Over my 16 years as a single parent, I’ve learned a lot. In particular, I’ve learned that we often have expectations of what single parenting will be like — and that those expectations are often nothing like the reality.
I’m not sure where these expectations come from. But I do know that when we hold ourselves too rigidly to them, we’re not going to be the kind of parent we really want to be. We won’t give our kids the parenting they need and deserve.
So let’s look at some single parenting expectations and put them into perspective with their realities.
You’ll create & stick to a routine or schedule
This expectation is actually pretty easy to understand. As one-half of a parenting team and a married couple, we typically were able to create and stick to routines and schedules. We had a partner to help us with getting dinner on the table when we were running late from soccer practice or to take one kid to ballet while we took the other to karate.
So of course we think we’ll just adjust to account for being solo now and be fine. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.
The reality: You can create a routine. You can plan a schedule. And you might be able to stick to it for a while. Maybe even more often than not. But you’ll also need to recognize that life is going to take over. Things are going to come up, whether it’s work, kids, or something else, that will throw your routine and/or schedule off.
You are a single parent now. You are trying to do a two-person job on your own. Just like you wouldn’t be able to perfectly do your job and your co-worker’s, you aren’t going to parent perfectly. Accept that there will be days, weeks, perhaps even months or years where any semblance of a routine or schedule will go out the window and you’ll live each day flying by the seat of your pants and hoping like hell nothing important gets left behind or forgotten.
You’ll set reasonable rules & enforce them consistently & fairly
After a split, one thing you might look forward to is getting to make all the rules in your house again. You can finally get rid of that weird rule your ex had that drove you crazy! And you’ll only set reasonable rules so your kids don’t feel controlled or restricted. You’ll be fair and consistent in enforcing those rules too.
And for the most part, you probably will. But again, let’s remember you’re parenting by yourself now.
The reality: Most of your rules are going to be reasonable. But every now and then, you’re going to be frustrated or overwhelmed and make up a ridiculous rule because in that moment, it sounds like a good idea. You probably won’t keep the rule very long because you’ll realize first, that it’s ridiculous, and second, that trying to remember and enforce it is too much trouble.
But you’ll also find that you don’t always enforce your reasonable rules consistently and fairly. This isn’t for lack of trying. You’re on your own. You’re not going to know every time the kids break a rule — even if they do. So you might punish one for something more than one did because you only caught the one. Other times, you might punish all for something only one did.
You’re not perfect as a human or a parent. As long as you’re trying to be consistent and fair, let it go if you fail at it sometimes. The kids aren’t going to die from it — no matter what they tell you.
You won’t spoil your child out of guilt
We all, once we realize we’re about to become a single parent, are determine that we won’t spoil our kids out of guilt. We’ll continue to be the same kind of parent we’ve always been. We won’t let the kids have or do things that we wouldn’t have otherwise.
It’s a nice thought and if you’re able to stick to it, more power to you. I applaud you, seriously. Because the reality is a little different.
The reality: When you become a single parent, you get double the work and your kids face double the opportunities for disappointment. Whether you have to deny them the after-school activities they’ve always done because money or time is too tight, or your ex is an unreliable and inconsistent parent who leaves your kids with their noses pressed the window waiting for their visit, they will be disappointed.
And while you might not do it every time, sometimes you’re going to find it too hard to face that disappointment without a consolation prize of some sort. So you’ll spoil them somehow to make up for the disappointment.
And remember that this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A little spoiling now and then, especially in the face of having had their lives totally upended and changed, isn’t going to hurt the kids.
You’ll always give your kids age-appropriate responsibilities
You’re determined to raise good little humans and teach them responsibility. That means assigning chores, making sure homework gets done, and accepting the consequences of their actions. And you’ll always make sure to do those things in an age-appropriate way.
The good news is this isn’t something only single parents expect. Even married parents think they’ll do this. And single or married, we often fail. As single parents, though, I think it is possible for us to fail a little more.
The reality: Imagine age-appropriate responsibilities is in the middle of a spectrum. It’s the perfect balance. At one end is giving them no responsibility and at the other is treating them like little adults. You’re probably going to bounce around this spectrum.
Sometimes you’ll give them no responsibilities because you feel like you’re shirking your own as a single parent if you do. Others, you’ll feel so overwhelmed and frustrated by all you have to do that you’ll treat them like little adults, giving them responsibilities they’re not ready for and getting upset when they can’t handle it.
Eventually, you’ll settle into life as a single parent and you’ll find that you spend much more time in that balanced middle than at one end of the spectrum or the other. But even when you slip, it’s okay.
Other people will be supportive
I’m not sure expectation is quite the right word for this one. Hope might be a better fit. But it’s something we think will happen for sure. We think those around us will be supportive. Whether that support comes in the form of praise, offers to help, encouraging words, or something else, we expect/hope to see this support from our friends, family, kids’ teachers, and others we see and interact with on a semi-regular basis.
It’s a nice thought. And it’s not totally wrong. Some people will be supportive.
The reality: Though some people will be supportive, you also need to realize that some won’t be. And the ones who aren’t tend to be much more vocal in their lack of support. They’ll question your decisions, your ability to parent alone, and more. They’ll even ask how and why you became a single parent!
This reality can be one of the hardest to accept because the people who don’t support you are so vocal — and not just to you, but to others about you.
This is when you need to remember, perhaps more than anything else, that you don’t need anyone else’s approval. You don’t need their validation or for them to like you or what you choose to do. Do what you know to be best for you and your kids, live yourself the way you believe is right, and let the naysayers talk themselves hoarse about you. Take the support from the ones who give it and don’t waste your time or your breath on those who don’t.
You’ll be confident all the time
When you were with your ex, it was easier to ignore any doubts you had. You were part of a parenting team which meant whether you were confident or not, you had to consult with your partner. So when you’re first stepping into the world of single parenting, you might expect to be confident all the time. You might think since you’re making the decisions alone now, you’ll make them quickly and confidently and not even think twice.
It’s a beautiful thought and sometimes it’ll even be true.
The reality: You won’t be confident all the time. Knowing the weight of your decisions is all on you can be enough to shake your confidence. If you have an ex who constantly questions or undermines you, that won’t help either. Knowing that any bone of contention between you and your ex could cause a judge to look over your decisions with a fine-toothed comb also doesn’t help. And then add the people who don’t support you.
Some days you might make decisions with every ounce of confidence in the world. And some days you might question how you ever made a decision by yourself. The important thing is not that you’re confident 100% of the time but that you keep going anyway.
Even if you don’t have total confidence in a decision, as long as you know you’re doing the best you can and what you believe is right, it’ll be good enough.
You & your ex will get along and communicate beautifully
This might be more fantasy than expectation but I think we’ve all had it. We think now that we’ve split up, we’ll be able to get along with our ex. All communication will be smooth, clear, and easy. You’ll always do what’s best for the kids and always agree on what that is. You’ll even be best friends!
It’s a great fantasy and I’ll even grant you that some former couples mostly manage to pull it off. But even those parents will tell you it’s not always smooth sailing.
The reality: If you and your ex could be best friends, get along all the time, and beautifully communicate, you probably wouldn’t have split up in the first place. However, some former couples do find that getting divorced does help them have a better relationship as co-parents.
But even if it does make your relationship better, there will still be times when you disagree. There will be misunderstandings and miscommunications. It doesn’t have to get ugly, but expecting to have a perfect relationship after divorce is setting yourself up for disaster.
Accept that there will be occasional bumps in the road, at a minimum. When you can do that, you’ll be ready for whatever happens and prepared to handle those bad moments with more ease.
Time will help
The good thing about all of these expectations is that time will help with all of them. As you settle into your new life as a single parent, you’ll begin to find the realities. Sometimes they’ll gently ease into your life and other times they’ll smack you hard in the face.
But once you meet those realities, the expectations tend to fall away. And once they do, being a single parent gets easier.
It won’t happen overnight. And you might even find there are other expectations that aren’t listed here that you struggle with as reality sets in. But one day you’ll realize you’ve found your groove as a single parent and life is feeling pretty good again.
Wendy Miller is a freelance relationship writer & meditation teacher. After years of settling for abusive and otherwise toxic relationships, she got fed up. Using meditation and other tools, she got to work on healing herself, setting boundaries, and only engaging in relationships (romantic and otherwise) that bring her joy. She wants to help other single parents find the love they seek, including and going beyond romantic love. She lives in Florida with her two sons, where she homeschools while solo parenting, while surrounded by what feels like a zooful of animals.
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