How Do Single Parents Do It?

I parented solo for 5 whole days, and it broke me.

Photo by Naomi August on Unsplash

Single parents, I just want to tip my hat to you.

All my hats — my toy train conductor’s hat, my fairy princess make-believe crown, my chef’s hat encrusted with Play-Doh— Because parenting is the hardest job there is, and somehow you’re doing it alone. You’re amazing.

My husband and I split the work of parenting our 4-year-old, yet parenting still challenges me every day in ways I never could have imagined.

Recently, I got just the tiniest taste of parenting alone, just 5 days of it, and I didn’t think I was going to survive.

Our house’s deck was falling apart, and paying somebody to build us a new one was way out of our budget, so my father-in-law came to stay with us for 4 nights, so he and my husband could build a new deck.

They did an amazing job, doing work that overwhelmed me just to think about. From the moment they woke up until sunset, they labored outside.

Meanwhile, I flew solo with the parenting, and also tried to take care of them, in terms of cooking for everyone, and cleaning, and being all smiles when they came in from a hard day’s work.

Yeah, just typing that, it sounds like some creepy 1950s housewife bullshit. Yes, I felt it was part of my job to avoid complaining about parenting, because they had been working hard all day and just wanted to come inside and relax.

Okay, it still sounds weird. I don’t know how to make it not sound weird. But I was — and am — so thankful for the work they did.

But that’s one of the hardest parts of parenting, right? Parenting work is nonstop, but because it’s unpaid, and because it’s mostly done by women, it’s often invisible, thankless. A recent survey calculated a stay-at-home parent’s work week at 96 hours, and found that, if you break down all the different types of work, stay-at-home parents should be earning $162,581 a year. Instead of, you know, $0.

While my husband and father-in-law worked so hard building that deck, I worked extra-hard every day too. But I felt it would make me seem ungrateful for their work if I dwelled on or vented about my own exhaustion.

Photo by Yuris Alhumaydy on Unsplash

What it was like to parent mostly solo for a whopping 5 days in a row

I almost gave up on naps. So many of my friends have stopped naptime, but my 4-year-old still naps about 5 days a week. We aim for it around 2:30 every day we’re home. We plan our days around it.

But when it was all up to me, I instead, in a manic voice told my daughter,

“I don’t care what you do. I just need some time to myself.”

Rather than getting her into her room, I went into my own room. I’ve always known naptime was as much for the parents as for the kids, but in my 5 days parenting alone, I realized naptime is a catch 22. We all need naptime to refresh, to get back to our best selves. But we can’t get our kid to take a nap unless we’re refreshed, unless we’re our best selves already.

I was overwhelmed and incapable of the peaceful coercion necessary to trick a kid into napping. So I settled by locking myself in my bedroom while she played with toys alone in the living room. One day I fell asleep. Another day I did yoga. Another, I wrote a poem for Medium.

Side note: You would never have known that when I wrote this poem, I was about to lose my parenting mind, and I chose to refresh by reconnecting with something positive about parenting:

I cried. A lot. I cried at what should have been naptime. I cried in the bathroom (now that she’s 4, I finally get to use the bathroom by myself most of the time!) I cried as I texted my own mom. I cried in front of my kid.

I didn’t resort to screens. (What is wrong with me? Why didn’t I resort to screens?) I finally get why all you other parents put the TV on for your kids. I’m sorry I didn’t get it before. Still, I didn’t do it, because the first thing my father-in-law did when he came inside from working all day was to show my kid videos on his phone. I knew that screentime was coming, so I couldn’t bring myself to do screentime during the day as well. But I get why everyone else does, and I probably should’ve.

I was at my wits’ end after 5 days. Probably one more day and screentime would’ve become a necessary part of the routine. Maybe if I refreshed myself while she watched some Daniel Tiger, I would’ve had it in me to make naptime happen? Maybe it all still would’ve been a shitshow, but I could’ve taken a few more breaths? Regardless, I’m sorry everyone for judging you!

So single moms, single dads, all single parents, I’m in awe of you.

I know how hard it is for me to find the time to write (almost) every day, and yet incredi-parents like Shannon Ashley, Jun Wu, and Cheney Meaghan are on here, doing amazing work. I think of them as friends and colleagues, but also role models. And they’re doing it all while parenting solo. Wow! Here’s a short list Shannon Ashley compiled of single mom writers on Medium:

While we’re at it, how do parents with more than one kid do it?

My husband and I have one kid. The grownups outnumber the kids. Literally twice as many grownups as kids. Plus grandparents nearby to help. And still, the struggle is real.

And our kid is relatively easy. I admit it. She sleeps through the night. She eats broccoli. She’s a pretty patient grocery shopping companion. She doesn’t hit or bite. We are so lucky.

So how do you parents do it when the parenting challenges are bigger? When they start hard and keep piling on?

“I don’t care what you do. I just need some time to myself.”

I’m just amazed at all of you. And before having a kid, I never would have understood any of it. And even now, I admit to still not understanding everyone’s unique circumstances.

But I think you’re all superheroes. Because I feel like a superhero every time my kid says an unprompted Thank you, every time she dresses herself, every time I get her somewhere on time, every time I manage to ignore what time it is and just be present with her.

All the freakin’ time I’m asking myself how I do it, and y’all are doing more. And I’m sorry it’s so hard. And I’m sorry that society is failing so hard at being a metaphorical village.

Thank you for doing such important work. It’s the most important work there is.