February 10, 2020

The Single Parent’s Survival Guide (For Real This Time).


I have been a “100 percent custody” parent since day one. 

I have my child 24/7/365.

There were days when I was absolutely desperate for tips on how to make the whole situation work. Nobody told me even one of these things, not on online forums when I asked, not in person, not on the phone.

What we give single parents instead is advice is to “get help,” “take breaks,” and “focus on your self-care.” It made me feel like I was going to suffocate when I couldn’t find help. What was wrong with me? One time I broke down and asked for it on Facebook, and it netted both help and also a tragically friendship-ending text exchange because someone I considered a friend didn’t see why I needed help. The optics on Facebook looked great, wasn’t that enough?

Taking a “break” is a glorious idea, but one that’s appropriate for moms of greater privilege than single parenthood. It must make people feel better, like they’ve given you a new idea, to suggest that. The reality is, I have twice been in tears because I let my child know I was so done and needed a minute, but couldn’t even get a few seconds.

I changed cities and countries when my child was one, so I had no “community” in any traditional sense of the word. I knew exactly two people where I moved, and building a social network when you can’t leave the house after 6 p.m. is not the stuff dreams are made of.

We need to stop telling single moms to “take breaks” or “get help” or “build a tribe.” I can pretty much promise you that we are f*cking trying.

Here’s my tip sheet for single parents:

1. Get an instant pot and figure out how to minimize grocery shopping time. You need to cook, and you need nutritious food as a base level priority. Nothing is going to go well in life without it. I started monthly “subscribe and save” deliveries for basics like beans, dish detergent, Vega protein powder, and wheatgrass powder. Anything that is healthy and a pantry basic is on my list, so I get 12-24 items per month to my door, including school snacks.

2. Find a 30-minute window at night or in the morning to clean. Mine is in the morning so that my dishes, laundry, recycling, and mail doesn’t build up. I tried the strategy of “leaving it and giving it the finger on the way by” but research shows that cortisol levels increase in women with increased visual clutter. I promise that once I strategically set aside time to clean, I also found this to be true.

3. Get enough sleep. Like food, this is also a priority. I tried the “sleep when you are dead” method, and it meant I was always sick, so now I am asleep by 10 p.m. and I wake up at 6 a.m. The “sleep when your baby sleeps” thing is ridiculous—sleep when a normal adult sleeps.

4. Exercise. I do 28 minutes of yoga every morning. No exceptions, because that’s my third priority. I do restorative exercise, which is meant to lower my stress. You can’t effectively parent when you are stressed or not maintaining your body. The reason I know this is because I didn’t and then ended up sick and with chronic pain. That required me to do something about it, which was significantly harder, more time-consuming, and more expensive than had I just found the damn 28 minutes in the first place.

5. Sign every permission slip the moment you get it. Don’t take it home. That applies to everything: touch it once and not twice.

6. Figure out what to do with your child that’s actually fun. The day I figured out that no “break” was coming was a life-changing day. We made a list of things we both enjoyed and we go do them together. Read that one again, because it’s mission critical. Your break is with your child, not without your child. We culturally suggest, and even demand, that restoration activities happen without the kids, and if you are a single parent or a solo one, they probably can’t. So dig into what’s truly fun, what you love about parenting, what you like about your child, and what you think is fun in the world, and go take breaks together, the same way you would with a spouse.

7. If your child/ren are in extracurriculars, keep their uniforms in the car. Don’t move stuff around twice or three times that you can move around once. This is a general life rule.

8. If the kids are old enough, have them take “three things out of the car” every time you get out. Driving around a “mom car” reminds you of your stress and mess, and there is no reason that if your kid can carry stuff into the car that they can’t also carry it out of the car.

9. If your child is old enough, have them do “one thing to contribute to the family every day.” In our culture, we view childhood as a protected bubble of specialness. If the cost of maintaining that is breaking yourself, have your child contribute to whole-family wellness. There is no reason a mother is the only person contributing to the family—children can as well, especially if they are old enough to have privileges of childhood such as eating out, vacations, or extracurriculars.

10. Take vacations. This became a priority for me. It’s not a luxury to step out of the hamster wheel and into inspiration, relaxation, and restoration.

11. Figure out the three things you need, personally, to feel financially abundant. Single parents are not typically known for wealth, so cut things out that you don’t need and spend more on the things that you do. When I did this exercise for myself, I figured out that my three must-haves were travel, education/books, and clothing. I eliminated coffees out, drinks out, and other things that were fun but not essential. I live richly because I focus my money on what truly gives me return.

12. Have a project with your child. Ours is eating food from every country in the world. We have a map in the hallway and scratch the countries off as we try the food. It’s fun and we might do this into eternity.

13. Find a mentor for your child. There are many people in the world who have something to offer a child, something special to share. My child’s mentor is passionate about Shakespeare and has taught him the joy of literature in a way that I simply never would have or could have.

14. Volunteer together. I called around and found opportunities that we could both participate in. No matter how young your child is, there are ways to give back to the community. We give to some of the very organizations who have helped us, and it’s added meaning to life plus ensures that we don’t get caught in a pity party of how we have less or are less. We aren’t.

Many of the tips above don’t apply just to single parents. But the world has told us that the path is “self-care” and separation. I want to show you a different way: togetherness and moreness.

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