. We can look back and laugh at how we were perfect parents before we had kids.
Let’s talk definitions. There are people out there who will try to make you fit their definition of a single parent. They’ll try to invalidate your experience. I’ve had people straight up tell me that if I get child support and the other parent is involved at all, I’m not a single parent. I call bullshit on that line of thinking. I am the custodial parent. My children live with me full-time; that’s 26–27 days each month. Their father gets them four days a month. I am a single parent because most of the month I have them on my own. I’m the one who can’t work if my kids get sick, who takes them to all their appointments, who buys their clothes and shoes and medicine, and there’s no one else around if I have to get up with them in the middle of the night. It’s all on me.
Single parents don’t look one way. They could be a mother or a father. They could be straight or a member of the LGBTQ+ community. They may have involved partners or partners who ditched them. They may be single or divorced. They may or may not receive child support. If they are solo parenting the majority of the time, let’s all agree it counts. We need to be a community supporting one another, not tearing each other down over semantics and who has the hardest row to hoe.
Be prepared for this to be difficult, and plan for self-care. I cannot emphasize this enough. Find a little time to yourself daily or weekly or whenever you can manage it. It’s necessary. Parenting alone isn’t for the weak, and even if we have to pay a sitter to give us a break, it’s worth every penny just to give us the stress relief of a night, or even a couple of hours, off. Go see a movie, take a walk, or visit friends.
Be the king or queen of the castle. What I mean is that as a single parent, we’re typically the head of household. Let’s act like it. I’m not talking about discipline because I can pause right here and say an authoritative style combined with gentle parenting is proven most effective. But I mean that we run our houses so we need to decide how we want to live. We’re the bosses here. So what do we want our days to look like?
After my divorce, I enjoyed the freedom of having the house to myself. I could take the kids on spontaneous adventures. I could play records and turn off the television. I could sit and read with them for hours. I could structure our lives in the way that is most meaningful to me and to the life I want to give my children. We get to choose, and we don’t have to stay so much inside the box with our choices.
Prepare for fun, too. It’s not all tough days. Yes, it’s hard, but we also get the lion’s share of the joy. We get to see all the little moments of their lives and be the first to see them meet new milestones. It’s an amazing adventure. We need to find balance with the stressful parts so that we don’t miss out on all the fun. Maybe that means we splurge a little on ourselves or carve out a little more time for play and less time for an obligation or chore. Perhaps we do fewer gifts and more experiences as a family. Being a single parenting is overwhelming, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its share of joy.
Build social support. If we haven’t already done this, we need to stop and make a plan. We don’t all come from large, close-knit families. Not everyone has a large friend group either. We need to make sure that we’re providing our children with a larger network of support in their lives. That may mean we choose to use our vacation days to travel to visit family rather than the beach or give up a night at home in our pajamas for a game night with friends.
We need to teach our kids about being a member of a community and how to support one another. We need to let them know that there are so many people who love and support them. If we don’t come from a tribe like that, it’s time to break the cycle and build one.
Another great way to build this support is to join or start a babysitting cooperative where parents take turns babysitting to allow the other parents a night off. Do this with people you know well, and take care. As a former therapist, most abuses happen with people we know. While we shouldn’t be too trusting, we should build up a support system of individuals who we do trust. Family and friends who can participate and offer our child another safe environment when we need a night off.
Mess up. That’s right: fail. Plan on failure. Because it is absolutely inevitable. There’s no way to get out of the whole parenting gig without doing something that could potentially send our children careening into therapy at some point in their lives. But what we can do is try not to repeat unhealthy cycles of abuse that we’re aware of from our own backgrounds and experiences.
We can make sure that we do our utmost to protect them from real danger. We can practice gentle parenting and work to build healthy self-esteem and a solid work ethic. We can teach our kids the value of meditation, of healthy coping skills, and of effective communication. We can raise kids who are emotionally intelligent, socially aware, and free of misogyny and other bigotry. But we’ll probably fail in one or more areas. When we do, we can apologize, correct our behavior, and try again.
Then we’ll probably fail again. We should apologize again, correct our behavior, and keep trying. But every time, we should forgive ourselves. But we should just accept right now that none of us are perfect.
Single parenting is tough. I see single parents nearly every day who are out there doing an amazing job. It can be a daunting prospect to parent alone, but it’s so much easier when we recognize each other and lift each other up.
When we see a parent struggling with a toddler having a tantrum in the store, we can offer to help rather than looking at them with judgment. If we haven’t been in that situation yet, we most certainly will one day. If we notice a single parent struggling under the weight of stress, we can offer our friendship, our services as a sitter for him or her to have a night out, or even look for a way to ease the burden like bring a meal or mowing the lawn.
We need to reach out and help each other because this isn’t easy. But it’s so incredibly worth it.
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