There’s no point lecturing a single mum to put on her own oxygen mask before helping others. Or that to bring her A game to work, she must find time for “sharpening the saw” first.
The many benefits of self-care aren’t breaking news – it’s just that solo mums have enough to worry about already.
Surprise - there’s no silver bullet to the unique wellbeing challenges of being the only parent. But others in the same shoes have found some strategies that do make a real difference.
Solo parents fundamentally need more time for wellbeing
Aside from the logistical barriers of single parenting, it places a greater strain on your wellbeing in the first place.
Along with more than 1 in 10 families in Australia, Melissa Mai is a solo mother. Working in the wellbeing industry (teaching yoga and empowerment) gives Melissa a unique perspective on self-care while raising her 3.5-year-old daughter.
Melissa says one of her biggest challenges of solo working mum life is the enormous responsibility. “It’s the huge weight of having to make every big and little decision for your little child’s life; being the only person holding space for your child’s big emotions; and having no-one to share your daily struggles with. Or to tell you that you’re doing a good job and encouraging you.”
“The lack of emotional support is what I find the most challenging. There is no-one to hold me, whilst I hold my child. And because the needs of the child are so vast, it leaves very little time and space for me to hold myself emotionally either.”
In the face of these extra daily stresses, anything that supports your physical, mental and emotional health becomes twice as precious.
Logistical challenges: no built-in babysitter at home
Envying other mums who can go out for a run while their partner stays home? It can be frustrating to be on duty 24/7.
If you have your little one in daycare while you work, why not steal some time for yourself before you get to pick them up. Book in one last “appointment” to spend 30 minutes at the gym, or have a coffee sitting by the river. Taking care of yourself to transition from “work mode” to “mum mode” means you’ll arrive at childcare with a bigger smile.
In fact, why not go further and see if you can wrangle a whole day off from your work every 6 months? Tell the boss it’s for “life admin”. But make sure a good chunk of it is to do some of the things that make your heart sing.
For the low-down on negotiating these arrangements with your employer, see our article: Feeling Torn Between Juggling Kids and Work?
Outside of day care hours, having a trusted babysitter on your books – and using them – may be the best way to get that self-care time.
Walking the financial tight-rope on one income
Given that many single parents report struggling to come up with enough to buy the essentials, it might seem decadent to pay for a massage or get a babysitter just so you can go to yoga. However, in Melissa’s eyes, time for your own wellbeing is worth spending the money on.
“There are some women who don’t think they can afford it, yet spend a lot of money of new clothes for their children, extra-curricular activities, or toys. I can’t emphasise enough how your wellbeing - your mental and physical health, and your joy – is a priority. The impact of your wellbeing on your children far exceeds their new toys or new clothing.”
So much to do, so little time
If paying for a sitter or reaching out to friends to babysit isn’t possible, snatch a few minutes of “wellbeing” time throughout the day.
For instance, leave the office and eat lunch in the park. Or close your eyes and take 3 slow breaths before making any call (especially the tricky ones!).
Melissa uses these powerful mini breaks at home, too. “Don’t underestimate the power of 10 minutes on your nervous system…I tell my daughter who is 3, ‘Mummy is having quiet time in this room by herself - you can keep drawing/watching TV/playing here. I’ll be back soon’. This was difficult to begin with…now she leaves me be or comes in and puts her hand on my chest and asks, “Does this help you calm your body Mummy?”.
Beyond these 10-minute breaks, we all need boundaries to carve out more time for ourselves. For example, Melissa thinks carefully about what she says “yes” to. “Being busy doesn’t serve my wellbeing at the moment, and I often have to prioritise the smooth running of my and my daughter’s days over jam-packing our schedules with fun social events,” she explains.
Try one of these phrases to hold your boundaries firmly, but kindly:
- “Sorry, I’m tapped out for the day. I look forward to catching up another time.”
- "I'm currently in a busy period, so I can’t say yes to anything new."
- “I’m trying to spend more time at home with my daughter. Sorry, I can’t squeeze that in right now.”
The isolation of raising children alone
Whether it’s the lack of practical or emotional support, single parenthood can feel incredibly isolating.
For Melissa, the antidote to this loneliness is to reach out to others for help. “As mothers we often carry a lot of guilt about many things, and as a single or solo parent we may carry even more guilt. At times we may feel we are supposed to be able to ‘do it all’, yet this is simply not true.
Becoming a solo parent brought me to my knees, and I had no choice in the early days but to ask for enormous support. And accept that I needed and deserved that support… You were never meant to do what you’re doing alone”.
Given the challenges that are part and parcel of solo parenting, sometimes the best thing you can do for your wellbeing is to find self-compassion. Be generous with yourself in appreciating every moment stolen to replenish yourself, and the flow-on benefits to your child. As Melissa says, “I truly believe the saying that ‘If the mother is okay, the child will always be okay’”.
By Louise Wedgwood, freelance health and sustainability writer