I was three and a half months pregnant when my partner and I separated, and I suddenly had to rearrange my life around something I’d never anticipated: single parenthood. In operatic moments, I made mental ledgers of all the things I’d likely have to give up as a sole caretaker: my demanding career, my exercise routine, my friends, reading, going out to dinner, going out to movies, going out at all. I was terrified to parent alone.
Now I can say that some of those fears were realised. But most were not. The big surprise was how little time I had to worry about any of it. Single-parenting is never easy — it often feels like my daughter and I are living in a Jenga tower, with any clumsy move threatening to topple the whole thing. But when you’re forced to make all the decisions, you start to make better decisions — with your kid, your time, and your life. Here’s what I’ve learned about parenting from being on my own.
Being Bored Is Good for Kids
Last summer, I decided to run a half-marathon, my first since my daughter, now 3, was born. I followed one of those Hal Higdon training regimens (recommend!), but because I couldn’t leave her with a partner while I trained, I had to strap her into the jogging stroller and take her on some excruciatingly long runs. This didn’t go well at first. There were tantrums. There was one particularly unlovely emergency diaper change miles from any bathroom. But eventually, she got used to it, and now she loves running with me (and often tries to run alongside me for a couple blocks until she tires out).
It’s one of the many boring adult activities she enjoys. We do nearly everything together out of necessity, from grocery shopping to cleaning the house, so through sheer exposure, unfun things have become fun for her. For me, too. On runs, we chat about birds and flowers. At Sephora, one of her favourite stores, I offer lavish descriptions of the potions on display while she hordes free sponges and Q-tips for her dolls.
Yes, I’d prefer if we spent all our time together reading or in front of an easel, cultivating her inner Picasso. But errands can be just as edifying, if not more so: She’s learning about the world around her and, ideally, starting to understand these tasks as an important kind of labour. Her Goldfish don’t miraculously appear in the cabinet, and she knows it; she’s with me every time I buy them.
If you’re loathe to schlepp your kids around with you, which I totally get, try doing one errand at a time. Point things out along the way, and let your kids touch and play with whatever captivates them. Then do it again and again and again. Eventually, it becomes routine, and they start to look forward to it. “Mummy, can we run errands?” is a question my daughter asks regularly.
You Can Say No
I used to be terrible at saying no. Before my daughter was born, you could’ve gotten me to watch your five colitic dogs for free while you trekked through India for a year. Now I say no to almost everything. Work events that creep into evening hours. Social gatherings that aren’t kid-friendly. Neighbours requesting favours. It’s a matter of survival: If I overcommit and can’t meet my daughter’s needs, who will?
Interestingly, I’ve gotten better about saying no at work, too. I’m a design editor, which means I get dozens of PR pitches for sexy things like office chairs and smart toilets. Before my daughter arrived, I might’ve wasted time mulling a dumb pitch, then spent another 10 or 15 minutes crafting a respectful rejection email. Now I say no thanks and move on.
This isn’t a big revelation. Most people become more discerning about how they spend their time after having children. But perhaps not discerning enough. I’m surrounded by parents who take on more than they can reasonably handle, who fall into a heap of exhaustion every night after being too promiscuous with their “yeses.”
The trick is to treat your time like a series of transactions. “What will I get out of agreeing to water my neighbour’s plants or accepting this extra assignment at work, and does it outweigh what I get out of spending time with my kids or time to myself?” Nine times out of 10, the answer is no. You might feel gross articulating your priorities in such blunt terms, but when you do, you make it a lot easier to say no to things you can’t do in the first place.
Letting Other People Parent Your Kid Helps Everyone
Like most people, I’m a better parent when I don’t do it all the time. I’m fortunate to live within 10 minutes of not only my mother and father, but also both my siblings and their partners, all of whom love my daughter madly and have embraced “it takes a village” as Holy Writ. More than just willing babysitters, they are second and third (and fourth and fifth and sixth and seventh) parents.
My parents, in particular, have assumed an intensive nurturing role. They see my daughter almost every day and watch her overnight about once a week, while I meet up with friends or go out with my new boyfriend or stay home and watch Netflix (a true luxury for single parents). There’s the obvious benefit: I get time to myself. And when I get to spend time alone, or with other adults, I’m more patient with my daughter.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have family nearby. The key for any parent, single or otherwise, is to suss out who’s dependable in your community, and then not feel guilty about depending on them. People love cute kids! Especially people who may not have children of their own, or who, like my mother, have retired and are looking for new ways to feel useful. Asking them to care for your children is a gift not a burden. The other important point is to back off and let them act like parents. Don’t micromanage the relationship. The more ownership you give others over your child, the more invested they will be in her life.
It’s OK to Let Your Kid See You Struggle
The other week, I got deathly ill and couldn’t get out of bed to brush my teeth, let alone tend to my daughter. Her response: “Mummy, I’m going to take care of you. OK?” Adorable, but also… sad! She’s only 3, and she already thinks she has to take care of me!? I assumed I’d be toothless and senile before she felt that way.
Another perspective: She gets to see me struggle. She sees me working full-time and caring for her and managing a million other things and recognises, however crudely, that our comfortable lives take work. That struggling is perfectly normal. That domestic labour matters.
If you’re upset about something, don’t play the stoic or shut yourself in the bathroom to sob alone. Open up to your kid. Let her see how frustrated you are, and talk about your coping mechanisms. (“Mummy is going to scream into a pillow now,” is something my daughter hears perhaps too often.) Then when you feel better, articulate that, too, so she understands distress can be worked through and resolved. And hopefully, when your child is older, she feels like it’s ok to struggle, talk about it, and ask for help.