How Being a Solo Parent Made Me a Better Parent

three children stand with yellow ribbon
(Jesus Sepulveda Torres/DVIDS)

I write a lot about the challenges of solo parenting, but I rarely talk about the benefits.

That's right, benefits. The biggest, most obvious one is that I almost always get to do things my way. Compromise is easy when there's no one around to compromise with.

But there's another major benefit to being a Must-Have Parent that I've never written about. I'm firmly convinced that being a Must-Have Parent has made me a better parent.

Whoa, Nelly.

I don't mean that I'm a better parent than people who divide parenting duties more evenly. What I mean is that having to figure all of this out for and by myself has made me a better parent than I would have been otherwise at this point in my parenting experience.

It's like a language immersion program. Put someone into a foreign country where no one speaks their native language and, by necessity, they're going to pick up the local language fast.

I was thinking about this a few days ago as I watched my two younger children take swimming lessons. A set of grandparents were sitting in the parent section next to me, and they were reflecting on how they had learned to swim.

"My dad just threw me in the lake," the man said. "I'm serious. I'd never swum a stroke before and he just tossed me off the dock and into the water. I learned to dog paddle right then and there."

Sink or swim. Literally.

It's probably not the gold standard for swimming instruction -- or for parenting -- and his comments certainly made me grateful for my daughters' coaches. But the lesson stuck: When absolutely everything depends on us being able to do something, most of us figure out how to do it.


My oldest child was not quite three weeks old when my husband deployed to Afghanistan. I had no idea what I was doing, and everyone I knew who'd ever had kids lived at least 600 miles away.

Being the only parent around meant that I had to be a quick study. I couldn't push anything off hoping that my husband would pick up the slack. I couldn't be intellectually or emotionally lazy.

I wasn't willing to let us sink, so I figured out how to swim.

Solo parenting is like an accelerated graduate school for parents. You will get your parenting MBA, and you'll get it in just a few months.

And by the time you graduate:

  • You'll be a master of the multitasking. You'll learn to make dinner while helping with homework, calling the electric company to argue your bill and breaking up a quarrel between other children.
  • Eventually, you'll even get antsy when you have to sit still and just do one thing at a time. Even writing that makes my eye twitch.
  • You'll become the ultimate arbiter of importance. Your ability to differentiate between small stuff and big stuff in a split second will become the stuff of legend. Bonus: You will stop sweating the small stuff.
  • You will know from four rooms away not just if your children are hurt, but how badly they're hurt and possibly even what part of them is hurt, based solely on the sounds they make. This will determine whether you a) ignore the cries; b) get up slowly to investigate; or c) run like you're being chased by lions to get to your baby. Bonus: You'll be shocked and impressed at how fast your body will move.
  • You will know how to do things that you didn't even know you knew how to do. Things you didn't even know you needed to know how to do. Gross things. Mechanical things. And lots of things that require duct tape.
  • You will become compassionate, empathetic and non-judgy. Everyone's children will seem like your children, and everyone's problems will be something you have dealt with before. You will see instantly how any problem could happen to anyone. Like you. Or your children.

Note: None of these skills are exclusive to MHPs. All parents develop them eventually. But MHPs get them faster. Pat yourself on the back; you're in the accelerated program.

Sink or swim, baby. You got this.

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