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The Single Parent's Guide to Taking Care of Yourself

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I've made a pitch to Beyonce for her next single: "All the Single Parents".

"All the single parents... all the single parents... now put your hands up."

There'd be a lotta hands. And they'd probably be tired.

Today is Single Parents' Day.

There are approximately 13.6 million single parents raising children in the U.S. today, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The purpose of Single Parents' Day, according to the organization Parents Without Partners, is to honor and applaud single parents who are doing double duty and give them the respect they deserve.

Almost one out of every three children is raised by a single parent: 26% of children live with one parent, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. This is an huge increase from just fifty years ago, when in 1960 only 9% of children were raised by one parent.

These days, single parenthood is frequently an outcome of divorce, but it can also be a result of widowhood, choice, or an absentee parent. Regardless of how some arrived at single parenthood, it's important to remember that it often isn't by choice, and the reality (no matter the cause) is that the person shoulders double the burden in raising a child.

In celebration of Single Parents' Day, I decided to offer advice on what I find critical to the role of being a single primary caregiver, something it took me a while to learn myself: How to take care of yourself. Because a single parent doesn't have a partner, there is usually no other person highly involved in your daily life looking out for your health and well-being. Guess who has to be that person? That's right, you.

For me, single parenthood is not something I ever envisioned or desired for myself, to put it mildly. But in the interest of self-respect and self-preservation, circumstances in my marriage made it impossible for me to stay in it. So, I have raised my son on my own since he was about 4 months old.

I learned the hard way that if I took on too much (easy to do as a single parent), I would burn out. I learned the hard way that no one was going to look out for me but me. My son was too young to tell me to take it easy. My friends and family weren't in my daily life enough to tell me to put down the laundry basket or put away the computer and take a nap.

But I am convinced now more than ever that taking care of yourself is a critical thing to learn as a single parent -- as important as taking care of your child. Because we're the ones steering the ship. Without us, it all falls apart. It's like the airplane oxygen mask analogy -- you must put on your own before you can help someone else with his or hers.

Think of it this way: You have a choice between two caregivers to hire to watch your child. One appears stressed, irritable, doesn't look healthy, and seems unhappy with life. The other appears well rested, healthy, calm and fulfilled. Which would you hire?

That caregiver is you. Both you and your child will benefit from a parent who looks more like the latter picture. Once I started learning to take care of myself, my life did a 180 and I turned from something like the former picture to the latter.

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This post is dedicated not only to the single parents out there, but also to the moms and caregivers who need to take better care of themselves (I suspect there are a few!).

1. Know Your Limit
You are human. That means you have limits. You are not limitless in your capacity, although some days it can feel like life needs you to be that way. Identify your limit or warning sign that indicates you need to stop, get help, or change something. Mine was when I was miserable and in tears sobbing at the end of a day, barely able to look at my son because I was so tired and frustrated. Yours might be constantly blowing up and yelling, or feeling depressed and apathetic, or not having time to see your friends or have fun. Just get familiar with the concept of a "limit" and be aware of when you have reached it.

2. Get Help
We need to get better about asking for help. Ask for help whenever you can. Ask friends, family, church and community members. Heck, ask a stranger to help you hold a bag as you're struggling with your child and the stroller. If you wait around for someone to offer to help, you may be waiting a long time (and get angry in the process). Identify the things you need most help with (laundry, watching your child, driving to appointments) and ask for specific and concrete assistance. If you can afford it, hire help. You are a better and wiser, not lesser, mother for getting help. And you may not always get it when you ask, or it may not come exactly the way you wanted, but it will get easier and better with time. That's right, help-getting is an art, one that every single parent needs to practice.

3. Forget What Everyone Else is Doing
This is really important. This piece of advice saved me. One of the reasons I almost had a breakdown during the early years of raising my son is because I was worried what other people would think if I had all this hired help. I also compared myself to my friends who were moms. I seemed to forget that none of them were single moms. I also forgot that none of them had children with major medical and developmental needs. And that I had no break since my son's father did not see him regularly. And that I had no family nearby. Insanity of all insanities, I even worried what my friends without kids would think of me. It wasn't until I had too many breakdowns like in #1 that I realized it was self-preservation time. I stopped caring what others thought. I got some help every single day of the week. It saved me. My life went from misery to feeling manageable and then even joyful (at first I had to get over the guilt of leaving my son so I would linger around the house even when someone was there -- until the sitter finally told me to get out of the house!).

The thing is, even if there was another single mom with a similar situation, it wouldn't be exactly mine, because no situation is exactly alike, and we'd be different people. Our needs and buttons and switches would be different. She might not need help every day (I really need my space to have energy) but maybe would have wanted every meal cooked for her, or a getaway once a month. The bottom line is that you have a responsibility to you and your child to carve out a situation that works best for your family -- and that starts with closing your ears to outside voices, and listening to your own.

4. Don't Neglect Your Health
My son has special needs, so it's easy to put his health needs first. There are countless doctors' appointments, medical procedures, supplements. My health and my routine visits can seem less important or secondary. But they're really primary, because if something happened to me, and I wasn't able to care for him, he would be in a tough situation. Your eating well, sleeping, exercising, and being emotionally healthy are some of the best investments you can make in your child's future. Value your own health and well-being as much as you do your child's.

5. Be as Proactive About Your Joy as You are About Your Child's
Your child loves ice cream, or balloons, or Elmo. How much time goes by before you give her something that delights her? How much time goes by before you treat yourself to something that delights you? Sure, we're not children, we have responsibilities, and we don't need to be attending a 24-7 birthday party. But if you are not proactive about your own joy, only looking out for your child's, one day you will look up and it will be hard to find again. You may have forgotten how to be happy. Do one thing each day that gives you joy -- and tell your kids why you do it, and why it makes you happy. Children pick up on their caregiver's emotions more than we realize -- and your happiness will do double duty for your child.

6. Hold on to Your Dreams
Finally, I wanted to say this: You matter. Your children may be the center of your universe, but it doesn't mean that you have to disappear to give them everything they need. In fact, I would argue that your having an identity is a gift that they need. As a single parent, you are modeling to your child how to be an individual in this world. While you may make sacrifices for your child, it's important to still hold on to the things that delight you, inspire you, and make you who you are. Make time for hobbies. Spend money on yourself, not just your kids. And don't give up on the big dreams, either, of a career that was stalled to raise your kids, or a vacation or lifestyle you've always wanted. You can raise your child and pursue your dreams at the same time. Those dreams make us who we are... and I venture to say, you may one day have them.