“Are you okay?”
How to answer this?
My go-to: “of course,” or “absolutely.”
Not today. As I looked into the eyes of the loved one asking, I decided it was time to be honest, with them and with myself.
I was feeling it, the weight of responsibility that only a single parent has experienced. Facing the unrelenting demands of life with children in modern Western society—24/7, 365 days a year.
It’s not just the monotonous “wake, work, sleep, repeat” routine.
It’s the days when the first things you see are the mess, dirt, dust, and damp, knowing it is your responsibility to clean, vacuum, tidy, repair, and maintain your home. When the pile of washing up and mountain of laundry that you didn’t manage to do the previous day awaits you.
Your children need feeding, clothing, assistance with homework. Their shoes don’t fit, there’s a hole in their jumper, their trainers are dirty, and their PE top is still in the wash. Rushing them to school, you’re left wondering how you will find the funds for the new shoes and where you can magically conjure them up from before tomorrow.
You go to work or work at home—the housework has to wait. That is what your evening is for. Cook, eat, homework, supper, bath time, stories, bedtime—all you. Budgeting, planning, paying the bills—you.
And if the day-to-day pressures weren’t enough, you’re on call. Every. Single. Night.
I am fortunate to have been born with an optimistic outlook on life and I’m grateful for all that I have. Even when rain pouring into the kitchen extension caused the electrics and heating to fail in the depths of winter, I was thankful for the remaining roof over our heads, and for our warm clothes, and thick duvets that kept us cozy and dry.
I practice mindfulness (albeit, briefly and intermittently), I meditate (occasionally), and I have the most positive mindset of anyone I know. I can usually keep things in perspective. We weren’t freezing cold in the middle of the ocean, or huddled in the back of a freight truck trying to escape a war-torn homeland.
However, at that moment, faced by that question from that person, I realised that I was feeling it all: stress, anxiety, exhaustion. After a pause to reflect, I replied, “No,” quickly followed by a light-hearted, “it’s just the single parent syndrome.”
Of course, it’s not an actual medical condition, just the term I have chosen to use for those moments or hours when life feels heavy, and I realise how much support I lack by not having a live-in partner or co-parent.
Times when there is a rock-solid ball in my stomach and the weight on my shoulders makes it exhausting to raise my head. When carrying such an extensive mental to-do list clouds my brain and affects my memory, and when the loneliness of having no one to share the burden with reduces me to an inconsolable sobbing mess.
Nights of thoughts spinning round in the laundrette of my mind. Waking with butterflies swarming in my tummy and a racing heart that quickens as my dreams fade and reality encroaches. Mornings where the bags beneath my eyes are a darker shade than my once bright blue eyes. Days of pouring freshly boiled water through a strainer into my favourite mug, rather than on to the tea leaves in the teapot that awaited it.
These are the symptoms of the Single Parent Syndrome, and I feel all of these and more, from time to time.
We humans, as a species, are not biologically designed to live like this. We are not beings destined for self-sufficient solitude. We need support, community, family, and friends.
I see on social media that other solo-parents often struggle too, and some for significantly longer periods of time. It can lead to depression, debilitating anxiety or stress, and in the most heart-breaking cases, loss of life. News reports of suicides, where single parents decide to leave this world and their children, bring tears to my eyes.
I am lucky—I wake most days with an intrinsic “can-do” attitude and only suffer fleetingly. Maybe it’s not just good fortune though. I have spent the last couple of years learning a lot about myself, mindfulness, health, and Buddhist philosophy. Audiobooks have been my greatest discovery as I find it difficult to make time to read a paper copy.
So here are my life-experience-based recommendations for when you too start to feel the weight of responsibility getting a little heavy:
Breathe. Sounds obvious, but focussing on our breathing and taking slightly longer, slower breaths relaxes our body and refocuses our mind away from those troubling thoughts.
Sleep. Eight hours a night. You will be amazed at how much this will improve your mental and physical well-being.
Eat well. Surviving on sugar and caffeine is a recipe for ill-health. Opt for a nutritious balanced diet and take care of your gut bacteria.
Be Present. If you are focussing on what is happening at that moment, your mind can’t cycle through the hundreds of tasks awaiting you.
Practice mindfulness. Notice the intricate details of a task; start with something small like when you shower, feel the droplets reach your skin, or when you drink your morning coffee, identify the sensation of the cup against your lips, the taste, and warmth on your tongue.
Be kind to yourself. Acknowledge what is troubling you, and which things are outside of your control before considering what actions you can take to address each concern and prioritising how you will tackle them.
Seek support. Reach out to friends, family, or a local charity—especially when you feel too tired to even type a two-word reply to a text message. There are many online groups specifically for single parents who want to connect with others. You may find it reassuring to hear their experiences, especially when similar to your own.
Accept help. It can be hard when you are used to doing absolutely every household task alone, but try saying yes when assistance is offered.
Feel gratitude. Recognise all that you have to be grateful for, including those people in your life who make it a little easier for you.
Educate yourself. Read or listen to books about an area of life that interests you. My recent favourites are Why we sleep by Matthew Walker, in which he teaches us the importance of this necessity for life and Period Power by Maisie Hill, which increased my appreciation for the impact of my hormonal cycle on my daily emotions.
Invest in something for you. Whether that is simply by giving yourself the time to relax in a hot bath, purchasing a new gadget to make an every-day task easier, or registering to undertake a training course that you will enjoy. You are worthy of this investment and your children will benefit from a happier, healthier, emotionally stronger you.
Obviously, I haven’t yet prevented myself from occasionally succumbing to the overwhelm, but I am following my own advice and am about to embark on the Elephant Academy training course “Mindful Life 101,” which I hope will enable me to respond differently when the Single Parent Syndrome encroaches again.
We need to give ourselves the same care, consideration, and love that we strive to offer our children. We deserve it.