As a single parent, it can be easy to doubt your parenting decisions, feel guilty about how you spend your time and go a little bonkers trying to juggle all of your responsibilities. Without a parenting partner, the decision-making is all on you, and while that’s a lot of pressure, it also means you’re in full control of raising your children with the values, skills, and traits you feel are important.
It’s okay to feel some stress — especially during the toddler years — but if you’re experiencing too much stress on a regular basis, or you don’t have a healthy way of dealing with your stress, it can leak into your relationship with your children. Being surrounded by tense or anxious adults can even affect your child’s feelings and attitudes about the world.
That’s why it’s important to find ways to center yourself, mentally and emotionally, not only keeping yourself strong during stressful moments, but also to be an inspiring role model for your kids. Whether you realize it or not, they’re constantly learning from you about how to deal with their emotions.
Here are some tips to stay sane and centered as a single parent:
1. Develop a support network.
Raising children is difficult enough, even with two parents. It’s much harder on a single parent, but a support network can help take some of the weight off your shoulders. Family members, friends, and even other parents you meet can all help support you and your children. Don’t be afraid to reach out to others to vent, relax, and navigate the world of parenting — if it helps you stay sane and calm, then it’s benefitting your children already.
With a support network, you’ll have other adults to vent your frustrations to. It’s important to have people who help you work through your problems without inadvertently leaning on your children to support you. These adults can also serve as secondary role models for your kids, opening your children’s eyes to ideas and skills you can’t teach them on your own.
Remember, your support network isn’t just for you; it’s for your kids, too, so make sure they get a chance to know the other adults you’re connecting with.
2. Organize your finances.
Money is a huge stressor for most Americans, and even more stressful when you’re raising your kids on a single income. It’s critical for single parents to get a handle on their finances. You may think money shouldn’t matter as much as time spent with your kids, but think of it this way…organizing your finances is less about the tangible goal of having money and much more about the intangible goal of reducing your family’s anxiety and being able to provide a comfortable lifestyle for your kids.
Take a look at your existing debts, and set specific, achievable goals for eliminating them. Create a budget, and take the time to learn about long-term investment options (like college and retirement funds). Start small; no one becomes a millionaire overnight. Take small steps by making whatever payments you can afford towards your debts and gradually increasing the amount you’re saving for your kids’ futures. As your financial situation improves, you will feel less stressed, and your children will pick up on this. In the end, no matter how much money you make, having your finances organized enhances your family’s overall well-being.
3. Create a routine.
A daily routine is extremely helpful for keeping yourself calm and balanced, and especially helpful for your kids. Schedule your meals, homework time, family time, and bedtime. That way, both you and your kids know what to expect on a given day, helping you all stay organized. Routine also helps reduce some of the stress on your kids, which will ease your stress by making them feel secure in their environment.
With a planned schedule that you can rely on, there’s less time spent scrambling to pick up food for dinner, rushing through your morning, or suddenly realizing there’s a homework assignment due tomorrow. Sure, something may slip through the cracks here and there or come up suddenly, but with a routine, even life’s interruptions won’t knock your family off its tracks.
As a single parent, you simply don’t have the amount of time to do everything you can do when you have a co-parent. Simplifying your life will help keep both you and your kids from feeling overwhelmed.
You might have to cut back on activities (for both you and your little ones) or schedule their activities to take place at the same time as yours. This may mean going to the park around the block instead of the movies in the next town over or cooking meals in bulk each week instead of from scratch every night. Remember that you’re only one person, and you’re not helping your children if you run yourself ragged every day. If you don’t find ways to simplify, you’ll burn out quickly.
5. Set aside time for your kids.
Between work, chores, school, and events, it can seem impossible to squeeze in enough time to just talk with your kids. Spending time together may be more important than you realize, and when something’s important, you make time for it. Quality time should be a part of your daily routine — if not daily then definitely make it a weekly occurrence.
Spending time together — whether talking or doing an activity — helps build your relationship and allows you both to relax. This leaves both you and your kids ready to take on other responsibilities with renewed energy. Play games, read a book or go for a walk. Find ways to stay engaged with your children on a regular basis.
6. Take time for yourself.
Between all of your responsibilities and spending quality time bonding with your kids, it probably seems impossible to make time for yourself. Remember, when you are healthy and operating at your best, you’re giving your best to your job, your relationships, and your kids.
If you take a few minutes each day to focus on your own well-being and health, you’ll become more efficient at your other tasks. Try it out for one week. Set 15 or 20 minutes aside — in the morning before the kid's wake, on your lunch break, or after the kids go to bed — to focus on you. Read a book you like, take a warm bath, exercise, or do a crossword puzzle. Choose something you enjoy that’s not too mentally taxing. It will help you feel refreshed, and reduce stress. After your one-week-trial is up, notice whether this has had any effect on your energy level, your mood, and your ability stay calm under pressure.
7. Be consistent.
Whether it’s with your routine or your discipline, both you and your children need consistency so you all know what to expect from each other and there are fewer surprises to leave you feeling stressed.
This is especially important when it comes to discipline. Your children need to know which behaviors are acceptable and which aren’t. If you scold them for one action at one time and you say nothing about the same action at another time, how can they know if it’s okay? If you work with caregivers (whether it’s a nanny, babysitter, or a family friend), talk to them about how you expect your children to behave and what type of discipline works for them. Make sure you’re on the same page with parenting styles and techniques — after all, your caregivers are helping you raise your kids.
8. Be honest.
Honesty is important as a parent. It’s liberating for you, and it teaches your children the value of telling the truth. It also keeps them from growing up with false hopes or ideas about the world.
That often means telling them the story about why you and your spouse split up — within reason for their age level, of course. You don’t have to tell them every detail of the fights or the nasty things that were said, but it’s important not to lie. Instead of making up false stories, simply tell as much of the truth as you feel is appropriate.
It also means being honest about the possibility of getting back together with your ex; if there isn’t a chance, don’t let your kids believe it might happen. Gently explain to them why you and your ex-spouse aren’t a good match for each other, and this is separate from the fact that you both love them very much. Answer their questions honestly, in age-appropriate language, so they understand.
9. Ask for help.
Remember that support network you built? It’s okay to ask for help! If you need childcare while you attend an appointment, see if someone you know can babysit for a few hours. You can always reciprocate with other families in your social circle. For example, you might arrange school pick-up days with other parents, so each of you only has to stop at the school once or twice a week.
It’s okay to seek help outside of your friends and family, too. If you’re finding your responsibilities are too much to handle, then outsource. Think about more than just babysitters. Hire a teen in the neighborhood to mow your lawn, rake your leaves, or shovel your driveway — saving you time and maybe giving you more time to spend with your kids.
10. Stay positive.
It’s tough, but in the midst of parenting, it’s essential to stay positive — this is perhaps the most important lesson you can teach your kids. Don’t focus on the things you can’t do; be thankful for the things you can do. Smile often, and make an effort to say positive statements around your kids. This will help lift everyone’s mood — even if you’re faking the positivity at first, it can have a real effect on your emotions, lifting your mood. Whether your own smile feels real or forced, the impact will be real for your kids.
Peter Mueller is the founder of Father's Rights Law Center and FathersRights.com. Mr. Mueller has been practicing law for 39 years and is licensed in California and Illinois. Graduating with honors from Loyola Law School in 1972, he was selected to associate with Chicago's leading corporate firm and was also invited to become a Visiting Professor of Corporate Law at Loyola Law, where he had held the position as Assistant Dean of the Business School during his law studies. At Loyola Law, he taught upper-class law students the core courses in business law while he worked for General Motors, American Oil Company, The Tribune Company, and the Catholic Bishop at Kirkland & Ellis, LLP.