I’ve been a single parent for a handful of years, so you’d think that by now, I’d be full of all this profound, life-changing knowledge gleaned from my experiences, successes, and failures. YOU’D THINK. The truth of the matter is, a lot of the time I still feel like I’m treading water and surviving rather than thriving. Granted, my success column is a bit longer than my ‘let’s never speak of this again’ column these days. But I still hit those single parent struggles. I still look around every once in a while and think, ‘WTF, dude’. But to be honest, I had those WTF moments as a partnered parent and as someone who has (pat on the back) kind of nailed the co-parenting thing lately. I’m not quite ready to Cricut myself a ‘Successful Single Parent shirt and canvas tote. But I am ready to pass along a few things that I’ve learned over the years—the good, the bad, and the future therapy fund deposit.
Your support system can look however you need it to.
Family close by who can help out when you need a hand? Amazing. Friends-like-family who drop everything when you send an SOS text? Fantastic. Good neighbors you can trust who folded your little fam into their circle? Seriously lucky as hell. A small legion of virtual friends in support groups to whom you’ve divulged your hardest and scariest thoughts during your darkest times? Sometimes exactly what we need, tbh. Everyone needs a support system and when you are doing the single parent thing, sometimes your support system will literally get you from one day to the next. We all have our own version of what this looks like, and as long as your support system gives you encouragement and holds you up when it’s hard, it’s absolutely perfect.
Learn to say no.
I’m going to level with you: it took me approximately one month to realize that I was no longer capable of being the person I thought I was/able to do the things I’d always done/willing to run myself ragged to uphold this idealized version of who I was as a mom. And that was the hardest month of my life. I was doing the jobs of two parents to two kids, PLUS my actual jobs that paid me and that I needed in order to, you know, live. So I had to scale WAY back on anything that didn’t feel necessary for our survival. I said no to a lot of stuff my kids asked for—new toys, trips, extracurricular activities. Mama was on a budget and it wasn’t big enough to include a lot of new extras! I turned down birthday party invites and requests to volunteer. I learned to say no more at work, to save space for myself and my kids. I scaled back on how we celebrated stuff; we didn’t have huge birthday party blowouts or spend hours each day baking cookies the week before Christmas. Could I have said yes to some of this? Probably. But it would have some at the expense of my own mental health, and I learned pretty early on that needed to be protected at all costs. Which brings me to my next hard-learned lesson…
Your mental health and well-being cannot take a backseat.
It’s so easy to get wrapped up in this idea that every single thing you do has to be for the benefit of your kids, and damn how it makes you feel. I quickly slid into Mother Martyr mode early on, sacrificing anything that would have made me feel good/happy/relaxed in favor of whatever my kids needed or wanted. A lot of it was guilt; I didn’t want them to suffer for what I considered our mistakes. But a lot of it was…selfish. Even if I suffered because of it, a part of me enjoyed the smug satisfaction of martyring myself for my kids. And then I started therapy. And put a stop to that shit IMMEDIATELY because my therapist was like, what are you doing to yourself. You don’t need to burn yourself out to make their flames hotter or higher. When you shine bright, so do they. When you are rested and stress-free and fulfilled and happy(ish), you are a better parent (and this goes for coupled and single parents alike!). Prioritize your well-being, however that looks for you. I came very, very close to my flame going out forever, and I’m so glad I found a therapist who knocked some sense into my stubborn ass.
Let go of perfection.
This one isn’t just for my single parents—this is a universal bit of advice. Let it go, because you will never, ever achieve it. Set your bar so much lower! Stop setting yourself up for failure! I promise you, your kids aren’t looking at everything you do with the same critical eye you cast upon yourself. They literally do not care. I’m reminded of the time I absolutely lost it over school lunches. I was breaking myself into pieces to put together these healthy, adorable, curated lunches for my kids—spending too much money and time on food they barely picked at while at school. And my oldest, bless her little heart, was like, ‘Mom, can you just send a sandwich? I really like sandwiches’. Send the freaking sandwich and a bag of pretzels. Let clean laundry pile up one week if you can’t find the time or effs to put it away. Give yourself a break and stop breaking yourself to be perfect, because no one is. And again, your kids just don’t care. They’re happy when you’re happy.