I was raised by a single mother. I became a single dad and my sister became a single mom. This is the relationship resumé of my family. I am sharing this because I want to talk about single parenthood and I want you to know I understand.
This is usually a topic reserved for women raising children on their own. As a single father of two children, I was an anomaly. I had no peers to relate or share with and I had to figure things out on my own through trial and error. As all single parents know, the errors really hurt … both us and our children.
I found myself a single dad twice in my life following my two divorces. I want to share with you today a few of the lessons I learned, but before we begin I want to acknowledge what a sensitive subject this is. So before I write another word, I want to invite us to take a moment to come into our hearts. In the midst of parenting alone, working to pay the bills, fighting with an ex-spouse, trying desperately to be a great mom or dad, we end up spending too much time in our heads, all of the thoughts and judgments and fears spinning like a demoralizing out-of-control tornado. With that said, for the next few minutes as we talk together, let’s meet each other at the level of our hearts.
Please join me in sitting down comfortably, taking a deep breath into the chest through your mouth, and then exhaling deeply, again through your mouth. Really breathe, deeply and deliberately, and when you exhale let the breath go; you might even make a sound of letting go, like a long sigh or an “Ahhhhhhh.” This may feel weird, it may hurt, you may cry, and you will probably want to stop … and that’s okay. It’s all okay. We’re here together. At this moment this is not your situation alone, it is no longer you against the world — we are meeting at a place we all know. We find ourselves here today, together, joined in our desire to be good moms and dads, to bring love to our children and to find love for ourselves. Breathe again now, and on the inhale (quietly, on the inside), allow the words “I am loved” to join your breath; and on the exhale, attach the words “I am safe.” Long, deep breaths. I am loved … I am safe. I am loved … I am safe. I am loved … I am safe. Do this for as long as you want, until you feel a shift in your body. This may come as tears, and just let that be as it is. Continue gently with this process until you’re ready to read on, knowing in your heart that you are loved and safe in this place, here and now.
I remember waking up after my second divorce. I was really scared. I was sure I had wrecked my children’s lives and that I would never find love. I was alone again, raising two children, and, as an executive with huge responsibilities at work, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I was pulled in so many directions I felt like I might split right down the middle … and expose my broken heart.
That day I pulled myself out of bed, walked down the stairs of my house, and had a realization. Looking around at my home I said to myself, “This isn’t my house.” I didn’t like the paint on the walls, or the curtains or the furniture; most of all, I didn’t like the way my house felt. It all represented something I no longer wanted to be a part of. As I thought more I realized this applied to many areas of my life. Have you ever had this feeling as you leave a relationship? That your life isn’t really yours? Well I did at that moment, and I realized it was the key to regaining my balance.
So I sat down and made a list, a list of what truly mattered to me — what I wanted my family to be, what I wanted my kids to know, what I wanted our home to represent. Then, applying a lesson my business mentor taught me, I vowed that everything that wasn’t on that list would be put aside, that I would not hold myself or my children accountable for anything other than that list. I was letting go, and in doing so I was moving forward.
Here is what the list said:
1. My home: I want my home to be safe, fun, and happy.
2. My children: I want my children to know that their dad loves them, I want them to feel safe and to be free to realize their dreams.
3. My life: I want to be loved, understood, and have the space to be myself, make mistakes, and realize my dreams.
Absent from my list were so many of the things I had beaten myself up over following my first divorce, so many of the familiar items that we take on as single parents — the things we use to judge if we are “good” mommies and daddies. The usual suspects like …. is the house perfectly clean? Did the kids arrive at school on time every single day? Is homework done even at the expense of time spent together? Did I make my boss happy at the expense of my kids and myself? Is there a towel on the floor? Have I given every ounce of myself to my work and children and left nothing for me? I had decided that I would sacrifice many of the things I’d judged myself on in the past for two basic necessities: my children feeling loved, and the realization that I deserved to feel loved, too.
I started with my home, and I remodeled. I know money is different for everyone and, as single parents, money is often one of the biggest stressors. So I’m not saying that a lot of money needs to be spent. Remodeling can be as simple as getting some paint from Home Depot and painting the walls with your children. What was important to me was that our home become ours, that it represent us. I let the kids choose the color for their walls, even if that color was purple. If you’re living in a house or apartment that isn’t yours, do it anyway — you can always paint the walls back to “hospital white” when you move out. I took down all the pictures and decorations that didn’t represent my list of values and replaced them with ones that did. I removed all the things that might get broken and made the house a place where my children could play. I even put up a Nerf basketball hoop in the dining room and played vigorous games with my son. When we were finished we had a home, and this step, as superficial as it may seem, allowed us to breathe and look forward to coming to “our place” at night.
The next step for me was finding some help. I realized that I couldn’t be successful at work and home without help. And, since I committed myself to the list, I needed o find some help with items not on the list. For me this came in the form of Amalia, who started out as our housekeeper and quickly became a loved and trusted member of our family. Again, money is a factor in these decision so maybe hiring someone may not work for you, but asking for help from family and friends might. In talking to other single parents, I’ve been told this concept of getting help is especially difficult for moms, who feel it’s their responsibility to personally oversee the house, job, and extracurricular activities. I empathize with that feeling, AND I add to it that you truly matter. Your health, well-being, and feelings are most important in these moments, and outsourcing some of the responsibility can make all the difference. However it’s done, we can ease our isolation and pressure to be everything to everyone by seeking out help and realizing we deserve it.
Next I found someone to talk to. This is so important, and made me realize I needed help to see a bigger picture. I didn’t need someone to commiserate about how dark life was; I needed someone to help me find the light. This meant going outside my friends and finding Vera, my therapist. My visits with her became a weekly respite from it all, a place where my feelings were the only ones that mattered and, from that realization, that I mattered, too. This can come in the form of a therapist, a spiritual teacher, a wise friend who’s been there and beyond, or even an audiobook after the goodnight kisses are finished and lights have been turned off. You matter, your tears count, your heart is to be cherished — there is no greater priority than you, because the health of your family begins with a healthy you.
Finally, I lightened up. I eased the rules of success and gave myself and my children space to breathe. This started by clinging to my list. Every time I felt like a failure over some dropped ball, I looked back at my list to see if it was on there. Most of the time it wasn’t, and I learned to be okay with towels on the floor and spending extra time enjoying breakfast even if it meant a late arrival at school and a stern look from the principal. I was honest with my boss and colleagues and shared my situation, which gave them the opportunity to be supportive and understanding (which they were). I also learned that saying no was okay when saying yes created more stress.
In recent years, I’ve learned another thing that I want to share because I wish I had known it then. Our bodies and our minds work together. We’ve all heard about mind over matter, using positive thoughts to create a healthy life and body. The inverse is true, too. Happy cells help create happy minds. When we’re sad, when we’re afraid, when our hearts are split in two, we can ease the pain by caring for our bodies. This doesn’t have to mean some massive lifestyle change that adds more stress, but simple things like green juice and stretching in the morning, a little exercise, enjoying a few minutes of meditation or taking some calming herbs — these are all gentle reminders to our bodies that we’re loved AND that love flows up to our hearts and minds with that message that all is well, which helps little by little, to ease the pain.
I want to invite you to join me right now in putting this into action. If you are a single parent, if you know one, if you are a child raised by a mom or a dad going it alone, take a moment today to share this message of love. Start with yourself: “I am loved, I am safe,” and then share it with someone else you know. Perhaps you want to change the words to fit the situation. But share the essence of it with a co-worker, your mom or dad, your children, even someone you hardly know who is on this journey.
Let me start the chain here as you carry it forward:
“You are loved. You are safe. Your feelings matter. You are a good parent. I love you ….”
Big hugs of love,