Going solo, and the upsides of autonomy

photo-219My husband travels a lot for work. I’m used to weekday solo parenting, though then there’s the rhythm of school and regular childcare. He’s had a few Monday AM meetings in Asia that have involved leaving Saturday night, and plenty of AM meetings in Europe that have involved leaving earlier on Sunday than I am particularly happy about. But I usually do not have the whole weekend solo.

This past weekend was different. My husband went to College Station, Texas, to take in the Aggie game. He grew up there and went to college there. Someday he’ll take the kids to a game, but they’re not old enough yet to be good football watching companions.

So I was on my own with the three of them. It went pretty well, despite the constant rain.

On Friday night, I took the kids to the “train diner” (aka Ruby’s Diner). The food isn’t great, but it’s kid friendly and they make good milkshakes. I must say, I felt a wee bit self-conscious walking through all the booths with my three kids in tow and my pregnant belly sticking out, but hey. That killed a big chunk of the evening.

Saturday morning, all three kids wound up in bed with me, which was kind of sweet. I made pancakes for breakfast. Then they watched cartoons while I did about an hour of work. We made oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. We had cookies for lunch (with fruit and veggies — and I figure the oats cover various sins, right?)

I’d arranged for a sitter to meet me at one of my kids’ soccer fields, since I had two games at the same time in different locations again. But it was raining like crazy, so the league canceled the games. Instead, the sitter came to our house and I took off for the YMCA. I ran 4.25 miles on the treadmill, albeit slowly, and lifted weights. Then I hit Starbucks and used an old gift card to buy a coffee. I sat in there for about 90 minutes doing more novel editing. It was quite the scene. I was unaware exactly how happening Starbucks is on a Saturday afternoon in a mall. Lots of people came by and ordered things that bear no resemblance to coffee.

In any case, it was a nice break. I went home, made the kids dinner, and let them get in my tub with loads of bubbles. Then I turned on the jets and let it froth up as much as the whipped topping on a pumpkin latte. They found this incredibly fun, fun enough that they didn’t notice I had started their bath about 45 minutes earlier than I normally do. They compliantly got into their jammies afterwards. Everyone was in their rooms at 8, so I could buckle down for 2.5 more hours of editing afterwards.

The next morning my daughter had indoor soccer at the Y, so we loaded up the minivan and drove over. I’d left early enough to park the boys in the playroom, but they wanted to watch their sister. So I said they could sit on the bleachers with two rules. They could not run out of the gym, and they could not complain. They obeyed rule 1, but broke rule 2 within about 5 minutes. Oh well. She wasn’t that stoked about soccer either. After, I took them all to their playrooms and ran 2 miles on the treadmill. We went home, had lunch, and my daughter went down for a nap. The boys started watching the Aggie game, which I’d taped, but the Aggies were losing so badly within the first quarter that they lost interest and turned on the Incredibles. That was fine with me. I did 2 more hours of work.

After my daughter got up from her nap, the afternoon started dragging a bit. The rain had stopped, so I convinced her to go outside and ride her tricycle as I clocked more steps. The boys played with the Wii. Finally I made them quit and we all went outside to race around the backyard and run some obstacle courses. I never did beat my 7-year-old’s best time, but we did note that my time meant that the baby beat the 5-year-old and the 3-year-old. I have enjoyed seeing how much the kids have already folded him into their little tribe. We came inside around 6:30. I started making the kids dinner as my husband came in.

All was not perfect over the weekend, of course. There was grumpiness and the kids missed daddy. On the other hand, I was reminded of something Emma Johnson (aka The Wealthy Single Mommy) once pointed out. A woman whose husband was gone on a long business trip told her that I don’t know how you do it. Emma replied that she couldn’t imagine co-parenting for long stretches of time. There is something to total autonomy. I wanted a break on Saturday so I hired a sitter. If I wanted the kids in their rooms at 8, there was no other authority to appeal to. I suspect some chunk of weekend stress comes from thinking that one’s co-parent should do X, Y, or Z, which he or she doesn’t do because this person cannot read your mind. On your own, you make your own decisions. There are other stresses (yes, all three of you will be going into the YMCA bathroom with me!) but not that one.

If you do long stretches of time on your own, what are your secrets for happier parenting?

Photo: Stirring cookie batter.

25 thoughts on “Going solo, and the upsides of autonomy

  1. I really like these type of posts of yours. I am contemplating a job that would involve a significant amount of travel so it’s nice to see what some of the upsides might be. My husband would be the one taking on the majority of the solo parenting, and I actually think the ‘freedom’ would be even greater in that case as I tend to be the planner/scheduler.

    I am also very impressed with your exercise! I ran throughout my pregnancy but even w an 8 month old haven’t gotten back in a routine with it…soon.

    1. @The frugal ecologist – thanks! Obviously a job with travel is a family decision, and will depend to a degree on how much solo parenting your husband is up for. But there are definitely strategies to make it more doable. Like a bigger babysitting budget!

  2. I haven’t done an entire weekend on my own, but I do like the flexibility of having what *I* want for dinner and get to set bedtime when *I* want to. I’m wondering – do you think that in some ways it’s easier to be a solo parent as the kids get older because they can interact with you on a more adult level. The days that were most trying for me were when I was housebound (due to weather or transportation issues) with my <2 y/o because he's not much of a conversationalist.

    1. @Chelsea – I do definitely think there’s something to the kids being older. Like the fact that they can all climb into the car is huge. And talk to each other and me, and play independently (for at least a few minutes, in the 3-year-old’s case). When the kids are little it’s more just physically tiring, without a whole lot coming back from them in the way of stimulus. Then, a 30-minute plane delay is huge if you’ve got a screaming baby…

  3. I remember having a similar conversation with a friend who is married to a Marine. She said the readjustment to his homecoming was often very difficult, as she/he learned to renavigate coparenting and decision-making together. (I mean, among a million other adjustments they were both making). I know that when my husband is on the road we eat more easy/convenience food and I let the kids watch more shows. Not sure if that would remain as true if I were looking at single parenting for the long haul, but I count that as a huge perk for myself when he’s gone a few days. Cereal for dinner? Sure, why not.

    1. @Katherine – there is a certain element of this. When we’re on our own, we may be gentle with ourselves. I guess in the presence of another adult we’re more inclined to think about what we “should” or shouldn’t be doing.

  4. Completely know what you mean about autonomy. When #2 was super little, I felt desperate for help in the evenings. Now I actually find the bedtime routine a little easier when I am alone and in charge. (When he is there #1 plays favorites and begs for daddddyy to do everything.)

    I have a solo weekend this weekend and I’m already planning it out. I am contemplating a babysitting session so that I can run on Sunday AM but I think my younger babysitters would be horrified about an 8 am job!

  5. My husband has had some business travel. I admire your approach. Mine has been different- scaling back to real necessities and taking shortcuts. Enjoyed reading about your solo parenting.

  6. I am a single parent (solo, really, since I had my children on my own). Anyone who has kids knows it’s a lot of work and for a single parent there isn’t a division of labor. But it is also easier b/c, as you said, I am in charge without any negotiating about who’s responsible for what. As long as I’m consistent, my kids get a consistent message about what is acceptable and what the consequences are. (Also, there’s no mommy guilt about working – if I don’t work, we don’t eat!)

    Having said all that, please keep in mind that anyone who is a true single parent never ‘solo parents for the weekend.’ Whenever I hear someone incorrectly use the term single or solo parent I think, “That wasn’t solo parenting. It was taking care of your kids by yourself.” It may seem like a minor quibble but it does get wearisome to hear the term used by partnered people who don’t have the stress and responsibility of being a child’s sole parent.

    1. @Mynolo – thanks for your comment. And yes on the no mommy guilt about working. Your kids have to eat and that’s on you, so you do it. I’m curious about the linguistics here, though. I switched to “solo parenting” from “single parenting” in blog posts because of a comment similar to yours, so I’m interested to hear that you’d use those phrases interchangeably.

      1. @Laura – In a nutshell, my experience is that the term single parent generally conveys the idea “formerly partnered” while solo parent doesn’t. Because of the “formerly partnered” connotation of the term single parent, it doesn’t always accurately convey the full-time responsibility of parenting and supporting a child for someone who has decided to pursue parenthood on his/her own.

        1. I should also add that as a single woman, I am technically a single mother. But I’m not a mother who is single b/c her relationship ended. I’m a single mother b/c I decided to pursue motherhood when I was single. Therefore, I’m a single mother and a solo parent so I use the terms interchangeably.

  7. I’m so glad you posted this! I wasn’t sure whether to comment here or on Facebook. I certainly don’t do “going solo” well. I’m a tenured faculty member with a 2.5 year old. My husband is in sales and is gone all weekend and M-W evening. I don’t do any work while my daughter is awake so I try to catch up on things from 10 pm-1 am (but end up on social media most of that time) and am trying to be more efficient when I’m in the office. It’s a huge balancing act. Since finishing your book, I’ve been trying to think of changes I can make (I need to get up earlier for sure and should reduce FB usage). I recently blogged my thoughts about it. For me, I think adjusting my expectations and reducing the ‘glorification of busy’ was really helpful.


    1. @Stephanie – I like that you were debating posting on FB about how you want to spend less time on FB 🙂 I generally do work after the kids go to bed, but I’m trying to be better about setting an agenda for that time, just as I would for the work day. If I don’t, I can spend much of it on social media too. So I list my “assignments” for the night shift, and when I’m done, I’m done. Sometimes I do better than others on this — it’s a work in progress.

  8. I haven’t had more than one night of solo parenting, but I’ve left my husband in charge for 2-3 nights a few times this year. Both of us agree that its easier in many ways, though we all miss each other when we are apart. Even if I have an evening alone, I usually change up the order of things, relax the rules a tad, and the kids are much more malleable when there is only one of us around (because they have no choice, the 3 year old loves to call the other parent whenever he is “in trouble” & when that option is off the table it goes better!). I do think this is easier and easier as they get older—we still sometimes have those awful situations where one kid had a potty accident and the other needs help in the bathroom and there really aren’t enough hands to go around.

  9. I always have an internal laugh when people say “I don’t know how you do it”. Well the answer is: you just have to do it so you do. (How was that for a run on sentance).
    I remember the days of my military husband off for weeks (or months) at a go and being with the 3 little ones and the belly. :o)
    Planning is important, a great back pack or diaper bag and early bedtimes all rank. but life will throw punches at you so rolling with it is important as well (vague memories of being called to the ICU and the kids watching movies and getting ice cream from the nurses).
    Never done cookies for lunch but definitely pie for breakfast!

  10. My husband travels 1-2 weeks/month, but it used to be more. For me, making it work with one and now two small children has been having a plan (I probably read this tip in one of your books or on the blog). Something fun to do with the kids after work (even if it’s just the park) and what to do about dinner. I often let our au pair feed them whereas when he is home we try to eat together. Then I can have something quick after they go to bed. If its a weekend, same rules apply, although I may schedule our au pair so I can workout or go to yoga, and we will probably do a casual meal or two out. Then I “take advantage” of the alone time….watch movies my husband won’t, catch up on work, etc.

    I am definitely stricter about bed time when it’s just me, b/c i know everyone is on me but I think it works out just fine.

  11. I solo parent in the evenings (daycare/school pick up, dinner, bath and bedtime) 5 nights a week because my DH works late. It’s not so bad now that my kids are 5 and 3. I have a system and sometimes on the weekends it can feel like DH throws a wrench into my well oiled machine. It was rough though when I had a newly 2 year old and a newborn. Balancing the needs of 2 so young while trying to feed and get them into bed was stressful!

    1. @beth – yes, it was harder when they were 4, 2, and 0. I’d put the 4- and 2-year-old in front of the TV while I put the baby to bed, and I’d just hope they stayed there, since the 2-year-old wasn’t really trustworthy on his own around the house. Now when I have #4 the 3-year-old will be basically old enough to be able to play independently while I deal with her little brother.

      1. this is my method: A (age 2.5) gets to watch Mickey’s Clubhouse every night while I put C to bed. luckily she is pretty much mesmerized by this show (helps that she only gets to watch it in this precious time slot i think!) and that makes things pretty easy. if she were more active/tended to run around and get into trouble, things would be so much harder!

        also, i LOVE reading about how it does get easier as kids get older. Off topic, but I cannot stand the narrative about ‘just wait until . . .’ where parents of school aged kid try to claim it’s harder. I am sure that in many ways parenting older children is more emotionally challenging and stressful, but I refuse to believe it’s as tiring as the constant vigilance required with infants/young toddlers.

        1. We woke up last weekend to find our 5yo fully dressed, teeth brushed and at the breakfast table eating the cereal and milk she had carefully poured for herself.

          It was pretty amazing, except for the fact that we still had to get up for the 2yo 🙂

  12. This is interesting. I know there are some people who have partners who actively disrupt the “well-oiled machine” but I don’t think we’re one of those families. However, when I’m on my own with the girls, they are nearly always in bed before 7 and I get into a groove where everything goes pretty smoothly. It’s not like my husband is any less of a stickler for bedtime or “the routine”, though.

    Thinking about it, I wonder if it’s the laziness that comes from assuming the other person will handle the “next step” in the routine, and then no one does, and suddenly we’re 15 min “behind schedule” etc. When I’m doing it on my own, I’m ON IT because I know no one else is there. And I’m usually very motivated to get everyone into bed on time so I can have some mama vegetation time online.

    I wrote a post earlier this year about my survival tricks (and we only have 2!):

    That particular trip was a rough one because our beloved old dog suddenly got really sick, and we had to euthanize him the day after my husband returned. Yuck.

    1. @ARC – I remember reading that about your dog. I’m so sorry that happened, especially while you were on your own! I do think it’s usually not someone actively undermining the other parent. It’s what you said — you assume the other person is starting the next step, and if they haven’t, you’re behind schedule. Or if someone’s been gone for a while (like the marine in Katherine’s example) they probably aren’t familiar with all the steps.

    2. My “well-oiled machine” during the week definitely comes from the sense that I need to get everything done by myself. I probably shouldn’t say that DH disrupts my system as much as I allow his presence to disrupt it. I get lazier about making sure everything is done efficiently when he is around and I definitely can assume that he has started the next step while I am doing something else and find that he thought I was going to do it. Oops!

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