Shouldering the Mental Load on Your Own
Single parents often carry the pressures of parenting on their own and burnout comes hard and fast. Relief does exist in the form of a support village—here's what to know and how to create yours.
Parenting is tough. Worrying about finances, household chores, morning and bedtime routines, child-friendly recreation, doctor’s visits and everything in between can feel unbearable—for two parents. When this load is the sole responsibility of one parent, unbearable feels like impossible. Single parents suffer greatly by carrying the full mental load of these responsibilities.
Right in this moment, my elderly mom and 3-year-old daughter are bickering about a myriad of things, I have no idea what we’re having for lunch and dinner, nor do I feel like cooking. I am behind on work and just want to go to sleep but when I tried to get in a 10-minute nap, my daughter jumped on me and said, “I’m hungry.” I feel drained, stressed, and neglectful toward not only my mom and my daughter, but to myself. I wish I had someone to help, but I do not. Although I have a unique situation in being the single mom of a toddler and taking care of an elderly parent with Alzheimer’s/dementia, I know from listening to other single moms that they are feeling the weight of the sole mental load as well.
Naomi Nedd, mother to a 3-year-old son in New York says, “24/7 with a 3-year-old—it's like I can't remember the last time I completed a thought from start to finish without interruption. Sometimes you just want to yell, 'Geez, let me finish a thought' or 'let me wipe my butt.' But you can't scream those things at a 3-year-old.”
Adding to the regular everyday stress is being a single parent during a worldwide pandemic. “I can't possibly be the only single parent who has had the thought, ‘Oh my gosh, what's going to happen to my kid [if I get sick]," says Nedd. She also spoke to the idea that actually going to work, as stressful as it can be, was a much-needed break. “The parenting during a pandemic—I can't even describe it," says Nedd.
Although all parents have their fair share of angst amid the various responsibilities of caring for children, the load on a single parent is that much more. “I do believe that being a parent is difficult on all ends, whether you're a single parent or not,” says Kiaundra Jackson, LMFT, a therapist in Los Angeles. Of two-parent households Jackson says, “I think the mental load comes through coordination, it comes through balancing who is going to do what.” However, in a single-parent home she says, “We know that very clearly it differs significantly, from finances all the way to daily tasks. That one parent, whether it's male or female, is going to have to take the brunt of the load of literally the whole entire thing by themselves.”
Burnout is Very Real for Single Parents
“You don’t have a minute to breathe,” says Nedd, who understands the threat of burnout firsthand. Burnout is the most common adverse mental effect for all parents and can be particularly problematic for single parents who face the many pressures of parenting largely alone, says Colleen Kraft, M.D., senior medical director of clinical adoption at Cognoa. “Symptoms include fatigue, both physical and mental, as well as a lack of interest in doing anything, even those activities that you enjoy, and a lack of desire to interact with anyone,” she says. “Left untreated, burnout can lead to depression and anxiety.”
In her normal daily routine, Nedd begins work before 6 a.m., which is when her son wakes up. Then, after his normal wake-up and breakfast routine, she tries to get him outdoors. “I tire him out so that I can work some more while he naps and recharges,” she says. “That way, when he wakes up I'm back focused on him. Am I tired? Yeah. But I don't have time to be tired because the work needs to get done so that I can pay the mortgage and put food on the table and do all those other things that we need to do. Right now, it just feels like nothing ever stops.”
Single parents also often feel an added layer of guilt, since they may have to pass the caregiving baton onto another adult more often than they’d like to keep the household running. “That is one of the biggest things that I have seen for single parents,” says Jackson. “This isn't applicable to every single parent on the face of this planet, but I have seen people have mommy or daddy guilt. And what that includes is, ‘I have to do what needs to be done so I can't always be there for you.’” But single parents should feel confident that they are doing what’s best for their children, and that their kids ultimately have just as strong and solid of an upbringing as children in two-parent households, says Jackson. “People think that just having one parent is an epic nightmare, but sometimes that's the healthiest choice,” she says.
Ways a Single Parent Can Get Relief from the Mental Load
Having the ability to properly manage the mental load of being a single parent is tantamount. But how is this possible, when time is seemingly never available? “When you can't go without, you need to go within,” says Jackson. This means that single parents must have an “internal conversation—'I can't go and get a massage today, but maybe I can write in my journal [or] I can't go and get my nails done [but] I am going to take a shower or a bath with my essential candles around me.’”
Especially during the pandemic, single parents should take advantage of resources available to them through Stand For Children, a non-profit education advocacy organization offering help to families during COVID-19, and Benefits.gov, which shares federal unemployment benefits and child care options, says Dr. Kraft. There are also digital health resources, such as virtual and telehealth counseling, that take less time away from the day and result in a speedy diagnosis or access to treatment, she adds.
Dr. Kraft also suggests that if there is no one in the home to share the mental load with, single parents should create a community around them of trusted friends, family members, or sitters to help share the pressures of caregiving. That means knowing how and when to ask for help, even during a pandemic. Dr. Kraft suggests single parents ask family members to help shop for groceries and school supplies. They can also hop on a Zoom call to virtually entertain your child with a tea party or online game for an hour. She also says to partner with neighbors for local child care. “I have had parents tell me about this technique where kids from one family go out to play in the yard while the parent next door comes out with their children and keeps their eyes on both sets of kids,” she says. “Taking turns with this shares the responsibility while relieving some stress.”
Even though the strain of being a single parent can be excruciatingly difficult, I couldn’t imagine my life without my daughter. I’d do it all over again, the same way. Nedd agrees, adding that even through the added stress of the pandemic, she would not trade in this time at home with her son.
“There will be days that it will be difficult,” says Dr. Kraft, “but there will always be those rewarding days and moments which are a reminder of the resilience and strength of both yourself and your child.”
Parents.com dives into the mental load—the endless to-do list that comes with parenting—and how the labor imbalance is impacting families. Read more here.