What Single Parenting a Toddler Really Feels Like (And How to Thrive)

Having a supportive partner and thriving relationship, and blessing that relationship with children, is one of the best experiences available to us as humans in this lifetime! Sometimes, the blessing of our children comes at tumultuous relationship times or during times where relationships are just not on the table.

Families look every single way; as unique as individuals are, as are families. This is beautiful. And for my fellow single parents, your role is beautiful too!

So you’ve made it past the baby phase and your tiny treasure is now toddling (or straight up sprinting) everywhere in and out of sight.

You’ve probably gone back to work awhile ago and had a big change somewhere in the past years of your child’s life- a move, finding the childcare that works (and doesn’t) for you, other relationships, etc.

You’ve made some mistakes but you’ve made it here and through many “firsts”, and you’re officially out of new parent territory but still have a pretty steep learning curve as your toddler’s personality is in full swing. 

To be honest, it feels like every moment is brand new and often overwhelming. You may feel surrounded by the calls and demands for “mama” or “dada”- and you’ve probably had every reaction under the sun.

In fact, parenting a toddler sometimes makes you question if emotionally we really are adults or if maybe we’re all still toddlers. And there’s some truth to this in that toddlers are peaking in emotional development, so many of the lessons we learned at that age are still expressed and continue to be expressed throughout a lifetime.

Not to add any pressure to your already demanding experience; use this knowledge to sympathize with yourself and your little one(s). 

As a single parent, I have made the decision to work part time to be able to support my daughter (and soon to be son) and while gathering and contributing as much as possible support from family, friends, and community.

I have had to navigate…erm… awkward, financial scenarios, advocate for the choices I make for our family (and that’s not always easy when you’re working every day with your own parents, but it is worth it for healthy relationships), forego (at least for now) educational advancement opportunities, become something of a legal and health expert (again, only for myself/my child) which involves countless hours of research, and in my case, I forego a lot (nearly all evening-related things, our bed time routine is the cornerstone of our health and happiness) of social and romantic pursuits.

I am happy to forego what needs to be foregone because this tender time is such a short time overall, I would rather be here for most moments with my hands in the proverbial clay than anywhere else in the world.

What works for one person may not work for another though, and I frequently support other single and coupled parents by babysitting because I can relate to their emotions/needs and I enjoy the companionship of other children for my daughter (I am opting out of preschool for her, so companionship is on my radar of experiences I need to actively build).

Learning to accept 100% responsibility for my daughter and soon son has prompted me to learn to accept 100% responsibility for my own life.

Nothing I have or don’t have is a “reward” or “punishment”; it’s simply a reflection of long held thoughts/ideas and beliefs that have come to fruition in some way, shape, or form. None of the obligations I have hold me down because I know that they are here specifically because I can handle them, and once I realized that, I have handled them with a level-headed approach instead of forming resistance (e.g. “Oh no, a bill…” has turned into “Wow, I’m glad that there’s continued faith in my ability to pay- and I am capable of doing this, and often even more.”). It seems counter-intuitive, but taking more responsibility takes almost all pressure off. 

Know that there are going to be days, especially if you were previously coupled, where you really long for the support of a partner, or you just feel very strongly “alone in this”.

It may not even be when your child is moody, it could be when you have a break and catch yourself watching your little one sleep peacefully, and reminisce about how small they were just a short time ago. When you feel this, always acknowledge this feeling and meet it with some encouragement: you are doing an amazing job, you are learning and growing every day, and when the timing is right, you will certainly have another relationship.

Give yourself a little extra love, take your favorite walk alone or with your toddler, prepare a special meal, watch your favorite film- the options are endless, and when you have the availability in your budget, this is a fantastic time for luxuries and indulgences. Just spend some extra time enjoying something and affirming the love you are surrounded by and the journey you are on at this time, it’s a beautiful one.  

The single best piece of advice I ever learned on the job is this: decide your mood/how you feel for the moment, and if it’s not what you want, then decide and commit to improving it appropriately.

That means if you are having a brilliant day, your toddler’s actions can contribute to the brilliance. And if your mood is not very good, this is a great chance to practice exactly what you preach to your little one; if you need a good cry, cry! If you need to scream into a pillow, scream. If you need to put a little space between you and your toddler, explain to them without blaming them for your emotions “I am going to do xyz thing over here while you play/read/watch a movie over here. I will bring you snacks and some water, but I need to spend a few minutes taking some deep breaths. I will spend time with you when I can be in a happier mood.” And do it! Take the time.

This is a moment to rely on supports, too, whether that’s the oft forbidden iPad or a sweet treat, or if you can find someone last minute to come over for even thirty minutes- whatever you need to do to get your head and heart back on straight, do it. By having a conversation and then doing what you need to do, you take pressure off of everyone (including yourself) and can start thinking more clearly!

My toddler usually wakes me up in the mornings between 5:30-6:30AM without skipping a beat ready to play, get breakfast going, etc. meanwhile my eyes are still closed and I haven’t had the slightest opportunity to gather myself. I know this is going to happen every day, so I use the brief window where I make a cup of tea to take 10 deep breaths (in the sunshine whenever possible) and immediately practice gratitude.

I have come to appreciate the enthusiasm and joy that my daughter has for each and every morning, and have incorporated that into my practice no matter how (or how early) we wake up. Find your balance and set a good example, but it doesn’t have to happen overnight. Be easy on yourself, just like you are with your littlest one(s), your own balance and happiness are equally precious. 

Overall, single parenting a toddler isn’t really that much different than co-parenting a toddler! It just requires one person to be “on” all the time, and that person is you! This can feel every way from amazing and uplifting to overwhelming and burdening. But in any case, you may benefit from self development even more, and be able to reap the benefits even more quickly by being able to focus more easily on yourself. Out of every perceived weakness we have the opportunity to grow our greatest strengths.  

written by Shannon Daley