Plan ahead

The most important thing to do when you suddenly find yourself in a situation like mine, alone and raising two small children, is to ALWAYS BE PREPARED. If you can do anything in advance, do it. If you can have your bases covered, cover them. Let me explain.

Whether or not you are grieving a recently deceased spouse as I am or have just divorced your previous partner, if you are the sole remaining parent, you will do double duty on everything. No one else is going to get the kids ready in the morning for school. So what can be done the night before, after the kids are in bed?

What I do is make their lunches, or at least half of one, so that in the mornings all that’s left to do is add crackers or something. Get the juice bottles ready and put them in the fridge. Before the kids go down, pull out clothes you want them to wear the next day and set them aside. This is obviously easier if you have small children like mine who have no sense of personal fashion or the like. The nice thing about South Africa is that, as they grow, they’ll go into one of the schools here locally, and all of them require strict adherence to uniforms. So there’s no question what they’ll be wearing the next day, and personal expression plays no part in the decision.

Pack bags the night before. Spare clothes, any school supplies, all of it, in the bags and place them by the door so all that needs to be done is to scoop them up on the way out to the car.

Also, allow plenty of time in the mornings to do whatever you have to do. It’s easier with my kids being small, because they wake up at the crack of dawn anyway. We usually have everything set and ready to go at around 7am, and I just coast until I load the kids in the car and head out.

This last point will be hard if you are bereaved. The grief and sorrow make getting up in the morning extremely hard. Fortunately (or unfortunately), I’ll have the kids crawling all over me if I try to sleep in later, so staying in bed is not always an option. I have one night off a week when the kids sleep over at mom and dad Spence’s. This is a personal choice as I know they would have the kids more nights per week, but I feel compelled to giving them a sense of stability here at our home. You may or may not need more time off depending on the circumstances surrounding your situation that has landed you as a single parent, your personality, career, etc. Use your judgment and follow your instincts. Janie always told me to “go with your gut,” and it is coming handy at a time like this.

Another thing that will consume time like mad is cooking. I’ve taken to making a big casserole or something on a Saturday and freezing it in different containers, so I can bust one out when I just don’t have the energy to cook. I love cooking and will do it if I have the energy, but at times the situation wears the soul down! In times like this, a readymade meal is the way to go.

Bath time can either be awesome or hell. I think that if you’re a single parent, you need to align the pieces as much as possible so as to make bath time fun. There is a ritual that we enact every night, no matter what, that the kids love and gets them in the mood to hop in the bath. It’s called “naked baby.” The gist is simple: I pull all their clothes off, and once they are down to their birthday suit, I yell “naked baby!” At this point, the kids run off into the garden and I chase them for however long. Eventually I herd them into the bathroom, and they hop in the bathtub giggling and happy. I always make sure the water is warm and deep, with plenty of bubbles and toys to keep them occupied while I pull out their jammies and pick the stories to be read at bedtime (as you’ve read in previous posts, two are now on constant rotation, so it’s all about finding that third one that will be the cherry on the sundae).

The bathing itself can be a challenge, but I find that doing it as quickly as possible is the way to go. Protests are often loud (Seanie hates having his hair washed), but I just grit my teeth and plow through it. Normally, they are squeaky clean within five minutes, and then it’s time to towel them off and do “naked baby” again. Once herded back indoors, I throw clothes on as quickly as possible (thankfully, Seanie is a big boy now and wants to dress himself at every opportunity), and then that’s done.

On the subject of television, let me say this: as a single parent, it’s nice to have a built-in babysitter. TV has been demonized by legions of parents and concerned citizens with too much time on their hands (obviously they’re not single parents). I allow an hour in the morning and an hour at night (unless it’s raining), and I do this so I can do things like get breakfast and supper ready for the kids. The TV stays on for breakfast, but not for supper. Sometimes, you just need something to keep the little ones at bay while you do the other things that need doing and won’t wait. So put on Teletubbies and do what you gotta do.

Planning ahead can become exhausting, and this is especially true in my situation where I am grieving my wife’s death and raising Seanie and Sophie. As you have read in previous posts, I am not the only one feeling her loss. Seanie especially is struggling with missing his mother. The day after his last night terror, he asked me if mommy is sad. She is on his mind all the time. So he’s not always the happy go lucky kid I know so well. Sometimes he seems to be clingy and sad for no reason at all, and his constant complaints about sore elbows, knees, tummy and head can often wear on my nerves. When I’m trying to get the next thing done and he comes into the kitchen or bedroom whining about a sore, it can set me on edge.

And this is perhaps the greatest challenge with regard to parenting on my own during this time: grief often throws on the blinders. I don’t always think about him or Sophie and what they feel. I’m either struggling through a sad patch during the day and forgetting the things that need to get done or just not paying the kind of attention Seanie needs.

In times like this, it is so very important to have someone to speak truth into your life. The folks at my grief group do this, as do friends like Ben Aldous, who just yesterday sat and cried with me as I explained my fears about where I am dropping the ball with the kids.

I guess what I’m getting at is to try to be kind to yourself. If you’re a single parent reading this, your job is really tough. You’ve been dealt a bad hand. Planning ahead can help for several things, but it’s not a universal panacea. It might free you up to be more present at crucial times with the kids, but so much depends on your emotional availability at any given time. If your emotional resources are depleted, no amount of planning ahead is going to help you be the best version of yourself when your child or children need you.

So perhaps the most important thing you can do as a single parent is to make sure you have the kind of network that will allow you time to recover some, replenish your emotional reserves and be just on your own for a while. Also, you need to have people in your life that can supply you with perspective, because believe me, you will often not have any of it or at least not much. You need someone to remind you that you are, in fact, doing the best you can with the hand you’ve been dealt. You need someone or a group of people that will just allow you to cry and get the frustration, grief, sorrow and pain off your chest, because this aspect of your experience is often shoved aside by the constant need to be a parent, to get things done, to stay on the ball. Having people in your life that can do this is a vital aspect of planning ahead. Give yourself the gift of allowing regular opportunity to allow someone you love and trust to speak truth into your life. I know in my experience, I have definitely needed to hear what I am doing right, because all I see is what I do wrong.

I am learning that kids are hard work. They are wonderful and completely worth it, but they can quickly exhaust what reserves you might have, because they need so much of you, all the time. And they don’t know any different. Very small children have no idea they’re not the center of the universe. Furthermore, they used to receive attention and affection from the other parent. Now it’s just you. They have lost an enormous chunk of their developmental resource supply chain, if I can state it like that. It’s important to make sure that you have enough in you to not allow the shortfall to cripple them.

I write this as much for myself as anyone else in a similar situation. If you’re happily married and know of someone who is in my situation or is recently divorced, then I encourage you to share this post with them. Folks like me in a situation like this sometimes feel very much on our own. It’s an emotional reaction and it is often difficult in the midst of exhaustion, grief, whatever to remember that the network is in place. Some folks don’t have networks at all, and I can imagine that is a terrifying place to be. I think it is good to know that there are others in my situation out there, and if that’s you, then while I don’t know exactly what you’re going through, I have some idea.

And you can do this. Don’t close yourself off.

This blog has gone a long way already to reminding me of just how many people love our little family and are motivated to be a support, either in person or in prayer. No matter who you are or what your situation might be, having emotional, physical and spiritual support in times of extreme difficulty is the difference between having the strength to carry on and utter hopelessness and despair. I have learned through this blog that so long as I reach out, someone else will reach back.

So reach out. My email is on this blog. Shoot me a note if you don’t want to post a reply. I’m no expert at this. I’m a rookie, just like you. But I am not alone, and no one needs to be alone. We do it to ourselves.

Anyway, this is Friday’s post. The weekend beckons. Thank you all for comments, prayers and all the love you shower me and babies with. Every little bit of it helps us carry on. Thank you. See y’all Monday.

Originally published August 19, 2011