A few weeks after I adopted my 8-1/2-month-old daughter, Eleni, I was about to take her to the park when I suddenly burst into tears. As I glanced down at my little baby, my backpack overflowing with diapers, bills, bottles, and toys and a big bag of trash that desperately needed to be tossed -- I thought to myself: How can I possibly carry all this stuff? And who's here to help me?
Looking back now, I realize that as a first-time single mom with a new baby on board, I was clearly emotional, exhausted, and stressed. But in that moment, I was also struck with the reality of being on my own with a child to raise, bills to pay, a household to run, and only 24 hours in the day. No wonder I felt frazzled!
More than four years later, I can safely say that being a single mother has at times been difficult and demanding, but it's also had great rewards. If you're a single parent -- by circumstance or by choice -- you'll no doubt hit some bumps and turns along the way. Here are six strategies that can help you weather the rough times and enhance the joy of parenting.
"Single mothers can often feel isolated and overwhelmed, so it's important to feel that you have some sort of community behind you," says Sheila Ellison, author of The Courage to Be a Single Mother (HarperSanFrancisco, 2000) and founder of SingleMomsConnect.org, a nonprofit organization that matches single mothers as support partners.
Carlena Seep-Gaither, a central Minnesota single mother of two, has long relied on a solid network that includes her best friend, her parents, and other parents in her community. "I realized early on that no matter how strong I felt, I couldn't do this alone," she says.
Even now that her kids are 6 and 4, Seep-Gaither still receives an emotional (and hands-on) booster from her team when the going gets tough. "There are days when it's hard to feel as if I'm being the best mother," she admits. "But then my best friend or another parent will remind me to hang in there or tell me she's proud of all I've done for my kids, and the morale boost helps to keep me going."
For Tracy Shaw of Southbury, Connecticut, life wouldn't be the same without her Wednesday night supper club (she and three other families from her daughter's daycare center take turns cooking meals), a reasonably priced handyman, a support group called Parents Without Partners, a circle of friends, and reliable babysitters. "Even though my ex-husband lives nearby and spends two evenings a week with our daughter, I'm still her primary caregiver, activities coordinator, and chauffeur," Shaw says. "Without some help, I would have a tough time maintaining a balanced life."
It's sometimes hard for single moms to ask for help -- or even admit they need it. (As single mom Leane Vinogradov, of Calgary, Alberta, aptly puts it: "I've often been to the point of tears and filled with guilt before I could pick up the phone.") But if you crave an hour or two alone so you can nap or take a break from the kids, need help around the house, or are coping with a family problem, don't be afraid to ask for help -- and be specific about what you need, says Jane Mattes, a New York City psychotherapist and founder of Single Mothers by Choice. "There may be people in your life who want to help you but are not sure what to do."
If -- like many single moms -- you feel uncomfortable asking for help, or worry that you're being a burden to busy family and friends, try to trade services with other parents. Karen George of Mays Landing, New Jersey, often swaps babysitting duties with a neighbor. "When my husband and I first separated, my son was 15 months old, and there were times when I just needed to get out of the house for an hour," she recalls. Knowing that she had a babysitting partner nearby "saved me money -- and my sanity," she says.
"Many single moms fall into the superwoman trap, feeling that in addition to working all day, they must also keep a clean house, serve home-cooked meals, and tend to their children's needs," Mattes says. But single mothers need to be realistic about what they can -- and can't -- accomplish in a day, she adds. What's more, they shouldn't feel as though they have to overcompensate just because they're parenting on their own or going through a separation or divorce.
"My best advice to single moms is to lower your expectations and give yourself a break," says Ellison. For instance, it's okay to serve cereal or a fast-food meal for dinner every now and then, as long as your child's overall diet is healthy. And it's fine to have a less-than-spotless house if it gives you more time with your kids. "Before my son was born, I was a total neat freak," recalls Christina McCarthy of Hoffman Estates, Illinois.
"But after the baby arrived, I realized I was driving myself crazy trying to be a mom, work full-time, and keep everything perfect at home." These days, McCarthy has freed up some personal time by hiring cleaning help, but mostly she's learning to let things slide. "I realized that if I wanted to spend time with my son -- and get any sleep -- I had to rethink my priorities," she says.
No matter what your reason for being a single mother, you're probably well acquainted with a nagging sense of guilt -- about working too much (or too little), not having enough time or money, being embattled with your ex, wanting to provide a sibling for your child, feeling that your family is "fractured" or less than ideal -- you name it!
But while it's always easy to find something to feel guilty about, "it helps to focus on what's good and right about your family rather than on what's wrong or lacking," Mattes says. Ask yourself, for instance, whether your children are loved and well cared for; whether their basic needs are being met in a consistent, dependable way; and whether your home is a warm and happy place to be. "These nonmaterial things are ultimately more important than a closetful of videos and the latest toys," Ellison adds.
Elisabeth Scalchunes of Roslyn Heights, New York, agrees. "I often feel guilty about a lot of things -- that my daughter's father isn't involved in her life, that I don't have the option to work at home, and that I don't always have the money or time to take her to Mommy and Me classes," she says. "But I do take comfort in knowing that my 2-year-old daughter is happy and secure and loved by many people. And this helps me put my guilt away in the proverbial drawer."
Even if you share custody with an ex-husband or partner, you probably find it hard to get through all the things on your must-do list each day. "Still, it's important to set goals for yourself -- for the day, week, month, or year -- so that you have something to look forward to," says Patrice Karst, author of The Single Mother's Survival Guide (Crossing Press, 2000). "Having goals, no matter how modest, can keep your spirits up and keep you moving forward," she adds.
Some single moms have long-term ambitions, like going back to school, losing weight, starting a new relationship, or moving to a better neighborhood. But for many moms, the most immediate, sanity-saving goals involve finding some much-needed personal time -- whether it's going out one night a week (or month), listening to music, writing in a journal, getting fresh air and exercise, or spending a few minutes a day in quiet reflection.
"One of my goals is to read a bit before going to bed each night," says Mary Royse, a single mother who lives with her 2-year-old son in Cincinnati. "Some nights, I may only get through one or two pages before falling asleep. But at least I get to live in a fictional world for a few minutes every day," she says.
Aside from setting goals, single mothers need to take care of themselves. Whether it's making sure you eat well, taking time to exercise, keeping in touch with friends, getting enough rest, or even seeking professional counseling if you need it -- you'll be a better mom if you make yourself a priority.
Finally, it's important for all single women to try to create a peaceful and harmonious home life. For some mothers, this means putting aside bitter feelings toward their ex or finding ways to minimize past -- and present -- resentments. Karen George, for instance, still struggles to forgive her ex-husband for the demise of their eight-year marriage and family life. "But I realize that I'm basically raising my son on my own, and my actions have a big impact on his well-being," she says. "So I try to stay positive, even when negative thoughts creep in."
Adds Tracy Shaw: "Over the past few years, I've worked hard, read books, subscribed to Web sites, attended counseling, prayed -- all in a commitment to making my divorce a transition, rather than a devastatingly bitter legacy, for my daughter." And while Shaw admits to some lingering anger, her life today is largely peaceful and happy. "My 4-year-old continues to be a tremendous inspiration," she says, "and not a day goes by when I don't feel blessed to have been given the gift of motherhood."
Laura Broadwell is a writer in Brooklyn, New York, and a single mother.