I love my son. With all my heart. He fills me with joy… and frustration, fear, anger and impatience. Having previously had a partner to help me raise him, I know fully well the benefits of co-parenting. There’s the tag teaming, and the dual perspective. My reactions can be so deeply colored by emotions, that it was often helpful to have a buffer, a touchstone, someone to help take the edge off, offer a sober alternative to my highly charged first instinct.
But now it’s just me. And though I have a boyfriend (a psychologist, no less…), and he offers me keen insights and helpful advice, he’s also really careful not to insert himself into my parenting process with my son at high energy moments, which I really appreciate. In other words, he stays out of our arguments! Which means, I am left to make my own mistakes and then deal with the consequences. It’s a humbling, often painful process, but it’s me, walking the walk and taking responsibility for my actions.
As a single parent, it’s tempting to rely on my son’s strength in ways that have a more adult dimension. It’s easy to forget that even though he is confident and secure in his sense of self, he’s still relying on me to enforce the boundaries in behavior, communication and daily routines that will give him a sense of his own responsibility in the world – accountability for his emotional responses, his actions, and his interactions with others.
Here are some lessons I’m learning through my experience. Perhaps you recognize one or two of them from your own?
1) Children are not our little spouses. Oh, the temptation is great to rely on “my little man.” But as precocious and insightful as he may be, he’s not a man, he’s a boy. And he needs to know that, and know that I also know that. I’m the adult, and he’s the child. I’m in charge. What I say goes. We may share in certain activities, and we can have fun together, telling jokes, cuddling on the couch at night while we watch a movie or reading a good book before bed, but that does not take away my essential role as his primary authority figure.
2) Kids respond to positive reinforcement and encouragement. Its amazing how much they flower under our approval and support. I’m currently dealing with a ten-year-old, rapidly approaching that pre-adolescent phase where he wants to exercise his independence. He likes to be helpful, show me he can handle responsibility, but he’s not quite old enough yet to do certain things without at least a small measure of oversight. I try to give him chores I know he can do well, where the level of detail may not be so essential. That way, he can have the satisfaction of completing the task, and I can have some real assistance. Making his bed, folding and putting away his own clean laundry, scrubbing the bathroom sink and toilet – these are all tasks he can do in his own way and it works for both of us.
3) We (my son and I) do better when I keep my emotions out of it. OMG, this is the single hardest thing of all for me. I’m an extremely emotional person. I can go from 0 to 10 on the fury scale in the blink of an eye. But the release I get from expressing my anger in a moment of impatience or frustration is never worth the look in my boy’s eyes when he’s been stung by my harsh words.
4) Sometimes Mommy needs a time out. Yeah, when I feel that rush and surge of adrenaline that often comes with the anger mentioned above, I am sometimes able to catch myself. If a deep breath will do, I am lucky. Otherwise, I may need to remove myself from the room for a few minutes, have a good cry, get a hold of myself, let my temperature cool down, and then re-approach the situation with a clearer perspective. Or at least, without smoke pouring from my ears.
5) It helps to remember specifics about your kid’s personality. My son doesn’t respond well to sudden changes. I know this about him. Last minute cancellations of plans, especially something he has been looking forward to, can be really disappointing, and sometimes they can’t be prevented. He can usually manage the transition, but it makes it easier on both of us if I am gentle, give him a little time, and don’t try to shove him through it too harshly. I have learned the hard way that often my own guilt about the situation can make me impatient to push through to the other side of the difficult moments. I get annoyed when he pushes back, and the results can be quite explosive. Afterwards, there are tears, hugs and words of forgiveness, but it often feels like the wear and tear on both of us wasn’t worth it.
6) Especially if you only have one child, you may end up feeling very close to one another, for better or worse. And if you’ve suffered the loss of the other parent, well, that brings a whole other dimension to your bond. It’s just the two of you, day in and day out. You will fight a lot, because again, it’s just the two of you. I try to build in ways to blow off steam. Trading off play dates with other parents is a godsend, and it’s often easier to take care of two kids than one (oh right, THAT’s why parents have more children). I try to take full advantage of the times when I get a break, and embrace the moments when another child is around. Having a buddy to play with takes the heat off me to constantly entertain him, and alleviates the guilt of not having the kind of free time that he craves to spend with me. Plus, I learn so much about my child observing how he interacts with his friends.
7) I think it’s always important to recognize that we are definitely going to screw things up. There’s no way we are going to get it right 100% of the time, and maybe not even the majority of the time. There’s just too much on-the-job training in this gig. I think the best we can hope for is that someday, when our kids are in therapy, they will look back through their anger and confusion with a certain amount of kindness and forgiveness towards us, because they know that through all the screw-ups and do-overs, we really did love them. I, for one, am banking on that.
I’d be curious to hear from other single parents out there with your own words of wisdom! What unique lessons have you learned parenting your children?
Photo courtesy of essie82