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What I'm Learning from Single Parents

  • Hal Runkel, LMFT ScreamFree Parenting
  • Updated Mar 18, 2009
What I'm Learning from Single Parents
I cannot really imagine being a single parent. Yes, I’ve counseled with hundreds of them, spoken to hundreds more. And yes, I’ve experienced countless moments of “doing it on my own” with my two kids when my wife was out, or out of town. And yes, unfortunately, I was raised by two single parents after my parents divorced when I was eleven.

But even with those experiences, I do not really know what it’s like to be a single parent. I am nowhere near being able to accurately empathize with those moms and dads struggling to do it on their own night after night. Whether by death or divorce, or whether you’re the custodial or visitational parent, being a single parent carries with it a unique experiential perspective that cannot be fully understood unless you are one.

But rather than extend those of you single parents a little sympathy, I would rather thank you for what I’m learning from you.

I think we all can. And here’s what I’m learning so far.

Every parent is a single parent.

One of the things that plagues married parents is the continual negotiation of “who does what” with the kids. I believe a large part of this can be avoided by one simple step—operate as if you’re the only parent around. I know this goes against so much common wisdom about “teamwork” and “united fronts”, but operating this way really has revolutionized my relationships with my children. Here’s why.

One of the concepts I work with comes from Jamie Rasor’s book, Raising Children You Can Live With. He talks about the two sides of parenting: the “personal” side (play, affection, nurturing conversation, etc.), and the “business” side (scheduling, discipline, tough conversations about family rules, etc). These two sides get worked out in some fashion in every family, but the stereotypical way is that one parent is “the nurturer” and the other is “the disciplinarian.” This used to mean “Wait until your father comes home!”, leaving Dad no room to enjoy his kids. Now this balance has shifted, with Dad the stereotypical buddy and Mom having to do all the dirty work.

But single parents, because they don’t have the luxury of balancing the two sides with another person, actually get this right. The key is to find the balance within every parent. In order for me to be the best dad possible, I choose not to depend on my wife to do the dirty work or the nurturing work—I choose to do both as I see fit with each of my kids. And I encourage my clients to do the same. Choose to befriend your kids, play with your kids, learning to truly delight in them as individuals. But also choose to respect them (and yourself) enough to set consequences for their choices and follow through with ridiculous, yet calm, consistency.

This doesn’t mean crowd my wife out of her relationship with our kids, but it does mean that I have a relationship with each of my children that is not dependent on her. That’s one thing single parents are teaching me.

Guilt is a four-letter word.

One of the hallmark principles I work with in my life and my therapy is that “What Doesn’t Get Addressed Will Get Acted Out (and Vice-Versa).” Most of us know this instinctively to be true. Whenever we do not address a concern we have with another person, we end up treating them differently (passive-aggression, avoidance, pettiness).

Whenever we are struggling with certain emotions associated with our children, we ignite an internal battle. We begin to resent them, for instance, when they don’t obey, or respect us, or appreciate all our efforts. If we don’t address this resentment with a peer or mentor, then it becomes all too easy to lash out toward our kids for just being kids.

One negative emotion single parents struggle with is guilt. Guilt over creating (or choosing) the single parent situation in the first place. Guilt over not having “enough” for their kids (time, money, living space, patience). Guilt over resenting these kids when it just seems like life is too overwhelming and it would be so much easier without them. If not addressed, this guilt can overtake a single parent, or any parent for that matter.

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 for more information.

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