One of my favourite phrases is one I learned when I took part in a sailing race a few years ago:
A calm sea doesn’t make for a skilled mariner
As with learning more from defeat than from victory, it points out that the more challenging the situation, the more you learn about it and the more you learn about yourself. The past few months of lockdown, schools closing and children being expected to maintain learning whilst parents maintained full time jobs have stretched us to the limits and, in some cases, beyond them.
As the initial lockdown starts to ease up it’s an opportunity for us all to reflect on what’s happened and how we’ve coped, not least so that if there is any form of second wave and we are once again confined to quarters we do so a little more prepared, self-aware and wiser than we were when it hit for the first time. With that in mind, here are a few things I’ve learned as a single parent so far.
Write off any day when the kids are home
At the moment I’m expected to be a parent, a teacher and maintain my normal full-time job. I have enough bandwidth to – at best – manage one and a half of those three roles at any one time. Which of the three I have to focus on changes day-to-day, meaning some days I have to leave them to cope as I have meetings and phone calls to take, while other times I need to accept I won’t be productive on my laptop as the kids need me to help them with their schoolwork.
This invariably ends up meaning I end each day feeling like a failure. I know I’ve done the best that I can with what I have, but I also know that I’ve not achieved all I could have in any of the areas I need to. If I nail a day at work that means there’s no way I could also have spent enough time and effort supporting schoolwork. If we spent the day focusing on their learning there’s no way I can fit in a full day’s work. And if I do either of those properly then there’s no way I can stay on top of the “normal” tasks of running a house and raising a family, let alone doing any of the other things that I do just for me (such as writing this blog).
Screens can save me
“Little Johnny is limited to one hour of screen time a day as we like to stretch his mind in more creative ways.” Well bully for you. Some of us don’t have the time to spend focusing on keeping our kids occupied. Some of us have multiple children, all at different ages and all with different interests. Some of us have other things that we can’t drop to dream up different things to do each and every day.
Letting kids spend all day every day in front of screens isn’t good, but sometimes it’s the only way to get through a day. With one on a console, one playing on a PC, one watching YouTube on their phone and another watching a DVD in their room I am left free to crack on with the things I need to do in order to maintain a job and a home. They are all happy and distracted, and as they’re in their own worlds they aren’t annoying each other. As much as I try to mix it up, sometimes the only solution is to hand over the remote control and let them consume.
The weeks without them aren’t spent catching up; they’re spent recovering
This is an area where I feel especially fortunate; I get downtime. 50/50 custody means I get an entire week without children in my home, a luxury which many single parents don’t have as they are with their children week after week after week. I had thought that this would allow me to spend the weeks without them working longer hours, catching up on chores and generally balancing out the less productive time when they are at home with me.
Oh sweet, naïve me. No, the weeks without them have a sizeable element of recovery for me. I can decompress a little emotionally and mentally from the pressures of being at home with the kids 24/7, trying to keep them sane and happy as well as growing as much as possible. I can physically rest, catching up on sleep and doing a little exercise which is impossible when I need to be home to monitor my tribe. Without this recovery I know I’d be a lot closer to the edge than I currently am.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have a garden; I’m counting my blessings that I am not in that group and have space outside we can use whenever we want to. It’s no field, but it’s big enough for them to run about in and big enough for a trampoline; despite the dangers, it’s been a godsend. The kids have been able to burn off some energy and get a little exercise without leaving home, all without arguing or moaning. The garden also gives us a different set of jobs and chores to do, as well as enabling us to see things grow over time and enjoy the feeling of nurturing things which will either flower and feed our eyes or flavour and feed our bellies.
Just having a different space has been the difference sometimes between sanity and going crazy. A space without walls and ceilings, a space where you focus your eyes on something that’s not a screen or within a couple of metres of your face, a space with bright colours and textures and smells. We’ve been lucky with the weather; if we get stuck indoors this winter it will be a lot tougher than it is right now.
Communication is still king
Simply put, if it wasn’t for social media, parents up and down the country would be in a very dark place. Without the ability to touch base with other adults the isolation would be intense; children are wonderful, but their worldview is obviously limited and the constant questions and need for our attention is draining and exhausting.
Tools such as Twitter, Zoom, WhatsApp and everything else has meant we can still connect with other people and feel less alone. If this had all happened prior to 2006 or so, things would have been very different indeed; we are in many ways fortunate that we live in a world where social media and communication tools are commonplace and available freely. Being able to vent or share or just pass the time of day with other parents is amazing, and also gives us the option of coming up with ideas to make the most of the time at home with the kids.
That last point is something I’ve been thinking a lot about. Yes, this is tough, tougher perhaps than most of us expected. Yes, we are feeling like failures, under pressure from all sides and not living up to the expectations we think the world is putting on us and which we are putting on ourselves. Yes, we are looking forward to things going back to some sort of normal, whatever that normal might be.
But in months and years to come I predict we will look back and see good in this time of lockdown. People looking back on their lives usually say they wish they’d been able to spend more time with their families and their children – this is exactly that. We are with them all day every day in a way that has never happened before and perhaps never will again; this is an opportunity and a gift in so many ways that we need to appreciate and make the most of while it lasts rather than looking back with regret that we spent the whole of lockdown wishing the time away.
Be kind to yourself. Try not to be too hard on yourself for all the things you are not able to do and remember the things you’ve made happen. You’re doing amazingly, you’re a great parent and while your kids may never fully appreciate all you’re doing, they’ll feel the benefit of your lockdown efforts for the rest of their lives.