Raising Richmond: The six stages of temporary single parenthood

A couple weeks ago my husband was in Chicago for a conference, leaving me to parent our toddler on my own for five days — a situation that is very much out of our comfort zone. Now that I’m on the other side of this…adventure…I’d like to share with you something that I like to call The 6 Stages of Temporary Single Parenthood (as experienced by me, at least).

A couple weeks ago my husband was in Chicago for a conference. We’re very fortunate that this doesn’t happen often; nights away from one another are typically due to football rather than business.

He told me about the trip a few months prior to going. Originally he was just going to be gone a couple days, but eventually those two days turned into five because he was asked to stay for an invite-only portion of the conference. Five days. As in 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 — two of which were part of a weekend. As exciting as the opportunity was, we were both kind of dreading the trip: him because he already feels like he works too much and hated the thought of being away from us for that long, and me because, well, FIVE DAYS.

But I’m supportive! Conferences are good things! Networking! Career advancement! It’s not like it’s for forever!

(Oh God!)

Now that I’m on the other side of this…adventure…I’d like to share with you something that I like to call The 6 Stages of Temporary Single Parenthood–as experienced by me, at least.

Please note, this account is particular to my experience solo parenting my almost-three-year-old son for about a week–a situation that is very much out of our comfort zone. Perhaps some of my insights will ring true for you. If not, laughing at someone else’s public professions of weakness and insanity is always fun. So have at it!

Stage 1: Perspective & Positivity

“Whew. Ok. Well that’s almost a week, but, I mean, people do this all the time right? Don’t worry about us. We’ll be fine.”

This stage is typically experienced immediately upon finding out that you’ll be parenting on your own in the somewhat distant future: you accept that it’s happening but it’s just far enough away that it’s not scary yet. Sure, it’ll be hard, but, if you’re like me, you’re used to being the primary caregiver. Is it really going to make that much of a difference?

It will.

Stage 2: Enthusiasm & Planning*

*(Could also be called “Delusions of Grandeur”)

“I’m actually looking forward to it a bit. I have so many things I want to get done, and I’ll finally be able to since I’ll have all those evenings to myself. And it will be so nice to just spend some time alone with the kid, you know?”

Lofty goals like cranking out handmade Halloween costumes (ok, I actually did accomplish this one), cleaning out cabinets, organizing years worth of paperwork, and painting bathroom trim dance through your head. And for introverts (like me), a night to yourself is the be-all, end-all of human existence. Bring it!

So after a day spent showering your child with over-the-top, one-on-one attention (a long evening walk, ice cream after dinner while watching a movie, extra stories at bedtime, you get the picture) you are ready to get to work on those long-neglected projects. You will be a complete MACHINE those first couple nights. You might even entertain the thought of encouraging your partner to seek out more trips away from home.

Don’t. Because next comes…

Stage 3: Anger & Selective Uselessness

“How could he/she do this to us? Just leaving us to flail around here aimlessly for almost a week. He’s/She’s off sleeping in a nice hotel, eating out, and I’m stuck here eating leftover mac ‘n’ cheese over the sink, talking about Thomas the Tank Engine (AGAIN) with someone who can’t put on his own pants. What a friggin’ jerk.”

A couple days in you will likely experience something we call “resentment.” And you might do things out of “spite.” Like responding to your partner’s text messages of “Love you and miss you so much!” with details of your child’s latest tantrum. Or maybe you’ll wash only your clothes, leaving your partner’s to grow musty in the corner of the linen closet. Tasks that might actually need to get done around the house are abandoned for other endeavors like tagging pictures of yourself on Facebook while watching Teen Mom.

You might also stop showering at this point.

Stage 4: Surrender & (Attempted) Rejuvenation

“Hello, Mom? Is there any chance you can come over for a bit so I can run some errands? And maybe just sit in the car in complete silence?”

By this point you realize that you’ve still got a few days to go and you’re not going to make it without help. It is key for your sanity for someone (ANYONE) to help you out–a relative, a friend, a neighbor, that lady down the street who you met once and seemed nice and is probably not a baby snatcher.

For me, this involved my mother-in-law coming over to feed my son dinner and entertain him for a couple hours. Meanwhile, I went to Chipotle, sat in a corner, and shoved an entire burrito into my face as I stared out the window at the cars zooming along Broad Street. Then I wandered around CVS for about an hour. I came home to a happy son and with enough energy to handle another bedtime on my own.

Stage 5: Perseverance & Hope

“We can’t wait to see you! You get in at 11, right?…I know, we miss you so much too!…Is that 11 our time or their time? We love you too!…So if you get in at 11, when do you think you’ll actually be walking in our front door?”

There’s a light at the end of the tunnel as the countdown to your partner’s return has begun. At the same time, you and your child(ren) have found a rhythm to your day and might even get another taste of the joy of that “just us” time. But don’t get me wrong: everyone feels a slight spring in his/her step at the knowledge that the missing piece of your family will be home soon.

Stage 6: Appreciation & Admiration

“Welcome home! How was your trip? Don’t ever leave me again!”

Your partner is home, eagerly bringing with him/her that extra pair of hands and extra ounce (or 70,000) of patience whose absence you have felt so profoundly over the last few days. Best case scenario (if you happen to live with a guy like mine), you are even shooed out of the room for playtime, bathtime, storytime, and even diaper changes so he can simultaneously soak up every possible second with the kid and give you a much-deserved break.

And as you finish your first day as a reunited family, you find yourself repeatedly telling your partner that you can’t imagine parenting on your own every single day… and you are in complete lump-in-your-throat, goosebumps-down-your-arms, tip-your-imaginary-hat awe of those who do.

Then you go into the bathroom and just sit there. By yourself. BECAUSE YOU CAN.

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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is editor of RVAFamily, mother to a mop-topped first grader, and always really excited to go to bed.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. Charles on said:

    So true! I used to think single parenting would be a pain. Before I was a parent. Now I think single parenting is a disaster of unimaginable magnitude. Not for the kids… For the parent.

    Nights when my wife gets home late are bad enough. A week is traumatic. A life of it… Life? What life?

    Maybe it’s easier past the toddler stage…

  2. Elizabeth on said:

    I can totally relate to this post! I agree: I hold single parents on a pedestal, having utmost regard for their ability to NOT spontaneously combust. Whenever my husband goes out of town (which is rare), I tend to leave a string of increasingly insane voicemails on his phone. Absence does make the heart grow fonder, but it also makes the brain go haywire!

  3. Melissa on said:

    Loved the stages! Great insights and always a relief to know when experiencing these things that you are not alone…..

    My husband was army for 10 years (did 3 tours – 8.5 months – daughter age 2, 18 months – age 3 & 4, and 12 months – age 6/7) and now he is a contractor….just returned from a 4 month trip (age 10) and is taking another one for 6 month in Jan (right after daughter’s 11th bday)

    I would have to insert that when the absence of partner is longer, at least for me, stages 3 & 4 can come, go and cycle in what appears to be no apparent order….

    and I would insert a stage 4.5 (that also cycles with stages 3 & 4) – Resourcefulness & Creativity….”Make a new way” … when the normal ways of getting things done just don’t work with one – figure out a new way. Though this stage can fill one up with pride that you can accomplish most anything on your own, it can also lead to challenges in step 6, when norms upon the return of the other parent are no longer the same…..

    In some ways I am lucky – I lived with my mother growing up and turn to her often in my times of “how the heck do you survive” as a great source of strength. I will say I believe anyone single parenting – for a short time or long – at some point has to subscribe to the theory IT TAKES A VILLAGE TO RAISE A CHILD…..I have learned to build a big village ;)

  4. Sarah Milston on said:

    hilarious. and yes.

  5. Justin on said:

    Solution for next time: come with!


  6. Jeb Hoge on said:

    Five days. Shoot…my wife is going to be gone for two hours tomorrow night and I’m already terrified. Granted, I’ve got three kids, one of whom is 4 months old, but still.

  7. Kimberly Fife on said:

    Too funny, you had me laughing out loud first thing this morning. Love the part about mac and cheese over the sink, so true. Just love the way you write, Val.

  8. jennifer on said:

    Great article…but that picture??? So.Very.Precious. Who is that little boy, and where did baby J.R. go?!

  9. Kimberly, I don’t even know. But it’s making me SO SAD.

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