How to Help a Solo Mom (and other full-time caregivers)

Newborn Isaac This is for all the friends and family of a solo parent who want to help but may not know what to do. It’s drawn from my own experience being a friend and a roommate to many new parents over the years, including some women who were doing it on their own.

[A few quick notes before I start: First, I’m going to write this about supporting solo moms because that’s my experience, but I imagine that a list of things to support solo dads would look similar, and some parents with partners and other full-time caretakers have told me this list resonated with them, too. Second, I prefer the term “solo parent” to “single parent” because “single” has other connotations that may not feel right for that person. Lastly, if you know a parent who has a partner who’s away a lot for long periods of time (e.g., travels for work) much of this list still applies.]

What I’m sure you already know and have thought about: The birth of a child is a wonder-filled, awe-inspiring event. It ushers in a period of radical change in a new parent’s life – one that is much more extreme for the parent who is flying solo.

What you might not know if you haven’t been through it: The first few months are simultaneously blissful, exhausting, exciting, and boring. Between all the cute moments that get caught on camera and are posted publicly are much longer minutes and hours of mostly mundane daily life. And many things about how to manage that daily life are not taught in the baby classes.

In thinking about how to support a solo parent, consider all the things that you would find it difficult to do if: You couldn’t use one of your arms (because it’s holding a baby), you were distracted or frequently interrupted, you were not in control of your own sleep, and/or you had to think on behalf of another person 24/7 for an extended period of time. If you’re like me – the kind of person who already forgets to do things like make a doctor’s appointment or put gas in the car or buy lightbulbs or floss her teeth – you can imagine that these become even more difficult when you’re a solo parent.

Here are some ideas for things you can do to help out a solo parent, particularly during first few months of the baby’s life:

  • Go to her house and cook dinner (or breakfast or lunch!) for her. Be prepared to eat it alone if she has to attend to something else. Wash all the dishes and put them away afterwards. Put well-labeled leftovers in the freezer.
  • Do grocery runs. Or be the second adult on her grocery run so you don’t have to stress about getting exactly what she wants and she doesn’t have to stress about juggling the baby and grocery bags at the same time.
  • Watch the baby so mom can take a shower. (Taking a shower is a waaaay more complicated deal than you can imagine for new solo parents.)
  • Watch the baby so mom can sleep. Really.
  • Take the garbage out, put the cans on the curb, then return the next day and bring them back.
  • Take care of the garden.
  • Watch the baby while mom gets a massage or a pedicure or does something else that pampers her. After so much time taking care of another person, caregivers often find it hard to allow themselves to be pampered.
  • Watch the baby so mom can meditate, take a yoga class, go hiking/running/rock climbing/swimming/cycling – whatever would make her feel like she’s in her own body and would give her a mental break at the same time. The best here is to think about whatever she was doing before she got pregnant. Whatever gave her joy and mental space then would be a nice thing for her to have again.
  • Bring her new music. Don’t expect her to get a chance to listen to it.
  • Fill the gas tank in her car. Or do maintenance on her bike.
  • Wash and fold the laundry.
  • If it’s close to the holidays, offer to do gift wrapping or take her packages to the post office along with your own.
  • Take note if she mentions things around the house that are broken and/or annoying. Fix them, or help her arrange to get them fixed.
  • Learn how to change a diaper if you don’t already know how.
  • Start taking mental notes of which restaurants/cafes/event spaces are cool about kids so you can make solid suggestions when she wants to get out of the house. Meaning: Don’t make it only her responsibility to think about that. It’s all about being a good host/friend, in the same way you think about whether or not a place has enough vegetarian food for your friends, or is near public transportation, or is affordable, etc. It’s considerate.
  • Invite her to events, even ones with non-parents. Remember to factor in the baby nap time if possible. Don’t pressure her to come. Be delighted if she makes it.
  • Don’t make parenting suggestions unless she asks your advice.
  • Learn how to breathe through a baby’s crying jags. They’re normal.
  • Take photos of her, both alone and with the baby. Solo parents generally get a lot fewer candid photos of these early days than parents with partners.

In short: Most parents find that even with two people there aren’t enough hours in the day to take care of all the details of daily life, and being a solo parent only makes this more true. Yes, “it takes a village to raise a child,” and that village can also reach out and support the solo parent.

With love and mad respect for all the parents out there,

p.s. If you have other suggestions, please send them to me. I’m happy to expand this list!

p.p.s. Re-reading the list, I realized most of it is also very applicable to someone who’s a primary caregiver of an ill person. I’ve done that, too, so I know.

Happy Mother's Day Weekend!

Sidebar: A mom and I were recently talking about how Months 2-3 of a baby’s life are especially trying for a new parent because the honeymoon rush has largely faded, the friends and family have mostly returned to their regularly scheduled programming, the sleep deprivation is starting to really sink in, and many things that were ok to ignore for a month are not so ok to ignore for longer than that. Beyond that, the baby still isn’t very interactive or smiley or laughing or doing all the super-cute and endearing things that help keep a parent going. Thankfully, this period is followed by months and years of a child with way more personality and parents (generally) find a rhythm that works for them. The end of Month 3 also usually marks the end of maternity leave and a return to work (at least in the U.S.) – which ushers in both a lot of adult conversation and an entirely new list of things to negotiate. All this to say: If you’re looking to support a solo parent, be especially sure that they have support during Months 2-3.