Most working parents struggle with feelings of guilt at some point. That's true for mothers and fathers alike. We all feel guilty when we lose our patience or aren't as loving or patient as we'd like to be with our children. You may feel guilty about leaving your young child in someone else's care while you work, or about not being present for every event in your school-age child's life. You may feel guilty because your child has one parent at home, not two. You may feel inadequate because your children don't have the same financial advantages and opportunities as their friends in two-parent families.
Sometimes, when you're at work you feel that you should be at home with your children, and when you're at home, you may think of all the work you left undone at the office, or the overtime you passed up that would have helped with those overwhelming expenses. You can feel caught in a tug of war, set up for guilt no matter what you do.
Single working parents often overdo it in the guilt department and fail to recognize the difference between unnecessary guilt and valid concerns. To productively handle feelings of guilt, it helps to
• Look closely at what's causing the guilt. Think about the underlying expectations that are at the root of your feelings. Is it sadness that you were raised in a two-parent home and that your child is having a different kind of childhood? Is it related to feelings you have about the other parent, whether he or she is absent or still around? Do you feel guilty about having to spend time cleaning the house when you could be going to the park?
• Ask yourself whether your expectations are realistic or not. When you are feeling guilty, ask yourself what you were expecting of yourself or others that hasn't come to pass. It may take some real probing on your part. Were you expecting your 2-year-old not to cling in a new situation? Were you expecting yourself to come home from work and not snap at your kids? You may need to get some help learning how to cut yourself some slack.
• Decide whether it's necessary to change your views in order to ease the feelings of guilt you are experiencing. If your vision of yourself as a parent included a partner with whom to share the experience of raising children, you may look at your situation as unfair or lacking. Try to accept and appreciate your family the way it is. Avoid focusing on what's "wrong" with your life and enjoy all that is good about it. Remember, children take their cues from their parents. When you are comfortable with your life, chances are, your children will feel comfortable, too.
• Change yourself to live up to those expectations you think are worth keeping, and change the other expectations to be more realistic. For example, you can try different strategies to prevent yourself from snapping at your child when you come home after "one of those days," such as doing something on the way home to improve your mood, telling your child that you have had a bad day and it isn't his fault but you are taking a time-out as soon as you get home so you can get yourself in a better mood. Or you can learn discipline techniques that help you control your children and yourself.
• Remember what is really important. As long as you are providing a sense of security and unconditional love to your children, congratulate yourself on what you've achieved rather than what you haven't been able to do yet.
• Learn to praise yourself daily, both internally and when talking with others. Say, "I am providing for my family, both financially and with plenty of love." That's quite an achievement.
• Remind yourself that single parents raise healthy, well-adjusted children. Numerous studies have disputed the myth that children from single-parent homes are destined for failure. In fact, one groundbreaking study by researchers at Cornell University in 2004 found that being a single parent does not have a negative effect on the behavior or educational performance of children, and that two-parent households lacking positive parental traits may actually be more harmful. No matter what you may have heard or been told in the past, single parents can and do raise healthy, well-adjusted children.
"At first, I blamed myself when my son's father left. I felt guilty that he would not have a dad. Later, it dawned on me that it was better to raise my son alone than with a parent who had little to give. Besides, when you have a child who knows how much you really wanted him, well, what's there to feel guilty about?"
—Carol, single mom of 3-year-old son
• Learn ways to stop negative messages. If you find yourself thinking that you're a bad parent, or that your child is suffering because she's from a single-parent household, start turning these messages around. Your children will reflect your attitudes about your family. Remind yourself that you are the best parent that you can be, and that your child may actually have advantages from being raised in a one-parent household. In a number of studies citing the benefits of being raised by a single parent, children report sharing a special bond with their parent. Kids from single-parent homes often learn a multitude of skills rather than just gender-specific skills, and they often feel that they are important and contributing members of their families. Moreover, they tend to be resilient and possess problem-solving abilities.
• Be aware that your child may try to use guilt to manipulate you. Even young children know how to push their parent's "guilt triggers." For example, a 5-year-old may say, "But we haven't spent any time together today" to try and convince you to read one more story at night. It can be hard to resist pleas like this, but it's important to be sure that guilt isn't interfering with your decision-making as a parent.
• Don't overindulge your children out of guilt. Sometimes parents think that buying things will make up for time lost together. This teaches children to be more dependent upon things than the important people in their lives. Resist the urge to buy things for your child just because you feel guilty about not having the day off to go on the class field trip, or because you have to leave your child with a sitter while you work.
• Talk with other parents about how they handle guilt. Other parents may be able to give you tips for coping with guilt as well as provide a sympathetic ear.
• Find family and friends to substitute when you can't be there. See if a retired neighbor will go in for parents' day at school. Arrange a play date on a weekend when you have a meeting. Other important people in your child's life may be able to fill in when you can't, which can also create wonderful memories for your child.
• Plan ways to make the important things happen, no matter how busy you are. That way you won't feel guilty or cheated later on. Maybe it's being there to read your child a bedtime story. Maybe it's being able to attend your teenager's most important games. Or it could be as simple as just being emotionally available: listening to your child with no distractions or being "present" while doing chores together.
• Don't make promises you can't keep. If you really don't think that you'll make it to the school presentation, it is better for your child to deal with it up front than to be disappointed when he doesn't see you there. Instead, if you are able to leave work early, surprise your child!
• Celebrate the little times. Look for the small snippets of time when you can do something special together rather than being upset with yourself that you can't go somewhere for an entire afternoon.
• Learn about what's normal for your child's age. All children, whether they have one parent or two, display age-appropriate behaviors that can be very challenging for parents. When you start to blame yourself for your toddler's inability to share or your 12-year-old's moodiness, remember that these are signs of normal, healthy development. Read books about what to expect for your child's age, talk with your pediatrician, and talk with other parents. Knowing what's normal can help you handle the most difficult stages, anticipate what is coming, and feel better—and less guilty—as a parent.
• Choose the best child care and after-school care you can afford. The more peace of mind you have about your child's care, the less guilty you will feel about the time you are away from him or her. One indication that your child care arrangement is working for you is that it feels like a new extended family. School-age children may be more comfortable going over to a friend's house after school than staying for the after-school program. To avoid feeling that you are taking advantage of a relative or friend who cares for your child after school, find a way to compensate the person. Remember that there are resources available through work to help you find child care.
• Try to remember that perfect parenting isn't possible. Even though it may seem that other people are perfect parents, it's just not true. All parents—whether they are single or have a partner—make mistakes, and all parents worry about how those mistakes will affect their child. The best we can do as parents is to learn from our mistakes and move on.
• Recognize and accept that there are tradeoffs. Occasional work-family conflicts are inevitable in all families when a parent is working and raising children. You can't have it all. But what you can do is learn to listen to your inner voice and make choices that feel comfortable and right for your family. The best test of that is to ask yourself: "How will I feel about this decision in five years?" If you will regret it, then change what you are doing. If you think it won't matter in the larger scheme of things, then you are probably OK.
• Learn to say no. Do you really have to go out of town, or can someone else cover a meeting? Is it better to be PTA president or to be with your child during that free time? Know your limits, and stick to them.
• Remember that children are resilient. If you make a mistake or let guilt drive a parenting decision, you will have plenty of chances to do things right the next time. Be patient with yourself, and accept that you will make mistakes from time to time, but that your child will be OK.
• Focus on success, not on failure. If you have a bad day, try to put it behind you and move on. Think of your failures as bumps along the road to success, and celebrate your successes. If you have a smooth week without much stress, go out for ice cream with your child or rent a favorite movie. And don't forget to give yourself a pat on the back every now and then.
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