Self-Care for Single Moms & Dads

Young mom and her daughter on a hammock
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Does parenting on your own leave you feeling exhausted? Burned out? Irritable ... even angry? You could be experiencing the everyday symptoms of single-parent stress. And while it's unavoidable, your need for self-care is something you should never ignore—because taking care of yourself is an important part of taking care of your kids. After all, you're the most important person in their lives. And if you're not 100%, you can't give them 100% of what they need.

Is Your Self-Care Warning Light On?

Our bodies don't come with warning lights like cars do. So you won't see an orange glow coming from the dashboard to tell you that you're almost out of gas. But you will see some clear signs that you need to bump up your self-care efforts. These can include anything from feeling easily frustrated to yelling at your kids, becoming increasingly forgetful, and even experiencing physical symptoms. 

What Is Self-Care?

To put it simply, self-care is pouring into yourself the resources you need to perform at your best. It's asking yourself, "How am I feeling, and what do I need right now?" While some may be tempted to label the act of putting your own needs first — or even considering your needs at all — selfish, it's actually the exact opposite.

Taking care of yourself, the most important person in your child's life, is paramount to being the best parent you can be.

Self-care helps you build up the energy, stamina, and inner strength you need to do this job well. And it won't happen by accident. Self-care requires an ongoing, intentional effort.

5 Categories of Self-Care for Single Parents

Tending to your own self-care requires you to acknowledge all of the different needs you're experiencing. Imagine a gemstone with multiple facets. There are many facets to self-care, too. These include:

  1. Physical self-care - This refers to making sure you get enough rest, eat healthy foods, drink enough water, and exercise. More than a 'to do' list or New Year's resolution, these habits help you be at your best each and every day. 
  2. Emotional self-care - This type of self-care involves acknowledging your feelings and working through them. Sharing your thoughts with others or writing them down can help, too.
  3. Relational self-care - This taps into your sense of social well-being. When you're in contact with others who care about you, your burden is lighter and the challenges you're facing can be put into perspective.
  4. Cognitive self-care - Often ignored, this type of self-care refers to your need to continue learning and growing. 
  5. Spiritual self-care - This type of self-care broadens your sense of self in relation to the rest of the world. This your spiritual self-care may involve regular practices like meditation and prayer, you may also find that being out in nature helps.

Cumulative Effects of Neglecting Your Self-Care 

It's important to recognize that ignoring any of these types of self-care can cause cumulative effects and contribute to the stress you're feeling. As a single parent, you're not just experiencing physical exhaustion. Juggling your responsibilities can leave you feeling emotionally spent as well.

And if you're still recovering from a broken relationship, loss, or other disappointment on top of everything else, then taking the time to work through your feelings each day will be even more important.

Emotional needs that haven't been properly addressed will creep up on you out of nowhere.

You might find yourself tearful in the middle of the grocery store or snapping at your kids over things you'd normally overlook. Exhaustion will also seep in when you're ignoring your emotional needs. So it's imperative that you take care of yourself emotionally so that you can be at your best for your kids.

Tips for Making Regular Self-Care a Habit

Here are some ways to take care of your emotional needs and build your inner strength:

  1. Talk to a friend. It can be tempting to think that friends who don't have kids or who have never been through a divorce, separation, or loss don't want to hear what you're going through. Most of the time, this isn't true. Your friends care about you, and even if they can't offer suggestions based on experience, they can still be supportive. So give them that chance by opening up about how you're feeling.
  2. Write in a journal. Sometimes all we need is to get our feelings out of our systems. Try writing your thoughts in a journal. Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way, suggests writing in a notebook every morning, about whatever is on your mind, for three full pages. When you do this every day, without concern for what the writing looks like or sounds like, you'll find that by the time you get to the third page, you'll start to unlock what's really bothering you. Try it! What you discover might surprise you.
  3. Exercise. Make exercise part of your daily routine. If you have young children, put them in a stroller or let them ride their bikes alongside you. And if your kids are older, make a point of playing with them in ways that get your bodies moving. For example, go outside and play tag or soccer, or — if your kids enjoy video games — play one together that involves movement, like Just Dance or Wii Sports.
  4. Listen to music. Take some time after the kids are in bed to listen to your favorite music and daydream a little. Most of us don't get enough of this kind of "head time," particularly if our only downtime activity is watching TV. Listening to music is different because it allows your mind to drift and wander. So give it a try! Allow whatever comes into mind — no matter how silly it seems — to help you process your feelings and put you back in touch with the strength you possess inside.
  5. Spend time enjoying nature. Watch the sunrise, take in a beautiful sunset, or spend a few minutes listening to the birds singing in your own neighborhood. You don't have to go far to enjoy the world around you.
  6. Talk to a professional. If you feel like you're stuck or you're just not making the progress you'd like to see, make an appointment to talk with a professional counselor, therapist, pastor, or rabbi. He or she can help you process your grief and pain and begin to move forward. Know, too, that this doesn't have to be a long-term solution. Even just two or three appointments can help you get back in touch with your inner strength and set you on a path toward healing and recovery.

Unchartered Territory: Self-Care for Single Dads

The topic of self-care warrants special consideration for single dads. It's unfortunate that our culture teaches us that men are supposed to be strong and capable — a belief that makes it particularly hard for some men to acknowledge their weaknesses or ask for help.

But it's important to realize that you're human. And we all have weaknesses.

So if you feel you couldn't possibly speak to a counselor or ask your neighbor for help with the kids, I encourage you to redefine the words strength and weakness.

It's a paradox — something that looks like a contradiction at first glance but actually reveals an unexpected truth. Pretending that nothing's wrong might look like strength from the outside, but it isn't true strength. And asking for help might feel like an expression of weakness initially, but it's really a display of inner strength because it takes a stronger person to ask for help than to pretend that nothing's wrong.

So give yourself the freedom to express your strengths in new ways. Push through the discomfort that comes with asking for help, and focus on the result: getting what you need for yourself and your kids.

Whether you're a mom or a dad, there's no doubt that taking care of your physical and emotional needs will boost your inner strength.

By Jennifer Wolf
Jennifer Wolf is a PCI Certified Parent Coach and a strong advocate for single moms and dads.