What were we thinking! promote confidence and reduce distress in parents with a first baby

When you're parenting on your own

By Michaela

When you're parenting on your own

I have an incredible amount of respect for single parents. An incredible amount. I have always felt this way however since having my son, who I’ve cared for on my own many times over the past 18 months, I have an even greater respect for those who "go it alone".

I should preface this by saying this is not a hubby bashing piece. While at times I may have wanted to throttle him for leaving me at home with a new baby - many times in fact - the job of his that calls him interstate from time to time is the same job that allowed me to take an extended maternity leave (and shop endlessly for baby decor online).

Put simply, caring for a newborn alone is a nightmare. A hellish nightmare. Dramatic phrasing? Yes. A true representation? Yes.  

During my husband’s first work trip, when our son was two weeks old, I realised why traditionally it takes two to make a baby, because it certainly takes two to care for one. At least two. The idea that it takes a village to raise a baby frequently came to mind during that time and boy, if the option was there I would have fled to an African jungle.

After three weeks at sea aboard a navy ship with NO phone reception, my husband returned to find me an absolute wreck. Not only had I literally lost nine months of baby weight in the first week of his absence (do not try this at home FYI) I was a blubbering mess who had survived on two hours sleep a day and zero hours of alone time. Why was it such a nightmare you ask? Let me tell you just a few of the reasons why …

Firstly, they use sleep deprivation as a form of torture in prison camps because that’s exactly what it is – a cruel form of torture. Adjusting to lack of sleep with a newborn is hard enough to do when you have someone to split shifts with, but try this alone? It’s not a pretty picture.  

Second of all, having to remain switched on every second of the day is extremely demanding. Without a second set of capable hands present, you are literally your baby’s lifeline and their entire survival rests in your hands. That’s all, nothing major ...  

Thirdly, coordinating family and friends wanting to see your new baby is a hassle. And while I can only speak for those who are breastfeeding, constant offers from visitors “to help” are like dangling a carrot before a tethered donkey. Unless someone is willing to let your child suckle on their breasts every three hours, these kinds of offers are in essence redundant. 

Each time my husband went away, our son would be that little bit older and my experience would be that little bit better. But what truly helped me through those times was not only 24 hour nurse hotlines, but knowing that he’d be home soon and that the ordeal would soon be over.

But you see that’s the thing. It was temporary. His absence from nappy changing and midnight bottle feeds had an expiry date. Before I knew it, even though it was excruciatingly difficult at the time, he would return and lighten the load on ‘said’ date. For single parents, there is none of this. No lightening the load. No ‘said’ date. And how they manage to parent on their own, particularly if they’re a first time parent, is something I am truly in awe of.

I think what I miss most, more than an extra set of hands while my husband's away, is the company. Someone who ‘gets’ it. Someone who knows our child as intimately as me and understands that sometimes, removing food he’s mushed into your clothes for the umpteenth time isn’t as “funny” as your girlfriends think. And that sometimes, his high pitched squeals on loop aren’t as “adorable” as the grandparents would have you believe. Sometimes, I just want to sit beside someone at night who truly understands what it means to parent this baby. Nobody else’s. Just this one.

Being a new parent is tough enough. If you’re like me, you go from the hardest thing you’ve ever kept alive being a potplant to suddenly caring for a living, breathing human that you can’t just place on a sunny windowsill to thrive. Having to then do that on your own? All I can do is take my hat off to those who go it alone and while I won’t offer “to help”, I'll instead sing their praises.

Expert response from What Were We Thinking! expert, Ann O'Doherty

I agree whole heartedly with you Michaela that parenting is one of the hardest things any of us will ever do and doing it alone, whether short or longer term, increases the degree of difficulty enormously.

I am always covered in admiration for the job that single parents do whether by choice or as a result of illness, work requirements or separation.

If you are doing it alone, be reassured that children do well with a single loving adult caring for them, and providing them with a secure emotional base, are generally as happy as children living with two parents. It’s our ability to offer positive attention to our children which maintains their happiness and keeps them mentally healthy.

Parenting alone though comes with specific emotional and practical considerations and I would like to offer some suggestions around sources of support that are available.

Every parent feels unsure at times about how they are managing the sometimes complex or confusing needs of a new baby. Dealing with decisions without the ability to trouble shoot with someone else, as well as sharing the physical and emotional load, can make day-to-day household management difficult and exhausting.

It is normal for all of us to need practical, emotional and social supports. We all need support as parents and asking for help when we need it is a smart thing to do – for ourselves and for our children.

The Raising Children Network is an excellent resource. This Australian parenting website offers a wealth of easy to access information across a wide range of parenting topics. It is easy to search for the information you need and you can even type “single parent” into the search engine for results specific to you. In addition, mindhealthconnect http://www.mindhealthconnect.org.au/need-help-now has a list of helplines you can refer to when needing immediate assistance.

Your local council is another great resource to turn to for ideas around community groups to join, like new parent groups, playgroups and local walking groups.

There are also specific support groups for single parents, such as the Council of Single Mothers (in Victoria). This site also has access to publications including Single Mothers – a Resource for Parenting Solo.

It is important for you to have opportunities to develop relationships with others who can help you care for both you and your baby. The What Were We Thinking! program website has some fantastic information and worksheets to refer to about learning how to speak up for yourself and how to ‘go it alone’.

People will want to help you and I note Michaela your thoughts about how can others help when you are breastfeeding. In that particular scenario, if someone offers to give you a hand, it can help to have a little list (either in your head or written down) of all the things that need doing (apart from breastfeeding) like freezing meals, doing the washing and shopping or mowing the lawns.

Single parents learn to trust their instincts and develop significant inner strength. They develop feelings of pride and achievement as they problem solve from day to day to meet the needs of their children. As your son gets older Michaela, he will learn from your strength, resilience and determination and you will become a powerful role model in his life.

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