There used to be two pairs of big hands in my house and two pairs of small ones, and still, getting everything done was tough. But after my marriage broke up five years ago, and the labor pool shrank to one set of big hands, "tough" became "insane." When I had the flu, or when both kids’ school conferences wound up scheduled at the same time, there was no one to bail me out or pick up the slack. By necessity, I had to enlist the small hands to do some of the stuff the big hands used to do. And the day my 11-year-old came home from school to say that his 6-year-old sister, who was in charge of making lunches that morning, had packed him nothing but two lonely slices of turkey — no bread, no cookies, no juice box, just turkey — I thought, "There’s got to be a better way."
But you know what? From these growing pains, I’ve learned a lot of lessons — about efficiency and organization — that I could have used even back when there was still another grown-up around. The truth is that when you’re a mom, single or otherwise, what you really need are 100 pairs of hands. So here are some tricks that single parents have discovered about getting it all done when it all seems too much. (Some strategies may already be familiar to married folks — kids have a way of forcing all of us to get our acts together.)
1. Think your day through. The AM alarm rings, and your stress level automatically mounts as you try to remember the who, what, when, where, and how of this particular day. Stop. Instead of racing in at 100 miles an hour, take ten minutes to organize your day on paper. The time you spend now (or the night before) to set priorities can save you hours of confusion later. This is particularly useful if your margin of error is slight to nonexistent, as in my case, where there’s no other adult to remind me of things — or, more important, to cover my butt when I do forget. A checklist also helps break chores into manageable chunks — defrost a chicken now for dinner; toss in a load of wash this afternoon, but dry it tonight — so things don’t pile up.
2. Create a command center. Hang a dry-erase calendar in a visible location, and write down all the field trips, soccer practices, piano lessons, and whatever else your children are involved in. If the kids can’t read yet, use stickers. "We can all look at the calendar on any given day and know exactly what’s going on," says Gina Zolgharnain, a single mother of two children ages 8 and 4 and the owner of a soccer store in Canton, OH. Keep a notepad or tiny tape recorder handy to remind yourself of appointments to jot on the calendar later.
3. Be selective about activities. You could spend your life running your children to extracurricular commitments, especially if you’re the only one doing the family driving. Since I can’t be in two places at once and I have no desire to live in my car, the logical solution is to keep the kids’ schedules manageable: one sport or interest per child per season. "You have to pick and choose, or it’s too much," says Andrea Engber, a single mother of a 14-year-old boy in Charlotte, NC, and the coauthor of The Complete Single Mother.
4. Run a little boot camp. "I put a list on the kids’ doors of what they must do in the morning and at night — from brushing teeth to getting dressed. Otherwise, I go crazy telling them every two seconds what to do next," says Lisa Brinkley, a writer and single mom of three children ages 8, 6, and 3 in upstate New York. "Giving the older kids a list frees me up to get them all ready for school." Again, stickers work fine for nonreaders.
5. Arrange an assembly line. I’ve found a way to eliminate my morning scramble to fill the lunch boxes: I let the kids each take turns packing them. Although this no doubt contributed to the turkey fiasco, it’s also bought me time, built self-reliance in my children, and given them the wonderful feeling of putting one over on Mom when they sneak an extra cookie. (Plus, the turkey incident taught me a lesson: I now ask to hear a quick verbal checklist of what’s been packed for lunch before the kids leave.) The assembly line works with laundry, too: I handle detergent and bleach, but the children sort colors from whites and turn socks right side out; I fold, but they roll socks and hang shirts.
6. Dress in uniform. Zippers, buttons, and shoe-laces are a huge time suck when your hands are the only ones that can fasten them. If your children are too young to manage the mechanics on their own, limit their wardrobes to elastic-waist pants, pullover shirts, and Velcro sneakers. Stock up on clothes in neutral colors (black, blue, grey, khaki, white) for easy mixing and matching. Bonus: You’ll avoid arguments about those blinding chartreuse, pink, and plaid combinations.
7. Everyone to his cubby! It doesn’t matter if it’s near the back, front, or side door: Carve out a place for book bags, coats, boots, and gloves by an exit, so you’re not running around like ants on double espressos in the AM, looking for this and that. You can apply this kind of cubby system to anything. "I pasted pictures of each of us over the bathroom door hooks, and we each have color-coordinated towels," says Engber. "It sounds like the army, but it helps."
8. Big kids help the little kids. No, you’re not asking your older children to do any of your jobs — like assisting with homework — you’re just requesting a little more family cooperation. The big kids can occasionally open a cereal box and pour milk for the little guys or read a book to them at bedtime. Though my 11-year-old may grumble when I ask him to run hot water for my daughter’s bath or help her master her latest soccer skill, he’s secretly proud to be in a position of authority and trust.
9. Multitask…but only to a point. Listening to my daughter practice reading makes my tedious dinner preparations more enjoyable; helping my son plan his book report while we walk makes my daily exercise less of a drag. Doing too many things at once, however, can mean that nothing gets completed. "I’ve made a commitment to finish one task before I move on to the next one," says Engber. "I make sure to put things away immediately and not to start something that I’ll have to finish later."
10. Draw straws for Mom’s time. It’s crazy-making when you’re needed in two locations at once, but you must accept that sometimes you’ll be a no-show — and that’s okay. "If my kids both had a basketball game on the same day, we’d discuss it, and they’d tell me which game was more important," says Marge Lee of Long Island, the public policy liaison for New York Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, who’s been single since the youngest of her four children was 7. "I’d always compensate somehow for the game I missed, even if it was just to take that child out for pancakes." So don’t get down on yourself because you’re not Donna Reed — guilt just saps energy.
11. Steal dates with each child. It’s the nature of the beast when you’re a single parent that your children never seem to get enough one-on-one time with you. So when one of my kids is out of the house — at a playdate, a birthday party — I dedicate those hours to the other, even if it’s just to make popcorn or ride our bikes. Even with just one child, Engber found she had to consciously carve out time, or she’d get distracted by chores. When her son got home from school, she’d set an egg timer for 30 minutes so he could do whatever he wanted with her. "He learned to value the time," says Engber, "because he knew it was really his."
12. Make your exhaustion the kids’ treat. Too beat to cook? Instead of forcing yourself (and getting crabby), go the easy route: Order a pizza, or throw together some sandwiches, soup, or salad. "If I’m not having a good day or I’m too overwhelmed," says Brinkley, "I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said to the kids, ‘Is cereal okay?’ At first, I felt guilty because of my own expectations about what I’m supposed to do, but if my kids are healthy, fed, and well taken care of, I’m doing my job." I, too, have learned that if I’m having a bad night, it’s better to just throw in the towel: We skip a formal meal, chores, and baths and all crawl into my bed to watch TV. These sloppy nights not only pack a restorative punch for me, but they provide cozy memories for my children.
13. Be humble enough to say, "Help!" You probably can do it all, but at what cost? Stress does not a happy parent make, whether you’re married or single, so learn to ask for assistance — and to accept it in whatever package it comes. "I’m not the type to ask for a hand," says Brinkley, "but when I have, I’ve found that my neighbors and friends are more likely to ask me for help later, so it’s win-win for all."
14. Remember, it’s not really the end of the world. Parenting — no matter how much help you have — is tough, and there are days when you just want to scream. But that’s when I remember the biggest lesson of all: When life hands you a lunch box with only two slices of turkey, you’ve got to laugh.
Pamela Lister, a writer and editor, is a single mother of two who lives in NJ.