Being the “perfect” single mom and other parenting myths

As the Choice Mom of a 6-year-old boy, noted author and counselor Lori Gottlieb understands that our drive to succeed — a trait of many Choice Moms — can also lead to personal meltdowns when we think we are failing our beloved children. She offered this insight about parenting myths:

Recently a single mom came to my office for parenting consulting. She wanted her daughter to be happy, but worried that — compared to the efforts she observed other moms putting into the task of parenting — maybe she wasn’t measuring up. She didn’t always have the energy after a long day to talk through her 5-year-old’s feelings when she chafed at being told “no.” When an incident happened at school, she didn’t have time to sit down with the teacher to intervene. She knew moms who wouldn’t leave their kids with babysitters if the child objected.

Sometimes, this single mom simply wanted her daughter to brush her teeth when she was asked the first time. She wanted to go to a weekly book club — her self-care version of “date night” — without feeling guilty when her daughter made that heartbreaking “don’t go” face. She wanted to be as good a mom as the married moms around her — but how could she be, given the logistical realities of solo parenting?

I reminded her of this: Let go of the comparisons and guilt, because, in fact, her child was being raised in a healthier way than those of the “uber-moms” she wanted to emulate.

I wrote an article in Summer 2011 for the Atlantic called, “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy: Why the Obsession With Our Kids’ Happiness May be Dooming Them Unhappy Adulthoods.” It was about how hard we try to make our kids happy when, ironically, trying that hard might be preventing our kids from becoming well-adjusted grownups.

As single parents, one advantage we give to our kids is that we simply don’t have time to helicopter over our kids 24/7. We parent — we don’t over-parent. As a result, our kids are learning important life skills and gaining a sense of confidence that will stay with them forever. If we can resist the temptation to overcompensate in a culture that goes overboard, here are a few of the many gifts we’re giving our kids:

The gift of patience. With one busy adult in the household — working, unloading groceries, folding the laundry — our kids learn to wait. When my son wants me to get a puzzle down from a high shelf, and I tell him I’ll be there in five minutes, he has the opportunity to strengthen his patience muscle in a way that a child whose needs are met instantly does not. He becomes aware that other people’s needs also warrant consideration. He learns to take turns, he can resist interrupting until a friend is finished talking, he can delay gratification until he’s gotten a task completed, he can tolerate frustration by coming up with an alternative solution. Ultimately, he’ll learn how to “play well with others,” to cooperate and compromise, which will serve him well as an adult.

The gift of space. Studies show that kids need free, unstructured play in order for their minds to develop to their full potential. While single moms certainly spend quality time with their kids, they also take showers or make phone calls or pay the bills without another adult around to entertain their kids. This gives their kids that healthy space in which to explore and pretend and use their imaginations without adult interference. How does this Lego fit into this one? If I put this outfit on my Polly Pocket, will that top go with that skirt? What if I pretend I’m a ninja and I get blasted into another world and ….

The gift of resilience. I can’t tell you how many well-meaning, loving parents come to me wanting advice about how to handle it when something doesn’t go their child’s way, often in the social scene at school. I’m not talking about bullying, which is a serious situation requiring adult intervention. I’m talking about the usual disappointments that come with life. Gaby “didn’t let” Lila sit next to her at lunch. Eric said he was better at basketball than Sam and didn’t pick him to be on the team. The teacher “wasn’t fair.” Some “popular” girls at school wear ridiculously expensive jeans and the parents don’t want their daughter to feel left out.

While we all want our kids to have positive social experiences, it’s inevitable that every kid on the planet will one day feel disappointed. The goal is to help kids deal with their disappointment — not to take it away. You don’t want your kid’s first experience with disappointment to be when she’s away at college and hasn’t a clue how to handle it.

As single parents, often we aren’t the ones with the free time to call the school if our kid doesn’t get into the play. We’re more likely to empathize, give hugs, ask what they want to do about it, and listen — all of which helps kids become less fragile and more self-confident. And, they see us single moms solve problems all the time when things don’t go our way. Sometimes we come up with a creative way to handle the obstacle — like becoming a Choice Mom even if we would have preferred a partner — and sometimes we reach out for help or a compassionate ear.

So, the next time you start to envy the seemingly perfect mom — who is, of course, perfectly “put together” while you have your hair up in a Squeegie — on your block or at your kid’s school, remember the gifts your child is already getting.

If you’d like to learn more about Lori’s counseling services, visit her website here.

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