First thing’s first, welcome to the single parents’ club. You might not feel like it right now, but things are about to get a little bit wonderful. I have been a single mum for four years now and I can honestly say they have been the happiest (if admittedly the most chaotic) four years of my life. It won’t be easy, and at times you’ll feel like you’re struggling to stay afloat, but once you get used to life as a single parent, you (and your kids) will soon go from surviving to thriving.
The First Days, Weeks, Months
Most single parents didn’t ever think they’d be doing this on their own. If you’re one of the ones who always thought you’d be raising a child as part of a team, the first few days, weeks and months after your break-up or bereavement will be the hardest, not only because you’re dealing with a major life change or trauma, but you’re doing so while having to raise a child.
Personally, I made the decision I had to leave my marriage when my son was one. He needed me to be OK at a time where I, frankly, wasn’t. Take this stage one day at a time. Do what you need to to survive. If this is walking round and round the park with your baby in the pram plugged into headphones and listening to true crime podcasts (shout out My Favorite Murder) to count down the hours until bedtime, so be it. Make tea, let it go cold, reheat it. Talk to friends. Don’t talk to friends. Watch Friends on Netflix (strangely comforting, no?). Allow yourself a little time to heal and be kind to yourself if you’re not living up to your usual first-class parenting standards. And if you’re ever, ever in doubt or in need of motivation to keep putting one foot in front of the other, focus on your children. What do they need? How are they feeling today? See yourself through their eyes. Their smiles are the most infectious thing on the planet. (Yes, I said it, pandemic be damned.)
The evenings can be tricky, once the kids are in bed and you find yourself alone for what might even be the first time ever, and housebound so you can’t even do all the usual post-breakup rituals like falling over and losing your credit cards in a bar. Personally, I took up crochet to keep me busy, deleted Instagram from my phone so I couldn’t see all the nuclear families doing nuclear family things and ignored phone calls from everyone. The enormous soft pink mohair blanket I made is a permanent reminder of how I survived the toughest six months of my life.
Can You Get Support?
In the (highly unlikely) event that you don’t find absolutely everything you need to know about single parenting from this article, there are places you can get extra support. Gingerbread is the charity for single parent families. Single mum Victoria Benson, Gingerbread Chief Executive told me: ‘The first thing I’d say to any newly single parent is you are not alone! It can be daunting knowing where to start when you’re newly separated but there is lots of help and advice available and Gingerbread’s website is a good place to start.
‘While you might be struggling with the emotional fallout from your separation, the most important thing any newly single parent needs to do is to ensure they and their children are protected – both legally and financially.’ (More on this later.) ‘You may need to seek legal advice to protect your finances and your home and you may be eligible for benefits you weren’t entitled to as part of a couple. We have a team of trained advisors on our helpline who can give advice on any tricky queries.’
One in four families in the UK are single parent families, so while you might be feeling alone, it’s important to remember that you’re not. ‘There are almost two million single parents in the UK and single parents and their children can thrive the same as any other family unit. Give yourself time to adjust and don’t be afraid to ask for help. While the first few weeks and months can be really difficult, it does get easier.’ Visit Gingerbread for more help and support.
If you’re worried about being able to financially support your family, there is help available at Turn2US. However, much money you had as a couple, you’ll have less as a single parent (even my maths stretches this far) so you’ll need to make lifestyle adjustments. Budgeting is no longer optional, so spend one of your new solo evenings making the most useful spreadsheet of your life and get used to prioritising. (The good news is you’ll be too busy to spend hours filling your ASOS basket now, anyway.)
There are plenty of forums and moneysaving sites out there to help you cut corners and save money but two things that made a difference for me were switching all my everyday spending to a cashback credit card that I could track on my phone and pay off each month, and going mostly veggie, learning to cook meals other than mac and cheese and pre-planning meals. (This one made my son and I a lot healthier, too.)
As mentioned above, one of the first things to consider is how your child or children will divide their time between you and your ex (if at all) and your living and financial arrangements going forward. This can feel like an impossible hill to climb when you’re at the bottom of it. Personally, I made the most enormous to-do list of my life (four pages long) that started at ‘call a solicitor’ and ended with ‘remortgage and finalise divorce’. But what else should be on the list? I spoke to Laura Naser, author of The Family Lawyer’s Guide to Separation and Divorce who broke down a few of the first things you should consider. ‘Firstly, don’t rush to make any long-term significant decisions,’ says Laura. ‘Maintaining the status quo as much as possible is what I always recommend, don’t suddenly withdraw your contributions to the household budget, your child needs a roof over their head and food on the table and, most vitally, stability at a time of change.’
‘Legally speaking, maintaining the status quo is also the best thing to preserve your position until you are able to access legal advice to then discuss your options and then make more informed decisions about your next steps. Your options will differ depending on whether you are married or unmarried, so do be cautious when talking to friends, family or reading information on the internet, what happened to one person may not happen to you or even apply to you.’ This is why getting professional legal advice is usually your best option; remember you can often speak to someone for free in the first instance before signing on for lengthier (and more costly) consultations and support.
When it comes to childcare arrangements, the law assumes that as the child or children’s parents, you know what is best for them. ‘You are best placed to together decide what those arrangements should be, and the question to ask yourselves in deciding this is “What is in the best interest of our children?”‘ says Laura. ‘If you can’t agree on a parental responsibility issue or the child arrangements then you should consider using mediation, solicitors’ correspondence or arbitration to resolve your issues, or court as a last resort.’
Meeting Other Single Parents
Despite the fact that one in four families are single parent households, it can feel really lonely if you don’t already have other single mums or dads in your circle. Single parent stigma might be something you need to overcome if you yourself have negative connotations attached to your new label. The best way to do this? Surround yourself with other single parents who are thriving in this new world of solo child-raising.
Single mum Zoe Desmond founded and launched Frolo, an app to help single parents find each other, and this should be your first port of call. She told me: ‘When my son Billy turned one, my relationship with his father broke down and we separated. It was a very tough time and I found my new single parent experience to be incredibly lonely. I craved meeting other single parents local to me, and that’s when I started to dream up Frolo. With the app you can easily find and connect with likeminded single parents in your area, post seeking guidance or advice or share something inspirational with the community, and even find or create meetups and virtual meetups (which have proved to be invaluable to the community this year). Frolo is now just over one year old and we have 15k users in the UK and Ireland. The community is exactly what I hoped it would become.’
My Frolo group chat is genuinely one of my happiest online spaces and the fellow single mums I’ve met through the app just get it. The Frolo Instagram community is thriving too, in fact, Instagram is a great place to find fellow single parents to follow and connect with. (Say hi to me if you’re really bored, @singlemotheredit)
Mastering the fine art of coparenting with your ex requires its own guide, and you won’t get it right in the first few months, and nor should you expect to. The one piece of advice I would give at the outset is to never reply in haste. Whenever you have the urge to bite back via text, write your reply in notes and come back to it a minimum of two hours later. You’ll never send the original response. Above all else, remember that when it comes to coparenting arrangements, all that matters is what is best for your child.
So, you’ve overcome your early day wobbles, you’ve sorted your legals, your finances are (a little) less wonky and you’ve found your support network of single parenting pals; what’s next? Your happily ever after, of course. It’s time to move on.
This doesn’t necessarily mean dating (although it should; I’ve had more fun dating as a single mum than I ever thought possible), but it should mean slicing out a little bit of time for yourself. Life as a single mum can feel overwhelming at times; your children are at the centre of your world and you’re doing two people’s jobs to ensure they’re content, healthy and loved. Focusing solely on them and their happiness will carry you through those rocky early days flying solo but as time passes and you start to find your feet, it’s time to think about you.
If you have nights off when your ex has the children, these are your chance to be completely selfish. Not many parents get regular time off from their kids to live like they did before having children. Treasure this (hard-earned) temporary freedom. Run towards it. Count down to it, without guilt. Whether you start a new hobby, join a book club, go on dates or simply have the world’s longest bubble bath once a week, it’s on these child-free days and nights that you’ll start to get to know yourself as a single person.
And soon you’ll realise that you didn’t lose your ‘other half’, because you’re already whole, just as you are. It might not be the life you’d planned but just wait, tired friend: I promise you this fairy tale has a happy ending.