Creative Strategies from Single Parents on Juggling Work and Family

The daily challenge of feeding, caring for, and educating children is tough. Add the stress of earning enough money to sustain the family’s well-being and feeling fulfilled in your own career, and it becomes daunting. And solutions that work for each unique family can be hard to come by.

For solo parents — those who are single, divorced, widowed, or have partners away from home due to deployment, incarceration, disability, or work — the challenge is that much harder. Whether it’s staying up late with a feverish child, needing to stay longer at work, coping with a sudden emergency, enforcing house rules, or tackling the myriad of mundane decisions throughout the day, a solo parent does it alone. But knowing it’s all up to you can also be a profound, and often empowering, responsibility.

It’s said that necessity is the mother of invention. After my divorce, I became more self-reliant, creative, and flexible in my parenting because I had to step up and make it work. As the founder of ESME.com (Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere), I’ve learned that this ingenuity isn’t unusual — that solo parents often develop unique, problem-solving skills in response to their unique situations.

Here are just a few that I’ve observed through my own experience and in talking to a variety of single parents that all working parents can learn from as they navigate work and family.

Capitalizing on Stolen Moments

Time is a solo parents’ enemy — there aren’t enough hours in a day. Because of this, solo parents must identify where they can save time and prioritize what’s most important. They know they are not able to do it all and that something has to give, whether it’s a messy house, an extra hour of screen time for the kids, a shortened dog walk, or take-out for dinner (none of which impact their family’s well-being). Aware that time is a precious commodity, solo parents take advantage of small moments to connect with their children, fulfill their work responsibilities, and make the most out of their time by squeezing work and personal tasks into commutes, sports practices, waiting rooms, and odd hours. Solo mom and writer Joni Cole notes, “You can achieve good work in half-hour increments, and they add up.”

Figuring out ways to remain productive without busy work and long hours, solo parents challenge long-held assumptions about workplace efficiency and dedication. Moms who have to squeeze in a school pickup or dads who need to work from home when a child is sick are equally dedicated as workers with partners — perhaps even more so. Parenting alone inspires a healthy reframing of one’s relationship to work which is both liberating, rewarding, and instructive to those of us who need a reminder of what’s important.

Setting Up Unique Housing Arrangements

A solo mom in Los Angeles posted recently to our single moms’ group: “I am a single mom of two teenage daughters, and one is going off to college. I am interested in finding another single mom that would be interested in renting together… Maybe we have opposite parenting schedules?”

The traditional nuclear family arrangement doesn’t always support solo parent families well — financially or logistically. To lower housing costs and get help with childcare, many solo parents share homes and rentals or move in with extended family. Atlanta mom Kaleena Weaver explains, “I bought a house with a basement unit so my mom could move in. I cover all the bills, and she helps with the kiddo and household work.” Janelle Hardy single mom from Canada, opted to rent a large house so she could take in a roommate or two who enjoy being part of a family environment. Hardy also took part in exchange student programs to offset costs and have an extra set of hands while raising her children. Another mother, Lisa Benson, uses part of her home to rent out as an Airbnb for extra income.

While parents can often set up extended family or friendship households organically, a national organization called Coabode can help. Their mission is to “connect single mothers whose interest and parenting philosophy are compatible, with the purpose of sharing a home and raising children together.” In addition to the clear psychological and financial benefits, sharing a home with another family helps solo parents solve many of the logistical issues that come with raising children on their own, such as how to cover days off from school.

Arranging Atypical Work Schedules

After his wife passed away, Conrod Robinson changed jobs to be closer to home:

I cut my commute time by more than half so I could make after school events, cook dinner at home, etc. This allowed me to leave for work at around the same time my son left for school in the morning. I took a sizable cut in compensation to do that, but I’m glad I made the decision to spend more time at home.

Although not all solo parents have to sacrifice higher pay and upward mobility to be more available to their children, they may opt for night shifts, flex time, and part-time work. Increasingly, organizations understand that flexibility results in a more dedicated workforce, and thus today’s solo parents, more than ever, are able to create schedules around their family’s needs.

Sometimes such choices can mean creating new career paths. “I quit my job as a social worker to offer childcare in my home, so I could stay home with my children and pay my bills,” says solo mom Heidi Kronenberg. “I loved being home with my son and daughter, and they enjoyed having other children around.” Once both children were in elementary school, Kronenberg returned to social work and then ultimately started her own business focused on behavioral health and counseling.  “My experience with in-home childcare provided skills that translated well to starting a business,” explains Kronenberg.

Working from home (a requirement for most of us during the Covid-19 pandemic) is another strategy that solo parents employ to ease the daily juggle — whether that’s a few times a week or a fully remote position. Shantell Witter, a “mompreneur” in Atlanta, made the decision to homeschool so that she could sustain her multiple businesses, including Only with Love Books, a BIPOC-focused bookstore for families, and two education-oriented businesses. By merging her business interests with her desire to homeschool, Witter achieves a fulfilling balance.

Building Pragmatic Support Networks

Solo parent creativity extends beyond time management and unique work arrangements. I’ve been amazed at some of the clever ways that solo parents alleviate some of the work/family grind by building support networks — some of which include their own children. Former solo mom Cheryl Dumesnil recalls,

When my kids were tweens, if I had to work uninterrupted in my home, I would tell them I would pay them each $5 to babysit the other. The catch was each kid got to tell me if his babysitter sibling deserved to be paid. Cheapest childcare ever! I’d get three to four hours of work done for $10. 

I myself used to have the kids “play chef” one night a week, where they made dinner. They thought it was fun, and I had time to get some extra work done. What’s more, evidence suggests that children of solo parents are more resilient and self-sufficient because they are expected to participate in household tasks rather than just do chores.

In-person and virtual networking are also critical for solo parents. The most impactful networks are a blend of close connections and people you don’t know that well: Friends and family offer meaningful bonds, while acquaintances give you access to information you might not get from your inner circle. A close-knit group of parents might know all the same babysitters and after-school programs, while those outside your circle may know about resources you wouldn’t otherwise hear about, such as a new or little-known program in a neighboring town. The same is true for Facebook and other online support groups. The more varied the network, the more diverse information you have access to.

Your community and network can also alleviate some of the stress of daily meals and errands. A once-a-week potluck not only takes the burden off dinner that night, but also allows for connection and support. Food exchanges with friends solves the interminable question, “What’s for dinner?” Teaming up with another parent while shopping, running errands, or just spending time at the playground is another effective strategy. Solo mom Chaya Beyla suggests, “Asking a friend to ride around with you while you run errands provides socialization and someone to wait in the car with your sleeping toddler while you rush into the store, bank, or post office.” You can also set up clothing swaps, childcare, and carpooling in your network.

Despite all the obstacles, working parents without partners at home have figured out how to make the most out of their time, home and work life, and networks. Through unique and creative problem solving, they’ve found new ways to press forward and be the best parents they can be under challenging circumstances.

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