Growing up, I always believed that as an adult I was going to break cycles. First it was going to be graduating from high school in the top of my class. Next it would be escaping the small town I never felt I fit in by being the first in my family to go to a university. Then I was going to be the first in my family to get a degree and ultimately be the first wealthy person in my family. One thing I never planned on the list of achievements was being a parent, especially a parent that would be doing 90% of the care-taking and providing.
I often hesitate to use the term "single-parent" even though it technically applies because I consider myself a single lady and I am certainly a parent. However, I am far from single in the sense of support I have raising, teaching, and protecting my child. True single parents, dads included, I feel often have a non-existent or bad influence parent in their child's life and are likely more limited on resources than I have been-- and probably haven't had a lot of options when it comes to working and childcare. Primary parents may be the primary because their partner is always away to earn income or perhaps significantly less involved in their child's needs even if they are home.
For the most part, I have never had to miss work or worry about losing my job because my child got sick or my schedule changed. Yes I've had to find someone last minute or switch a shift or two, but I have had a great network of friends and a flexible childcare provider if my daughter's dad wasn't capable. I have been able to be the primary source for my daughter financially without government assistance or reliance on child support, not saying I never had to borrow gas money here and there until pay day! I have been blessed and I am very aware that millions of others that ended up like me, without a partner, have not had the same fate.
As a primary parent though, I never saw my daughter as a burden. I never felt like my life was over. I never felt like my dreams now had to take a back seat. I don't feel like I am missing out on things, because honestly I'm not really a drinker or a party girl. I enjoy a dinner, a drink, and fun activities. I still hang out with a selective group of friends. I only see myself as a lucky woman who is trusted with the responsibility of guiding a little person into a compassionate, strong, and smart adult who will be a much-needed breath of fresh air to the world.
In the beginning, it was a little traumatizing to think that I would be all she has on a daily basis... but it turns out that's only at home. This journey has shown me much about the necessity of adapting, the release of the idea of being in control, the motivation to be the best version of self, and the art of collaborating with a village. Read on...
1) Adult issues are not the responsibility of children. All too often single or primary parents put burdens on their children that belong to the non-custodial parent. These aren't always physical burdens like chores or grocery shopping, or making them work when they are the right age... they are often emotional.
I believe that keeping my little one confident in her identity is critical to how she develops and processes her emotions as she walks through life. When I am upset by a choice her father made or something that didn't work out, I do not discuss it in front of her or talk to her like any of it is her fault. I do not make statements such as "you are just like your dad" or "like your no-good daddy" or ever call her names. I do not talk about any negative traits I perceive that he has. That isn't mature and it most certainly isn't healthy.
I have seen parents do this to their children, often in crowds or the presence of other kids, and I don't think they realize how damaging they are being when they speak negativity upon them. It automatically sets the tone that you despise them or have low expectations of them. They may develop low self-esteem or feel afraid to make mistakes. It is not their job to make up for or correct the faults of their mother or father who isn't in the home. It is not their job to make the parent feel better.
2) Allow her to make as many choices as possible and experiment. It doesn't matter whether it's which shoes she wants to wear with the clothes I picked out, which color bath bombs she wants for her bath time, or which family member she wants to put on our call list on my days off, I constantly develop my daughter's ability to think for herself without my input.
The only real veto power I use is in regards to health and wellness. Doing this has allowed me to truly realize that I have a child that is more developed than I anticipated a three year old to be. I know several parents who are extremely flexible with their children and feel the exact same way.
I noticed that my kid especially enjoys attempting things that she believes are helpful. She enjoys loading and unloading the dishwasher by herself. She enjoys cleaning up on her spills by herself (though I often help her with the proper materials to do so). She enjoys helping to make the bed. She enjoys helping to make the grocery list. She likes to put our devices on their chargers. She has recently learned to tie her own bathrobe and work a dvd player to pick movies to watch on her own. I hear my daughter saying things like "I can do it" or "I'm proud of myself". I hear her saying "I'm a great kid" and she tells me every day that I am "the best mom ever". Who wouldn't love that?!
It is natural as parents to make sure our kids are doing things "right" or to want to prevent them from making "the wrong choice". In some areas this is very important. However, on the non-trivial stuff, it is also our responsibility, especially if they may not have regular time in a 2 parent household, to ensure that they do not feel inferior or disadvantaged in any way. Primary parents should take great effort as not to smother their kids due to the weight of providing most of their care.
3) Let her know she is loved even through discipline or lack of attention. Primary parents, even those who may have a partner, must have boundaries on their time, even with their kids. No doubt it is rough when you are working 8+ hours a day, 40+ hours a week, and then you may have a child at home that cannot fully care for themselves or perhaps require more attention than the next kid. Adults like me, who are constantly mentally stimulated outside of their primary form of income, must take steps to maintain interests that keep us grounded and hopeful for the future.
We cannot spend our entire time at home catering to our kids or not being progressive every time they cry or want something. Eventually (usually) children will grow up and leave the home and do their own thing. What are we going to do. One way I do this is by keeping a planner and charting the days I have work obligations. Around those work obligations I look for community or local events I can do with my kid at least twice a month. For the other off days that I plan to be home, I make sure I set aside a certain number of hours that I can "play" with her or do activities like painting, playing monster, or playing pretend with her stuffed animals.
Other times I am at home, there has to be paying bills online, cleaning the carpet, checking in on the parents, and so forth-- things which I also put on the planner with how much anticipated time I plan to use. Then there are my fun endeavors such as reading, writing, social media, spirituality hour, etc., that I put down. Sometimes my daughter wants to play or constantly wants my help because she can't find her favorite toy or wants a snack or wants to play her piano too loud in the same room. I often need to remind her "I love you, but right now Mommy is busy", "I love you but you need to find another toy", "I'm sorry but I need you to play in another room".
Does she get upset, yes at first, but a few minutes later I have the peace I need to finish what I'm doing and she has distracted herself enough to be content again. There are so many educational toys and games available that I don't even worry if she is "learning anything" because you can determine what your kid is learning simply by engaging them in conversation.
Sometimes my daughter is no angel, like other kids her age. She enjoys getting in my makeup if I forget to put it up high. She writes on the walls when she started on a piece of paper. She throws a temper tantrum and shouts "I give up!" and stomps in the other room if she can't make something work fast enough. Sometimes she mimics me when I tell her to cool it. Like some parents I have learned that yelling doesn't really have an effect on her, but in her case, she hates to be separated in a different room alone. She also hates losing the privilege of her Amazon tablet.
In these cases I put her in her room, tell her I love her anyway but she has to stay there a specified amount of time until she can behave. Other times I tell her I still love you but you can't have the tablet for 3 hours. It isn't about the punishment. It's about the understanding that the form of discipline or disagreement does not change my feelings about her. The funny thing is she will emerge from the room with a hug most times and say "I still love you Mommy". I'll take that any day. I know as she ages the methods of correction will have to adapt but showing mercy through discipline will not.
4) Never say "We can't afford it" or "We don't have enough money." Parents unknowingly start cycles in their children's lives by what they say and the habits they have. Some people don't know any better and they are doing the best they can with the hand they have been given. Some people just handle things the way they saw their parents or their caretakers handle things because that has been their way of life. I feel like I have spent my whole life trying to undo mindsets that I saw from the adults around me as I grew up but I also realize that much of those mindsets were because they didn't have access to the help or information that I do now.
The biggest challenge in my life has been my relationship with money. I've always believed that I would attain a lot of it and that I would contribute things of value in exchange for it. However growing up was totally different and getting out on my own was even harder. I am the third of six children, primarily raised by my mother who had limited resources and limited education. She did the best she could and one of the main things I learned from her was how to make a little last a long time and how to maximize what a dollar could get you when you only had a few of them. I got through high school on limits. I was a student at Virginia Tech with limits. I became a New Yorker with limits. I became a mom with limits but fortunately was able to make enough working to stand on my own two feet.
Becoming a primary parent, with the help of God and the people He has attracted to me, has shown me I really don't have any limits. Even my financial struggles do not make me powerless nor are the struggles permanent if I decide they are not. Does it take time to dig out? Yes. Do you have to discipline yourself to set aside a bit at a time because you will no doubt hit a rough patch? Yes. Does that mean you shop with coupons or where you get discounts because that's money saved and pay towards something that's costing you interest? Yes.
The things I have been learning are things I am already teaching my daughter because my parents weren't able to teach it to me. I grew up learning what I "cannot afford". My daughter's response to everything we don't have in the house is "We can buy that" even if I don't buy it. My daughter does not hound me for toys in the store when I say "Not this time. We will find you something better" (my version of, no' ma'am, that is not on my list). Occasionally my daughter will see something under $10 and I will buy it for her because she is a good kid and doesn't really ask me for stuff, plus I feel good if I'm buying something for me and she gets something too.
My daughter sees coins and understands her money is for her to save. I have been giving my daughter $10 a week in cash since we started getting child support this year and I watch her neatly fold the bills and place them into her pony bank in her room. Afterwards I have her say "I am rich!" as we high five each other. My daughter has had trips, outings, and fun birthday parties. She has not yet had to experience "lack" but I know how quickly that can happen if life decides to come at you with a vengeance.
My daughter is at an age of absorption. I don't talk about my money problems with my friends on the phone when she's around. I am her primary example and my reversing my negative relationship with money also means making sure she doesn't have one to begin with. I will have to begin the investment stages for her but she will be learning about it well before her teens versus into her thirties as I have had to do.
5) Grow your village and take care of it. Everyone knows that childcare is one of the biggest blessings and biggest curses of being a parent or guardian. It is a necessary, expensive evil depending on the amount of your salary and who you find. I can say I have been beyond blessed in both the areas of affordability and the extended family I have gained.
Most childcare facilities are only available during the standard office hours or starting at school times. For those of us that work irregular hours in exchange for better salaries, most of these facilities are not an option. Particularly if you work weekends or nights. As a primary parent, it can be a very stressful situation if your business requires more accessibility to your customers.
Enter your "sitter", your friends, your family, and your coworkers. Lots of people tell you they will be there to support you in the beginning stages of your pregnancy or when the baby first comes, but many of them disappear or simply don't follow through when it's time to prove it. For those of us that have been fortunate enough to have these people to step in when the sitter gets sick or the job hours changed or you don't get that day off you planned, making sure to return the favor and regularly express appreciation isn't something we should overlook. Send that birthday gift when you can, take them out to dinner, take them out for a fun activity, pay a little extra when you have it, and so forth.
My care provider has been the same since my daughter was three months old. She has flexed herself with my work schedule many times and often has kept my daughter overnight. Her whole family has embraced mine as their own. I went through a long period where my car was out of commission and I had friends letting me borrow their cars or giving me rides so that I could get her to childcare and then to work. Sometimes my sitter's daughter would pick my daughter up after she worked overnight so that I could Uber to my job. My sister lives four hours away and she drove 2 hours my way to exchange her daughter to provide me a week of childcare.
I have had my best friend who lives in NYC take time off work for days to come and cover my childcare or my friend that lives an hour away meet me halfway to take my daughter so I could get to work if my sitter had to be unavailable. I have had one of my friends have me drop my daughter to her job at the end of her shift so that I could go to work. There were the few times her father called out of his work so that I could go to mine. I realize that not everybody has this. It sometimes involves a lot of reaching out for help or letting others know that I need help to pull it off. It also is reflective of how you treat people. If you are nasty and inconsiderate of others, many will not be moved to help you when you find yourself in a bind.
Primary parents carry a lot of weight. There often aren't too many other people that you can count on. You must be open to putting yourself out there, being a good friend, and make conscious decisions to invest in others, no matter how small. It will come back to you when you need it. You will benefit and your children will benefit. We are forced to take on so much because the partner has to work out of the home for extended periods or the other parent is usually absent or there are work demands that make it hard to do it all and stay sane.
It is critical to allow yourself to accept help and to pray that your children are safe when they are not with you. Overwhelmed parents sometimes hurt their kids and I never wish to see that when it is preventable. Take no shame in being primary parent, no matter the circumstances of why. Allow your child to show you who they are and then do your best to teach them who you are. Never forget that children and teens are still people with their own desires and own brain chemistry. Be mindful of when you are guiding and when you ar forcing. Taking responsibility for the greatest gift in the world is the highest honor you could ever have but always remember they are your gift.