Speaking of nieces (which Mollie was, yesterday), this morning my niece Beth posted the following status on Facebook: “I can't wait for the day that the word Human describes me again.” Beth is a twenty-something divorced single mom of a 1-year-old boy and she's going to school full-time; like the rest of us, there simply aren't enough hours in her day to take care of everything she needs to do and take care of herself, too. She's running herself ragged; fortunately she has a lot of support from her family and friends, who won't let her suffer TOO much.
We all need backup like that. You know that saying, “It takes a village to raise a child”? The village is not for the kid - it's for you.
I can't stress enough the importance of staying close to your husband (or wife, or whatever flavor of significant other with whom you've launched this parenting adventure) during the kids-at-home years. It's fatally easy to fall into the trap of seeing each other as merely “Dad and Mom” until, exhausted by the myriad demands of small children, you become nothing more than roommates passing in the hallway between shifts. This person—whom you once swore to love, honor and respect—may become just the person with whom you swap dirty-diaper duty if you don't make an effort to stay connected as a couple.
I know you don't want to leave the baby, I know Junior needs his inhaler, I know there are soccer games and ballet recitals and besides you signed up for that pottery class. None of this actually matters as much as keeping your primary relationship alive. You were together before the kids, you are standing together hip-deep in kids now and you'll be together after the kids move out (inconceivable as that may seem to you today)--you need to make sure that you still know each other before you find yourselves alone together at a breakfast table one morning without a clue what to say to one another.
Have and keep a Date Night once a week, even if all you can afford is a milkshake at McDonald's and a dollar video rental. Trade kids with another couple every month; you keep them all overnight one weekend so they can have a night alone together, they'll return the favor next month. Put the kids to bed early enough that the two of you can have an hour to talk, watch a movie or play a game alone; you need that re-connecting time. (When your kids get old enough that they can stay up later than you can, go ahead and go to bed – together – before they turn in. You're setting a good example.)
It takes a lot less time to stay connected than it does to find your way back to each other again after a major disconnect, so keep at it a little bit a day. If you can, send text messages or emails once or twice a day if you're apart; save up the bits of news and the jokes you hear during your separate days and share them when you're together again. You may think that this sounds like too much work on top of an already overfull to-do list but believe me, you'll both work better and more efficiently if you're feeling happy, loved and supported by your sweetheart.
If you're a single parent you MUST find the time to be an adult (or, as Beth puts it, “a human”). I know the buck stops with you and only with you where your child is concerned and that knowledge can be overwhelming at times, but you won't have anything to offer the kid if your own well is dry. Sneak in bits of “Me Time” where you can by being mindful of leftover moments. Find a pocket park and brown-bag it on your lunch break every day, load your MP3 player with all your favorite tunes, or check out books-on-CD from the library and play them during your commute. Find a reliable sitter (or trade sitting with another parent) and go out with friends every two weeks; you don't have to spend a lot, just see a matinee, go biking or have a beer. This time will rejuvenate you in a hundred ways - it's time as yourself (as opposed to time as Mama or Employee or Student) that keeps you human.
I am very, very lucky that my husband is a partner in every sense of the word. There is no question in our household that Mom and Dad are every bit as much a couple as we are parents. It's great for us, but it's also good for our kids – they feel secure knowing that we are a solid team. They also know that I have my own resources and interests and am not living vicariously through them, which is important too.
I'm learning a lot from watching how Mollie deals with her “empty nest.” Raising my kids has been (and is) my vocation and my avocation for a long time, but I'm no longer afraid of reaching retirement. I am extremely lucky, having married my own personal version of Superman with a side of David Bowie and a sprinkling of Sean Connery, and you can bet your bottom dollar I won't be taking him for granted – Daddy Bird and I are staying close, so there'll still be billing and cooing in our nest long after the last chick has flown.