by Bonny Osterhage
When it comes to juggling the responsibilities of parenting, it can feel like there simply aren’t enough hours in the day. There are times when just taking care of a child’s basic needs can seem overwhelming, not to mention all the “extras” like helping with homework, disciplining, providing emotional support and chauffeuring to various activities. It is easy to see why, at the end of the day, many parents are physically and emotionally spent.
Even under the most ideal circumstances, raising happy, healthy, well-adjusted children is a daunting task. But for those parents who, whether by choice or chance, suddenly find themselves going it alone, the demands are even greater.
“Single parents feel pressured to be the single source of support to their children,” says Dr. Geoff Gentry, psychologist and vice president of clinical services at Clarity Child Guidance Center. “That’s a lot of pressure for just one person.”
Sharing the Load
When it comes to single parenting, many people mistakenly assume that asking for help implies that they are somehow incompetent or not up to the task. On the contrary, a strong support system and outside adult influences are key elements when it comes to navigating the single-parent waters.
When Lisa Huff suddenly found herself widowed at the age of 36, in addition to dealing with her own grief, she had to deal with becoming the sole caregiver and provider to her two young daughters. Fortunately for Huff, she has a solid network of family and friends, as well as a list of eight trustworthy babysitters that she keeps on speed dial. However, for those who may not be as fortunate, a little “outside-the-box” thinking is in order.
“The number of adults who interact with a child and take an interest in his or her life is important,” says Gentry, who is quick to point out that those adults don’t necessarily have to be relatives. He suggests looking to teachers, coaches, scout leaders and other community leaders for those outside influences.
Taking Care of YOU
One of the most important aspects of single parenting is remembering to take care of your own needs. Kate Jaceldo, social worker, uses the analogy of the oxygen mask on an airplane, describing how the flight attendant always instructs adults to put on our own oxygen masks first before attempting to help others.
“If we can’t breathe, then we can’t help the person next to us,” she explains. “If a parent is overextended and stressed out, then he or she can’t be emotionally present with the child.”
All parents, especially those going it alone, have a responsibility to be emotionally and physically healthy for their children. That means taking some “me” time whenever and wherever it is available.
For Huff, that means getting up 30 minutes before her children for some quiet time, and utilizing the childcare at her gym in order to exercise.
“If nothing else, I try to work out daily,” she says.
You might have to think outside-the-box to capture some of that elusive and important “me” time. Jaceldo suggests looking for online parenting message boards or support groups. Ask other single parents in your community if they would be willing to trade babysitting or help around the house. You could even look into starting a time exchange/barter community, where you can trade your skills for other people’s time on tasks in which you need help.
“Find ways to connect with yourself, your friends and you children in new ways. Even if that means just having a picnic on the floor on a random Tuesday night,” says Jaceldo.
Lowering Your Standards
What? We know lowering your standards can sound counterproductive, but it is absolutely necessary to keep from putting undue pressure and unrealistic expectations on yourself.
“You have to understand that you have lost a significant amount of support, and rituals and routines will be interrupted,” says Gentry. “You must be willing to give yourself latitude and be patient.”
That does not mean that you throw in the towel and give up any hope of ever washing your hair or living in a clean home again. But it does mean that you have to learn to prioritize and understand that things might not be done exactly the way you want them to be for a while. Jaceldo suggests that you pick your battles wisely.
“You might need to lower certain standards about how clean your house is at the end of the day, or let the kids have a few more minutes of television time while you pay bills or pack lunches for the next day,” she says.
Parents also need to understand that, when it comes to rebuilding a life, it is important to take cues from their offspring as to what works and what does not. Gentry equates the process to a Montessori type approach where the adult follows the lead of the child, rather than the other way around.
“People tend to go to their strengths in times of stress, when sometimes that is not what’s needed,” he says.
For example, if you are a hyper-organized person, perhaps your child simply needs you to slow down in order to process the changes taking place in his or her life.
“You must know your child and be open hearted and open minded to his or her needs,” Gentry adds.
No Room for Guilt
No parent is perfect and everyone makes mistakes daily. Obsessing over those mistakes and/or harboring guilt over your situation, however, is not productive and only adds to the single parent’s stress.
“Let go of the guilt associated with raising your child in a ‘broken home,’” says Jaceldo. “Remember that healthy children come from all sorts of backgrounds, so your child is not ‘doomed’ because he or she is being raised in a single-parent household.”
Bonny Osterhage is a San Antonio freelancer and mother of two.