I’m grateful to have a tremendously supportive partner in life, but his work tends to call him away from me and our family more often than either of us would like. During my pregnancy with our first child, we learned that he would have to leave very shortly after our baby’s birth. Not only would I be parenting solo for eight months, but I would, both literally and figuratively, be parenting on an island.
We had recently moved to the island of Guam, where I had not yet developed any close friendships, and where we were not only geographically removed from our extended family in a big way, but we were also in such a drastically different time zone that I couldn’t even reasonably call someone I loved every time I needed a listening ear. It all sounds awfully dramatic and awfully difficult when I write it out like that, and solo parenting certainly isn’t easy (let’s face it, parenting period isn’t easy), but it was manageable, and over two years later, is still a time I remember fondly for the most part. Looking back, there are a handful of things that I feel contributed to my ability to maintain my sanity during that very busy time. I’m sure there’s more I could have done, and I’m sure there are things I could have done differently, but all in all, I’m happy with the choices I made.
The most difficult part of parenting alone was, for me, the lack of a support network. My first real challenge as a mother was breastfeeding, which was incredibly painful at first. I suppose we must have had a bad latch, but I didn’t see any way to improve it at the time, so we nursed through it and before long my nipples were an intensely painful, wounded mess, and nursing was something I dreaded. I was disappointed that things were not going smoothly, worried that I wouldn’t be able to heal while continuing nursing, and desperate for a solution.
While I didn’t have anyone nearby to help, I did find a great deal of support and advice online, using forums to post my questions and concerns, and receiving compassionate and helpful feedback from mothers who had been there. I was thrilled when the Natural Parents Network came into existence, as it quickly became and has continued to be one of my primary sources of support. Nothing can replace a support network that’s actually there for you in real time, face-to-face. I would encourage every mother to seek that out or hold onto it if you have it already, but online support can be a sanity-saver as well. If you don’t have a support system in your area already, some places to start looking are La Leche League International, The Holistic Moms Network, or Attachment Parenting International. You can also seek out groups near you on Meetup.com, or just do a search in your local area for groups with causes close to your heart and see what turns up. If all else fails and you’re up to the task, you can always start a group yourself, however informal.
Build “Me” Time Into Your Daily Routine
As new parents, we’re all told to “sleep when the baby sleeps.” It’s not news that newborns are likely to wake frequently during the night, and night wakings can continue into the preschool years, so it makes sense that taking advantage of their nap times to catch up on a little rest ourselves would be a wise decision. I’m all for catching a nap during the day, especially if your child is one who seems to spend more of the night awake than asleep. I always felt and parented better when well-rested.
In addition to quality sleep, however, I found that “me” time was incredibly important. Not only did I need to get rest, but I needed to take time to recharge by simply being myself. That is not to say, of course, that I wasn’t myself while with my daughter, but maintaining my identity as a person, not just a parent was something that I believe kept me from becoming overwhelmed by full-time parenting. I might spend this time working on something I was passionate about, reading a good book, or soaking in the bathtub with a cup of tea. Housework was simply not allowed.
My daughter tended to take one longer nap during the day, and I designated this time as mandatory “me” time. I did not clean, cook, or pay bills, no matter how much my to-do list was nagging at me. The idea was to do something that was only for me. Of course this was possible for me because I had only one child and was fortunate enough to be able to stay home during the day. This time was a luxury I’m so glad I had, and one that many mothers have to fight hard for. Whether it’s possible to set aside a nap time every day or not, we all deserve a bit of time to ourselves and it’s absolutely worth sacrificing in other areas to make it happen. It’s not only good for us personally, but it’s good for our children to see us taking care of ourselves and prioritizing our needs as well as theirs. It’s much easier to parent when your needs are met, too!
Pad the Routine with Little Things You Can Look Forward To
While life as a new parent is filled with many joys, and watching your child grow and develop is pretty darn exciting in its own right, spending all day every day doing more or less the same thing can get a bit tiresome. This is especially true when you’re parenting alone and have no one to celebrate the exciting moments of the day with as things wind down. Call me corny, but I developed a couple of simple rituals that were part of each week, and that ended up being things I could look forward to. This helped break up the time a bit so that I didn’t forget what day it was altogether.
My favorite ritual was beer and pizza night, which I declared to be every Friday. It was absolutely nothing fancy – I would pick up one beer and a frozen Amy’s pizza for my dinner, and enjoy it just after my daughter’s dinnertime nursing session. It sounds silly, but I looked forward to it all week long, and having things to look forward to becomes pretty important when you’re parenting on an island, literal or virtual. If beer and pizza don’t appeal to you, you can find anything that does. A weekly movie night, a visit to a local pool, or anything you look forward to can fit the bill. It’s all about finding places to squeeze in things that you enjoy.
Get Out and Get Moving
I tend to be a bit of a homebody, and could easily have stayed at home for my daughter’s and my entire eight months alone, taking only occasional trips out for food. I know, however, that this is not the best thing for my mood. Finding time to be somewhat physically active and just to get a bit of fresh air turned out to be really important. As a way of keeping myself physically healthy while giving my daughter some fresh air and a soothing activity at what was for us the most difficult time of the day, I made a walk in the evening part of our daily routine. While I wasn’t thinking beyond these limited goals at the time, I think these walks benefited both of us in a number of ways. Not only did it give me a chance to get a bit of exercise while enjoying a happy and relaxed baby, but it also gave me a small amount of adult interaction. Just greeting the neighbors who happened to be out reminded me that I was not, in fact, completely alone. It’s amazing how valuable a quick chat with someone from your own generation can become when the majority of your day is dedicated to caring for a young child alone.
Keep Your Priorities Reasonable
I pictured myself accomplishing all sorts of important things during my daughter’s infancy, especially without a husband around to distract me. I had lofty goals, but it turned out that just taking care of the two of us and maintaining a reasonably clean living environment took an awful lot of time. There were days when I would begin to feel like a failure, because I hadn’t finished certain things I had in mind, and there were even a few days that went so smoothly that I found myself tacking onto my to-do list later in the day because I had plenty of time to myself. I had to realize that I couldn’t fully control our days. Infants are unpredictable and some days they’ll require the vast majority of our time and attention, while they may spend others doing little aside from sleeping.
The next thing I had to remember was that I was only one person. Priority number one was taking care of my baby and myself, and if that was all I accomplished on some days, it needed to be enough. Being gentle with myself and setting reasonable and flexible priorities really kept me from becoming disappointed in myself in a way that would not have been beneficial to anyone. Of course having more children or work to do outside the home makes it impossible to set self and infant care as your sole priority most days, but the value of being gentle with yourself and focusing on what you do accomplish rather than on what is yet to be done exists for all of us.
Adjusting to parenthood is a challenge, but listening to yourself and your own needs can go a long way in making that adjustment a smooth one. Remember: you are only one person, and you are a person deserving of support, of a life that involves things you enjoy, and of a little grace when things don’t go as smoothly as you would like. If you find yourself parenting on an island of any kind, don’t be afraid to reach out for support, to claim time for yourself, to seek out simple pleasures, or to drop the ball on some of the less important things. It’s a delicate balance, and it’s one that most of us won’t master in our child’s first year, but it’s sure worth a try!