One single-mum’s 13-point guide to just-about-scraping-by
I don’t think there’s been anything in my life I can equate to how hard it is to just hold my s*** together when I’ve felt like I’m falling apart. There are going to be times in every parent’s life when the poo hits the air-con: the times when you want to swear, and rant, and throw everything in and go to bed/Fiji/the nearest wine bar and you aren’t allowed. And that’s tough. But I’ve been thinking a lot about the 1 in 4 of us experiencing mental health, and realised that means that out of all the parents and single-parents in the world, there are going to be other people who’ve spent a long time trying desperately to keep their head above the water while being the best parent they can manage to be.
I have absolutely no qualifications in this. If there were single-parenting exams, I’d like to think I’d manage a B but luckily nobody has suggested them yet. However, if you’d like to feel that there are at least some other people going through the same rubbish, then read on. I’ve got a few pointers, and maybe you’ll have some too.
1) Stop giving yourself such a hard time
It’s the first on the list because it’s the one I fall foul of most often. I always want to be super-mummy; and also super-rower, super-cyclist, super-writer, super-friend and super-well-turned-out. None of these are easy, and doing them all together is tough. It’s ok to go back to bed sometimes, or to do a shorter run than you’d intended. Most days, getting out of the house with Rufus actually dressed in non-pyjamas (ideally clean ones, too) feels as much as I can manage. It’s a bonus if I am also wearing some form of clothing. When things are really bad, the process ends up taking forever, because it will frequently be interrupted by me standing completely still in indecision, being gripped so hard by worries about what I have to do that I can’t function, or being unable to cope with a small wiggling, complaining, not-getting-dressed-person without snapping. So this is where point 2 comes in…
2) Start being proud of the small things
Don’t go overboard with this. It’s difficult to take yourself seriously if you give yourself a big thumbs-up for putting on a sock. But instead of getting into the car in the morning having finally levered the two of us out, and immediately starting to worry about being late; about how I have so much to do today and have already lost time; about that appointment I was supposed to book but haven’t – I try very hard to take a minute to think “We made it this far. Go me!”
3) Ask for help
Obvious one, but surprisingly difficult to get right. There’s no way you’re going to feel good about yourself if you’re asking for it all the time. And frankly, you’re just going to piss everybody else off. They have their own stuff to deal with, and that’s valid too. But when things are really, really bad, and you don’t know how you’re going to get through the day, you can’t seem to respond to your four-year-old telling you things without him shouting “MUMMY!!!” eight times and then resorting to using your first-name, and when you sit staring at the lego and think that if you have to get up and make something with him and praise him for it and make whooshing noises whilst it flies around, you might scream, then it’s time to put out The Call. A small respite to retreat to bed or go and do some work without interruption can sometimes be all that you need. I’m lucky enough to have Rufus’s Dad not too far away, and the grandparents, too – and although they often have e.g. late shifts, etc., they are genuinely happy to help when they can. The only thing I lack is someone with a car to give me an occasional break from the nursery run, but I’m working on it.
4) Tell your child/children that you love them
It’s not your fault if the way your head is makes you distant now and then, or grumpier than usual. And it’s not your fault if the small people in your life pick up on this. But you can make it a lot, lot better if you apologise for it and reinforce (to the point where they tell you “I KNOW Mummy, you always tell me”) that you love them. This is harder when they are smaller, but then cuddles can do a lot too. I’ve actually realised recently that if I snap and then say “Sorry for snapping. I’m just tired and not feeling great. It’s not your fault, I shouldn’t have done it” then R understands and feels better about it. Which makes me feel a bit better about it. I’m still going to feel inevitable guilt about the fact that I am providing inconsistent parenting and boundaries, and about the fact that he’s not getting my full attention in the way he should, but talking about it openly helps.
5) Work out what is making you feel worst, and be harsh in removing it from your life
If it’s an apparent friend who isn’t one, or an activity that is pressuring you, or even a job that is making you miserable, then trust me – it isn’t worth it. For me, this was particularly tough because I have twice come to realise that the relationship I was in was having a really detrimental effect on my mental health. When something shifts from being a support to being something that makes you happy to something that is eating away at your self-esteem or is stressing you out – and that goes on and on and on even after you’ve raised your concerns – then you have to get out. It doesn’t matter if the individual involved isn’t trying to do it. If they can’t (or won’t) change, and it’s a major cause of unhappiness, it has to go. This is probably the hardest thing to do, because as well as knowing you’re going to hurt them, you’ll probably be used to turning to them for a hug when you need it. Sometimes your self-esteem will make it almost impossible to face up to being single, and you may find the thought of them with someone else makes you feel actually ill. You’ll also have the knowledge that there will be a good while where you will feel actively worse, because you will miss them; you will doubt you’ve made the right decision; you’ll be facing more on your own. But gradually, the feeling will fade, and you will start to feel better. And let’s face it: if it makes you a better parent, then it’s a no-brainer.
6) Regulate your caffeine and sugar intake
I can’t stress enough how much simple chemical effects can make you feel on the edge of an abyss. Caffeine may seem like a good way to wake up and get moving, but if you’re struggling with depression and/or anxiety, then once it wears off, you’re going to feel bad. I have actually got to the point where I couldn’t see any good anywhere in the world, for no reason other than a sudden lapse in strong coffee. And if that had happened on a really bad day, I’m not sure what would have happened. Sugar crashes are just as bad. It’s easy to comfort-eat, but I feel a whole lot better if I restrict that to bread and nuts and leave off the sweet stuff. Plus it has the added advantage of meaning I don’t feel bad about being a greedy fecker. Win all round! (NB – regulating your child’s sugar intake can really help too…)
7) Get out and see your friends – even when it’s tough
So often, I really don’t feel like doing this. It seems like too much of a drain of my terrible energy reserves, and it looms up like a big ugly scary toothy monster (which says nothing about my friends, I promise. None of them are in any way big, ugly, scary or toothy – even the rowers). But the moment I’m out of the house with the people I care about, I feel better. They give me something, and I talk about (and think about) things that aren’t just “I’m not coping,” “I haven’t done enough work today – how am I going to manage it all?” or, you know, 1001 ways to torture publishers who leave you hanging around for a response. And if – as I found recently – doing this on one really important occasion means that you pretty-much-for-the-first-time-ever can’t row the following morning and have to find a sub, or you have to postpone a playdate, or you haven’t tidied the house when someone comes round, then that’s ok. If anyone has a real, genuine problem with you letting them down for a reason they can’t be bothered to understand, then they aren’t worth your time.
8) Get out with your little people
It’s another hard one. As I mentioned in point 1, the dressing routine, etc. can be horrendous. But just knowing that you’ve taken them somewhere that’s a bit special makes you feel like a better parent. It gives you something to talk about with them that the will engage with, too, and hopefully save you from having to pretend to be a Mummy Pterodactyl in a duvet nest. And on the really plus side, you might tire the monsters out and actually get some rest later…
9) Get them to bed
…linked to point 8: it often seems easier to just let a child stay up and occupy themselves. At the end of the day, when you feel like you’ve exhausted yourself by just trying to keep it together for the last 12 hours, putting on the TV and sitting on the sofa staring into space while your four-year-old watches it have a siren-call. But you know you’re storing up trouble. It’s harder in the short term to do the bedtime routine, but in the longer-term, you’ll have a less-tired (and therefore easier to deal with) child; you’ll have some evening to yourself; and you’ll feel like a better parent. And following on from point 2, try and get other people to do the bedtime routine now and then.
10) Stop looking at your phone for validation
This is relevant for everyone who is struggling a bit, but it’s more significant when you’re a parent. Being unable to go five minutes without looking to see if someone’s messaged or emailed is not good for your relationship with your child, and it’s also totally pointless. Nothing in the world of the internets is going to make you actually feel like you’re worth something. Whereas there might just be someone in front of you who will. The flip side of this is that you can’t be the perfect parent all the time, and it is ok to do a little of your own thing when you have them with you. So my method of dealing with this is to give myself half-hour windows where the phone goes away. Usually it ends up being longer, because R and I get doing something, e.g. gardening, den-building, constructing a lego-tower to the ceiling. And then that feels like you’ve got over an addiction and should have some sort of a medal.
11) Dress up a little bit sometimes
It’s all about self-care, and it’s important. Catching sight of my reflection as I leave and seeing a nice-looking, well-presented person makes me feel like I must be on top of things. Whereas, by the way, the rest of the time, wear sports’-kit, have mis-matching socks, don’t brush your hair – and forgive yourself. You’re human.
12) Make lists of things you have to do
Blindingly-obvious thing to do, I know. But when super-anxious, it’s the one thing that goes out of the window. My mind instead flits between eight different things I should be doing, and I stand frozen thinking about them all, or start them all and don’t finish before another one occurs. My new list-method is a week-long one, because if you have a bad-day, a daily one makes you feel useless. I tick them off as I go, and if a day goes by without any being achieved, I try and squeeze in a super-easy one before bed. And if I don’t do any, I work out some for tomorrow and try to stick with it.
13) Keep doing things for other people
This is about more than just making yourself feel like a good person. It’s also about forcing yourself to think outside your own problems. Getting a sense of perspective is invaluable, and it’s unbelievably hard when struggling with depression. The other thing this does for you is to ensure that people don’t see you as a drain. It’s quite possible that isn’t what happens, but in my head, it might, and so this makes me positive that’s not everyone’s perception. On the flip side of this one, which is a really important thing too, don’t drive yourself into the ground for other people. If you really can’t drag yourself out to go and do someone’s shopping, or turn up with wine when someone is low, or take time out to have coffee when you are stressed beyond belief, then it’s also ok to say no. Other people are a fantastic support, but they can also be an inadvertent drain. So work out your boundaries and stick with them.
Above all, I guess, the message of all of this is to do the positive things and be proud of them. If you’re doing the single-parent thing, you’re already rocking, so embrace it with both hands, feel proud and keep doing it. I’d give you all a medal if I could.
If you’d like a lighter look at single-parenting, check out The 8 Most Embarrassing Things My Three-Year-Old Has Said and The 30 Things Most Likely to Give Me Parent Rage.
Gytha is an award-winning novelist, scriptwriter, blogger and copywriter. You can follow her on Facebook or Wattpad, where her fantasy series The Fragile Tower and YA romance The Cupid Touch are currently available to read.