The Single-Mom Survival Guide: 5 Ways to Make Motherhood Manageable and Meaningful
I remember driving in circles at 2 a.m. one hellish night many years ago after a long night of inconsolable tears and on and off fevers. I was beyond exhausted, having just worked an eight hour day beginning at 6 a.m., taken my daughter to preschool, somehow made it to work on time…only to have to leave early to pick up a suddenly sick child, sit in a pediatrician’s waiting room with other germ-carrying children and diseased toys, pick up the prescribed medications and recommended foods and finally, play nurse all night long.
So there I was at 2 a.m., knowing that the madness would begin again in four short hours, dreading the thought of having to call in sick again as preschools don’t like feverish toddlers as much as bosses don’t like single-mothers…well, at least not when their children are sick. I had no one to nudge in bed next to me and say, “Hey, it’s your turn.” No backup plan for daycare, as everyone else I knew had a job or zero interest in babysitting a sick child. Somewhere in the middle of my one hundredth circle around the block, I broke, crying aloud “I can’t do this!” between deep, sleep-deprived sobs.
You can imagine the scene. Between paying the bills and making a home, nurturing like a good mommy and disciplining like a good daddy, juggling the ever-changing schedules, recitals, swim-lessons and play-dates and bobbing and weaving around every other obstacle life throws at you without mercy, there comes a moment for all of us single-moms when we realize, this is impossible!
On paper, the demands of single-motherhood are impossible, and yet somehow many of us have found a way to make it work and raise amazing (and surprisingly functional) children. To be more specific, 11.5 million single-mothers in the U.S. have found a way to survive.
What made the impossible possible, sometimes even enjoyable for me? I’ll tell you. I found these five tips, given to me by those blessed matriarchs of single-motherhood who had gone before me, the answer to my desperate plea that night.
1. Build a village.
The African proverb, “it takes a village to raise a child” is wisdom that is lost on our society, carrying a 50 percent divorce rate average and the tolerated epidemic of absent-dad syndrome. Millions of mothers are left to fend for themselves with inadequate-to-no support from society, let alone the father of their children. The best thing I ever did was reach out to the community and find people who had experience, strength and hope to offer me. As much as I loved my young friends, they couldn’t relate to me and couldn’t support me. They were always calling to go out drinking and dancing. Partying was their priority. It was understandable. We were only 21. But I needed the support of people who had lived in my shoes and done it successfully. Since my story also involved abuse and alcoholism, I reached out to a program where support for that was offered, and in that group I found many women who had lived through an abusive marriage, the tornadoes of alcoholism and had somehow come out happy, joyous and free; I wanted what they had, and was willing to do whatever they suggested.
“Build a village,” they said. Find three good babysitters, always have a plan B, join a Mommy and Me group, exchange babysitting with other single-mothers, and learn to lean on other people. When a miserable 2 a.m. would roll around again, I had people to lean on, people who would remind me that I just have to survive one day at a time and it would be okay. It was miraculous what those words did for me. Hope got me through those nights. I had dependable babysitters or other moms who could help in emergencies. I had other young moms who could share and laugh about the everyday joys and war-stories that come with motherhood. I learned that we cannot do this alone. We were not meant to do this alone. Do you have a village?
2. Ask for help.
Reaching out to my group was difficult, but well worth the humbling walk. There I was, surrounded by support. But here’s the problem: like many women, I have a difficult time asking for help. Every cell in me fights against it. I feel like society expects me to handle my stuff. My family certainly expected it. The fact that I accepted government health care was frowned upon. I wouldn’t dare take food stamps! Even though I had built a village, I still hesitated to reach out to them. Sometimes that phone felt like it weighed two hundred pounds. Today, I still sometimes trip over my ego and struggle when it comes to asking for what I need, but I also have thousands of examples to remind me of the peace and freedom that follows. Do you ask for help?
3. Cut the fat.
I had a therapist ask me once to write down everything I did in a given week. When I handed him the list, he looked at me and said something I think all therapists take an oath never to say…out loud, anyway. “This is insane! You are insane!” I think somewhere deep inside I agreed. I’m an overachiever and have a hard time saying no. I got really good at reaching out and getting involved, but that list had grown exponentially. I was juggling not just one full plate, but at least three. I was sternly given the task of cutting out anything that wasn’t essential. The thought was terrifying to me, but life as a single-mother is unmanageable all by itself without the added stress of being the Brownie troop leader, the secretary of the youth group at church, the treasurer of the Friday night group, and so on.
How important is it? I learned to ask myself that question every time some new opportunity or request came my way. Is it worth my sanity? Simplicity became my goal. As much as my nature fights it, simplicity makes motherhood manageable. What can you cut?
4. Me time.
As mothers, our world revolves around our children. We can easily find ourselves lost in the mix. Someone asked me once what I did as a hobby, and I think I laughed out loud. But she was dead serious. This was one of those warrior moms who had been in the trenches and survived to tell the tale. She looked at me, brows furrowed, and said, “Get a hobby!” She was porcupine bristly, but I knew she cared about me and my daughter.
When I don’t get enough “me time,” I get cranky and start to feel resentful. I snap at my daughter for the smallest of things. I had to learn how to have fun. I was far too serious. I can’t count how many times people told me to “Lighten up!” or “Relax!”
I started taking classes, which led to a degree, which led to a career that I love today. I remember walking around my college campus, so excited to go to my music class. I stood there in the middle of the grassy quad area and I cried. I was so grateful for that time just for me. Having the courage to take that time for me led to miraculous things. I took a writing class that led to a short story, which has turned into my first novel, All the Wrong Places. Do you have a hobby?
5. The man rule.
This one is hard to write about. I cringe when I think about it. But it is so important. My daughter is one of the greatest blessings God has given me. I would protect her with my life. There isn’t a thing I wouldn’t do for her. But there were mistakes I made that left her very vulnerable. Being a single-mom can be lonely. I wanted love again. I wanted a father for my daughter. I made the mistake of bringing that need into our home. I introduced my daughter to men who, at the time, I thought were “the one.” But they weren’t, and time and again I exposed her to that loss of a male figure suddenly disappearing from our lives.
Luckily, she wasn’t very old before I learned my lesson. Once again, one of those ladies, those angel mamas looking out for me, suggested I keep men out of our home, at least until I had a ring on my finger and a wedding date set. Our babies depend on us to give them security, to make everything okay. We owe it to them to keep their home secure and consistent. I had to learn to keep my dating life separate from my family life. Our kids deserve that. What’s your man rule?
We all need a little grace. We’re all figuring this out as we go along. Mistakes will be made, and lessons are to be learned. But the biggest mistake is going it alone. It wasn’t meant to be that way - there’s a proverb about it, for goodness’ sake! May we all find our village, humility and serenity on this journey of single-motherhood!
Rebecca Fisher graduated with a B.A. in English and an M.S. in Education and teaches high school English. Her own experiences living in a mortuary in Northern California and raising her daughter on her own serve as the inspiration for the many macabre and eccentric encounters in her novel. She lives in California with her husband and two daughters. rebeccafisherbooks.com