Before I begin, please know that I use the language of “solo parenting” intentionally – because I know my experience is not that of a single parent. Plenty of people are parenting in situations much more challenging than my own, including single parents, spouses of deployed military personnel, or partners working shifts around the clock. I’m simply writing out of my own experience of learning how to switch between two different dynamics in our household over the past few years. I hope to learn from diverse perspectives beyond my own, so I hope you’ll share your own ideas and experiences with me, too.
We did it again! Survived another week with only moi in charge and my husband on the other side of the globe. (Slow clap for the win, Rudy.)
The last few times I’ve solo-parented, I’ve thought about my friend Nancy’s wisdom in this post about how to thrive when your husband travels.
I still feel trapped in survival mode much of the time when my husband is gone. But I’m starting to accept that this is our life right now. He has a great job that he loves, and this is part of what his work requires. My goal is to move our family towards thriving, not just surviving, even when I’m the only one here all week, day and night.
So here are seven tips that help me whenever my spouse travels. Maybe they’ll help you, too.
1. Check in with yourself.
My friend Nell laughed when I told her this, but I check in with myself mentally every 10 minutes while solo parenting.
Self? I say. How are you doing? What do you need?
It sounds crazy, but it works.
Sometimes I sound like a cheerful waitress: Everything okay, honey? Can I get you another cup of coffee? Sometimes I sound like a wise best friend: You need to go lie down. For 5 minutes. And breathe. The kids will be fine.
But this practice of checking in with myself has helped me back slowly off ledges (especially between 4-6 pm) because I catch my rising impatience/anger/frustration before it boils over. Like the unattended pot bubbling on the stove. Yikes.
2. Go easy on yourself.
No one gives grades or gold stars for parenting. So a slacker week of easy dinners, take-out treats, and skipped baths? It will neither tarnish my record nor scar my children.
At least once during every solo stretch, I must bow my head in gratitude to Trader Joe’s, without whom my family would not be fed. Because I have no shame in buying a freezer-full of frozen meals (the ones my friend Ginny brilliantly describes as the kind you “push around in a skillet for 7 minutes”) to feed hungry kids and give myself a break.
The smartest trick I discovered is creating a meal plan of super simple dinners that require only 2 pots that can be washed in the dishwasher. No need to scrub pans when you’re the chief cook and bottle-washer (actually the entire downstairs staff).
3. Take care of yourself.
While it’s true that no one hands out gold stars for parenting (though sometimes I think they should? fill in your epic example here?), it’s also true that you have to reward yourself.
My sister, who has survived way more solo parenting weeks than I have, once gave me the wise advice that these long days are best survived by bookend treats: a cup of tea in the morning and a glass of wine at night.
Whatever your delight, some small glimmers of light on the horizon give hope for the day’s crazy moments. Sometimes I treat myself to a tall chai to-go when we’re out and about, or I sink into a hot bubble bath at the end of the night. Or I binge-watch something stupid on Hulu while folding mountain ranges of laundry.
Anything to restore spirit and soul after long days.
4. Plan ahead.
The weekend before my husband leaves, we try to clean the house so the chaos doesn’t overwhelm. I make sure the meal plan and grocery shopping are done (which includes stocking up on dark chocolate and wine, a mom’s basics).
But I also try to fill up our week with fun: play dates with friends, a special meal out, and plenty of trips to the park/library/indoor playground. The more we get out of the house, the faster the week flies.
We also make sure to plan something fun for the weekend when he returns. This gives a lovely light at the end of the tunnel. After his last few trips, we’ve been able to go up to his parents’ cabin on the lake and simply relax. It’s a perfect way for our whole family to reconnect, since the kids just get as wonky as I do when he’s gone.
5. Get enough sleep.
Easy enough, right? Sleep when tired.
Except my temptation is always to fill the quiet hours after children’s bedtime with a new project. Write! Blog! Bake! Clean the whole house! Start that belated baby book for poor #3!
NO. Do not do it. Get directly to bed. Do not pass Go.
Every time I choose sleep over the seductive allure of me-time-till-midnight? I am eternally grateful that I crawled into bed at 9 pm. Everyone wins when mom is well-rested.
6. Set expectations low.
Someone will get sick. Someone will wake in the night. A major appliance will break. Crisis happens like clockwork in life with kids. Now I simply plan for it.
So when the washing machine stops or the air conditioner dies or the dishwasher floods to the basement? Or the baby breaks out in a mysterious rash or the kids get the stomach flu or all three take turns like whack-a-moles popping up in the middle of the night?
I still freak out, but I expect it. And I can cope with it much better when I can laugh.
(And text my girlfriends 72 times a day to vent about it.)
7. Pray. Just to make it today.
(You knew I was going to slip this one in here, didn’t you? It always circles back to God ’round here. #sorrynotsorry)
Like everything else chez nous, my spiritual life reverts to survival mode during these zaniest of weeks when I run the roost.
I wish I could tell you otherwise, that I pray fervently for my husband while he’s gone, that I make sure to get up extra early to fortify myself with prayer, that I offer up all my sacrifices with saintly serenity.
I don’t. I coast. I complain.
But I do make sure to call upon divine patience/love/forgiveness/compassion whenever I start to feel things spiraling away from me. I mutter the Jesus Prayer under my breath until I start to simmer down – Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner – and it always brings me back around to the right way. Even if it takes 27 repetitions.
And I do make sure to practice abundant gratitude throughout the day – for my kids (even when they’re going berserk), for my husband (even when he’s gone), for his good job (even when it takes him away from us for a while), for all the friends and family that check in on us when I’m flying solo.
Calling God into the craziest moments of my week is an invitation for me to dig deep and trust that love and patience and enough-ness will help us survive.
And trust that soon we will thrive, too.
What are your tips for surviving or thriving when parenting gets tough in your own current situation?