Whether you’re co-parenting, parallel parenting or solo parenting, single motherhood is a big ask. It’s also relentless. But it’s doable. Actually, it’s beyond doable—being a single mother can be the greatest role of your life.
Here are 10 collective wisdoms from single mothers on the ways they have learned not just to get by but to thrive, for the ultimate good of their kids and themselves.
1. Know that you are enough
One of the things that held me back from taking on single motherhood sooner was the fear that I wasn’t enough. Not that I wouldn’t be good enough, but that I wouldn’t be enough—loving enough, calm enough, present enough—to be able to single-handedly compensate for the life I was unable to give my boys.
I wasn’t worried about logistics as, like many mothers, I’d been doing the lion’s share of the work in our family life anyway. In fact, the load would be lessened as I’d be getting every second weekend “off”. It was about my worth, that in stepping into the role of single mother I was taking a rather risky punt that I had what it takes to carry my boys through.
I may have had doubts at the start, but I have proven to myself, through getting in there and doing it, that I am well and truly more than enough for my boys. Sure, there are challenges and extra demands in raising children by yourself. It takes being resourceful, cutting corners, stretching yourself, overlooking the little things, going within and endlessly compromising, but so does everything that’s worthwhile.
2. Be present
Our children want and need nothing more than our presence, to stop what we’re doing and be here, now. This doesn’t change whether they’re younger children or teenagers.
That can seem especially hard as a single parent when there’s so much on your plate. But many single mothers say they find it easier to be present with their kids with no other adult to sap their energy or divide their attention. Our kids get all of us.
“I look for expansiveness in small moments,” said Milly. “I take my kids into the bush to hunt for lizards or climb a rock. It turns small things into significant moments. It’s even more important to me now that I’m a single mother because I don’t have them with me all the time so when they are, I try to make time slow down.”
3. It’s okay to overcompensate
When your child forgets to take something to school (library bag, iPad, lunch), you have a choice: you can leave it (they’ll be right!) or you can move mountains to make sure they get that thing.
In “normal” circumstances, the advice is to do nothing—our kids must learn to fend for themselves. But, as a single parent, different rules apply. The inclination is to race back home and get that thing, overcompensating, as we so often do, in an attempt to mitigate any deficiency our life choices have afforded our kids.
Now that they’re growing up in single parent households, we don’t want them to feel any less assimilated than they already do. Which is why I drove across several suburbs one morning—trailing the charter bus—to deliver my eight-year-old the “right” goggles for swim week when I’d accidentally packed the “wrong” goggles. I have circled back many times after school drop-off to deliver homework diaries, hats, drink bottles and the rest. And there will be no stopping me.
When Annabel’s daughter accidentally smashed her phone on school camp, Annabel drove a three-hour round trip to deliver a replacement, without hesitation. “People say we should teach our kids resilience, but my kids have been through enough resilience building in their lives already,” she said. “If it’s possible for me to make things easier for them then I will. So long as I don’t overdo it.”
4. Eat dinner at the table
It’s conventional parenting wisdom that eating meals together as a family (whatever the configuration) is hugely beneficial for kids, a chance to bond at the end of each day, to talk and be heard, to sink into the same rhythm. But it’s particularly pertinent for single-parent families, with dinner around the table the best time to act as a touchpoint for kids who know they can rely on at least this one consistency in an often unconventional family routine.
It’s not so much about the meal itself, but taking the time to check in and connect. We talk about “the best bits of our day”. With that, the not-so-great bits come out, too, as they should.
5. Play team sport
My ulterior motive with the sport drive is that I want my kids to learn the value of commitment and teamwork, being an integral part of something, turning up on time even when they don’t feel like it. These are vital life skills at the best of times but, as a single mother, I was especially conscious of them having a consistent place to be, of being part of a team where they not only belong, but are needed.
My boys do drama classes, too, which is also a team sport of sorts. They’ve become part of an ensemble that writes scripts and performs. They’re indispensable to that unit, an inherent part of the collective that wouldn’t be able to function as it is without their input. (For the term, at least.) These are fundamental understandings I want them to absorb whether on the stage or field, or life in general.
6. Make one-on-one time (Where possible)
If you have more than one child, it’s difficult to make one-on-one time with them when you’re a single parent because there’s often no-one to leave the other one with. On the rare occasions it happens in our home—usually when one of my boys is at a sleepover with a friend—I make a big deal of it for the one who’s “left behind”.
They get to choose what’s for dinner and pick a movie. When Jasper had his first solo sleepover at his friend Joshua’s house, Otis and I watched The Cat in the Hat and he fell asleep in my bed and he’s never forgotten it. When Otis went on his first sleepover without his brother, Jasper opted for a bike ride in one of those pedal cars at the park and a meat pie from his favourite bakery. We had such a special afternoon riding around together. It’s a very different dynamic when it’s one on one.
“My kids really value it when I have one-on-one time with them because it’s a novelty now that there’s only one parent in the house,” said Joy. “We carve out tiny niches of time. We cook together. That’s our thing.”
7. Model being imperfect
“I have moments where I could have handled things better, and I’m honest with my son when that happens,” said Shakti. “I have days where I go, ‘I’m doing my best and my best isn’t wonderful but that’s as good as it gets right now.’ I can only model an imperfect human trying to do their best. And I hope that’s all he is in his life, an imperfect human trying to be the best person he can be. He sees me meditating, but he also sees me losing it sometimes.”
8. Learn as you go
“I’m invested in evolving as a parent and understanding I’ll make mistakes while working towards a positive relationship with my kids,” said Louisa. “I like to learn and self-reflect. What worked, what didn’t work, what can I try next time? It’s a work in progress.”
9. Don’t sweat the small stuff
News presenter Juanita Phillips wrote an article for The Sydney Morning Herald called “10 things I don’t worry about as a single mother”. ‘Since I became the sole provider and carer for my two children, a wonderful thing has happened,” she wrote. “I let myself off the hook.”
The things Juanita stopped worrying about—what she called “normal parent worries”—include hairstyles; school grades; what other people think of her; screen time: “I don’t want to tell you how many hours my kids spend watching YouTube, because you’d have to arrest me”; extracurricular activities (her kids don’t do them); and volunteering at the school tuckshop: “Thank you ladies, but I’ll leave you to it. Feel free to hate me.”
But what keeps Juanita up at night is “the darker stuff that surfaces at 3 am”, what she calls “the crushing aloneness of full-time single parenting, the magnitude and precariousness of it. The feeling of being just one big life event—illness, job loss—away from crisis.”
That article went off. It was shared thousands of times and trended on Twitter. Mothers—single and not—were talking about it for weeks. Because we recognise ourselves. All that emotional energy spent on stuff that really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of life.
We’re all hyper-alert to the impact of “things going wrong” on our kids’ malleable young minds, but it feels particularly prevalent as a single parent where there’s more room for error: favoured toys left at the other parent’s house, alternate Christmases, no-one to make a Father’s Day card for when the father is absent, or you’re a widow, or solo mother by choice. Or maybe it’s just the stuff of childhood that will shape them for the better. Not big, just different.
10. Forgive yourself
We’re all going to get it wrong sometimes. It’s unavoidable, especially when you’re a single parent negotiating all the extra demands on you, with no other adult in the house to back you up. Or take out the bins.
As much as I try to shield my boys from my frustration, it sometimes seeps out sideways, like the time I had a meltdown over the table. Our table isn’t just where we eat together every night, it’s also the boys’ homework desk, my writing desk and invariably the dumping ground for bills, library books, artwork and anything else that comes in the front door. To me that table represents the temporariness of our situation, a reminder that we’re still living in limbo, waiting for our lives to begin.
One night at dinnertime when there was no clear space to eat (because of my work strewn across it, mind), I lost it. I swept the papers onto the ground in a moment of sheer exasperation. “I’ve had it up to here!” I cried. My boys looked at me stunned, not knowing whether to laugh or cry.
It only took me a beat to snap out of it. I apologised, explained that I had not managed my emotions well (I had not been “the boss of my temper”, as their child psychologist would say). Then, more crucially, I forgave myself. For not keeping it together in front of my kids.
“Had I not been a single mum, I wouldn’t have yelled as much,” said Fiona. “I really regret that. Having said that, she’s turned out amazingly as a teenager and we’ve talked about it. I’ve said to her, ‘I feel really bad about the times that I raised my voice and how stressed I’d get.’ And she said, ‘It seems like a big thing to you but I knew how much pressure you were under. You were always there for me, and I know you’ll always be there for me. The respect I have for you is huge. You taught me that women can do anything. You’re my role model.’ It makes me feel much better about it and I can forgive myself.”
Remember, you are a good mum
Countless single mothers have paved the way before you, and their kids have turned out better than okay (as have the mothers themselves). Take heart.
Text from The Single Mother’s Social Club by Jacinta Tynan. Murdoch Books RRP $32.99.
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