Learning to be a single parent

It has been just over two years since I became a single mother, and even still that sentence has the power to shock me slightly; that this is the path my life has taken. That I have become the I-don’t-know-how-she-does-it-woman, as myself and another single mum friend jokingly call each other (silent subtext and-I’m-so-glad-I-don’t-have-to).

Because let’s be honest, we all do, or did in my case, look at single parents with a mixture of horror and ‘there but for the grace of…’ ness. How are they coping, how do they manage? Before I separated, I remember a friend and I commiserating over how we were barely coping with one child, two parents living in the same house. How did single parents manage, we wondered?

Now, on the inside, I know better. It’s a cliché to quote J.K. Rowling on being a single mother (she said she is prouder of her years as a single mother than any other part of her life), but it is true. There is nothing I have done in my life that makes me more proud of myself than the fact that throughout a marriage breakdown, I kept everything on the road, and maintained a loving, solid home for my child.

One of the first things all newly single parents ask you is, ‘Does it get any easier?’ – a look somewhere between hope and fear hovering on their face. It absolutely does.

1 You need other single parents in your life. People who are in the exact same situation, who get it from the inside out. Ideally you want a mixture of two kinds: those who have been single parents for some time – more than anyone these are the people who can really convince you at the beginning that things will get better, easier, less sad.

You also need people who are at around the same stage as you, so you can console each other, reassure that you are both struggling with the same things. As a journalist, I am professionally obliged to be nosy, and I found it quite easy to get in contact with other women in similar situations after my marriage fell apart.

If you know any other person in the same situation, this is the time to put shyness aside and reach out. Believe me, anyone who has been through the stress of marital breakdown will be more than happy to help someone else in the same boat. Even easier, subscribe to Frolo, a recently launched app by Irish woman Zoe Desmond. A location-based networking app for single parents, it both facilitates meet-ups with others in similar circumstances, and acts as a source of advice and support by way of the message board. I interviewed Zoe last week for my podcast How to Fall Apart, if you want to hear more of her story and advice.

2 You will feel lonely, there is no getting away from it. There will come a time when you are ready to face into this loneliness, take it on; stop making plans or working every evening, instead sit in the quietness of your own house and not feel overwhelmed by it. Until that happens, putting plans in place, or having tried and tested formulas that will distract you at the ready, is essential.

I instigated movie nights on Saturdays, and instead of clock watching until bedtime, I began to really look forward to the evening. My brother came over every Monday night to do bedtime, my father for dinner on Wednesday nights. People who are easy, who do not require hosting. Who might even empty the dishwasher while you do bath time.

3 At the start it can seem like some aspects of your situation will always feel slightly heart-breaking, but you would be amazed by how much you can come to terms with. Ignore anyone who makes you feel like you are now a permanently sad person – this is not the case.

4 Counselling should be a non-negotiable. As a parent, you’re going to spend a lot of time worrying about how all of this is affecting your children. You’re going to be busy, stressed, to feel as if your life is at times a matter of running always slightly late from one thing to the next. Given all this, it’s quite amazing the extent to which you can ignore what you are feeling. Unacknowledged feelings are exhausting to carry around. And God knows you’re going to be exhausted enough as it is; you don’t need the additional burden. Someone and somewhere where you can go, ideally once a week at least if possible, to examine what’s going on inside, is essential.

5 This too shall pass. Sometimes this is the only thing that will get you through a day of real sadness. A woman decades into her separation said this to me early on and some days I would repeat it to myself ad infinitum, through gritted teeth. The good thing is that the more sad days you have (and they will at times feel endless), conversely they then get that little bit easier, because you learn that you will come out the other side.

6 Until they happen to you, you don’t know all the benefits, or the positive ways, in which this will change you. You simply cannot imagine them because in the early days the leap of imagination required is too much.

You probably know you will become stronger, but you don’t know how satisfying, how enjoyable that will be. All the little benefits that come with it. Less sweating the small stuff. Better boundaries. The deepened friendships with the people who support you. The fact that having had to rebuild your life, chances are that somewhere along the line you will make some improvements from what went before.

7 Talk to other people. Even if they’re not necessarily a single parent, chances are they have dealt, or are currently dealing, with something. This is not to suggest a sort of relishing the grief of others, but when you open yourself up, you find everyone has their stuff to deal with. It’s comforting, and will make you feel less other, a trap which is easy to fall into as a single parent.

8 Some days you need to make your life very small. On those mornings when you wake up and feel your energy drained from contemplating your own life, make a list of just what needs to be done that very day. Ensure your children are looked after. Meals are made. Work commitments honoured. Stop future thinking. Your energy, and your sense of wellbeing, will return.

9 At the times when your children are with the other parent, sometimes killing yourself trying to burn through the to-do list and clean the entire house is what will make you feel better. Other days you need to get into bed and spend a day watching movies. It’s quite hard to make the switch from the relentlessness of single parenting to suddenly having hours to fill with whatever you want. It can help to make a list of options in advance, so if you feel overwhelmed by panic when they go, you can scroll through it and see what jumps out.

10 If your child is having a playdate and is occupied, sit there and do nothing. Read your book. Call a friend. Use the time to relax. When our neighbour’s child was in playing, I used to try to get on top of the laundry, until his mother, also a single parent of one, told me to take advantage of the fact that my daughter was occupied. She knows the occasional intensity that can come with parenting one child (the demands for play). Being a single parent can be intense at times. Take your breaks whenever they come along.

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