Being the head of a single parent household isn’t easy. For women who have demanding careers, the prospect of managing child care, family relationships, parent-teacher conferences, sports practices, dentist appointments, and your job responsibilities—and everything else involved in single motherhood—can feel even more overwhelming. You are not alone: Of the 12 million single-parent households and families in the United States, 80 percent are headed by single mothers, and about half of those women also work full time, according to singlemotherguide.com.
As a single mom and custodial parent, you won’t always have someone around (your kids' father or otherwise) to share the “invisible workload”— the mental race required to just to make sure you and your children are awake, clothed, fed, and shuttled from one commitment to the next. If the responsibility falls primarily on you to make it through every day, try these time-tested hacks from other single parents who also have busy work lives to make single motherhood work for you.
Male parents and female parents both say that planning is the key to their success running single-parent homes—and their sanity. Time spent managing a calendar, making a grocery list, and getting everyone on the same page about upcoming events and expectations is stress saved down the line. Hope Oraibure-King, a single mom who has four kids between the ages of nine and 17, has a standing family meeting on Sundays, in which she and her kids discuss their activity calendar for the week.
“We talk through logistics to make sure we have a plan for pick-ups, drop-offs, lunches for field trips, and spending money,” she says. “I make them write the activities on post-it notes, so I can stick it on my calendar in case I don't have time to write it down."
Single mothers know that weeknights can turn chaotic in their households when every member of your single-parent family has a schedule to keep, so it’s worth your while to purchase and prepare supplies in large quantities. If space allows, buy home goods like paper towels in bulk and take advantage case discounts on nonperishable foods. Take the time over the weekend to grocery shop for the whole week, and prep and cook easy and hearty one-pot meals to cover a few days worth of lunches and dinners for all. Your slow cooker is your friend — you can even invest in a smart version that you can monitor and control when you’re running late at work or need to pick up the kids from soccer practice or child care.
Slow cookers aren’t the only smart tech solution single-parent families. A smart assistant like Amazon’s Echo and Google Home can do everything from reading you the morning headlines and the day’s weather to managing families' calendars to ordering food and housewares directly to your door. Your smartphone has the same capabilities in a portable form. Smart tech allows you to remotely lock the door to your home when you forget—we’ve all been there—help your kids with their homework, and even add hands-free features to your car.
Raising kids takes a village, so even if you don't have a nuclear family, you can create a new family structure comprised of the other relationships in your life, including coworkers, friends, family members, and loved ones, who can babysit on busy days, deliver dinner during late nights at the office, and take on an extra task when deadlines are looming. You don’t have to do everything on top of the single parenting all on your own.
“At work, delegate and focus on what you do best,” says Career Coach Nadine de Zoeten. “Let your children help and be more independent by giving them tasks. Have family and friends help out and remember not to feel guilty about it. Usually, others are more than happy to support you.”
Other ways you can find support as a single woman and mother: organize a carpool with other parents to alleviate the rush between school and work a few mornings a week; hire a cleaning service to deep-clean your home on a weekly, bi-weekly, or even monthly basis; and hold your children's father, whether or not he's a custodial parent, accountable for any child support and help that they are expected or have offered to provide (chances are, he is at least expect to pay child support).
In a single-parent home, when you are busy with work and family obligations, the first thing to go will be your own self-care. It’s common and understandable to want to put your family members' needs above your own, and as the head of a single-parent family, you may feel like it's necessary. But if you don’t take time to sleep, eat well, and exercise, you won’t have the energy for much else. These commitments don’t have to take a long time, nor do you need to do them alone. For example, take a break for five minutes during your workday to meditate or simply take a few deep breaths. Take your dog for a walk or run around with your kids in your yard. When you do need some time to yourself, ask your support network to cover childcare or a work meeting.
“If you don't put on your oxygen mask first, you cannot assist others—i.e. your work and family,” says de Zoeten.
What might be a reasonable request from your kids one day can be an absolute no-go on another. Your time and resources are not endless, and that’s OK. Instead of hiding your frustration or reasons, be honest. Kids are capable of being reasonable and rational when they are treated in a mature manner, and they may even learn to follow your example
This same attitude can apply at work. If you are stressed, overwhelmed, and overcommitted, it may be more productive to bring the issue to your boss or colleagues’ attention than to let it build up. The best bosses are those who help lighten the load for working parents (even if you're part of a two-parent family).
In single parenthood, particularly when you're working, there’s no such thing as balance. Heads of single-parent families know that every day is a new challenge, and there are too many unknowns, from surprise deadlines to sick days from school, to expect any sort of even split between work and home.
“In today’s modern hyperconnected world, we cannot say that after 5pm we leave the office and work stays there until the next day,” says de Zoeten. “How often do you write a quick email during the school run, or prepare that report after the kids are in bed, or make an appointment with your daughter's dentist during work hours? Work and life are now integrated, not separated.”
Instead of keeping your family and your career separate, be open to doing both on a schedule that works for you.
Rituals of all sorts have been shown to reduce anxiety and grief and boost confidence in single parenting situations, according to Scientific American. Doug Hensch, a divorced single dad of two boys, says that maintaining a respectful relationship after his divorce and continuing the ritual of a family hug when he drops his kids off at their mother’s house help comfort his them and allow them to build positive memories. In the midst of your busy life, and regardless of your relationship status, simple rituals—sitting down at the dinner table three nights a week or reading a story before bed—can help you and your kids feel safe and grounded. (Keeping the interparental conflicts to a minimum is a good idea, too.)
Whether you're a single woman or part of a two-parent family, there’s no such thing as perfect, and you don’t have to do it all. It’s easier said than done, but putting less pressure on yourself will likely reduce the stress both you and your kids feel. Lean on your support system and your self-created family structure, and give yourself a break. You’ve got this!
A single parent is a parent who cares for a child without having a partner. She may be the sole caretaker or share custody with another parent. Many people prefer the term single parent, but if someone in this position asks you to use a different term, defer to her.
Single parents earning below a certain minimum income may be entitled to welfare benefits. These vary by state. Additionally, claiming dependents and filing your taxes as a head of household can save you money on taxes. You are also entitled to a tax credit and may be able to deduct childcare expenses.
A single-parent family refers to a single parent and her child or children who are under the age of 18.
Single parents may be divorced, widowed, separated, or never married. Some people choose to parent without a partner before having children, while others become single parents as the result of changes in circumstances.
Emily Long is a freelance writer based in Salt Lake City, Utah. She writes about tech, personal finance, and health and wellness. When she’s not living out of a suitcase, you can find her practicing yoga, running Utah’s best trails, or attempting to perfect her coffee brewing skills. Follow her on Twitter @emilyanndc.