How to be Happy as a Single Parent, Part One

I was 29 when I became a single mother of 4 kids.  My oldest was 9; youngest was only 9 months old.  As if that wasn’t enough, my ex disappeared and left us destitute.  I had left college 8 years earlier so my ex could attend college across country, and I spent the following years building a family instead of building any means to be able to support myself; let alone 4 very sweet, completely dependent souls.

To say it was overwhelming doesn’t begin to describe how I felt.  But, if I had anything, I had hope in myself to provide what my children needed: physically and emotionally. 

Looking back, meeting their emotional needs was much more demanding than their physical needs.  It was so challenging because my mental health was poor, and my support system was counter-productive!

Over the years, I built better support by learning to ask for help.  I finished college and started a career in teaching which gave me a bigger purpose than merely surviving.  I rebuilt my mental health and became somebody I liked.  And best yet, I found insatiable joy in my children and their successes and growth. 

I Get it

I was a single mom for another 8 years.  If I’m being perfectly honest, I had written-off marriage for myself.  The reality was, I had no business being in any relationship until I had healed from the trauma of divorce, and when I had reached a certain level of forgiveness and understanding, the right person miraculously appeared.

So, needless to say, over 8 years of single-parenting, I learned a few things!  The most important of which might be empathy.  I get it.  Detailing the difficulties of being a single parent just never does it justice.  It’s a club nobody really wants to join, but I’m more than happy for my former membership so I can try my best to help others. 

1. Care for Yourself

No doubt this is the most common piece of advice that single parents get.  Honestly, I got sick of hearing it.  To me, it seemed like such trite, insincere advice, and, I would always think, “I have four kids to take care of, I don’t have time for myself”!    

What I failed to understand was:  the more you learn to care for yourself, the more quality your care for others—especially your kids—becomes

As a single parent, you are required to give, give, give, give, give.  You give food, shelter, clothing, time, emotional support, spiritual guidance, homework help—your day is literally comprised of giving to your little people. 

The key though, and the reason people are always giving you this advice, is the quality of what you give is always better when your physical and emotional needs are met.   

“You cannot pour from an empty cup.”    

When we are physically and emotionally run down, everything becomes a strain.  A simple argument between your kids elicits a massive overreaction from you, which then causes more negative emotions like guilt, regret, and anger. 

Allow Yourself a Break

Ask a friend if they can send their teenage daughter over to watch a movie with your kids for two hours so you can take a nap.

Or decide–heaven forbid–that everyone’s having cereal for dinner tonight!  I assure you that an occasional bowl of cereal instead of an Instagram-worthy, organic, home-cooked meal is not going to kill anybody. 

If, when you sit down with your adorable children and see them digging excitedly into their Frosted Mini Wheats, you’re still feeling bad, put a banana on your cereal and let it go.      

When you start to take care of your physical and emotional needs, your feelings of self-worth increase.  You will start to feel more valuable and recognize that you are something worth caring for.  Those increased feelings of merit—coming from within you, and because of nobody else—will make you feel incomparably happy.    

Consider Your Love Language

I had a friend who was a massage therapist.  After my divorce, she recommended I get a regular massage because now, as a Single Mom, I wasn’t getting any physical contact other than the hugs and kisses I was able to get from my kids. 

She was right.  I didn’t realize how much this was hurting me.  My “Love Language” is Physical Touch, and other than cuddling my kids, that need wasn’t being met. 

If you don’t already know, find out what your Love Language is.  Then, get creative to ensure that need is being met.  Some ideas include:

  • Physical Touch: Schedule a regular massage, facial, or manicure/pedicure.  I know money is always tight in a one-parent household, but make your needs a priority.
  • Acts of Service: learn to ask for help!  Yes, it’s hard and humbling, but don’t deprive others of the blessings of Service.  Also, giving service will reap the same rewarding feelings as receiving.
  • Gifts: is definitely hard for single parents, as we want to provide for our children 10 times more than for ourselves, and money is always tight.  But, find an amount of money that you are comfortable with, and set it aside for yourself every month.  Gift yourself—and as a gift, let it be guilt-free.
  • Quality Time: I know, what time, right? If you’re an Introvert, set aside alone time; if you’re an Extrovert, schedule a specific, regularly recurring time to spend time with someone.  Either way, guard that time fiercely and do NOT sacrifice it
  • Words of Affirmation: I know you will feel very alone, a lot.  But I promise you are not.  Build a support system that is dependable, who will listen, and who you can count on to provide verbal encouragement whenever you need it.     

2. Create a Routine

“There is comfort in routine.”

John Steinbeck

Despite how many times your kids might argue about their bedtime, brushing their teeth, getting ready for school, whatever, the truth is, they crave routine.  There is comfort and order in what is familiar.

Have you ever taken a vacation: one that you were anticipating, planning for weeks ahead; then you had the most amazing time, but still felt an odd sense of relief upon coming back home?  That’s because we crave the normalcy and comfort of our routine

For children, routines create that sense of familiarity, as well as peace, understanding, and even a semblance of control over their little lives.  They help to build trust between parent and child; and are the foundation for teaching responsibility.

But, maybe the most important reason to create a routine is for your sanity!  Creating and sticking to a schedule will greatly reduce your workload and will help give you more time to do the things that make you happy.   

Different Types of Routines

There is definitely no one-size-fits-all approach to creating a schedule.  What works for one family will not fit another.  But, when you are ready to establish a routine, build them around your family’s particular pain-points.

For example, if your family struggles to be on time, and you are fighting to get your kids out the door in an orderly fashion, start there.  Establish a firm morning wake-up time and outline exactly what your children need to do to get out the door. 

Example 1:

  • Morning Alarm: 7:00am
  • 7:00-7:15: Get dressed, make bed, bring backpack to front door
  • 7:15-7:45: Breakfast
  • 7:45-7:50: Brush teeth, be at door!
  • 7:50 Leave for school

Example 2: Pain point=children too tired to complete homework before bed

  • 3:45: Home from School
  • 3:45-4:00: Snack
  • 4:00-4:30: Chore
  • 4:30-5:15: Homework
  • 5:15-6:30: Free time 6:30: Dinner

In each of these examples, there is very detailed scheduling for everything around your family’s pain points.  However, the rest of the day’s schedule does not need to be as intricately detailed if things flow smoothly for other parts of the day.

The Token Economy

Dr. James Jones is a family therapist who created an amazing program called, “Let’s Fix the Kids”.

One of the components of his program is called the “Token Economy”.  In short, the Token Economy teaches parents to establish specific responsibilities and expectations for the kids which earn them “credits”.  Similarly, pre-established … received “debits”. 

Possible credits might include doing homework, making your bed, setting the table, folding your laundry, saying your prayers, etc.

Debits can be anything from not doing your chore, or having to be reminded to do your chore, to being disrespectful or hitting your little brother.

At the end of the day, they can cash in anything they have earned to purchase rewards such as screen time, activity with friends, dessert, etc. 

My favorite part of the Token Economy?  The responsibility is almost entirely on the kids!  Your kids are responsible for marking their credits.  All you have to do is mark any debits they might accumulate.  Then, if they want screen time, simply ask, “Do you have the money in your account?”

This program eliminates fighting with your kids.  There’s no need to get angry because the everyone in the house has created the program together, the rewards and “consequences” are laid out, and there is no negotiation. 

The routine created by the Token Economy is a comfort to the kids because it clearly outlines their expectations and how to obtain the rewards they want. 

Be Flexible

Even if a routine takes a bit of getting used to, once established, you and your children will both be happier.  Don’t be afraid to be flexible: modify expectations, adapt the schedule to fit new activities, throw out things that aren’t working. 

But, while making such changes, talk to your children about why those changes are taking place.  Teach them that life isn’t rigid and fixed; but requires adaptability.  Make them a part of the conversation.  If you do, not only are you teaching them a life skill, but you will receive greater “buy-in”: more willingness to cooperate with something they helped create.

Is a Routine Really That Important?

Having a routine is especially important for an anxious child, including those experiencing the uncertainty of a split family.  While I understand that you might have little (or no!) control over what happens in the other parent’s household, providing your children with expectation and routine in your home will make them feel safe, at peace, and ultimately, happier! 

Don’t be discouraged if you feel like you are the only parent providing structure and requiring responsibility.  It can be very frustrating to watch while the other parent refuses to require your child to do homework, household chores, or follow bedtimes. 

For a time, it might cause your children to resist the structures you have in place in your home.  But, more quickly than you think, your child will stop resisting and start embracing the routine they are guaranteed with you. 

If you are discouraged, remind yourself: you are in this for the long haul.  Your expectations and standards are shaping an adult.  While lack of routine and structure might appear to be “freeing” and “fun”, I can promise you, your children will benefit from the routine as they grow into adulthood.  And when they’re involved in the creating and maintaining the schedule, they will feel understood, appreciated, and loved.    

Keep your chin up!  As your child succeeds and grows from the effort you provide, you will be overwhelmed with happiness.  All those feelings of doubt, failure, or anger will be replaced with pride and joy.   

3. One Single Moment

Do you know how many times I was told how important it was that I had individual dates with my kids?  

That definitely fell in the Top 3 Worst Advice Received category, because it made me feel like a complete failure.  Having an individual date with 4 kids was just not physically possible for us.  

But what I could do, was have one single moment with each of my kids every single day.  

Much to all parents’ chagrin, kids often forget the elaborate productions we create for them.   It’s the “$300 worth of gifts for the kid to play with an empty box” syndrome. 

What they don’t forget?  A few stolen minutes one-on-one with you.  They know how busy you are.  They can feel your stress and heartache.  Showing them that despite all of that, you are choosing to spend a few minutes with only them reassures them that they are important to you. 

A Personal Testimony

My older son developed asthma right at the same time his father and I started divorce proceedings.  Just the other day, now 10 years later, he asked me if I remembered the book I would read to him every time he had to have a nebulizer breathing treatment.   

Oh, I remember.  The machine was so loud, we had to sit cuddled close together on the couch, so I could read right into his ear.  And that he remembers makes me so incredibly happy.  

As a former English teacher, I’m all about reading to your kids as a great way to spend one single moment with them.  Or, when you have to drive all over town, have them read to you!  

These special moments don’t have to be a production.  You can also cook dinner together, eat breakfast together after older siblings have gone to school, walk home from the bus stop or to get the mail together.  Choose something that works for your family and don’t listen to what anyone else has to say!

I was the youngest of 7 children, and even in a 2-parent household, I knew my parents didn’t have a lot of time to spend with us, individually.  Nonetheless, my mother took me grocery shopping with her almost without fail, until I was 10.  That was no less valuable to me than playing a game or taking me to the movies.  All that mattered was the feeling that she wanted to be with me. 

These single, brief moments might not seem like a lot to you, but I promise, they mean a lot to our kids. 

Conclusion of Part 1

How to be Happy as a Single Parent
James Jones Token Economy

Part 2 of How to be Happy as a Single Parent will include 3 more tips to help relieve the stress of single parenting.

Until then, if you’re interested in receiving my templates for James Jones’s Token Economy, subscribe to my weekly Newsletter by following the link in the margin. 

Don’t worry, I hate Spam, too.  Newsletters come out every Tuesday, and your email will never be shared!   

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