This month I've definitely realized that intellectualizing something is different from actually living it. I've been a single dad for the last 24 days. My wife has been in South Africa attending a family wedding and visiting friends while I've been alone with our two boys, ages three and five. It's been an experience, to the say the least. I decided to take half-time vacation and worked 10am - 2pm while the boys were in school.
Other than my obligatory 4 hours of deleting email work it was all home-making and kids for me. Who knew that single parenting is so hard? There were the first few days of "this is new," followed by "when is Mommy coming back," and the inevitable "so this is what life is like without Mommy." Definitely an emotional roller coaster for everyone.
Then there seemed to be a series of phases I went through, not unlike the phases of grief.
Shock - This phase includes disbelief and numbness. What am I gonna do? Gotta make sure the boys get to school each day. I have to sleep well, don't want to burn out too early.
- Denial - After a few 3am surprise wake-up calls and obligatory potty emergencies, one tends to find themselves overwhelmed.
- Bargaining - Just sleep through this one night and...
- Guilt - Oh, I'm a horrible parent, the boys were late for school today.
- Anger - This is so frustrating. Just do what I say and everything will go fine.
- Depression - This totally sucks, how does anyone do this without help?
- Acceptance - OK, I've got this. Maybe not the laundry, but lunches and playtime, I've got that down solid.
Death by a Thousand Tiny Cuts
Sometimes in a marriage (with kids) one tends to assume that their job to see the hardest. The thing is though, each role fulfilled by each spouse is different. The thing I learned about single parenting is that it's truly incessant. By that I mean specifically "it never ceases." Taken individually the tasks involved aren't difficult: make lunch, do laundry, buy food, but the problem is - it never stops. Just because I made meals and cleaned up all day yesterday doesn’t mean I don’t get to do it again today. And tomorrow. And the day after that...There's no credit to be brought forward for doing well yesterday: the clock resets, and it starts all over.
It seems that single parenting is the ultimate project management job. Every day included not the dozens of daily details that keep a house running but another dozen irregular details that were challenging to keep track of. I keep a lot of lists and notes and to-dos in my day job, but I had 4x the lists and notes and to-dos in this new single-parent job.
Playing to my strengths One of the most significant things I learned about myself is to play to my strengths. While I may not be very good at remembering whose hair is combed or to wipe noses, I'm pretty good at teaching. I worked with the 5-year old who has been a little stalled at sounding words out. Turns out he's just bored with the material. Seems that "See Spot Run" isn't as interesting as "Batman." I found some age-appropriate comics (no guns, easier stories) and rather than trying to get him to read the dialog of the comics we focused entirely on the onomatopoeia action words. After doing this for a week I discovered that using comic books to teach onomatopoeia is a real thing that's done in schools. Cool!
The Good and the Bad A good friend of my got divorced a few months ago. He made a large purchase and mentioned said to me,
"You know what the best part was? Not having to ask permission before making the purchase. And the worst part? The same."
That's a powerful and profound statement right there. It really stuck with me and totally applied in my month alone. On the one hand, it was really enabling and empowering to be able to change the system. We ate what we wanted (it was still good food, just what I wanted) and did what we wanted (zoo, museums, etc.) It wasn't that we didn't do these things when my wife is here but the point is, there's just one less adult voting. It felt like things went more smoothly, probably because any debates happened in my own head. It was nice to just decide things.
On the down side, there's no one around to brainstorm with. And there's no break at 3am. Or 4am. Or 5:30am. I don't know how single parents get a break, especially if they don't have family to lean on.
If it works, keep it. If it doesn't, change it
Now that the wife is back, we're going to look at some of the systems that I came up with and combine them with the existing ones that she had going. The goal is for neither of us to burn out doing our jobs. I think each person in a partnership tends to get hyper-focused on the task in front of them and forget the stresses on the other partner. Both of us have jobs that "never stop." We can't turn off and focus on something else just because it’s after 5pm. I really enjoyed my time with the boys as a single parent, and hope I never have to do it again any time soon!
The Customers (Kids) Don't Care
Another fascinating part to this was the complete ambivalence and amazing resilience of the children. While they were sad after Mommy was gone, a few days later "the new normal" become clear and they were back to business. I was a wreck, of course, but the kids didn't miss a beat. Their inherent wonderful "childish selfishness" remains intact, as it should. "What? Mom's gone? Ok, so are you the one making sandwiches now? Service! There's only one waiter in this lousy restaurant?"
I appreciated that my wife didn't just fly in, raise the landing gear and immediately take over the whole ecosystem. The boys and I had a good thing going and found a kind of equilibrium. A snotty nosed, wrinkled clothed, uncombed equilibrium, but equilibrium nonetheless. (Dad's skills lie elsewhere. Their pants were on straight 85% of the time, so I take full credit for that success!) My wife recognized that she was returning to a new house with new rules and we have spent the last few days talking about what worked, what didn't and what things we discovered while she was gone that we might want to keep.
Walk a Mile
It's certainly hard to be judgmental of any single parent when you've been one. We've all seen a single mom or dad walking around and wondered "where's the other partner?" Well, who knows, maybe in Africa, but you can bet that the one left is working hard.
I was explaining how college degrees work to the kids as we drove my a university this morning.
Me: "...Well, Mommy has a Master's Degree, she's very smart."
3: "Where is it?"
3: "The master."
Me: "It's on the wall in the office."
3: "Why don't you have one of those smartie things that mommy has?"
This made me remember that my wife has taken time off from one career to make the kids her career for a few years. I definitely understand my wife's job better after this month.
Behind every great man is a woman who is not impressed. - Me on twitter
Now I just need to figure out how to get her to do my job for a month so she'll appreciate how hard it is to tweet and restart Outlook! ;)