Mental health – What works for me as a single parent

Posted 14 May 2021

As a single parent, I understand that I need to take care of myself. Ive known this for a number of years now. I fully understand that I carry the can – in good times and in notsogood times.  

And that means looking after my mental health as well as my physical health. I need to be in a strong enough place to keep getting up day after day after day. No matter what. It isn’t where I signed up to be, but I have come to understand and accept that it is where I amI always hope I can live up to the job.  

There have been occasions when it’s felt like a huge burden. I dread the prospect of being ill and at times I am really scared about what might happen to my family if I can’t keep going. COVID-19 has shone harsh spotlight on these fears. In some ways, it makes my resolve to survive even stronger in other waysit can feel like a deafening roar in my ears.  

I know this pandemic has made many of us so much more aware of the fragility of our situationI bet my kids aren’t the only ones worrying about their parent when they go out to work or pop to the shops. Mine ask me to question every decision – do you really need to do that? If I’m making dinner and I’ve run out of an ingredient they say, do you really need it?” or can we do without that?” They want me to stay safe and I know they feel they have a responsibility to watch over me, as much as I watch over them. I don’t think this is something kids of couple parents do – not as a regular thing anyway. This adds to the guilt I sometimes feel. 

COVID-19 has made us see our vulnerabilities – but I also hope it can make us see our strengths. I want to try and turn all those negative things into something that includes hope and positivity somewhere along the line.  

It’s been a tough year. Has it been a tougher year than other years? I know some single parents talk about the isolation everyone has experienced in the pandemic as being a normal thing for them. I hope that makes other people appreciate how hard it can be for single parents. 

I think the overwhelming fear we’ve felt in the face of the pandemic is finally starting to ease and were all a lot more relaxed about everything – but I am very aware of how much I try to avoid risk. Sometimes that might not be healthy. Wellit is what it is. 

I’ve learnt to live with a level of exhaustion that is probably quite damaging – and might actually be quite alarming to some people. For me, it’s normal.   

I do now know that when I hit a wall, I can curl up and just let it overwhelm me in the belief (no – in the knowledge, which comes from experience) that I will recover. Iwill pass. I’ve been a single parent for a fair number of years now and I’m very happy to say: so far, so good! The cloud lifts eventually, the exhaustion melts away and I open my eyes again and say, Ok; I’ve got this 

I will hit a wall, I will get to the point when I think “I’m broken – and then I will take a breath. This works for me.  

I’ve been listening to other single parents share their stories and speak about their fears. Generally, I am really proud of what I have achieved. Ive kept the roof over our heads, Ive raised my kids and I am so proud of them. They are remarkable and they are lovely and they are caring people. Nothings come to them easily and, as a result, theyre incredibly grateful for everything they have and they value so many of the simple things in life. They really do. I don’t think I ever set out to consciously make that happen, it just did. 

The pandemic has made a tough situation almost impossible: the perfect storm for us single parents. Not only because of the economic devastation, the unexpected horrors of home schooling and the loss of informal support networks, as well as the huge loss of work and income 

One of the toughest things Ive felt has been the loss of access to things that lift my spirits. And that loss hasn’t just been caused by services and spaces being closed. It’s been caused by the overall impact of the pandemic – in other words, simply means I can’t be bothered to do anything. I’m not joking. I am not suffering with mental illhealth but I am definitely not thriving or doing well. Im somewhere in the middleStruggling might be a little better than suffering, but it’s not a good place to be. 

My son showed me an article he found on Facebook. It was pretty amazing: iput a name to this state of emotion and, in so doing, explained to me that so many people are feeling like this right now. That lifted my mood and gave me hope. It made me understand me.  

Im here for a reason, in this stagnant pond. And I am not the only one. And there is a really clear reason why were all feeling like this. 

It’s a feeling of emptiness and aimlessness. As the overwhelming fear has started to fade, theres something flat and dull in its place. We haven’t bounced back to bright new horizons and were nowhere near being in a state of recovery.  

To quote the article [Adam Grant, New York Times 19/04/21]: In psychology, we think about mental health on a spectrum from depression to flourishing. Flourishing is the peak of well-being: you have a strong sense of meaning, mastery and mattering to others. Depression is the valley of ill-being: you feel despondent, drained and worthless”.  

The clinical name for the emotion in the middle of these two ends of the spectrum is languishing. You lack drive and motivation. You feel empty 

When we feel this way, its very hard to push ourselves to do the things that boost our well-being and improve our mental health. We simply can’t be bothered. 

Naming this is so helpful – it shows me this is normal. Im not the only person feeling this way. I might not have recognised how I was feeling or the emotions I was experiencing before but, now that I do, I can do something about it.  

For some reason, this made so much sense to me: it was the kick I needed. It made me realise why I couldn’t be bothered to read a book or go for a walk. Chatting to colleagues I work with, who talked about how much they enjoy creative things like art and paintingbut just couldn’t be bothered to set up the paints and things you need. I’d started painting at the beginning of lockdown but now I felt the same lack of motivation. 

I found this recognition incredibly helpful. It kick-started me into making myself take those gentle steps to doing the things I know I enjoy. Its not just that they’re good for meI enjoy them and they deserve a place in my life! 

It takes me back to that idea that, as a single parent, selfcare is not selfindulgence. It’s vital. Looking after myself and my mental health keeps the machinery of my family unit functioning. And the fact that there are things I enjoy, that increase my well-being – that’s a winwin. 

The article goes on to describe a concept called ‘flow’. This is where you become so absorbed in something that you lose track of time and place and become less conscious of yourself or your actions. Clearly, it’s best when the activity is a positive thing, but it doesn’t have to be something complicated. Really, it can be anything – from binge watching a box set to doing a jigsaw puzzle to reading a book. I think the key is to somehow limit interruptions – which can be incredibly hard when you’re a single parentBut small goals with small wins can make such a difference. 

This is the best approach to caring for our own mental health. It complements the Five Ways to Wellbeing (defined by the New Economics Foundation) – simple concepts that promote your well-beingbe activeconnectnoticegivekeep learning 

If you can think of one activity that delivers on one of these things, carve yourself even the smallest bit of time and space to do something and you will start to feel the benefits. The energy and enthusiasm will start to creep back.  

I picked up that book I’d been meaning to read for months. Ten minutes’ reading in bed made me so happy – I remember that feeling of being immersed in a good read and how much I enjoy that. I felt excited. And hopeful. You never know, I might even get the paints out this weekend. It’s worth a shot – whatever works for you.