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Draw strength from your love for your child
I followed a fairly traditional script into motherhood. I met my ex-husband at university, we got married when I was 28 and I had my son at 29. I fell pregnant quickly and enjoyed my pregnancy – everything felt easy and exciting. That was until I went into labour – an accidental water break and an emergency C-section set the tone for a very difficult year that followed. I struggled to recover from the surgery, Jack had colic and reflux, and I felt like I had a maximum of 30 minutes of unbroken sleep for months after the birth. It made me feel like I was going mad. For the first time in my life, everything felt hard; it was only the intense love I felt for my son that kept me going.
Never shut yourself off
When my son was 18 months old, it was clear I needed to separate from his dad. That signalled the start of my new and scary life as a single mother. The first year was very hard. I felt an enormous amount of guilt and shame that I wasn’t giving my son the family life I’d always imagined. Despite the fact that almost a quarter of families are headed up by a single parent, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was doing something wrong. There was so much to get my head around, and I was tackling the legalities of divorce, figuring out the logistics of childcare and co-parenting and trying to figure out how on earth I could survive financially – all while grieving the loss of the life I had imagined and the breakdown of my marriage. Despite knowing my family and friends loved me and were there to help, I felt too proud to ask for it, so I shut myself off and tried to tackle things alone.
Connect with other single parents
The truth is, people don’t really want to talk about single parenthood or look at it too closely – it’s like they think it’s contagious. Looking back, I wish I’d had a guide to help me or a network of friends going through the same thing who I could rely on. The latter came a couple of years into my single parent journey, in the form of the Frolo app, founded by my now-friend and co-author, Zoë Desmond. She was going through the same thing as me, and her own isolation led her to create an app for single parents – so they could connect and form support networks both on and offline. As soon as we met, we spoke about the need for a book to guide newly-single parents through those tough first weeks and months, and now, four years later, the book – How To Be A Happy Single Parent – is here.
Look for flexible work
My magazine editor has let me work flexibly from the start, and I couldn’t have survived without the ability to work remotely. Since I needed to increase my income, I also started to take on extra freelance work in the evenings and at weekends. In the early days, it felt like I never switched off, but slowly I’ve been able to build a work structure that means I can get everything done in the hours I have, gradually increasing my capacity as Jack gets older and spends more time at school.
Let others shoulder some of the burden
A lot of single parents tend to lean into hyper-independence, particularly if they are recovering from loss or trauma. It can feel scary to ask for help because it can feel unsafe to rely on others. But it’s impossible to thrive in parenthood if you try to do it all on your own. My mother and my ex-mother-in-law were an enormous practical and emotional support right from the beginning. My son’s dad has been a regular presence throughout and even though I didn’t want to be away from Jack at all early on, those times when he’s with his dad have been vital for my own self-care and recovery. I speak to my best friend Nina multiple times a day, so I’ve never felt alone – even at times when I was physically or emotionally lonely. The single parent network I’ve built via Frolo has been vital, too. Having people in your life with shared experiences will help you feel seen and accepted, and this is particularly important in single parenthood.
Accept your single parent status
Dating as a single parent has been such a gift. To be able to rediscover myself later in life has taught me so much. I am bisexual, so finding myself single for the first time in a long time, I was open to dating people of all genders and have loved feeling like part of the queer world. At first, I made a lot of mistakes but that was because I didn’t feel secure in my single parent status. Until recently, I felt shame around my situation, which never leads to sensible dating decisions. If you see your kids as baggage, others will too. There’s a whole chapter in the book about dating as a single parent, with advice from the brilliant @LaLaLaLetMeExplain. In fact, I’d say follow her advice, not mine, when it comes to dating! My own tips are to have fun with it but concentrate on being happy on your own. If you’re dating out of need rather than want, then you’re likely to make poor choices.
Set clear boundaries
Nobody knows your children better than you, so be led by what you think is right for them, rather than what is convenient or preferable. Introducing a partner as a ‘friend’ and keeping it casual at first is always a good option, but ideally, keeping your relationship completely separate will limit the risks for all parties involved. My advice is to take things slowly – again if you’re happy on your own and a relationship is something you ‘want’ rather than ‘need’, there will be less pressure on the situation, and less risk of rushing something that isn’t right. Make sure your relationship with your kids is always the main priority; it’s your job to set the boundaries and take the lead. Your love life can wait, but your children’s childhoods can’t.
Keep a cool head
Take a breath before replying to any messages sent by your ex. Sleep on it if you need to. Also, avoid messaging if a phone call or face-to-face conversation is possible, because it’s easy to project your own mood or tone onto a text. As you start to progress in your co-parenting journey, you’ll be able to stop seeing your co-parent in black and white and remember all the grey in between. None of us are perfect, and focusing on the positives they add to your child’s life is enormously beneficial.
Be open and honest
It has helped me to seek out other single parent families to normalise our family set-up. I’ve been on holidays and to festivals with groups of single parent friends I’ve met via Frolo since Jack was a baby. One of my best single mum friends has a son the same age (who he calls his Fro-Bro) and we’ve done a ‘family’ holiday every year together. Jack does ask questions, which I always answer honestly in an age-appropriate way. I come from a big and complicated family myself, with step and half-siblings, and lots of family overseas , so he’s used to families that don’t fit the 2.4 mould!
Relish your closeness
The fact is, in my house there are two people: me and Jack. We spend hours and hours together; there is literally nobody else for us to talk to. We have been on holidays together, we did lockdown together, we do the school run together every day. I love him and the relationship I am blessed to have with him, so I feel so very lucky.
Prepare yourself for travel
Travelling with young kids is no picnic and doing it without another adult is exhausting. But as Jack’s gotten older, the logistics have gotten easier. My happiest holiday was earlier this year – we went from Menton to Monterosso by train, stopping off along the way to explore the French-Italian riviera. It was my dream holiday, even if some of my friends said it was a weird trip to take with a seven-year-old. I’m happy to say we had a blast together – laughing, exploring, eating focaccia and swimming in the sea.
Finally, don’t get hung up on right or wrong
This is really advice for friends of single parents. Don’t avoid saying anything for fear of saying the wrong thing. Avoiding them or their problems will make them feel even more isolated. Second, avoid referring to yourself as ‘practically a single parent’ when moaning about your partner. The truth is, until you’re the sole parent at home, you have no idea how hard it is. And finally, don’t stop inviting them out or assume they won’t want to come to anything couple focused. Yes, they might say no nine times out of ten because they can’t find childcare, but the invite is so important. Finally, any offer of help for any parent – single or not – is always a good idea.