How to Use Strategy and Spontaneity to Manage the Demands of Family Life
By Janis Hashe
Here's an excerpt of an email exchange single mom Carol Davidson had with a friend of hers after I had interviewed her for this article:
Carol: I just had an interview for a parenting magazine about time management strategies for single parents.
Her friend: Why? Did they need a "before" example?
Carol: Ha. Ha. Ha!
Davidson, the mother of 6-year-old Nick, knows she doesn't have the time-management thing down to a science. But she does have one of the major coping components, mentioned by parents and experts alike: a sense of humor, coupled with an ability to roll with the punches.
In fact, three strong themes emerge when looking at effective scheduling and management of responsibilities in single parent households:
- single parents need to make use of their networks,
- they must create schedules, lists and calendars,
- and they need to know "when to fold 'em" with grace and humor if necessary.
"Even newly divorced people do not need to create an entirely new support network," points out sociologist Jeanne Hurlbert, Ph.D., head of OptinetResources.com, a group that assists in building social networks. "You still have friends and family, and those ties can be augmented by new ones that you can find through support groups, church, at work or through organizations you already belong to."
Hurlbert notes that while many single parents may be reluctant to ask for help, creating the request as an exchange ("I could watch Matt on Thursday afternoon; could you watch Sara on Friday morning?") means that you are offering help as well. Even just sharing the picking up and dropping off of children can be a huge help for working parents.
"I do have several people who can help me with Sydney when I go out of town," says Candace Davis, who balances the needs of her 8-year-old daughter with a demanding job. "I always offer to help with their children in return," often taking groups of kids to the aquarium or museums.
George Dennis, who shares custody of 4-year-old Emmett, takes him and neighboring kids to the studio of an artist friend. "My friend loves being around kids and welcomes them. Emmett watches me parent other kids and learns from that," Dennis says. In return, his neighbors and friends can help when he needs to make an important business call or return emails.
Some parents, like Carol Davidson, do face extra challenges when creating networks of help.
"Nick has type 1 diabetes, and he needs a trained babysitter," she says. "Some people don't offer to help because they are scared of the responsibility - but the biggest gift in the world they could give me would be to overcome their fear."
Another part of your network is your child.
"Ask your child to help around the house," advises Elaine Shimberg, author of Blending Families and the upcoming The Complete Single Father. "We tend to under-use our kids because we don't want to 'burden' them. Instead, we make them feel they aren't capable or an important part of the family."
Write It Down … in Pencil!
Divorced parents can "create an interim, and then a solid, schedule with their ex," suggests Allison Schwartz, life coach and time-management expert at AlliumCoaching.com. "Write a schedule for you and your kids for the week. Kids love structure and you will benefit, too. Include a slot for family time: cooking, a hike, pizza and video night."
Setting boundaries with an ex-spouse regarding schedule changes is sometimes difficult, but essential. The experts agree that it isn't in your best interest - or your child's - to allow constant changes and disruptions. There are times you will need to say, "That just doesn't work for me and Ryan."
"Make lists, and you will see some things that you really do not need to do," says Elaine Shimberg. "Ask yourself, 'What is the best use of my time right now?'"
In a similar vein, Schwartz recommends writing down your weekly schedule and looking at where you spend your time. "What priority does each of these activities have, on a scale of one to 10?" she asks. "It's really likely some of the ones, twos and threes could be eliminated."
Carol Davidson creates a schedule for the week, and she and her son sit down together and plan out a week's worth of meals.
"I keep the schedule on the computer and try to stick to it," she says ruefully.
Some single parents, however, fall into the trap of overscheduling, or overindulging, their children.
"Single parents often feel guilty and end up trying to give their child everything, like it's their birthday all the time," Schwartz says. "But it's OK to limit the number of activities a child participates in."
Keep Pedaling: Tips from Experts and Single Parents
"Most of Sydney's activities are within school hours," Candace Davis says. "But I have had to say we cannot take on one more activity."
If Mama Ain't Happy …
Don't be embarrassed to ask the folks in your social network to help you find some time for yourself, Hurlbert says. "None of us operates effectively if we're stressed and overwhelmed. If you can find the help you need, you'll be healthier and happier and work your way through the relentless tasks much more efficiently."
"You need an evening to call your own," Shimberg suggests. "Don't become a martyr to your children."
"I'll take an hour for myself each night after Sydney goes to bed," Davis says. "Even on weekends, when she has her friends over, I can find a few minutes for myself."
A happy parent ultimately means a better atmosphere for the child, says George Dennis. "I come from a divorced family, and I remember always worrying if my parents were happy," he says. "So I think it's very important that my son sees me when I am happy. Parents need to try to be happy themselves to create happiness for their child."
Part of that contentment may come from accepting that the ups and downs of family life are normal - not parenting failures.
"I am walking through life one step at a time, and some days it works, and some days it doesn't," Davidson admits. "The key is how resilient you are, how you readjust and keep going. Sometimes, you just have to wing it."
Janis Hashe is a veteran parenting writer and editor.
- Parents Without Partners, 800-637-7974 - This non-profit organization has been providing support for single parents and their children for 50 years. PWP chapters hold family events, educational/personal growth activities and social activities aimed at helping newly single parents meet other single parents. The Web site offers a newsletter, information on local chapters and links to a wide range of resources for single parents.