1 Learn to manage stress.
• Learn to recognize and manage symptoms of stress. It's important to be aware of the stressors in your life and to learn to manage them. If left unchecked, stress can weaken your immune system, take a toll on your physical and emotional health, and affect your quality of life. Chronic or ongoing stress is associated with heart disease, depression, high blood pressure, asthma, weight gain or weight loss, illness or infection (including gastrointestinal problems, ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome), sleep disturbances, and memory or concentration problems. Signs of stress include: trouble falling asleep or going back to sleep once awakened; fatigue; depression; feeling nervous, anxious, irritable, or on edge; trouble concentrating; overeating or having no appetite; withdrawing from family or friends; tearfulness or frequent crying; tense muscles; stomach pain or upset stomach; drug or alcohol abuse; and lower productivity at work.
• Make time each day for relaxation or an enjoyable activity. You might try deep breathing or using simple visualization techniques to reduce feelings of stress. You may also want to learn to meditate through a class or how-to video. Make sure that every day you have something to look forward to, be it a walk with a friend, a TV show, reading time—whatever you most enjoy. The program that sent you this publication can give you other ideas about how to keep stress from interfering with your life and work.
• Learn to let go. It sounds easy, but it can be very hard to let go of certain things, whether it's a sink full of dirty dishes or the desire to dress your child in just the right clothes every day. Try to let go of the things that don't really matter. If you find yourself pressed for time or stressed about something, ask yourself how much it really matters compared to spending time with your child or a friend. Then decide what your priority should be.
• Be aware of your breathing. If it's shallow or you note that you're holding your breath, simply taking a couple of slow, relaxing inhalations and exhalations can alleviate anxiety and quickly help you regain focus.
• Build short breaks into your workday. Studies show that stretching breaks or quiet breaks, even when they last only a few minutes, can help relieve tension.
• Laugh it off. Rent a video of your favorite comedy or go out to lunch with a friend who makes you laugh. Read a humorous book—even one on parenting!
• Talk with your health care provider if symptoms of stress persist.
Regular exercise has real benefits—both physical and emotional. It makes you stronger, improves your cardiovascular health, helps keep your weight under control, and counters the calcium loss that can lead to osteoporosis.
• Get 30 to 60 minutes of exercise every day. Go for brisk walks. Ride a bike. Dance. Do chores around the house and in the yard. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Rake leaves. Try to get 30 minutes of activity that makes you breathe harder on most or all days of the week. If you can combine this with social or support time, or quality time with your child, so much the better.
• If you can't be active for 30 minutes all at once, get at least 10 minutes of endurance activity at a time. Take a short walk during breaks at work. Look for opportunities to walk. Use the stairs instead of the elevator. Park at the far side of the parking lot. Get off the bus or subway one stop early and walk.
• Get exercise while you're watching TV. Buy a set of hand weights and exercise during commercials or do sit-ups while you're watching TV. Better yet, lift your baby or toddler up over your head instead of weights. Not only is this great for your arms, but your child will laugh with delight as you bring her face down for a kiss with each repetition.
• Stretch for just a minute or two when you wake up each day. In addition to helping you ease into your day, a brief stretching routine can restore or build flexibility and energize your body.
• Exercise with your children. Try exploring a local park, going for a hike or bike ride, or just walking around the block with your family instead of going to the movies or shopping. If you have a baby or toddler, pack her in the stroller and go for a brisk walk. The hills will give you a good workout. Or carry her in a baby backpack and go for a hike. These are all wonderful ways to enjoy the outdoors together.
• Exercise while you wait. Take advantage of your child's recreational activities and walk while your child practices softball, soccer, or another sport.
• Play hard at the playground or park. Spending half an hour with your toddler at a playground—pushing him on the swings, climbing through the climbing structure together, or kicking a ball and running after it—is a good workout for both of you. If your children are a little older, try freeze-tag, baseball, or kickball. You'll be surprised at how quickly the rules come back to you.
• Walk as a family. Make a routine of walking with your family and friends—in your neighborhood, in a new part of the city or at your favorite park, nature preserve, or beach. This gives you time to talk and be together and starts your children on a lifelong healthy habit of getting outdoors often.
• Find a bike trail and ride together. Even children using training wheels can ride a little. The workout is great. Be sure that everyone wears a helmet—if you wear one, your child will be less likely to protest wearing one.
• Dance. Most young children love to dance. Twenty minutes of dancing together to one of your favorite oldies gives you both a workout and can be a real mood lifter, too. And it lets you get some exercise even when the weather is bad, when it's dark when you get home from work, or when you're just plain over-scheduled.
• Keep sports equipment by the door or in the trunk of your car. Keep a Frisbee, a basketball, or other sports equipment in your car for those times when you find yourself with a half hour to spare. Pull over at the nearest playground or basketball court and have a spontaneous game with your kids. If one child is at ball practice, play with the others while you wait.
• Eat breakfast. And insist your child eat breakfast, too. A healthy breakfast will fuel your body throughout the morning. If you're racing around in the morning getting yourself and your child ready to get out the door, bring breakfast with you to eat on the way to work. Half of a whole-wheat bagel with cream cheese or peanut butter and an orange, or yogurt with fresh berries are portable as well as healthy.
• Buy healthy foods. Time and money constraints can lead to poor food choices. Skip the processed foods and sugary snacks when you're in the supermarket. Buy lean meats. Choose pretzels instead of chips. Keep fresh fruits and vegetables in your refrigerator. Stock up on energy bars when they're on sale for those times when you need a quick snack. Going to the grocery store after a meal rather than when you're hungry will cut down on impulsive junk food purchases.
• Try to fit in two to three nutritious snacks throughout the day in addition to well balanced, but not overly large main meals. This will give you more energy throughout the day, even during an afternoon slump. A snack like crackers with cheese or peanut butter, yogurt, or fruits and raw vegetables like carrots will give you energy throughout the day and keep your hunger in check so you don't overeat at main meals. This will also prevent binging at the candy machines.
• Avoid sweetened and caffeinated beverages. Cut down on the amount of soda and coffee you drink. Sugar and caffeine may make you feel great for a little while, but when their effects wear off, you may feel even worse. Juice is no better. Drink plenty of water instead, which is healthier and cheaper than soft drinks.
• Replace high-fat foods with low-fat versions. Buying low-fat salad dressings, mayonnaise, milk, ice cream, and other items you eat a lot of helps reduce calories and weight gain. Better yet, skip the mayo.
• Eat lots of fruits, vegetables, and fish. Vegetables like broccoli and tomatoes are full of antioxidants that can fight cancer, and some fish like salmon have Omega-3 acids that are great for your heart. Try to build fruits and vegetables into your diet everyday. Snack on apples, oranges, dried fruit, carrot sticks, and other fruits and vegetables.
• Eat more whole-grain foods. Whole grains (oatmeal, whole wheat, brown rice, whole oats, whole rye) have more vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients than regular grains like those found in white rice or pasta.
• Make time for a good night's sleep. If you wake up feeling tired after a full night of sleep, the quality of your sleep may be suffering. Before bedtime, stay away from:
- Caffeine. Eating a chocolate bar or drinking that last cup of coffee, tea, soda, or cocoa within four hours of your bedtime may not keep you from falling asleep, but it can interrupt your sleep later on and make the sleep you do manage to get less restful.
- Alcohol. Drinking alcohol within two hours of bedtime has almost the same effect as caffeine. You may fall asleep faster, but it will disturb your sleep later.
- Sleeping pills. Most experts agree it's best to avoid sleeping pills. Sleeping pills interfere with normal sleep, even when used occasionally. Used night after night, they can disturb your regular sleep patterns and become addictive.
- Large meals. Don't eat a heavy meal with lots of protein and spicy or fatty foods within several hours of your bedtime. A light meal or snack of traditional breakfast foods—cereals, breads, fruit, light milk products—is generally best.
• Develop a regular routine before bedtime. Fifteen to 20 minutes of a relaxing, predictable activity can help your body know it's time to sleep. Take a warm shower. Read. Listen to soothing music. Do some gentle stretching or relaxing yoga postures. But be sure to avoid strenuous exercise within two hours of bedtime; it can make it difficult to get to sleep.
• Keep a routine with a regular bedtime and rising time, even when you don't have to work.
• Keep a pad and pencil near your bed and jot down any last-minute thoughts that come to mind. Emptying your brain before bedtime can assure that you won't be mulling over things you should have done or need to do.
• Catch up on your sleep whenever you find an opportunity. Occasional sleep deprivation is a reality of parenting, particularly when you have an infant. Short naps can work wonders.
• If you are having trouble falling asleep, consult your primary care physician for assistance.
One of the most important things you can do for yourself as a parent is to find time for yourself. That's also one of the biggest challenges you face as a single parent. There are always dishes to wash, meals to cook, job demands, and your child who needs you. Finding time for yourself seems impossible. Many working parents, single and otherwise, are reluctant to take time for themselves because they feel they should be busy taking care of the house when they're not working or spending time with their children. But making time for yourself is one of the most important things you can do to be a good parent. Consider time you spend on yourself as an investment in your child. Try the following:
• Be clear to your children about your needs. Let your children know that you need time to relax every day, and that this private time helps you be a better parent. You might say, "Daddy needs some time out now to recharge. When I get my energy back, why don't we play a game of tic-tac-toe?" Set the kitchen timer for 20 to 30 minutes. When the bell or buzzer rings, your child will know it's time to reconnect!
• Take a short break for yourself every day to do something relaxing. Even a daily 30-minute break can make a big difference in how you feel about yourself and your child. Instead of doing the dishes or laundry, give yourself a break to read a magazine, listen to music, or take a shower or bath. Younger children can play while you rest or relax.
Older children can use that time to work on their homework. If you have an infant or toddler, get in the habit of taking time to relax after you put him to bed or during naptime. Even small chunks of personal time can go a long way toward making you feel more relaxed.
• Take a vacation day for yourself. It may be tempting to use your vacation time to catch up on housework and chores. But that's not a break. Take a day to do things that will relax and refresh you, so when you go back to work and return to your family responsibilities, you feel energized. You might spend some time exploring a local museum or park, or devote your day to a favorite hobby that you never seem to have time for. Keep a list in your planner of fun things you want to do—get a pedicure, take a trip to the beach, go shopping with a friend, visit an art gallery, or slip into a matinee to see that film everyone's been talking about.
• Seize the moment. Take advantage of unexpected free time. If an appointment is canceled at the last minute or you find yourself with a couple of hours to spare before you have to pick up your child from child care, use that time to do something that will make you feel good. Take a walk to clear your head, go home for a quick nap, or stop at the video store to rent yourself a movie.
• Be kind to yourself. Most of us are our own toughest critics. When you catch yourself being self-critical, stop, and turn the thought into a positive one. "Sure, my home is messy, but it's a loving and safe place for me and my child, and we always manage to tidy it up before it turns into a real disaster."
• Give yourself credit for all that you accomplish. Many of us fall into bed at night thinking only of the things we did not get done. That tempts us to double dip and do even more the next day. Instead of focusing on the things you haven't accomplished at the end of the day, give yourself credit for all that you have done.
As a single parent, you owe it to yourself and your children to take a moment every now and then to appreciate all that you do. Doing so will remind you of the critical role you fill while giving you the encouragement and incentive to continue doing the best job possible as a parent.
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