Based on our Back-to-School show recorded live 8-31-16; listen to the full audio from our Show Archives page.
In Shakespeare sonnets, summer fades. But for single parents, it disappears overnight, replaced one morning by an early alarm that vaults children and parents into new routines, new shoes, and new challenges.
For single parents, this time of year can be especially stressful. It’s not just managing the extra costs and tasks without a partner, but also the demands of adjusting to a new routine, managing teacher’s requests for a family photo, and drawing detailed spreadsheets of the parenting schedule for each child’s school pick-up list.
We’ve got you, single parents.
We’ve got you, single parents. Presenting our top ten tips to manage your sanity, calm the chaos, and even enjoy the experience!
ONE: Acknowledge this is a stressful time. Exciting, sure. But the schedule changes, early mornings and extra costs put stress on everyone, so managing it is crucial. If you’re still dealing with any divorce conflicts, your capacity for stress is already limited. If you’re in court, Family Law attorney Michelle Stowell notes, you are under a microscope at the same time, meaning every parenting decision is scrutinized and even small errors can hurt your case. Being aware of your stressors and challenges is the first step toward addressing them.
Make home life smoother
TWO: Organize. Connect with your inner KonMari! Free up space (actual and mental), by organizing the areas you use most during school days. Chose just one highly trafficked area: entryway, pantry cupboard, laundry room, homework stations. Clear everything out, and put back only items that are necessary or joyful, giving each item a designated space. Attorney Michelle Stowell uses a bookshelf in the dining room to create a homework station, so there is a place to shelve folders and textbooks in arm’s reach of the table. And she got her dining room table back. As for the rest of the house, see #10.
THREE: Plan ahead. Kate Millmeister, work-life balance guru, believes one minute of preparation saves two minutes of work. Do everything possible the night before: make lunches and coffee, set out clothes for the children and yourself, put cereal bowls on the table, make sure bags, keys and glasses are by the door. This eliminates decision-making, creating more peace in the mornings. If you can plan farther ahead, do — Mediator Erika Englund does all the laundry on Sunday, then packs up five days’ complete outfits into large ziplocks, letting her children choose one each morning. Another one of Erika’s tricks is to make double the number of lunches, so that the next night, there’s more free time. Even having one complete outfit bagged up, and one complete lunch tucked in the fridge, creates a safety net for days when your co-parent drops the children without lunch, or you miss the alarm and can’t find socks. Finally, for those crazy mornings, family dentist and single parent Dr. Shaina DiMariano, DDS, recommends peanut butter and banana wrapped in a warmed tortilla for breakfast on the go, and keeping a toothbrush with just a dot of toothpaste bagged up in the car. (Swallowing a small amount of toothpaste is okay, she says.) Look ahead at tomorrow: what can you prepare today?
Coordinating with your co-parent to utilize the same systems in each home, you create more stability and ease transition anxiety, too.
FOUR: Create systems. Have a basket by the door for shoes and backpacks, and put the children in charge of checking their basket each night to make sure everything they need is in there. Put a hook by the door for your keys. Use a big binder and a three hole punch (store in the entryway or on top of your fridge) to stash art and flyers straight out of the backpack. Make morning and nighttime routines — even for older children, and if they complain, tell them to Google Michael Phelp’s pre-race routine. (It’s the same every time so that he doesn’t have to think about it.) Systems make a household run more smoothly, free up time for the family to spend together, and create a structure that lowers anxiety for children and parents. Coordinating with your co-parent to utilize the same systems in each home, you create more stability and ease transition anxiety, too.
Make life at school smoother
FIVE: Tell the school you’re divorced and describe your co-parenting dynamic. Attorney Michelle Stowell recommends that the school is informed about the parenting schedule as well as whether the parents are in litigation. Teachers appreciate being brought in the loop and are usually happy to accommodate parents by sending home two sets of documents, scheduling separate parent conferences, etc. Do not be ashamed to tell the school about your situation. Divorce is much more common than you know, and it’s very likely that they’ll be supportive.
SIX: Stay in the loop. Create a shared calendar for access of both parents (and older children, too) that lists all school, extracurricular, and athletic events, cross-referenced against the parenting schedule. Mediator Erika Englund recommends creating one email address that both parents can access (Gmail and Outlook are good for this), and using this alone for all school, healthcare, athletic and extracurricular correspondence. This allows both parents to stay looped on all events, and gives each parent responsibility to know what’s going on.
SEVEN: Enlist help. Busy times call for special measures. Is there something or someone who can ease your lives until things settle down? For some parents, this means using disposable dishes and serveware, so there is one less thing to do. For others, it’s asking a friend to drop off dinner, leaving the children in childcare at the gym while you work out, or hiring a short-term housekeeper. Simplify your life and involve your co-parent by divvying up the task list. Uniforms? Dad. Haircuts and Shoes? Mom. And an Amazon Wishlist, too, in case family members would like to help out.
Connect with the kids
EIGHT: Nurture your children through stressful days. Don’t take their attitudes personally, nurture them, and find opportunities for positive interactions. When Attorney Michelle Stowell’s teen has had a tough day (and is having a teen attitude), Michelle shakes it off and asks her daughter to play Pokemon Go. This relaxes mom and daughter, and opens up communication. If you get frustrated at your child, slow down, breathe deep, and empathize. Single parent challenges can make us forget that our children face divorce challenges, too. Empathizing with this creates an opportunity to connect. So ask them questions, tell them how nicely they’ve done their hair, reveal a story about your back to school experience. Ask yourself whether you took a moment to nurture your child.
NINE: Engage with your child’s world. Erin Silver, who recently published a related Washington Post article, accompanied her former husband to the children’s first day of school. Even though the adults felt awkward, her children loved it, and no one missed out. Schools usually allow parent involvement in the classroom, supervising field trips or dances, or working at the football game. These are great chances to spend time with your child outside of your regular hours. You increase your custody time without decreasing the other parent’s! If you’re cooperative co-parents, go to school events together, so that the children have a chance to share with both their parents. Text your co-parent pictures through the week. Start a journal to your child, telling them about their first day of school, and then as the year progresses, fill it with more stories. Later, you and the child will love looking back at your time together.
TEN: Set your priorities and let the rest go. Now that divorce helped you understand what’s most important to you, take action by getting those unimportant things off your list (without apology!). There will be time for volunteering in the PTA, running a charity marathon, or attending your colleague’s retirement party. Since you are working harder, budgeting more and seeing your child less, that time is not now. Mediator Erika Englund has a no-birthday-party policy, so she doesn’t have to stress about paying for a gift, rearranging the schedule, and tiring everyone out. Your priority might be a peaceful dinner every night — so order in, eat cereal, use paper plates. It might be family fitness, so give yourself permission to join the family gym with the nice pool. If your priority is spending time with your child, your house might be a little messier. Once we’ve identified our priorities, we can evaluate an activity by asking yourself whether it’s necessary or creates joy or ease; if neither applies, you can feel secure and guilt-free when you say no to something.
SPLIT| DECISIONS is Sacramento’s Divorce Radio Resource, created by attorney mediator Erika Englund and supported by family law firm Forester Purcell Stowell PC. Along with local and national guests, our host and co-hosts talk about divorce as it really is — not just a lawsuit, but a lifestyle. We aim to help you make better Split Decisions.