How to single parent 24/7 without going insane

The hardest thing for me is that I take care of the kids 24/7. No matter how flexible I am with family / extended family (even my ex’s family) or how hard I work at forging a community, I can’t find reliable people who can help watch my kids and I can’t pay for childcare on my income. How do you do it? How do you spend all day every day with kids and not go completely insane?

Whenever I think maybe I’ve found a balance and gotten some normalcy established, everything gets upended again and I’m back to square one with little to no childcare and staying up hours past their bedtime just so my introvert self can recharge. Idk if I’m just venting or if I actually think you might have an answer I haven’t thought of yet.

11 replies
  1. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    I do it by giving up sleep and using caffeine. Not kidding. I stay up late, after the kids are asleep To get alone time. And as the kids get older, I find myself having to stay up even later. Every time I tell myself I have to go to bed at a normal time I feel devastated to give up the time when the kids are asleep and I’m alone. So I stay awake. Which is, of course, a terrible answer for you.

    Other things I have tried were worse. If I work long hours to have household help, I feel too sad about everything I’m missing with the kids. And I get angry that I’m surrounded by men at work who have kids at home who are being taken care of by their wives. My kids are getting such a bad deal.

    So I can’t give you a great solution but I can tell you that I have a lot of empathy. No one in my family has ever taken care of my kids so I could have a break. I used to feel sorry for myself. Now my mind is totally blown. So I know how you feel. The aloneness is incredible. Almost surreal. I never realized how important it is to have a family to help — friends or paid help is never, ever, ever the same. And there is so much research about how extended family help with children saves marriages.

    You and I can’t really do anything except keep raising our kids and doing our best. But we can talk about the problem of single parenting more openly. Single parenting is way more difficult than parenting with two people, even if the spouses are very unequal. Single parenting gets harder and harder as the kids get older because the parent loses steam and also connection because two-parent families don’t hang out with single-parent families.

    I knew both of us before we got divorced, and I’m sure we should have kept our marriages together by doing 200% more compromise than getting a divorce. But you have to know that going into the marriage. So here. We’re telling people.


  2. Bostonian
    Bostonian says:

    Kids do get older. And it does get easier as the kids get older. Except for the teenage years, which can be incredibly exhausting, of course.

    I haven’t had to take care of my kids 24/7 for years, since my girl went to Kindergarten and my son went to middle school. Then it was a whole new bag of worms, of course, having to deal with school problems.

    We’re in a reasonably calm period right now, with my kids happy at school and college, respectively, though struggling with their neurological differences, and the kids are good at entertaining themselves and sometimes each other.

    You’ll get to that point, too, where your kids are good at entertaining themselves, and want less and less to spend time with you. We’re going on a family vacation without our son this year, because he doesn’t want to go with us and just complains. Maybe when he’s older he’ll like it again. I think it’ll be educational for him to take care of the house and cats by himself for two weeks.

    In my experience, COVID has changed the phenomenon of married couples with kids only wanting to hang out with other married couples with kids. All the married couples with kids we know were too freaked out to hang out with us during the pandemic, so for the last year and a half we’ve spent almost all of our social time with: a divorced mother and her daughter; an elderly confirmed bachelor; and a middle-aged dating couple. The married with children folks have seemed terrified to step on our porch.

    I also stay up about an hour after everybody else’s bedtime, and I appreciate learning from you two that this is for purposes of introverted recharging.

    I think PT’s secret answer to your question is: let them play unlimited video games.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I like that you know my secret answer. But what I found, after years of unlimited video games, is that the kids get sick of them. The kids realize they are never going to progress to where they want to be in those video games so they want to do something where they can imagine themselves progressing and they want help from me doing that. So I found that unlimited video games did give me a break, and, frankly, having kids come over to play with my kids gave me a break. But both those things ended when the kids got a little older and felt more responsibility for their own trajectories through life. Then they wanted my help more often.


  3. J.E.
    J.E. says:

    Extended family is so helpful even with two parent families. My parents watch my niece and nephew quite a bit, almost like their house is the niece and nephew’s second home and their parents (my brother and sister in law) are married. The kids also see their other set of grandparents quite a bit. I think it’s important to have a group of people to help out with childcare, almost like raising kids communally. That’s maybe even more important than two parents, because I’m starting to think even two parents aren’t enough, you need an entire network. My brother and sister in law have not only each other, but four grandparents to help out. That’s six people for two kids. I understand that it’s a privilege and just plain lucky that our family is close and has isn’t majorly dysfunctional. I understand that not everyone is so lucky to have family they depend on and they want/trust being around their children. And having grandparents that are still living and that want to watch the kids is a privilege, too. Maybe with remote work becoming more common families will be able to stay near each other. As for me, I’m married but no kids. I can’t imagine having kids period, let alone by myself. The the letter writer, it sounds like you’re near family. Could you work with them to establish a childcare schedule? Would they be willing to work with you and, most importantly, do they want to provide childcare? It’s a different deal when you have family around but have no interest in childcare.

  4. Amy D. Kovach
    Amy D. Kovach says:

    I am mother of 2, and grandmother (of 1 8yo) so I have a little history with this stuff. I think a lot of how to cope depends on the age of your children. Penny – rather than staying up late, maybe try getting up EARLY – teenagers don’t do that, right? That quiet early morning hour or two could change everything for you. Worth trying anyway.

    To the letter writer – if your children are tiny, there’s no great hack other than nap time. But if they are 5 and up, you can use the TV as a babysitter to a limited degree. (Spare me any sanctimony – we are talking survival here!) You can select educational shows (or not) and they can relax and watch and eat a bowl of dry Cheerios (which they can get themselves) or some other snack and you can go be somewhere else. You can set out a puzzle and put on a podcast (Story Pirates or whatever) and they can chill and you can be elsewhere. They need to be trained to do this. Maybe a small reward if they don’t interrupt you until a timer goes off. Even 20 min of quiet can help you regroup and get through the day. Can they do playdates with friends? Can you find another single mom and swap – kids have a sleepover at your house one week, hers the next. I know it is hard. I KNOW it is hard. I was divorced with young teens and did those years (till college) on my own. But I will tell you what I’ve often heard and now know is true – the days drag but the years fly. Probably doesn’t help now though. I’m sorry.

  5. Ruo
    Ruo says:

    Do you live in Canada? Do you have kids diagnosed to be on the spectrum? (Chances are you read penelopes blog, there’s a likelihood)

    If yes to both, you can apply for government funding to hire respite workers or family members to come to your house to give you a break. They are not income based funding. There are lots of single parents in the autism community. They may get least get you more than family.

  6. Minami
    Minami says:

    Damn it. This post made me realize that when I get married, I will probably have to move away from where I am now in order to be close to the other person’s family. I don’t have any family around where I live. Even though I really love this area. My closest family is in Florida so maybe I’ll move there. Blah.

  7. jessica
    jessica says:

    We’re all tired raising kids lol.

    I, too, get my recharging time at night. I always plan to give up coffee. When my toddler (surprise baby!), who still sleeps with me, starts yapping away by 7-8am I turn the pot on and say ‘to hell with it.’ We all use different vices and coping mechanisms. Sometimes I have a little too much wine, sometimes I consider moving near my in-laws because I’m exhausted, and she *really* wants to watch my kids.

    On the worst of the worst or difficult days, I’m in the habit of reminding myself we won’t ever get these moments back. I might be spent, exhausted, upset, or pissed off at someone, but that thought runs through my brain and I reset. It’s my survival technique.
    Someone said a quote recently that a little bit of delusion is healthy in life, I have to say I agree :)

  8. Johno
    Johno says:

    It’s much different for me since I only have my kids 4/14 days. But it used to be much harder and has gotten much less hard.

    my 3 kids are incredibly intense, all extroverted, one of them autistic. My divorced dad apartment is far too small for three kids who fight constantly. I gave the twins separate rooms and me and the younger brother turned the living room into a room. I sleep on the couch.

    When I was married to their mother in a big house with plenty of space and plenty of money, and only one of us working (me) it was much, much more difficult, because we had contradictory parenting approaches and could never get on the same page, and because she wanted to stay up late after they went to sleep staring at her phone (if this is what is being called recharging then I would suggest a different method of recharging).

    I found that staying up late caused me to resent the kids in the morning, especially my autistic son who has always slept just about 6 hours a night and doesn’t nap.

    Now that we are divorced it’s just much easier because I know it’s me 100% when I have them and she knows it’s her 100% when she has them. She does what she needs to make that work: hires babysitters and spends tons on childcare even tho she still doesn’t work, and sends me the bill. I do what I need to do to make it work when I have them: I go to bed RIGHT after I put them down and get up before them, and I don’t do anything on those four days except hang out with my kids, plan meals and activities, and try to connect meaningfully with each of them if only for a few minutes.

    I also always try to rememebr the principle of reversion to the mean: days that are going “well” tend to get worse and days that are going “poorly” tend to get better. That’s simply statistical reality and I notice it with my kids all the time. Kids are at each other’s throats by ten am? Good news, the rest of the day will likely be easier. Kids are having a wonderful morning? Great; don’t get all bent out of shape when afternoon takes a turn for the worse. It’s just how it goes.

    Anyway, Unless you’re reading (not on a screen) and journaling after the kids go to bed, I suspect that what you’re doing after bed time is not in fact recharging you.

    Try getting more sleep, eating however makes you feel best, and then drinking caffeine as needed. That’s what has made my intense 4 out of 14 days much better.

  9. Johno
    Johno says:

    Also You mention an ex’s family. Is the ex in jail or dead? if not, why don’t they have some time with the kids?

    My ex also burns through babysitters because she is too difficult a person to work for. If things are always falling apart on you, it may be that you’re too difficult a person to work for.

    If you really can’t build a community, this means you are doing something wrong. You can have a community in about 3 months by joining a church and contributing some energy to others. Are you not willing to be a member of a group because of some ideological purity? You’re not a theist, or a Christian, or there are too many Trump supporters at church? Because you are embarrassed by how loud your kids are in church? Okay, these are the reasons you don’t have a community. For me, parenting challenging kids has gotten me over all my ideological purity.

    I have community even tho I live states away from the nearest family and have zero contact with my ex’s family and have had zero babysitters for the last 3 years since I started single parenting. I haven’t had to join a church but I sure would if I needed to.

  10. Mysticaltyger
    Mysticaltyger says:

    Thank you for your honest answers about single parenting, Penelope. Some single parent situations are unavoidable, but as you say, people and their kids are often better off sticking it out. Most single parents won’t admit maybe they and their kids would be better off if they’d stayed married. Maybe others will listen.

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