Couples don’t usually break up a family unless there’s good reason. Unhappiness, tension, arguments, disrespect, abuse… whatever the reason, typically the chances of finding happiness on the other side far outweighs the appeal of staying and being miserable. So how do you prepare for single parenthood?
I’ve been on both sides of the fence. I was shocked and heartbroken when my first relationship ended nine years ago, when Maxwell was just one. Then six months ago, my then partner and I both agreed to separate – after months of arguments and unhappiness on both sides.
What was meant to be a joyous time – bringing a newborn home – was possibly the worst time of both our, and our childrens’ lives.
But, while the grass often appears greener (and usually is) on the other side, adjusting to single parenthood has a whole new set of challenges. Some are to be expected, others pop up out of nowhere. To help others prepare for single parenthood, both myself and other mum’s have shared our personal experiences – in an effort to equip other mums and ease the ‘surprise’.
Be financially prepared
Sometimes women and their children have to flee their home in the middle of the night due to abuse, and they leave with nothing more than the clothes on their back. That’s when services like The Alannah and Madeline Foundation really come into play. The AMF provide emergency accommodation for thousands of women and children every year. If you are in a position to donate, do it.
Emma understands. Her baby was nine months old when, after a particularly brutal violent attack from her husband, Emma fled the family home in the middle of the night with nothing more than her purse, nappy bag and the car. She says she is lucky. Not only to be alive after years of physical violence, but because her corporate position was made redundant just three months earlier – six months into her maternity leave.
“I used my redundancy to pay for six months rent in advance,” she explains. “I had no job and a dependent, so it was the only way I could secure a place to live.”
Other women, like Paula, 43, have very little cash because their husbands control the finances – and everything else.
“I finished university, got married and fell pregnant with the first of four children,” Paula explains. “I was a stay-at-home mum for 14 years – living in a very unhappy home. My husband wouldn’t let me get a job because it affected his taxable income. Instead, he gave me $400 each week to feed, clothe and pay for all the sports activities for the family.”
Understandably, Paula felt trapped.
“I had nowhere to go and no money, so I had to think creatively. I started buying and selling goods on eBay to make money, in particular, unique antiques. I’d go to garage sales at 6am and buy pieces that I knew would sell. Then I started making unique crafts, candles, clocks, scarves and other items to make cash on the side.”
It took Paula four years and financial help from her parents but eventually she had enough money for a house deposit. And the clincher? She bought the house under the ‘rental guise’ while she was still with her husband.
“It was important for me that I had a home for my children ready when I left. And because I could show the banks I was earning an income, had little outgoings, was planning to rent the house out in the interim and I didn’t have the deficit of four dependent children on my record, the banks approved my loan.”
Stable income = stable home
For me, it was slightly different. I had a six-month-old baby when I knew the right thing for our entire family was for myself and my then 9 year-old son, Maxwell, to leave. But I had no job because I’d been looking after baby Louis. I quickly realised no sane real estate agent was going to approve me for a rental property as a single mum with two dependants and no job. So I got a job and worked my butt off for three months to show a stable income. I cried countless times walking out of ludicrously overpriced Sydney apartments, wondering how on earth I was ever going to look after a baby, a nine-year-old and make enough money to pay the bills. After 26 inspections across three weeks, I finally realised we had to move further out of Sydney. So we did. I’m not going to pretend the 90 minute drive to school, then day are, then the office and home again isn’t awful – it is. But it was the right choice for me and my boys – to have a nice home, a big backyard to play in and space.
Every situation is different and we don’t all have the luxury of time, money, work opportunities and other resources, but if you can get your finances in order before leaving, do it.
Explain to your children why you are leaving, but keep them out of conflicts
Being in an unhappy home was damaging to everyone, and while my partner and I tried to contain our disputes to ‘adult only’ scenarios, they spilled over into family time more than they should have. I do not recommend this. If you have any self-control (which I don’t), keep those little ears protected but make sure you find quite time to explain why leaving dad behind is better for everyone than staying.
For me, the conflict ended the day I signed my new lease. But for many others, ongoing conflicts between the parents not only causes stress for them, but creates an avalanche of instability, distress and uncertainty for the children.
Someone wise once said to me, ‘manners cost nothing’. Being polite to your ex, informing them of issues that affect your children, working with them to find solutions rather than being an a-hole for the sake of it … all of these little ‘efforts’ usually lead to better outcomes for everyone.
Organisation is not one of my strengths. But when you are a single parent and have to do everything from school drop/pick-up, work, groceries, extra-curricular activities, and earn a dual income to pay 100% of the bills, you have no choice – you have to get organised!
Try to get help where you can. For example, I share footy training pick up and drop off with another mum. Order your groceries online. Cook meals that you can freeze – or at least get two nights from, like lasagne or casseroles. Work from home if your boss allows it. Take short cuts where you can – do you really need to vacuum/wash the bed sheets/mow the laws/get your regrowth done that often? Stretch things out a tad longer…
Do what you can to get yourself out the door faster in the mornings – prepare the school lunch and day care bag, have the Weetbix, banana and bowl ready on the bench for brekkie, lay out the school uniform… and if the kids are old enough, get them to help! Maxwell is not allowed to watch TV or do anything fun until he has done all his chores!
Share your parenting
I am really lucky. Maxwell’s dad and I have share-cared parenting since he was one. I have Maxwell with me four nights a week and he is with his dad three nights a week. For me, this is work time! As a freelance journalist and main carer of baby Louis, I have to seize time when I can. But thankfully Josh is very hands-on with Louis too. If you are lucky like me and your ex is responsible and willing to share the gig, do it!
Look after yourself
OK I know you’re all glazing over this ‘preachy title’ but… in the six months since I moved out of our family home, I have been really sick four times. A car accident left me in serious pain for around six weeks. Then two bouts of the flu with fever that each lasted almost three weeks, plus gastro’ courtesy of Louis’ day care centre knocked me for a sixer.
The thing is, as a single parent, you probably won’t have the luxury of curling up in bed and resting until you recover. You have to keep going. As a freelancer, if I don’t work, I don’t get paid. And as tempting as it is to pour a glass of wine or three at the end of the day when the kids are asleep, don’t. You will be busier than ever as a single mum if you have bulk of the parenting responsibilities, it’s even more important to nourish yourself with healthy food and get sleep when you can. Without sleep, your body can’t go through the essential rest and recovery phase, which is when your good cells come out and mop up all the ‘disease’ ridden bad cells that make us sick.
That’s why my illnesses were so drawn out – because I’m writing stories all damn night instead of sleeping!
And your emotions…
Looking after your emotional health is just as important as your physical health. I’ve had many moments – especially during illnesses – where I realise just how vulnerable and fragile my situation is. As a single mum, you probably won’t have others to rely on. It’s just you, baby! So be kind to yourself. Be your own best friend and your biggest supporter.
Make sure you do something soul nurturing regularly. Watch 30 minutes of TV. Rub cream into your legs. Get a pedicure. Have a glass of wine. Read a book. Meet a friend for lunch. Get some retail therapy. And most importantly, find someone to talk to. Whether that’s a counsellor (speak with your GP as you may be eligible for 6 free sessions with a counsellor), a friend, your sister (or in my case my Dad!).
Or join a group like the YMCA’s Parentlink, which hold regular activities for single parent families with the aim of increasing family participation, overall happiness and lessening the isolation that many single parent families can experience.
Schedule in some fun with the kids
Family separations are traumatic on youngsters. And, given the extra pressure on my, there’s a high chance she is going to be stressed out of her eyeballs … often. Remember the reason you left? To find happiness again. Keep tabs on the kids – how they are coping – and make sure you do some fun things together. Take them swimming. Kick the ball. Watch them play Fortnite. Cuddle them for ten minutes before bed. Read a story together. Make a craft project. Help with the homework.
These things matter more than ever when you are a single parent family.
Do you have advice to share with other mums? Please share your comments and experiences below!