Balancing Work and Life as a Single Mum

 Karen shares her worries, limitations and top tips on how she makes single-motherhood and her work-life work.

I was at a works event recently and found myself chatting to a colleague who had just completed a course that I had been considering. We were talking about life and work and how we manage things (me-my role and the challenge of having two small people who need me / her, the full time job and course). I really wanted to do this course but decided that the time commitment was unrealistic for me.

As a single, full-time working parent with two children under the age of twelve living hundreds of miles from my family, I face a daily internal monologue about "just getting through the day". I am extremely organised by nature, so it comes naturally to me to budget time effectively but sometimes being human scuppers all my best laid plans.

My colleague is a young woman who is a couple of years into her career - she is bright, intelligent, has oodles of potential and is a really lovely person to boot. She was saying how well she thought I would do on the course and that when the children were less in need of my time that I should sign up as I would be perfect for it. 

Without invitation tears appeared... I could feel them welling up - a combination of rage, frustration and sadness. I want to do these courses that will help me develop my career further - I want to be that person who can work the extra mile at her desk - I want to be the person who aces her role and has the confidence to lead a meeting. And, I am that person... but not all of the time. Because, more than wanting all of that, I want to make sure my children have what they need from me. 

Shocked by the uncharacteristic tears, my colleague kindly expressed that she thought it would be a great goal to focus on in the future and I agreed. I explained to her that I feel I manage everything, but excel at nothing - hence the upset.

How I Got Here

I work for a fabulous organisation who are incredibly supportive. On joining the company, I was married, had an au pair and lived in a much more convenient location. Fast forward six years, I am divorced and I had to move house - I now live in a less convenient location without the full-time support of the au pair. OK so these are "first world problems" and I am not the only parent in the world who faces these issues. In fact, I consider that I am extremely fortunate and happy, BUT I suffer from extreme bouts of anxiety about the 'managing everything but excelling at nothing' concept. I have moments when I doubt myself. So, I fall back on all the systems that I have in place to help me manage the day to day and take comfort that, whilst I fall apart a little, I have created a safety net of "process" to ensure that the wheels do not fall off.

The support systems I use to help manage my life range from a "rent-a-granny" who comes to help with the children on a regular basis to various spreadsheets. I have developed strong relationships with my children's school (especially the receptionist) and I email them once a week to confirm who is doing what, when and what the collection arrangements are. This is as much for me as it is the school, the children, my ex and the "rent-a-granny". I keep a diary on an excel spreadsheet that I send to those who need it (my ex - who, every year, is surprised by Christmas). I book travel to see my family months in advance to ensure that I make the most of the time that I do have - plus it is less expensive this way. I set diary reminders about regular dental appointments, doctor appointments and so on. I buy my vegetables prepared and frozen because I want to cook - better still I am teaching my children to cook. In fact, I am teaching the children to do laundry and iron as well because I figure that in the long run they can help me and more importantly they will be able to help themselves.

For me these processes (and others) that I have in place, are vital. I can be impulsive and spontaneous when I have time and energy to do so but because we are all so time poor it is less than I would like.

My energy levels are generally low - winter has that effect on me - but because I know that, I work around it. I save time to recharge. I carve time to facilitate one or two sessions at the gym each week I am candid about my fragility and honest about my strength. My view is that everything is relative - coping is like a muscle - the more you experience and manage, the more you develop your skills set to do so.

I will do that course one day, but when I know that I can give the time to do it well. I do not want another thing to manage but not excel at.

My 'go-to' strategy for coping as a single full-time working parent:

  • Keep a schedule - be militant about it and share it with those who need to know
  • Encourage your children to take responsibility for their things and make sure that they get their bags ready on their own the night before - take time to teach them life skills so that you are a team
  • Expect your children to work with you as a team - make it clear what you need and expect them to do to help themselves
  • Label everything - clothes, pens, phone chargers
  • Develop networks - buddy up with another single parent - make the school receptionist your friend, find your "rent-a-granny"
  • Plan ahead as much as you are able to - book holiday, factor in that carol service, make it a priority
  • Be honest about your boundaries - both to others and yourself
  • Make sure to have a sit down meal every day with your children - not only you will have a meal rather than eating peanut butter from the jar with a spoon but you will also create an opportunity to talk to one another
  • Be candid about your home life with your employer - let them know if you are struggling but take a solution to the table, rather than a problem. If you find that the school run makes you late, identify that - could you log on from home first thing or is there another way to make up the time - gone are the days when we need to be present to be productive
  • Employ a cleaner.