It doesn't take more than a glance at your child's class contact list to realize that today's families come in all shapes, sizes, and arrangements. For many reasons, including divorce and adoption by single parents, many more children are being raised in single-parent households than ever before. In the United States, one in three children will be born to a single mother and nearly half of all marriages will end in divorce. These statistics mean that many American children will live part or all of their childhoods being raised by a single parent.
Parenting with a partner is hard enough; trying to do it without the support of an in-home partner is arguably more than twice the job and presents numerous challenges for both the adult and the child. As a single or custodial parent, you oversee almost all of your child's caretaking: the morning rush, bedtime, bathtime, homework, shopping, scheduling, driving, daily discipline and parenting, and everything in between. Even if you are sick, stressed, or exhausted, it falls on you to step up and do what's needed. Most single parents put extreme pressure on themselves to go above and beyond the call of duty to compensate for what they feel their child might be missing due to their family circumstances. And if that isn't enough, the majority of single parents juggle a job or career.
Single parenting is no doubt a noble mission and a massive undertaking, but it doesn't have to be dominated by hardship, shame, guilt, stress, or the pursuit of perfection. Raising a child on your own can be a rewarding, successful experience if you remember at all times that you are only human. Striving to create balance for yourself, reaching out to others for help, and most importantly, carving out some relaxation time for you and your child are all great places to begin laying the foundation for a happy, healthy single-parent household. Keep the following strategies in mind as you continue to develop your role:
- Strive for good enough. As parents, we all tend to hold ourselves to unrealistic ideals and images. In our heads we may wish to be those other parents that we — often inaccurately — imagine have it all together. Or we hold tightly to dreams that (ironically) can both comfort and torture us — dreams, perhaps, of giving our children a home as wonderfully dependable and secure as the Waltons'. Unfortunately, perfection is a perilous goal that leads mostly to failure and beating up on oneself. Observe the parents around you carefully before buying into a fantasy you've created. Every parent has flaws and makes mistakes, and you are no different just because you're parenting on your own.
- Find a way to work with your former spouse if you are divorced. In this case, the fact is that your child has two parents. As the custodial parent, always do your best to communicate and collaborate with your ex in ways that serve the best interests of your child. You may always carry big hurts from that relationship in your heart, but your child only has one childhood, and he loves and needs both of you. Strive to protect your child from marital strife and never ask him to choose sides. (If neglect or abuse is involved, you'll need to work with a professional family counselor.) Under normal circumstances, be sure to notice and acknowledge your spouse's efforts, love, and good parenting — for your child's sake. Work to set aside your anger and frustration to see the bigger picture and remember the more enduring wish for your child to have both parents equally present in his life.
- Be a parent. I mean precisely that: be just one parent — you do not need to act as two. Many single parents feel they have to compensate for not having a partner around the house. This is particularly true for single mothers who devote extraordinary energy to performing what they judge to be fatherly activities in addition to everyday parenting tasks.
- Make peace with your situation. Many single parents I meet carry the heavy weight of guilt for raising their children without two parents, whatever the reasons and circumstances. They feel bad over having divorced, having never married, or having had a child without a partner. At best, this self-loathing creates extra stress, and at worst, it is destructive enough to cause you to parent less effectively. Take pride and joy in the good effort you are making now.
- Learn to ask for help and reach out to others. If you are like most single parents, you are busy and tired, which can lead to your self-esteem suffering. As a result, your tendency might be to shy away from other parents. But by avoiding others, you deprive yourself of people who could likely help you with concrete tasks. Other single parents who've lived through the same dilemmas, for example, may have valuable suggestions, be willing to share child care or tasks, or offer to lend a sympathetic ear. Connecting with other single parents serves as a reminder that you are not alone in your predicament and worries.
- Learn to consult with others about decisions. You can model your parenting on the way CEOs run their businesses. They rely on teams of specialists to help them make their decisions and count on the input of others who have relevant skills and talents. Seek out trusted others in your community — parents at the playground, friends with children, your own parents or family members, teachers and psychologists at your child's school, your pediatrician, and even people at single-parenting support groups. Envision yourself as the Chairperson of the Family. Use your "consultants" to bounce ideas off and to help clarify your own problem solving. Resist hasty decisions meant to alleviate pressure. Instead read that discomfort as a signal that you need an outside perspective.
- Care for yourself. As a single parent especially, you need to meet your own needs before you can successfully meet your child's. This tension is basic to most every single-parent home. Taking care of yourself is a priority, even if something else, like the dishes or cooking a full dinner, has to slip. Be sure to get enough sleep and train yourself to take quick power naps. Eat as well as possible, exercise, and make time for the hobbies and things you love. Maybe play your music on the drive home from school. And grow better at saying no — to your child and to others — even if it feels uncomfortable at first.
As is the case for all parents, your quest is to raise a healthy and happy child. But as we know from history and from looking around our schools and neighborhoods, it is a mission that single parents are accomplishing on their own. Try to give yourself every ounce of help, acceptance, and inspiration you can. You and your child both deserve it.