31 January 2005

Single...With Children: Parents Have To Take Care Of Themselves In Order To Take Better Care Of Their Children

Single with Children: Parents must care for themselves first

By Susie Parker
Publication Date: 10/09/02

Anyone who has flown more than a couple of times can probably recite, without even trying, the safety instructions given at the beginning of every flight. Remember the part where they tell you that in the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, the oxygen masks will drop from the ceiling, and then they go on to remind those traveling with small children to first place the mask over the adult and then help the child traveling with them, by placing the mask securely over his or her face.

I never really understood why you wouldn't place the oxygen mask over your child's face first. I missed the point completely, which isn't an entirely rare occurrence. The point is that unless the parent has oxygen and clearness of mind, he or she will be in no position to help anyone, least of all the small people traveling along that look to them for safety, security and comfort.

A sudden loss of cabin pressure. An event that can suddenly turn a calm, predictable situation into a crisis. It can be a health problem, the loss of a loved one or, for many families, a divorce. Talk about a loss of equilibrium.

Sometimes, as single parents, we routinely operate on automatic pilot. We see that the essentials are taken care of. We go to work. We make sure there are clean clothes in the drawers or at least in the laundry baskets. We try to keep the refrigerator stocked and make certain the milk isn't past its expiration date. We try to keep up with the homework assignments, the progress reports and the science project that suddenly becomes due the next day. There are more than a few days when 24 hours seems hideously insufficient, even though we need toothpicks to keep our eyes open and double espressos to maintain clarity of thought.

There are days, however, when all the coffee that Juan Valdez might harvest in a month wouldn't be enough fuel to keep up with the list that seems to grow in direct proportion to the demands made on our time, our mental capabilities and, to be honest, our sanity.

Every now and then we hit the wall. You know the wall I speak of. We're all more acquainted with it than we would care to admit. The wall that makes us feel as though we just can't put one foot in front of the other. The one that makes breathing feel as if it's anything but an involuntary response. And the scariest wall of all; the one that makes us think we're just not equal to the task of raising our children alone.

I've spent time with fellow single parents who look so exhausted and run down that I've had to bite my tongue not to say, "you look like death warmed over!" I'm certain those same friends have thought the very same thing about me. I think there's some internal censor installed in our ranks that knows it wouldn't take but the slightest sneeze to push us over the edge.

Parental Maintenance. It's not for wimps. It's used by folks who know they are dangerously close to their minimum reserves. The kind of maintenance I'm encouraging doesn't mean a week at an Arizona spa (not that there's anything wrong with that!) but for most of us it's impractical and doesn't fit into our budgets. Taking care of yourself might be as easy as scheduling a night or, if necessary, a weekend off. A time to regroup. To read a book you've been longing to dive into that will do nothing more than give you pleasure and not necessarily instruct you on how to do anything. Or maybe a day to indulge in lunch with some of your favorite friends. Perhaps a day of retail therapy culminating not necessarily in buying things, but stealing away from the home front for a few hours of window shopping, seeing new faces and realizing that there is an existence outside your everyday routine of car pools, work stations and that well worn counter where you field such daunting questions as "what's for dinner?" or "can I have a friend sleep over?"

The most formidable challenge in all of this might be eliminating, no, make that smashing, the guilt we assign to ourselves when we consider the possibility of doing something just for us. Make that the first thing you eradicate.

Remember how you're supposed to take your car in for tune-ups at different mileage intervals? I'm notorious for putting this off. I'm usually reminded of it when my car reaches the point where it refuses to go forward because my oil is at a level that makes the technicians smirk, or I have to pull into the first auto repair shop I see because I just can't take that annoying sound the engine is making any longer. Naturally my car wouldn't be sounding like a lawn mower if I had followed the vehicle manual advice. I know that in theory, but practice is ever so much harder.

Every American family knows how important it is to have at least one car in semi-good working order. Our lives depend upon them every single day. Now, consider this; a car, though expensive, is at least replaceable. A parent, especially in a single-parent situation, isn't only irreplaceable but even more vital to a family than any mode of transportation. The next time you start feeling like you're on the "edge of going over the edge," remember how vital your place is in the cog of the family machine. Remember the instructions from the last flight you took where you were instructed to breathe in the oxygen first, so you can be optimally ready to help the children who depend on your clear thinking, good decisions and everything else that good parenting demands you provide.

Don't think of taking time off for yourself as a luxurious, frivolous waste of time. Consider that the reward of giving yourself a well-earned break will not only be of benefit to you but also will have a positive effect on those people you love and care most about in this world. Our children need a strong and capable person to lead them and depend upon. We owe it to ourselves to make certain that we're in the best physical, mental and emotional shape to assure them that we are more than prepared to provide them with everything they require.

It's really OK to take a break and just breathe.

Readers can e-mail Susie Parker at Susiewrites@gmail.com or write to her c/o Amarillo Globe-News, Features Dept., P.O. Box 2091, Amarillo, TX 79166.

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