It’s hard enough being a working mom, but what if you’re a single mom? Before you start the pity party, read how we enterprising solo moms make it work—and maybe get a helpful tip or two in the bargain.
Recently, during a break at the office, my colleague Carolyn was venting about how her husband was going out of town for a whole week—and how she had no idea how she’d manage: How would she get the kids off to school and arrive at work on time, showered, sane and stain-free? How would she juggle a PowerPoint presentation two days away with dinner prep, homework, bathtime and bedtime, not to mention the newly discovered leaky roof, all falling on her?
Lacking spousal backup, how do people manage work commitments, life’s curveballs and parenting duties without something getting lost in the shuffle?
As my married colleagues commiserated, I burst out laughing and said, “Welcome to my life!”
Suddenly, my normally unenviable single status made me the most admired person in the room. Carolyn and my other mom colleagues realized that maybe I knew something they needed to know (aha moment), that maybe single moms aren’t forever frazzled but, rather, necessarily resourceful. In a Darwinian sense, we have adapted to our environment and have evolved—by freakish fate—into a stronger species.
“Ladies,” I said, holding court in the kitchenette, “let me share.”
Honing Little Helpers
Full disclosure: The home I share with my 7-year-old son, Zachary, is hardly a tableau of organized perfection. It’s more like a video game on auto-replay, with menacing to-dos flying at me every second. Which brings me to the most important word in my playbook: outsource! I don’t just mean buying prewashed lettuce or hiring a house- keeper. I mean outsource to your kid. Single moms need a team member at home, which is why they quickly learn how capable their children are.
My married friend Wendy once told me she wanted her kids to enjoy her in the little time she has with them. So when they balk at doing chores, she caves—and then seethes. “I don’t want them to hate me,” she said sheepishly. “Why on earth not?” I asked. “It’s their job to hate you sometimes! They don’t want another really tall friend. They have plenty of friends on Facebook.”
Despite the stereotype of the single mom who treats her kid like a buddy, the truth is most of us don’t take it personally if our kids don’t feel like our BFFs when we hand them the broom. We want stuff done and chalk up these chores to teaching life skills—and creating great catches for their future spouses. Plus, having them help out gives everyone more fun-time later. Beds can be made in the morning (tossing the quilt on top counts)! Dishes can be cleared at night (hint: not the good china)! Laundry can be sorted into colors and whites (an educational experience)! And—don’t faint—homework can be done independently by humans shorter than five feet tall (while you soak in the tub, with the door cracked, of course)!
I discovered that last one the hard way. When my son started elementary school, I was shocked to learn that as a single mom, after a long day’s work I also had to put together elaborate dioramas (and run to the store to buy obscure art supplies), make succulent dishes from Third World countries and create Colonial costumes. At wit’s end, one night I put a note to the teacher in my son’s homework folder that said, “I’m sorry I couldn’t complete tonight’s assignment. I don’t keep green glitter in the emergency kit with the Neosporin. Also, I graduated from kindergarten three decades ago.” His lovely teacher, also a working mom, got the message and never again assigned work that an actual student couldn’t do.
The Village People
That’s not to say all teachers will be so accommodating, or that other parents won’t “help” their kids by editing (read: writing) their essays or making their projects look professional. But the takeaway was that I got very comfortable doing less. Just as working moms might compare themselves to stay-at-home moms and feel guilty for the store-bought cupcakes and missed classroom volunteer days, I realized that as a single mom I was comparing myself to married moms and feeling guilty for being a mere mortal who could not morph herself into two distinct people.
After the Homework Incident, I was way more inclined to let go of what I could and cultivate a village for the rest. “Being a parent, coupled or not, helps us build true community,” says Minneapolis-based Mikki Morrissette, founder of choicemoms.org and single mom of Sophia, 14, and Dylan, 9. She recalls dragging her then-toddler daughter, stroller and work gear up and down the steps of the New York City subway, refusing help when it was offered, until she realized that community is there for a reason: “We have to retrain ourselves to accept help, no matter how self-sufficient we feel.”
That goes for all moms, no matter your marital status. Divorced mom Rabiah Hendricks, an HR manager at a telecom company who lives in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, says that when she was married, she didn’t realize how disconnected she was from her community because she had a partner around to help. Now she makes it a point to network with other moms at work or at 8-year-old son Zavion’s school, and she thinks coupled moms should, too. “It helps to have another parent who can take my son home when I get called into an unscheduled work meeting right when I’m about to leave for pickup,” says Rabiah.
Dominica Myers, an executive assistant in Seattle, uses the same networking strategy with reliable teenagers in her neighborhood who can watch her son, Jack, 6, in the event of an impromptu work commitment. And Meg Garlinghouse, the head of social impact at LinkedIn, who lives in San Francisco, has perfected the art of the “trade,” dropping 4-year-old daughter Emme at a neighbor’s house for an hour to get something done and then reciprocating. And there’s a bonus: community building is good for our kids. As single-mom high school teacher Marne Gulley from Aurora, CO, puts it, “My 10- and 6-year-old girls gain great perspectives from the village that supports them.”
All Systems Go
Still, as kumbaya as this sounds, I also need to have my own systems in place. The village isn’t going to remind me to bring the right toy/picture/ clothing/food item to school on the right day, or keep me on track with deadlines, doctor appointments, camp sign-ups and how many fruit crushers are left in the fridge. Mikki came up with a great solution after struggling to juggle work life. “I use my bathroom mirror as a giant Post-it board,” she says. “I finally learned to put up no more than three primary goals a day, then move them into the Done column on the mirror so I can see, as the week goes by, what I’ve accomplished.” And, she adds, “Those Post-its include reminders for Exercise and Self.”
Of course, if you work in an office, like my friend Meg, the bathroom mirror won’t do. She says her most useful strategy involves plotting errands a week in advance and clustering them geographically and by degree of foot traffic, which means she never goes to Trader Joe’s on crowded Sundays. Her biggest time-saver when she’s working long hours? “Never drive to buy something you can get online.”
In our house, we’ve created weekly rituals that are fun for my son but secretly make things easier on me. He knows that Tuesdays I work late, so he gets his favorite babysitter along with his favorite hot dogs. Friday is fish night, so when he asks, “What else can I have?” He knows the answer is “An empty stomach!” Wednesday is pizza and computer night, so he doesn’t expect screen time on the other weeknights, when I’m trying to get him to bed.
Andra Brosh, PhD, a psychologist in Los Angeles, agrees that when kids of working moms know the drill—either with predictable routines or by having specific responsibilities—everyone wins. With her busy teenagers, the divorced mom says, she avoids calendar chaos by not only synchronizing their appointments with hers but also making them responsible for remembering their own commitments. This way, fewer things fall through the cracks for her, and it allows her kids to practice being independent while learning from their inevitable mistakes.
The Not-So-Gold Standard
Learning from mistakes is something we single moms do constantly: Never again will I make a 2 a.m. Tylenol run with a toddler running a 103-degree fever in the back seat; my medicine cabinet has been well stocked ever since. But as I told Carolyn and the group at work that day, the best advice I can give is to do whatever works for you and not worry what other people think about it. (I’ll spare you the details on our less-than-medically-sanctioned bathtime routine.) Rabiah, for instance, says there are days she plants her son in front of his Xbox so she can catch up on magazines. And she sees nothing wrong with using the two hours at his soccer game to get her emails returned so she can feel more present later, when she’s one-on-one with him. Besides, after the tenth iteration of “Great kick!” what kid is listening anyway?
Likewise, Jennifer little, who has both a 5-year-old son and a demanding job in PR in Dallas, says that given her late hours, she used to feel guilty that she was feeding her son later than the “proper” dinnertime. “Finally,” she says, “I realized I had to stop trying to conform and live up to standards that didn’t make sense for our lives. This is why a crock-pot comes in very handy!”
I’ve discovered that a sense of humor comes in handy as well when marching to your own beat. Earlier this year, I was mortified when my son decided to bring in a shoebox full of granola bars and LEGOs to represent our family’s “culture”—that is, until I heard from the teacher that while other kids droned on about “culture” of little relevance to their first- grade peers, my son’s was the most popular presentation.
Jennifer Edens, a senior inventory analyst in Medina, OH, and single mom of Nathan, 8, and McKenna, 4, sums it up best: “Be flexible and remember, the perfect family is what you make it.” That’s exactly what my colleague Carolyn did. In fact, when her husband got back from his trip, he was in for a pleasant surprise. She’d become so efficient using my single-mom tips that she managed to find time for a weeknight date night, not in a romantic restaurant but on her sofa.
She was thrilled not to deal with traffic, reservations, blow-drying her hair and finding a cute outfit, all of which allowed her to truly relax and spend uninterrupted quality time with her husband, her favorite yoga pants and a lovely glass of wine.
Lessons from Single Moms
1. Broaden your idea of "right" and "wrong." It's liberating to realize how many choices you have once you start doing things your own way. Your family eats late? Great, you have family dinner. Your kid brings takeout for multicultural week? Cool. Doing what works for your family takes the pressure off and makes everyone—parents and kids—happiest.****
2. Plan ahead. Have not just Plan B but Plans C and D on deck, too. This way, when things don’t go according to Plan A (and inevitably they won’t), you won’t feel like the entire ship is going down.
3. Make “me time” a must-do. Single moms know more than anyone else the truth in the saying, “Happy mommy, happy baby.” Even if you can’t get to yoga every day, taking 15 minutes to thumb through a magazine, soak in the tub or chat on the phone with a friend will do wonders for your mood and energy. Or (heavens), you might even date.
4. Make it simple. Instead of feeling guilty for taking the easy way out, realize how brilliant you are! When I send my son to school with the pre-made costume instead of having slaved over a homemade one for days, I look at the other moms and think, “Too bad for you—I got to watch Downton Abbey.”
5. Have lots of rituals. Pizza night, movie night, babysitter night. Knowing what’s happening, and when, frees up tons of bandwidth for you and makes things fun for kids.
6. Use the village. Even if you’re not the asking type, you’ll be surprised how much neighbors, colleagues and other kids’ moms actually enjoy helping people out. Let them!
7. Laugh out loud. Perfection is never funny; in fact, it’s boring. You want funny? Let things go wrong, and enjoy telling that story for years to come.
Lori Gottlieb is a relationship and family therapist as well as a writer. She is a contributing editor for the Atlantic, and she’s written several books, including the New York Times best-seller Marry Him: the Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough, and articles for many national publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her son.