Until my divorce, I was a stay-at-home mom – the default parent – handling everything from teacher meetings and play dates to doctor’s visits and ice cream outings (my son and I call ourselves “ice cream buddies”). Our closeness made transitioning to shared parenting feel impossible. I felt like a part of myself was missing when we weren’t together.
I’m far from alone. To say that making the switch to a joint custody arrangement is difficult on both children and parents is an understatement. We develop strong, natural bonds with our kids and become accustomed to their constant presence. With the change in family dynamics that inevitably comes with divorce, feelings of loss and longing can be intense.
Experts say prioritizing your emotional well-being and maintaining a positive mindset is vital in challenging moments. Now is the time to validate your feelings, lean on loved ones, and get to know yourself again. That may feel overwhelming, but there are effective ways to cope. These expert-approved strategies will help you navigate your new parenting routine (and time without your kids) with strength and resilience.
Navigating single parenthood with self-compassion
If you’re recently divorced, divvying up parenting time can come as a shock. When you’re used to being a full-time parent, having your child part-time can make you feel lost, Rachel Snow, a divorce coach and founder of Luminary Divorce Coaching in Denver, Colorado, said. “Not many people set out to be single parents, so coming to terms with that is very challenging,” she said.
Beyond missing your child’s laugh, presence, and smell, there’s a sudden hole in your day-to-day life, Nikenya Hall, a grief counselor and founder of Achieving Balance Counseling & Holistic Center in New York City, said. She said you must work through the significant shift to your schedule and routine.
Do you feel lonely or worry about your children when they’re gone? Are you grieving the end of your family unit? These are feelings that will take time to work through. “Give yourself grace for navigating something you have never done before,” said Snow.
Comfort your child through shared parenting
“Kids thrive on continuity, so it’s paramount to make sure you keep in touch with them throughout the week,” said Irina Baechle, LCSW, a therapist and relationship expert based in Raleigh, North Carolina. That’s especially true when you’re apart, she said.
Children need to know that you are there for them no matter what, Snow agreed. She says to encourage them to call or message you whenever they want or need.
Let them guide the conversation, and be sure to validate their feelings, she said. After all, if you’re hurting, chances are your child is too.
If your child confides in you, show up authentically, acknowledging your own emotions without burdening your child. Pretending to be 100 percent happy during difficult times makes kids feel isolated, said Hall. If your child expresses sadness, a simple, “Mom is sad too. Mom is trying to adjust too,” is more impactful than putting on a false front, said Snow.
Create a support system
This isn’t the time to go it alone. Hall recommends identifying individual strengths among your village of friends and leaning on them where appropriate. For example, is there a specific friend always up for going out or running errands? Call them if you need to get out of the house. Is one friend a great listener who’s comfortable with big emotions? Reach out when you need to vent.
Friends and family can be helpful for love and distraction, agreed Snow. However, their support can only go so far if they haven’t experienced the same situation, because they can’t fully understand what you’re going through, Snow said.
Hall and Snow recommend seeking the help of a professional. “Your friends and family can’t support you the way a therapist can,” said Snow. Hall points out that a safe, unbiased, supported space to process your emotions is always beneficial.
Focus on self-care
“Use your alone time to fill your cup so you can be your best self with your children,” said Snow. She suggests getting plenty of rest, eating healthy whole foods, staying hydrated, and staying active – think yoga, walks, hikes, and swimming.
If you’re unsure where to begin, Baechle advises taking it slow – five minutes is all you need. “Tell yourself, ‘I am going to take a five-minute walk right now,’ or ‘I am going to do yoga for three minutes.’ Once you get started, you will go for longer than the initial three to five minutes you set,” she said.
Baechle suggests creating a list of what uplifts and motivates you to get through tough moments:
- Do you enjoy writing? Look intojournaling.
- Do you enjoy sweating and working out? Try a high-intensity workout, a sauna session, or a relaxing yoga class.
- Do you find talking to a friend helpful? Find a therapist or support group.
Make your time together count
When you are with your children, make the most of your time together. You only need five minutes of quality time with your kids to make it count, said Baechle. “Put your phone away, get on their level, attune, engage, and stay present,” she said.
Quality time can be simple – even playing Legos with your child for an hour will fill their cup, said Snow. “They want a present and loving parent,” she said.
Be patient with yourself as you navigate a new parenting situation, said Snow. “Guilt is part of being a parent. If you know you have done the best you could, give yourself grace,” she said. Divorce and parenting are all full of uncertainty, and while you can’t change how things unfold, you can manage your reaction and your expectations, said Snow.
Not being able to kiss my son goodnight every day or hug him after a tough day at school tugs at my heartstrings. But two years in, I have learned ways to lessen the ache by nourishing my own physical and emotional needs, seeking the support of a therapist, and staying closely connected when we’re apart.
I can’t tuck my son into bed each day, but I can FaceTime with him to say, “Sweet dreams, I love you, night night.” And that’s a comfort to us both.