“I ask myself, ‘Where do I want to chill and where do I want to be strict?'” she told the parents at my daughters’ school.
“If your kid doesn’t want to shower every day, you might say, ‘Well, I can let that go, but I expect you to do a certain amount of schoolwork each day.’ Right now, under Covid, it’s especially important to reflect on where you want to relax some of the pressure.”
Getting through this pandemic together “will make kids more resilient later on — and us stronger,” Simmons said. “One of these days, when we encounter adversity, we’ll be saying, ‘Well, this is nothing like coronavirus!'”
Simmons’ words inspired me to share her tips with so many other parents who are struggling, including single parents. I interviewed her after her virtual talk to learn more about how she’s getting through this troubled time as a single working mother.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: Being a parent is difficult right now. How is a single parent’s life even more stressful?
Rachel Simmons: The thing about being a single parent is that you are often everything to that child. So in a home with multiple caregivers, there can be a division of labor. One person might do the cooking. Another person might do the cleaning. One person might be better with discipline, and the other person might be more of the playful one.
When you’re a single parent, you have to inhabit all of those roles — and they often conflict. The need to clean up dinner makes it hard to read a book out loud or be there at bath time. You have to play a multiplicity of roles, and you’re a single person. Now you are under unprecedented levels of stress and uncertainty — with your child at home.
A single parent depends on help to accomplish her goals. And right now we have next to no help — so this can cut a single parent off at the knees. Because honestly, as a single mom, I’m only as good as the help I have. And right now you know, I’m not so good.
CNN: You say it’s important to have a daily routine, which makes kids feel more secure, and it’s also a good time to explore new hobbies. How can single parents do that?
Simmons: I have parent friends who are married, and some of them are doing elaborate cool projects at home with their kids. And I’m really impressed and also a little envious. What I can do is have my child learn how to do something I’m already needing to do, so that might be cooking dinner. That’s me giving my daughter access to a sense of accomplishment.
I also think that paying your kid to help you is not the worst thing. Every kid should be pitching in around the house, just because that’s part of being in a family, but if you have new challenges due to Covid, it’s OK to pay your kid a dollar to clean up her room if you don’t want the hassle. Don’t judge yourself. Don’t sweat it. Just do it.
Leaning on your friends is very important. One thing that happens with single parents is that because we have to do everything, we may feel more self-conscious about asking for help, because we’re not used to having it. So I think asking for help is really critical right now, whether that help is in the form of asking for someone to hang out with you and talk at night about stuff to asking if a friend has any extra toys or puzzles or books that might occupy your child.
CNN: You recently had a birthday drive-through for your daughter’s eighth birthday. How did that turn out?
Simmons: I reached out to everyone and asked. It meant so much to my daughter and me to see our friends waving from their cars. We didn’t realize how powerful it would be.
CNN: What has being a single parent taught you that you find useful now?
Simmons: I think as a single parent, you have always known that you’re largely on your own, and it’s mostly just you. Some coupled families are facing that feeling for the first time with the loss of childcare and schooling.
When you are a single parent, you’re always going to be the one who’s interrupted; you’re always going to be the one who gets pulled away from what you are doing. I know people who are able to work full days because their spouses are taking care of the kids right now. I haven’t had eight hours away from my child since this started.
This is really hard. If I already felt like I wasn’t a good enough parent, that feeling is so much more pronounced right now. But I think most of us are feeling that way right now!
CNN: As parents, we’re going to screw up. You’ve talked about the importance of apologizing to your child by writing a letter of apology. How is that beneficial?
Simmons: Writing a letter takes the act of apology and repair to the next level by showing how seriously you take it. For kids to get a note means something really different than it does for us. It’s an even more intentional and committed act of accountability. It shows, “I take this seriously, and I want you to know that I respect you.” That can go a long way.
CNN: Is it OK for our kids to see us sad or worried right now?
Simmons: It’s really important for kids to see parents feeling their feelings, for so many reasons. Your kids need to know right now it’s OK to feel scared; it’s OK to feel anxious. Acknowledging feelings normalizes them for your children — and it also helps us to get a little distance from them.
CNN: What about anger or saying things we may be sorry for later?
Simmons: When kids see us feel, even in ways we regret, we have an opportunity to show them how to recover. So I just screamed at my kid, and I now have to say, “You know what, that was wrong. I lost control. I was totally inappropriate, and I need to do better next time.”
We’re not just modeling accountability. We’re modeling more adaptive and positive coping strategies, and you can do that after you screw up.
CNN: How can this be an opportunity to communicate more effectively and build resilience in children?
Simmons: When children feel comfortable around a range of feelings, it gives them more permission to express their feelings, which makes them more resilient. You’re not more resilient because you don’t feel your feelings. You’re more resilient because you can move through your feelings, acknowledge them, name them, make sense of them and pass through them.
CNN: What are some of your favorite tips for calming yourself down?
If I’m lucky enough to catch myself in the middle of losing my patience with my daughter, I close my eyes and try to feel my feet on the floor — that allows me to pause and think before acting.
One of the ways that we end up regretting our behavior is when we do or say something without thinking; we react impulsively instead of responding with intention. And so what mindfulness allows you to do is pause so you can respond with more intention, and not just be reacting and saying whatever comes to your mind.
CNN: I’ve noticed your funny Insta stories, including one of your dog dozing off while listening to Whitney Houston. How is humor getting you through this time?
Simmons: Humor for me sometimes is a way to express outrage, or a way to make sense of my difficult feelings, by poking fun at a situation or myself. And then humor is a stress release. It’s both of those things. Typically whatever I’m posting has made me laugh so hard myself. When I encounter my dog sleeping like that, I just start cracking up and I laugh my a– off picking the right song for him.
Lisa Drayer is a nutritionist, an author and a CNN health and nutrition contributor.