Real Talk: Solo Parenting Survival Tips

A husband travels for work. He swaps car seats under the moon, leaves a love note on the coffee beans. Kisses sleeping eyelids. Makes his side of the bed. Tosses a duffel bag over his shoulder, reminds a groggy wife to refill the dehumidifier, water the plant.

Don’t forget the fish, OK? Set an alarm so the kids remember to feed them.

She does. They do.

There are times in which I’m envious. Other times, he’d give anything to stay. Mostly, it’s a crapshoot – and when it comes time for me to scan my own boarding pass weeks later, I find I’m a split blend of overjoyed and heavyhearted, all in the span of a single sec.

We’re no strangers to solo parenting, Ken and I. We’ve set our lives up for it, choosing to chase dreams and toddlers simultaneously, believing wholly in the power of partnership and mutuality. It works, mostly, although I often think our culture can romanticize the idea of 50/50 parenting. The truth: it is never 50/50. The prism bends when hours are sliced; our memories become arrogant. Few favor the facts.

And so: we are always co-parenting. From miles away, we relish the reminder that there’s another person on this planet with skin in our own small game. Someone else concerned (or not) over one child’s salami intake, someone else to lament the trappings of Cailou. Another set of ears to hear the training wheels are off, the Uno round conquered, the lisp overcome. In this vein, solo parenting is never solo.

In every other vein, it is.

Here, then, are my own solo parenting survival tips, whether for a few days or a few weeks, whether you’re the one leaving or staying, whether you’re at home or on the go:

1. Assess communication expectations up front.

 

Ken and I have a rule that works for us, and it is simple: there’s no need to check in. No Skype, no FaceTime. No phone calls. Just a few quick texts – the “safe and sound!”s, or an “i love you and miss you”. Mostly, space and silence.

We learned quickly that the trick to maximizing time away from the kids is to actually be away from the kids. Being gone when we’re gone; being home when we’re home. Being all there, wherever we are, and resisting the temptation to bow out of social hour because we need to FaceTime the littles.

After all, I’m in a New York diner and he’s wrangling a teething baby into a hot car seat, and wait a sec, my toast is here! – and would you just hold still?! – and hold on, you’re breaking up, and really, we know where this convo leads. The one who is away is away, the one who is home is home.

I have witnessed many a parent excuse themselves from a conference for a nightly check-in with their kids only to return guilt-stricken and blue. A curt response from an overwhelmed partner or a tearful “Come home!” from a tired child can ruin the evening before the dessert menu’s even arrived, turning the conversation inevitably to how difficult parenting in the modern age has become.

It has become difficult, yes, but we needn’t make it moreso. By assessing communication expectations up front, whether it’s a daily check-in or predetermined scheduled meeting (or not), a whole mess of distracted emotions can be avoided. Trust that your partner away can handle the keynote speech. Trust that your partner at home can handle the nosebleed. Cheer your teammate on from afar; await the recap ’til the fat lady sings.

storage solutions for kids

2. Repeat: No gig is easy.

 

Call me invidious, but I have, in the past, fallen trap to the myth that the traveling parent has the easier gig. And sometimes, they do. After all, there are no surprise childcare cancellations to transform your day into a stack of Tetris blocks. There are no tantrums over a missing shoe. There are none of the usual transitory tasks to perform, the laundry, the dishes, the poo-scooping.

But there, is, still much else. Inevitable flight delays. 4-hour long meetings, endless negotiations in which you find yourself on the losing side. There are nerves. Bosses to impress, sales goals to meet, customers to comfort, problems to solve, and at the end of a long day, you find the waitress did in fact put strawberry in the coulis.

What I’m saying is this: no gig is easy, with or without the missing shoe. On my hardest of days spent solo parenting, I do well to remember this.

3. Plan something to look forward to.

 

Both with, and without the kids.

I load our library totes with dozens of books to enjoy while Ken’s out of town, our grocery carts with the same. (Proper warning: this will sometimes backfire in that your 6-year-old might request Daddy jets town more often so she can eat popcorn on his side of the bed while paging through Ozma of Oz until well after midnight.)

But what I’m getting at is simple: solo parenting can sometimes be enriching and fun and a wonderful change of pace, but it can also be taxing. Now is not the time for parsimony. Bake the treats. Fling open the windows. Turn the tunes up louder (louder, louder still). Schedule a just-for-fun trip to the botanical gardens, plan a coffee shop adventure for breakfast. Have an embargo on Octonauts? For the love of the sea, release the creature reports.

Invite the neighbor girl over to watch the littles while you sneak in a quick run around the block. When the kids are (finally) in bed, slather on a $2 face mask and stare at the wall in silence. Make reservations for one at the taco bar down the street; mark your calendar to take yourself out when your spouse returns.

In short: indulge where you can, however small.

playing

4. Include a buffer.

 

The grand finale, then. There is a tendency to assume that the parent who has left the premises will be ready and willing to take over immediately. But this is no relay race, and our children are far from batons.

And so: out of sheer kindness, if schedule allows, grant the traveling parent a buffer of his/her choosing. Let them acclimate. Give them time and space in whatever manner they need, whether a few minutes to unpack or a few days to decompress. (Ken famously granted me a buffer day when I returned home from Ethiopia with a sadness I couldn’t shake, no matter the fact that he’d solo parented for weeks already. We have been practicing this for each other ever since.)

If schedule doesn’t allow, of course, the traveling parent can easily be responsible for his/her own buffer. Play an encouraging podcast on the plane, something that will spark energy into the home you’re returning to. Take advantage of an Uber drive home to quiet your mind and shift into parenting mode. Deep breaths in the driveway. Enter with an open mind. Clear the night ahead for a recap: How was the speech? Bee learned to tie her shoes! We got the job! There’s a robin’s nest in the backyard!

The truth is this: transition is (mostly) everything, and everyday kindness is everything else. A “Thank you for your hard work” is always in order, whether the recipient is the one stirring eggs in the kitchen or the one dragging a suitcase through the entryway.

You’ll both be bone-tired, no doubt. But you’re together again, and your time apart was fruitful and hard, and is now over. That’s something to celebrate.

(Never mind the popcorn kernels on the bed.)

 

 

 

p.s. For more perspectives on solo parenting, enjoy Real Talk from a few e-friends of mine: Megan, Chelsea, Jen, Lexy, Cyd, Chandra, Caitlin, and Amy.

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  • Love this insight and these tips, Erin! This month is one of my favorites we’ve done, because I know I need all the constant, evolving help making it work as a solo parent a solid 80% of the time. We’re the exact opposite with communication – we are in constant communication, but I really appreciate this insight. It makes a lot of sense and I understand why it works! xoxo

    • I loved this month, too, Cyd! Thanks for weighing in — and I love your take on communication. So beautiful when you find what works! :)

  • Oh I love this! I wish I had read it before my last solo parenting stretch — so much wisdom here. I’m always the one at home and can definitely fall prey to the “I have it harder” state of mind. I also love the little communication approach. Because my husband is gone for long periods (a month or more) when he is away we do FaceTime but it is often a hassle and the kids are even over it. We tried to do it nightly last time and by the end it was so much easier when it was every few days.

    And you say it all so poetically and beautifully, as always. xx

  • “For the love of the sea, release the creature reports.” Bahaha! Best line of the day, thank you!

  • No WAY! This is one of the most disturbing ‘parenting’ blogs I’ve ever read (as in EVER). UGH!! SO insensitive and self centered. YECK!

  • Erin, I swear we are weirdly connected. I was JUST, this very minute, wondering how I am going to take my kids back to North America from Kenya and solo parent again for the next 8 months while my husband remains behind in East Africa. In between my tears and prayers as to how the heck I was going to do it again, I opened my computer and came to your site.

    Prayer answered.

    Thank you.

    • Oh my goodness, Sabrina! We are kindred indeed. Sending peace your way — what a hard and beautiful journey that lies ahead! Please let me know how I can help in any way.

  • So good. My husband does shift work, so this applies to us as well, even though we don’t travel much.

  • Oh, such beautiful insight and descriptors of this life so many leads. I never anticipated having a husband who travels for work. Perhaps one day I will get my own turn at this;). But it has been everything you write here. And especially, I resonate with the goodness that comes from this forced solo-parenting. Knowing I am buckling down with just the kids and me, the oldest sleep in my bed while dad is gone and the baby gets so much doting from brother and I. We also only do small check-ins throughout, and I love the reasoning you’ve written here why. “The one who is home is home. The one who is away is away.”

    Anyways, all of it, is so good. Bless!

  • I really needed to read this🙏🏻 Wish I had read something like this awhile ago!!! My husband has a full time job but does music gigs etc in the side and will travel for shows conferences etc so it is really hard for me with two little boys under 5 and being a full time student especially not feeling resentful but I love what you said about managing communication expectations and giving yourself something to look forward too💯🙌 thank you for your honesty as always