Solo parenting can be a real slog. Singlehandedly caring for, feeding, and refereeing little kids is no easy job. It drains your patience battery at about three times the normal speed, and there’s no one but you to do all the little things that make your household run smoother, not to mention be the go-to person for every single need, wish, boo-boo, and nightmare, 24 hours a day. (I want to clarify, though, that solo parenting is not even in the same universe as single parenting. I have nothing but awe and respect for moms and dads who do this as their regular m.o., and I don’t begin to think I know what kind of tips and tricks get you through when solo parenting is just The Way Things Always Are.) Right now, my husband is on day four of a ten-day work trip, so I’m on day four of a ten-day solo parenting journey. Over nearly six years of weathering these kind of trips I have developed a survival strategy, a sort of stripped-down way of living that is not just a way to keep my head above water, but also makes it kind of a fun adventure for the kiddos. (You know, the type of adventure where you don’t clean your room for a week and eat ramen for dinner.)
1. Make the Kids Your Teammates.
I start each solo parenting stint off with a pep-talk huddle with my kiddos, reminding them that we’re a team and our number one job is to look out for each other. With two kids and only one grown-up, I let them know I need their help making sure everyone is happy and safe. My son was really captivated by the concept of bucket-filling when his teachers read a book about it at nursery school, so we talk a ton about that in our everyday life, but especially when I’m flying solo. I tell the kids the best way they can fill my bucket is by being good listeners and helpers, and being kind to me and to each other. When I write it out, this kind of sounds like No Duh stuff, but I think there is a great power in explicitly telling the kids that this is what I expect from them. I’m not saying it’s magic – there are still moments of defiance, ignoring, picking on each other, and other annoying crap that three- and five-year-olds love to do. But if I can address it by calmly reminding them we’re a team and we need to fill each other’s buckets (rather than, oh, I don’t know, irately dragging one of them out onto the back porch because he won’t stop shouting at the top of his lungs while I’m trying to work), then things flow a lot more smoothly.
2. Relax the Rules.
I’m a big family dinner person. We all have our hill to die on, and I guess this is one of mine. I’m lucky to have a husband who’s home in time to kid-wrangle while I make dinner, and I (usually) love to cook. If you hate to cook or you don’t usually do family dinners, no worries. You’re already one step ahead of me on being relaxed about expectations. When my husband’s at home, a typical family dinner might be roasted chicken and potatoes, sautéed green beans, and a salad with homemade vinaigrette. And when he’s leaving town I try to make a really nice huge meal for our last family dinner, not only as a send-off, but so we can have some semblance of a healthy dinner the next night with the leftovers. But by day six, our dinners are little more than scrambled eggs, toast, and carrot sticks. Or ramen.
Ramen is actually one of my comfort foods, having made myself many packets of Sapporo Ichiban during my latchkey childhood. But I always felt kind of disappointed that my little pot of soup bore no resemblance to the delicious illustration on the packaging. Noodles and broth were fine, but where were my peapods, scallions, chicken, bok choy, and mysterious brown things?Nowadays, I keep a bag of shrimp in my freezer, and a bunch of scallions in my crisper. Add those, a boiled egg, and whatever random veggies I have sitting around, and you’ve got yourself a nice little ramen bowl. My kids view this dinner as a particular treat because I call it “Ponyo Noodles.”
Hey, if it’s good enough for Japanese Tina Fey, it’s good enough for me. See also, nachos, grilled cheese sandwiches, and hot dogs.
I also tend to let things slide a little with chores and housekeeping. I’m so, so spoiled by my dish-washing angel of a husband. Normally I handle most of the bedtime routine, and when I come downstairs to watch our netflix du jour, the dishwasher is running, the sink is sparkling, the countertops are clean, the floor is swept, and the garbage and recycling are taken out. So you can imagine what a drag it is when he’s gone. (I kid, I kid! I miss that crazy bastard for a million other reasons than his kitchen cleaning. But still, the clean kitchen is very nice.) Anyhow, when it’s just little old me in charge of all that clean up, plus getting the children washed, brushed, pajamaed, storied, and down to sleep, I’m a big fan of streamlining non-essential parts of this routine. For instance, the nightly putting away of toys in their room.
I just let their room be a big crazy toy wonderland hell-mess all week and turn a blind eye. I can do this and not worry about anybody maiming their instep on an errant lego in the middle of the night because nobody’s sleeping in there.
Oh yeah, my other dirty little secret. Instead of putting each kid to bed separately in their own beds, we have sleepovers in Mommy’s room for the duration. I can put them both to bed at once, and if it’s winter I don’t have to get into a cold, lonely bed when I’m ready to go to sleep. (And to be honest, this isn’t even that big a deal since most nights at least one of them wanders into our bed sometime in the wee hours of the morning anyway.) It’s one of those things I neeeeevvvvver thought I would do in the PKE. When I was in my (single, childless) 20s I had a co-worker who had a similar arrangement with her daughter when the husband worked nights, and I thought it was just soooo peculiar and was probably stunting the daughter’s emotional development. Sure is amazing what an expert I was back then! Now my main parenting philosophy is, Do What Works Until It Doesn’t Work Anymore, Then Do Something Else.
3. Keep your Kitchen Clean
This may seem contradictory to what I said above about letting things slide, but the kitchen is the one area where you’ll be really making things harder for yourself if you don’t get it tidied up. If you can manage this before kiddo bedtime, kudos! You just earned an evening of pure relaxation. If not, make this the one thing you do after putting kids to bed. It’s a drag, but at least you won’t wake up to this in the morning.
That’s no way to start a day, amirite? Especially if we have to go somewhere first thing in the morning, like school or swimming lessons or what have you, it’s just that much more frazzling to try and get everybody out the door when half the dishes are dirty and the kitchen is in disarray. But if you’re a lazy mom like myself, or one who has been spoiled by a dish-angel of a husband, it’s extra hard work to get yourself to do dumb boring chores at night when you’d rather be sitting around eating secret ice cream and watching Call the Midwife. This is where rule number 4 comes in.
4. Reward Yourself
Have a stash of little treats saved up to get you through the solo parenting stretch. These can be books you’ve been wanting to read, movies or TV shows you can never get your husband to watch with you (I’m looking at you, Big Love, Barbra Streisand Special, and Real Housewives of New York), fancy chocolate, pints of Ben & Jerry’s, or some good vino. Preferably all of the above. And for god’s sake, MAKE SURE THE CHILDREN DON’T FIND OUT ABOUT YOUR ICE CREAM AND CHOCOLATES. Then, promise yourself you can settle down with a glass of pinot, some truffles, and an episode of Downton Abbey as soon as you get that kitchen in order. That’s right, I have to bribe myself to do basic sanitation in my home. Alfie Kohn is somewhere shaking his head at me.
5. Have a Mommy Haven
Even if tidying up falls by the wayside during your solo parenting stint, there’s one other area besides the kitchen that it’s important to keep nice. This is your Haven. It can be anywhere in your home that you can go to escape the chaos of young children. For me, it’s my bedroom. Whenever I’m feeling my patience running thin, or just tired and need a few minutes to regroup, I go in my room for a bit. If you have kids who are too little to play unsupervised, you can do this during naptime. Just lying on my bed and not looking at messy stacks of children’s reptile encyclopedias and five doll sweaters and a heap of matchbox cars does wonders for my inner reserves. If you can manage a few cleansing breaths, even better. I read this amazing book recently about cultivating mindfulness with children, Planting Seeds, and one of the basic tenets was that if you’re not at peace you can’t teach your children to be peaceful. So having a place where you can be calm and restore your inner peace is crucial.
By the way, I know my bedroom is pitifully austere. Isn’t it a rule of decorating that the very last place in your home that you get around to doing anything with is your own bedroom? Sad, but true. One day she’ll get a fresh coat of paint and some art on the walls, and we’ll replace that godforsaken Ikea bedside table, I swear it!
6. Call In Reinforcements.
Even the supermommest, tidiest, patientest parent is going to find their reserves low after a week of solo parenting. So this is where you need to enlist the help of other grown people. Whether it’s other moms to vent and laugh with while your kids entertain each other at playdates, or a grandparent or kindly neighbor to look after the kiddos while you get to go run errands alone (the heavenly glory!!), or a girlfriend – the good kind, who doesn’t care about your messy bathrooms and unwashed hair – to come over and drink wine and gossip with you after the kids are asleep, having some adult companionship and/or assistance is a total necessity.
7. Know that this too shall pass.
If you get cranky, fed up, and overwhelmed, as you surely will at some point, remember that you and your kids just have to survive these 10 (or howevermany) days and then your favorite person will come home and help right the ship. You’ll cook dinner in peace while your husband plays with the kids, and you’ll come down after bedtime to a magically clean kitchen and your best friend waiting for you on the couch. And all will be right with the world.