Single parenting and simplifying to thrive, not just to survive

Being a parent is difficult. Being a single parent is ten times more difficult. Not only no one gave you the instructions manual, but all of a sudden, you have also to build yourself as a perfectly balanced, strong, yet loving parent while juggling home duties, finances, worries, work and god knows what else life throws at you, all by yourself.

If you are unlucky enough also to have issues with your ex… well, that’s the cherry on the cake.

I wasn’t expecting parenthood to be a walk in the park, but my parents made it look a lot easier than it actually is. So obviously they succeeded. But I often wonder what my children will think of me, looking back at my struggles, at my screaming, and melt downs, and rigidity in a pathetic attempt to feel more in control when, in reality, I’m shitting my pants at best, and often think: “These are things for grown ups! I’m not ready yet! Get me out of here!”

But do you ever feel ready? Do you always have the perfect answer for a challenging behaviour, or a completely unexpected tantrum right in the middle of the supermarket, or the bitter disappointment of them preferring to stay with the other parent because: it’s more fun there?

And are you emotionally strong enough to take all of this with a Buddhist smile on your face, that illuminates the room like a sunrise?

If I’d have to answer each of these questions, I would say no, to every single one. Absolutely not.

Bloody hell not.

And I meditate every day, and ask myself lots of questions, and I bought all the books, and watched all the webinars that are supposed to magically transform you in the best parent Earth ever witnessed, but hey! they make me feel like I’m lacking, all the time, while I try to be the best version of my broken and totally imperfect self.

Don’t get me wrong: there is at least one glimpse of eternal joy that illuminates every single one of my days being a mum, and I wouldn’t change my wonky life and unruly children for anything in the world. Things like time spent with them having a pillow fight, making pizza from scratch together, watching them play or sleep, them wanting one more kiss and one more hug at bedtime… I make sure I write down every evening every single little happy moment, and make sure, more importantly that I don’t miss them, distracted by the endless Facebook feeds, or Pinterest pins. Otherwise, life slips, unremarkable, through my fingers like sand, while I calm myself down after yet another outburst.

But it’s never in balance. There are wonderful days, and not so good days. I learned the hard way through parenthood that you cannot let the not-so-good days define you as a parent. It’s a journey with no end destination. You will never reach perfection in this hard, hard job. It’s more like the work of a beginner sculptor, chiseling away small imperfections from the wood, trying to polish it so that the initial idea can come out. But you are always a beginner, no matter how many children you produce, because every single one is a different little person, who then becomes a different teenager, then a different adult. You are constantly learning, and as such, you need to appreciate daily the efforts you make, congratulating yourself for putting your best self into it, then let go of failures, after you have taken the point.

Beating yourself up for not being up to the job, for not having done or said the right thing, focusing on past mistakes, doesn’t get you anywhere. In order to move forward, you need to look forward. As a single parent, you have even less point of reference to look up to, you often have to take decisions by yourself, you don’t have a sounding board, and the kids are specially skilled at finding your weak points and make them work to their advantage.

Well, I’m here to tell you that, no matter how hard it is, you can do it. I’m doing it. Some days are a nightmare, some others a piece of cake. Two things are fundamental for me to be the best parent I can be:

a) Stay present: don’t let bad habits get in the way, e.g. yelling all the time; instead, breathe and think whether your immediate reaction is actually the most appropriate one right then. You can practise immediately, and try again, until you always pause before reacting, saying something hurtful, hitting them or whatever.

b) Let go. Let go of expectations, let go of regrets, let go of projections and things that I should have but I don’t, things that they could do but they don’t etc. Just deal with what you have in front of you, with a fresh mind, every day, as much as possible. See your children and your life as they really are. Sometimes I catch myself wanting my children to reason a lot more than their brains are actually capable of doing at this age. Then I remind myself that they are kids, they are meant to push boundaries, and be silly. That’s the way they grow up. I also realised that sometimes you have to change your plans, sometimes you have to be a different parent from what you had in mind before the baby arrived. And that’s ok. I’m not a flexible person by nature: I do my research, and a lot of it, and when I decide the route I want to take, I stick to my guns, forging habits to support me. Food, work, family: this is the way I keep things ticking. However, I learned also to let go of my rigidity, when things don’t go to plan – and they don’t – I resist the urge to scream “But this is not what I planned!!” And breathe, and try to accept the new situation. Not easy. At all. But as a parent it’s a skill I’m still working on, that can give more calm and harmony than just shouting and trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.

Not easy, but it can be made simple. See whether any of the below can inspire you to make your life simpler and more enjoyable.

  • I have a few ground rules, but unless something is vitally important, I remain flexible: choose your battles, instead of nagging them for every single thing. I also try to keep my plans flexible, and always have a plan B. I don’t pack my days to the rim anymore, because shit happens and life gets in the way, so I establish a maximum of two important things or activities to achieve per day, e.g. Food shopping and gym class.
  • I try to give my children limited options (do you want vanilla or chocolate ice cream?) to empower them to start making small decisions by themselves, but I don’t give them complete free rein. That would just destabilise them.
  • Don’t compare yourself to other parents. Everyone is fighting their own battles, which you know nothing about. Be kind to them and to yourself, and just keep focusing on your family.
  • TV is still a huge power struggle game in my household, but I’m experimenting with “time vouchers“, so that there is an objective way of measuring the time spent in front of the screen. It seems to be ok-ish, although I can’t say I cracked it completely yet.
  • I try to spend quality time with my children, giving them proper, full, individual attention, one-to-one, even if just 10 minutes a day, away from phone/others distractions. I think this is possibly the most important thing, that seem to make a real difference. Engaging one-to-one makes each of us feeling supported, and nurtured. Troubles start when there is lack of attention, and let’s face it, nowadays we are all guilty of letting technology distract us from the important things. Having full attention gives children an opportunity to express themselves without misbehaving as a way of making themselves noticed.
  • Connect with them, try to understand why they are misbehaving: is it because of hunger/thirst/tiredness? Are they unwell? Are they frustrated/scared? Are they mirroring our own behaviour? Asking “why” is useful to also calibrate our response, and address the main, underlying issue first.
  • Nurture yourself. That always goes at the bottom of a parent’s priority list. Especially if you are a single parent, time is limited, resources are probably limited too, so pampering or going out seem crazy, irresponsible indulgences. However it’s so important to keep the boat afloat! You are important, you need to recognise it and give yourself a break.
  • Eat well. Choose food wisely. It made a huge difference in my own life and to my energy levels, to cut alcohol down, eat whole foods, limit sugary treats, not eat meat. You don’t have to do the same, but experiment about what food / drink sucks your energy.
  • Sleep. I was very bad at regulating my sleep. I would go to bed at 1am, watching a bit more rubbish telly, and founding myself completely spaced out the day after, like I had drunk a bottle of whisky. Now I make sure at least a few times a week I go to bed very early. Not always possible, but you can only try.
  • Nurture yourself means also pause: how about a warm bath in the evening, when the children are in bed, with candles, music, some essential oils, and a good book? How about a walk in the park by yourself, noticing every little detail, as if you have never been there before? How about a pyjamas evening, with a favourite box set, and tea (or hot chocolate)? How about taking up a new skill? There are tons of free videos online, and even entire courses that you can take up without spending a penny. I’m currently doing an Illustration online course, and I’m loving it. You only need a couple of hours a week to make you feel like you are still growing, and learning, and taking care of yourself, pursuing your own desires. You are not just such and such’s mum. You are you. And need a little bit of time every now and then to feel that, and to recharge your batteries so that you can give back.

No-one can run for a long time on empty.

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