They say it takes a village to raise a child. This rings especially true for single moms. Here’s how to find the support you need to thrive in your vital new role:
Unlike women getting ready to welcome home baby with a partner, single moms rely on extensive networks of friends and family to get ready for their new arrivals. And now that my daughter is 5, I realize there was a lot I could have done to prepare for single motherhood. Although most new single moms will feel alone at some point, take heart, you are in good company. As many as 11 million women living in the United States are single mothers, and our ranks are growing every day.
Newly split from my husband, I spent my pregnancy pouring over mommy-to-be guides, tears falling on the pages not meant for me — I couldn’t send daddy out for pickles or cookie-dough ice cream. The thought of wedging my oversized body behind the wheel of the car and hauling through the grocery aisles in search of junk food made me cry even harder. Rachel Sarah — author of Single Mom Seeking: Play Dates, Blind Dates and Other Dispatches from the Dating World and mom to Mae, now 10 — says if she could go back she’d spend the 40 weeks of her pregnancy differently. “I spent too much time trying to remedy my unhealthy, codependent relationship with my soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, instead of getting ready to be a single mom. I wish I’d put all my energy into self-care and networking!”
The most important thing an expectant single mother can do is to gather, inform, and begin to rely on the people who will comprise her “village.” Whether this means rounding up family, friends, or paid staff, the key is to start early. “As a single mother, it is vital to set up a support network before the baby comes. For some people this means family members, for others, a support group of new mothers in your neighborhood or a single mom group in your city,” advises Jane Mattes, C.S.W., author of the book Single Mothers by Choice and founder of the organization by the same name.
Once you’ve identified the people who will be part of your support network, let them know exactly what help you need from them. The secret to getting useful assistance from family and friends is to be specific in your requests, Mattes says. “If a friend offers help, go ahead and say, ‘You could bring over two cooked dinners for me to freeze.’ ” Writing in a journal is a great way to organize your to-do lists. My pregnant journaling focused primarily on my ex’s cheating, but I also imagined delivery-room scenarios and made lists of friends who would be visiting.
You can start by creating an extensive list of contacts; a phone tree or email group is an easy way to keep your village updated and involved. Then brainstorm a list of baby tasks and match them with takers. Try splitting your to-do list into the following categories.
Trips to the baby superstore can be difficult for solo moms during the first weeks home, so it is important to get stocked and set up as early as possible. For most moms, a registry is the best tool to figure out what you need. Annette Garcia, mom of 3-year-old Mikayla, of Northridge, CA, was thrilled when her co-workers threw a shower and purchased many of the baby necessities from her registry. To fill the gaps, Garcia shopped little by little throughout her pregnancy (starting at four months), using the layaway option when needed.
Once the gifts and purchases start piling up in your home, do not wait to start putting them together. I was shocked by how many items (swings, bouncy seats, even play mats) required assembly — not a talent of mine. If you are involved in the planning of your baby shower, suggest having a furniture-assembly theme. My former boss and friend stayed late into the night after my shower ended, fitting together the puzzle of my baby swing. Be explicit about your request for help putting together big-ticket items like the crib and changing table, which have serious safety implications for your baby. My ex and a friend’s husband put together my daughter’s crib while I ran errands.
Even if you plan to master some construction on your own, it’s important for single moms to assemble items as soon as they arrive because, yes, your belly will get too big to maneuver. “Remember that once you’re a certain level of pregnant, you won’t be able to carry anything in front of your stomach (like big boxes of baby supplies or nursery furniture), so do the heavy lifting early in your pregnancy,” says Louise Sloan, author of Knock Yourself Up: A Tell-All Guide to Becoming a Single Mom.
Your Health Care
Well-wishers always tell new moms to take care of themselves so they are able to care for their babies, and this is especially vital for single moms. Be open with your doctors about your single-parent status. Most likely the birth will be fine, but your doctor can help you prepare to handle a range of health-care scenarios. “You may have postpartum health problems or serious depression, and/or your baby might have problems. So try to work out some sort of backup plan, just in case,” Sloan says. She also suggests single moms-to-be get a will and a life insurance policy by the sixth month of pregnancy, which is generally when health professionals say your baby could survive if something happened to you.
Enlist friends to accompany you to doctor’s visits during your pregnancy and afterward. Waiting rooms are generally crammed with nervous looking men on the verge of fatherhood; and as a single pregnant woman, I found it more bearable to squeeze in next to them with a friend in tow. At the end of her pregnancy, Sloan had a bout with kidney stones but didn’t want to ask a friend to miss work to accompany her to the hospital (before the big hospital day). “It turned out to be a mistake. I needed someone there to advocate for me and I really suffered as a result.” So don’t hesitate: Just ask.
The most common postpartum health issues are small. But whether you have a Caesarian or a vaginal delivery, you will require regular check-ups with your doctor. Consider arranging childcare ahead of time. And if you are planning to breastfeed, you might also look into support groups in your area. Sore nipples can be hell — single or not.
Most parents put together a birth plan, ranging from instructions for the doula to a special text message code that says, “Take me to the hospital now.” But single parents need a regular plan and two back-ups. My ex-husband and I took the one-day intensive birth class at the hospital to prepare. He wanted to be at the delivery and planned to drive me to the hospital. One week before my due date, I had bad cramping and called him for a ride; he was out of town. At the time, I didn’t have a plan B. Thankfully, I did not deliver that day and my mother and a friend flew in immediately.
If you are a first-time mother, it may be difficult to predict how you will react when the time comes. After spending months agonizing, watching DVDs about women around the world giving birth in the squatting position, it turned out I didn’t care if Brad Pitt was in the room during the pushing, which only lasted 15 minutes. But single moms-to-be should try to imagine what would be the most supportive environment for them in the delivery room and make an effort to actualize it. Sharon, mom of 5-year-old Sam, from Washington, D.C., asked her sperm donor, who was also a friend, to be her birth partner. “In retrospect, I should have had my best girlfriend there,” Sharon says. “I was not close friends with the donor, so he was not the best support for me.”
Sloan suggests asking friends to stay with you at the hospital for a few hours after the birth. “All was fine with me for the first hour and then I started passing out from blood loss. I could have really used more than one support person for me and the baby, because we had to be separated while I recovered.” Remember: Your family, friends, and co-workers will feel honored to be included in such a magical event.
Every family situation is different, so you need to decide what kind of homecoming is right for you and your baby. Sloan moved in with her family for the six weeks after her son’s birth. “It was a mixed blessing. They were both supportive and very critical, as people tend to be with new moms, no matter what you’re doing,” she says.
Garcia, on the other hand, was relieved to move in with her parents permanently when she was four months pregnant. “It has been great to have a woman with experience to help me. I remember Mikayla would cry for hours in the middle of the night. At one point, when I was crying out of frustration, my mom came in and rocked her to sleep,” she says. For others, like Sharon, parents may be too old or simply unable to fill such a pivotal role.
Staying in your home environment, close to friends, and establishing the new family unit from the start can work, too. My mother was able to stay in my apartment for the first six weeks my daughter was home from the hospital. When she took a week off in the middle of her stay, I organized a fleet of friends to stop by for a few hours a day so I could do laundry, run to the market, or walk the dog. It was lifesaving to have a little time for myself, and including my close friends in my daughter’s life from the beginning paid off. Now she thinks of them as her aunties.
“You know your friends and family are all going to want to come by and see the baby, so go ahead and line them up to babysit for a few hours while you get out of the house,” Mattes advises single moms. If you are worried your friends are too busy, or there aren’t enough of them to man your ship, think about saving some money to enlist paid help. “That is one thing I might do differently, if I could go back,” Sharon says. “I would have saved a little extra money to hire a sitter for a couple of hours those first few months home — to get some exercise or maybe even some sleep.”
— Amanda L. Freeman