Being a single parent truly is one of the most difficult jobs I could ever imagine. I know this because this has been my life for the past seven years. They have been challenging years, but also years of exponential growth for me. Countless times I have heard married parents complain about how overwhelmed they are with parenting and work, and I’ve learned to just listen. It is not my job to one-up them with how difficult it is when there’s only one of you. They are on their journey, and I am on mine.
I’ve often thought and wondered how much easier life would be if I was married; if I had help in this thing called life. But how much easier would it really be? There is one very important thing I have learned while being a single parent that has served me very well, and will continue to serve me, long after my kids are all grown up. Being able to prioritize and create healthy boundaries for myself and my life.
To me the word boundary sounds scary. It denotes keeping something or somebody out. It sounds harsh, abrupt, and not very cooperative. I have learned that having and keeping healthy boundaries has been extremely significant in my success as a single parent.
Up to the point until I became a single parent I had become a card carrying people pleaser. I would bend over backwards to help anyone, or to save a relationship of any kind. I wouldn’t ask a lot of others in return in order to keep relationships peaceful. I wouldn’t ask much for myself.
Becoming a single parent was such a complete shock to my way of being. Between taking care of my young kids, meal planning, taking care of home and work, I barely had time to take care of me. Nowhere in this equation was there much time for a social life or doing anything I didn’t absolutely need to do to keep my family and I functioning.
I had to start chopping. If I had a half hour to spend on the phone with a friend, I really had to choose which friend to speak with, and therefore, which friendships to maintain. This may sound trite, but the reality was that I wasn’t going to have any more time in the next month to catch up with people. I had to choose friends. Who do you choose?
I had to choose my social plans extremely carefully. I would turn down offers that I really wanted to participate in. I had to make tough choices. I still do.
Although this was extremely tough at times, I could not be more grateful for going through this process. I didn’t realize it as I was working through this, but I was being forced to prioritize. Yes, the prioritizing became radical at times, but I learned some valuable skills. This is what I learned.
When I started prioritizing people and events, I felt guilty at first. In fact, I felt guilty for a long time. Thankfully, that guilt has vanished over time as I have grown to realize my worth isn’t in what I can do for others. I do as much as I can for others, while still maintaining myself own self-care and sense of self. My love of self is no longer tied to how others value me doing something for them. This was a hard fought victory for me. I read many years ago that “no” is a complete sentence. There is such personal power in being able to say “no” and not feel the need to explain yourself or justify your decision.
Some people are not going to be happy when you place boundaries on the time and energy you are willing to give them, especially if they are used to having a lot of you. There is a kind way of telling someone you simply cannot spend any more time with them. I have learned that if they don’t understand, I had to be willing to let them go. The relationships that remained and the ones I have today are much more balanced in giving and receiving of time and energy.
The less time I had meant the more selective I became in the qualities of people I surrounded myself with. Being a single parent requires making decisions on your own, which can feel very scary and lonely. I needed and still need people who will support me and not second guess the decisions I make. I don’t have time or energy for gossip, excessive complaining or any level of dysfunctional relationships. The standards I will now accept in relationships have risen greatly. This has also meant that I needed to learn much more about how to maintain healthy relationships myself. I’m still learning…Every.Single.Day.
The people that I choose to have in my life, and the things I choose to do with my time are much more valuable to me. I am much more present in those situations and relationships because I have chosen them carefully and not entered into them out of some sort of obligation. I choose them.
Our society is so riddled with expectations. How many things do we do out of obligation, but is completely contrary to what we want, or worse, conflicts with our values. Now, when I hear a married parent complaining about being overwhelmed, I wonder how many things do they have on their plate that they are doing out of obligation. Is that maybe why they feel overwhelmed? I don’t know the answer to that, only they do.
Being a single parent and this radical prioritizing was harsh, scary and painful. It was hard. I have cried into my pillow more times than I’d like to admit. But it’s gotten easier, way easier. There has arisen a beautiful clarity in being able to own my choices, and knowing what I really want from life. In some ways life has become simpler and decisions are easier to make. I still would prefer to be parenting alongside my life partner, but sometimes we need to look for the gifts in our hardest times. There are gems to be found if we are willing to look.