What impresses me about so many parents I’ve worked with is their resolute decision to deal with it. Talk about it with me, with their peers, even with their ex-spouses. This takes so much courage to actually admit, but loses so much power when given permission to see the light of day and just breathe. Guilt is only destructive when kept under lock and key, but when exposed it can be seen as simply faulty, perfectionist thinking. It can even help us change certain behaviors that are eroding our self-respect.

Put on your own oxygen mask first.

While it goes against our natural instincts to take care of ourselves before we take care of our kids, the airlines have got it exactly right: if we’re out of breath, we can’t help anybody. And so many of us parents, particularly single parents, feel like we’re out of breath. So many parents feel so overwhelmed that they’re ready to pull their hair out, throw their hands up, you name it. But there’s no wonder why: We’re orbiting our whole lives around our kids and still wondering why it feels we’re just running in circles.

We as parents have been sold a lie, that once we have kids our life is now over—now it’s all about the kids. Look at our minivans. We’ve got stickers emblazoned all over with our kids’ names on them, shouting out to the world who really owns the van, and our lives. What I’ve learned from so many single parents, though, is that in order to truly be available and responsible to their kids, they have to take self-care very seriously. Single parents have been forced by life to realize that no one is going to take care of them physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually any better than they are taking care of themselves. And while that sometimes feels selfish (getting a babysitter while going out with friends or going to the gym or talking with a counselor), it’s usually the most selfless thing they can do.

This is because the more we take care of ourselves, the less we need our kids to be perfect. The more I take care of myself, the less I need my kids to respect or obey or appreciate me in order for me to still be the parent I want to be. Strong single parents I’ve had the honor of watching have taught me that taking care of myself, putting on my own oxygen mask first, is the best thing I can do for my kids.

And lately, I’ve needed these lessons. Last summer was among the most challenging seasons of my life, one that led to an even greater appreciation for single parents. In early June we learned that my wife, Jenny, had cancer. As she has begun her battle through chemo, I had plenty of occasions to consider "what if." And plenty of occasions to practice doing this parenting thing on my own.

Thankfully, my wife was victorious in this battle. But even more importantly, I know from watching so many single parent heroes that I have plenty of great examples to learn from today.

We all do.

Hal E. Runkel, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of the National Bestseller ScreamFree Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool, from Waterbrook Press. Visit http://www.screamfree.com/ for more information.

**This excerpt first published on March 20, 2008.