How do I get by?
December 16, 2012 9:53 AM   Subscribe

Tips for single parents?

I am not strictly a single parent at the moment, but my wife is completely debilitated by (and to be realistic, will almost certainly die from, eventually) colon cancer, leaving me as the primary caregiver for our 15-month-old daughter. I am coming into this as the breadwinner in a traditional working father/stay-at-home mother family. I am lucky to have a good salary, which will allow me to hire a full time nanny to work 8-4 mon-fri, which is just barely enough time for me to go to work.

This still leaves me responsible for 16 hours of child care per day on weekdays, and 24 hours a day on weekends. I can get some help from friends, family and neighbors, but working around their schedules and trying not to be too much of a burden on anyone on particular is difficult and not particularly reliable. I can only afford to pay for so much child care, and the nanny is using up most of that.

This has been going on for about a month now and I have made a few strides (my daughter sleeps through the night now, from 7:30 till about 5:00AM), but I am still completely overwhelmed. To make things even more difficult, I also need to take my wife to doctor's appointments and chemotherapy treatments several times per week (although the nanny can do some of this as well).

I don't really know how to cope with this indefinitely. I feel like I can't bail fast enough to keep afloat, and on top of that, no one really knows how long my wife will survive, or if she'll ever really be well enough to care for her daughter until then.

Does anyone have any tips, advice, or resources for someone in my position? As an aside, it's a bit infuriating how few parenting resources seem to cater to fathers at all.
posted by tylerkaraszewski to Human Relations (28 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I am so sorry, what a difficult situation for you and your wife. Although you are asking about single parenting you may have more luck looking into caregiver support right now. Your wifes doctors, hospital social workers, and nonprofits in your area will have resources and help you connect with support networks. If you go even once in a while to, reach out to them. This is not a temporary crisis. Your family needs a village. And do reach out to friends, although I know it's hard. Those who can't babysit may know a family that's looking to nanny-share, etc. Best wishes to you all.
posted by headnsouth at 10:04 AM on December 16, 2012 [6 favorites]

Have you considered sending her to small daycare instead? It's cheaper than one nanny, and kids tend to develop social skills faster when surrounded by other kiddos.

So sorry for what you and your family is going through.
posted by Neekee at 10:16 AM on December 16, 2012 [9 favorites]

As a widowed father of a 10 year old (he was 6 when his mother passed), I feel you on the resources being almost always geared towards women/single mothers. My wife went through a long illness as well. The resources I have knowledge of are geared towards once one loses a spouse: The Liz Logelin Foundation ( helped me a great deal. The forums may be a place you should look into. I'm rooting for you and your little one.
posted by Jaymzifer at 10:29 AM on December 16, 2012

With a 15mo, you don't quite know this yet, but you won't need to cope indefinitely like this since it won't always be like this. The early months, up to about two-and-a-half years old, are pretty chaotic in terms of attentiveness to kids; you're on a really short leash and have to be ready at a moment's notice to help/redirect/feed/diaper/engage etc. But in my experience (with two kids, now 7 & 4) things get easier after 24 months (and easier still after the child-proofing stage).

Something you might consider is moving your daughter into a group daycare setting when you think she's ready. This has the benefit of putting you in close contact with other parents who have the same needs and sympathies, and with a group of eventual playmates for your daughter. I've had a number of free half-days when I've dropped my two kids off and then reciprocated some other day. This is especially great for federal/school holidays when you could opt to work (and get a lot of work done while no one's in your office, perhaps), and then get a day off to spend with your daughter.

For much longer down the road, keep your ear to the ground about good summer day camps. This is a big logistical hurdle I see single working parents dealing with after kids are in school.

Lastly, I suppose try to fake it 'til you make it in terms of confidence and reassurance with your daughter. Let her know the three, or if necessary, two of you will be ok, better than ok, that you'll handle things and always be there for her. It may get bumpy, and sad, and overwhelming, but as a parent---and you sound like a good one---at some point you realize failure is not an option and your outlook shifts accordingly, and you become much better at rolling with the punches. Best of luck.
posted by cocoagirl at 10:32 AM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Your child is old enough to go to daycare. This will likely be cheaper and more sustainable than a nanny. You may also consider asking if a relative would be willing to raise your child part time - is there a grandparent or aunt or uncle who might be into that? If so, it would give you some breathing room.

Finally, is your company large enough that you have family medical leave? Paid? You might take , even part time here and there (I *think* it doesn't have to be a contiguous block of days, but I'm not sure.)

Finally, ask your insurance and also the local cancer support group about assistance, and see also if there are ways you can connect with local parents to schedule play dates or shared care on weekends for your toddler.
posted by zippy at 10:37 AM on December 16, 2012

this isn't as parenting specific as you might want--
Friends... I know that it's so hard to rely on people or ask them, and it can feel so imposing, but presumably people have been saying to you, "let me know if I can help". Turn the vague offer into something concrete -- I always try to remind myself that people want to be helpful, people want to feel like they're doing something or have something to offer someone.

My dad still had to work while my mom was receiving daily radiation treatments pretty far from home, and I know that friends took her to those appointments sometimes. and I know that it helped my mom - even though she was depressed and I think ashamed of how sick she was in front of other people, it let her be connected to people or see them for even just a little bit when it was otherwise so difficult or just downright impossible for her to get out of the house.

I guess I'm just saying all this to try and empower you to impose on people and ask for help. I think people understand that this is the time, out of all times in the world, that you need this very badly.

There has to be a social worker connected with the doctor/oncologist/cancer center/where she's getting her care from. Although having a good salary can make it more difficult to find other sources of support, they should be helping you with finding resources (especially if as the breadwinner/dad, you're not familiar with how all the daycare stuff works/parenting resources, if your wife was taking care of all that before). Their job is to help you. They should know resources for respite care/home health care to watch your wife and be with her if you need to go somewhere with your daughter/take her somewhere.

I wish I could say anything regarding parenting and childcare. I know people who nanny-share, and daycare (maybe just part-time, have the nanny and daycare) might be an option (particularly so you can get more hours of childcare). I'm sorry there aren't resources out there for dads facing this situation, it must be isolating.

Get a couple of people tapped as emergency babysitters - if you have to go to the ER suddenly or something happens abruptly, if there's a couple of people who you can just drop your daughter off with or they can run over to your house asap, or the neighbor will take care of her in an emergency, that takes off a big issue.

I'm very sorry for your situation. I hope you can find the resources to help you navigate this.
posted by circle_b at 10:38 AM on December 16, 2012

The simple solution, in my eyes, if it is possible, is to ask one of your mothers to move in with you guys. It might not sound appealing, but the fact is, you need more sets of hands. If a mother or mother-in-law isn't available, one of your aunts or someone else retired or close to retirement age.

Then grandma can be at home, helping to care for your wife, and possibly taking toddler to part or full-time daycare.

PS, you're not a single parent. You are also caring for an ill spouse. This is a different situation.
posted by k8t at 10:42 AM on December 16, 2012 [9 favorites]

trying not to be too much of a burden on anyone on particular is difficult

Please confirm with your family and friends if this is truly how they feel. I have a close relative who was a single parent for a long time, and she tried so, so hard not to be a burden on us. It was sad for some of us on the sidelines to see her so overwhelmed and stressed, while still insisting she didn't need the help and didn't want to be a burden.

It's possible the people close to you (and even not so close) may be more than willing to help way more than you think. Of course, YMMV.

You are in my thoughts in this difficult situation. Good luck.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 10:48 AM on December 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

Hi Tyler. I read an earlier comment from you that touched on this and I've thought of your family often since then. I don't know if you're aware of it, but there is a book, Two Kisses for Maddy, about a family in a situation very like yours. The dad, Matt, has a blog and I remember, though I cannot find, a resource he developed for fathers of young children. You might ask him. If you scroll down there are also links on his sidebar.

I can get some help from friends, family and neighbors, but working around their schedules and trying not to be too much of a burden on anyone on particular is difficult and not particularly reliable.

Two things. One, don't worry about being a burden. People will want to help you. If I lived locally to you, I would and so would... loads and loads of other people. What people really need is to know how to help. Two, one of the things a close friend can do is organise for you all the people who want to help as your needs evolve, both before and after your wife's death. There are online organisers specifically for this. Make sure at least some of these people are prepared to be your 3 am emergency network, because cancer is just so unpredictable.

Finally, I would lifeboat tasks the way you guys maybe did right after your daughter's birth, and automate or outsource as much as possible. You need groceries (delivered), diapers (delivered) clean laundry, and clean toilets. You need to shower daily. You do not need clean floors or sparkling windows.

Are there specific things you are struggling with, like morning routines so you can get a shower or planning and making meals or.... just everything?
posted by DarlingBri at 10:52 AM on December 16, 2012 [7 favorites]

PS: I forgot to say... does your workplace allow time banking? IE can other employees donate vacation days or comp time to a fund you can draw on? If that is possible, I would do that without hesitation.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:06 AM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

You have two people in your life who are going to be pulling at you with irregular crisis driven schedules. When you're fifteen months, a poopy diaper is a crisis that needs to be resolved NOW. You need as many options and caregivers as possible.

One thing to do is to make a list of everyone and every place you can take your daughter for care. Set up accounts with a few drop in day cares in your area. Do you have neighbors who could take your daughter to a day care in a pinch? Pick up a spare car seat on Craigslist. Have the nanny print out a list of drop off day cares and their hours. Does your wife's hospital have a day care for the clinicians kids? If so, do whatever you need to do to get a spot there.

Last don't be a superhero. You need to take care of yourself. There's no crime in having someone care for your daughter and wife so that you can take a break. Cancer is a long, tough haul - for the patient and everyone who loves them. I wish you all the best.
posted by 26.2 at 11:12 AM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Just to reiterate—now is not the time to focus on not being a burden. Now is the time to receive the help that your friends, family, and community can and will offer.

It may seem incomprehensible now, but this too shall pass. Change will happen and this will get easier.

For now, I send you my thoughts, sympathy, and prayers.
posted by mynameisluka at 11:27 AM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

My husband was only sick (incapacitated/in hospital) for two months and I felt like I was ready for a nervous breakdown at the end before he got better. The hardest part was learning to accept help and learning that my daughter would be fine (even better off) in others' care while I dealt with the situation. If you are raising a child and going to work you are serving others at a minimum 14 hours a day. Nobody can work a 14 hour day, every day, without respite so task #1 is swallowing pride to get the help you need to make this work.

You need more than 8 hours a day of regular childcare or you will fail. If you can't afford to schedule the nanny for 10 hours a day (to allow running errands, commute, exercise/self-care, medical appointments), then do group daycare or look into augmenting the nanny with regular care by family members.

You can send your child away for overnight visits to parents, family, or neighbours on the weekends. Do this regularly, probably at least monthly if not bi-weekly or weekly while your wife is in crisis mode. You will need some rest, big time. I send my daughter to my mother-in-law's for a sleepover and my mother-in-law loves it. It is not a burden at all.

DarlingBri is right on about outsourcing. Let your family members take your wife to medical appointments if possible so you can stay at work - this is a task that is easily outsourced. I have to assume that you have hired house cleaners, etc but if not, do so now. Also I didn't do this when my husband was sick but I probably should have - buy paper plates, don't do dishes if your wife is in crisis situation. I had a hard enough time doing the dang laundry (which is too expensive/impractical to hire out in my opinion). I liked getting groceries and cooking meals for a while then I gave up, it's good enough just to eat (and accept donations of food from family and neighbours).

Start therapy - this was so helpful to me when my husband was sick, it gave me somebody to talk to and help me when I felt like it was all too much. You do have to set aside time for you.

I don't know what your job looks like, but make sure every possible piece of knowledge in your head is documented in a known place so that you can delegate your work in a time of crisis. In a perfect world I would have hired better into my team so I actually had somebody helpful to delegate to; but that's a different problem.

So sorry you are dealing with this. Best of luck.
posted by crazycanuck at 11:50 AM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

My mom was sick with cancer when I was a kid, and if I were your friend/neighbor/sister/cousin, I would consider it an honor to pitch in regularly to help out. This is literally what family is for.
posted by yarly at 12:59 PM on December 16, 2012

I disagree about daycare. Even at 15 months, your daughter doesn't need any more changes than are going to happen in the near future. Finding the right place at a time like this is more stressful than having a nanny, I think. You might consider sharing a nanny, having a live-in (if you have the space), getting a weekend steady sitter and asking family and friends for help. No one who knows you and your wife could possibly consider helping you at a time like this to be a burden. If not now, when? This is what friends and family do.
posted by Ideefixe at 1:59 PM on December 16, 2012

A very dear friend of mine is in the midst of a very similar situation in that she is undergoing treatment for cancer while also parenting a toddler and a newborn. Please, please do not try to be a superhero, or stoic, or worry about being a burden. There is no freaking way you can handle everything all by yourself. Your wife probably has a team of doctors managing her care; you need a team for your family. The people who love you will want to help. Ask people if they would be willing to be "on call" one or two days a month, to help with your daughter, drive your wife to appointments, or whatnot. There are a lot of people in your life who want to help you but don't know exactly what you need.
posted by ambrosia at 2:18 PM on December 16, 2012

Another option might be finding a stay at home mom who will take your daughter one or two days a week (perhaps Saturday, give you a bit of a break) for far less than a nanny costs and save at least some of that nanny money. Many stay at home moms do a little part time child care for a single child just to earn a little extra money.

If your friends (and your wife's friends) don't already know how overwhelmed you are, let them know. Let them organize some child care relief for you, let them organize a weekly dinner bringer. It's a trivial burden on your friends, and a major relief for you.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:23 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Child care is a good suggestion, and you could Google "Montessori" + your location to find some local Montessori schools that might take kids as young as your daughter. For ones that do take infants or toddlers, typical starting ages I've seen are 6 months, 12 months, 18 months, etc. If you want more information about Montessori, feel free to MeMail me. The reason I'm mentioning Montessori is because although not all of them are excellent, many are good and you might find their system to your liking.

One other big advantage of group child care is you will get to know other parents very easily, and they may become very good resources for you in terms of providing additional help.
posted by Dansaman at 2:49 PM on December 16, 2012

Something that you need to be aware of is that your friends and family will expect you, even if subconsciously, to do what men in your position have traditionally (and continue, as far as I can see) done -- which is to remarry quite quickly someone who will step into the domestic role. If you know yourself well enough to know that you are not going to be doing that, you need to be clear with people about it and build (and request help to build) more permanent structures.
posted by MattD at 2:50 PM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites] gets recommended a lot for families in your situation.

Emotionally, you might want to keep a list of the people who stepped up to help so that when things are calmer, you will be able to thank them or help them in some way, if that makes it easier for you to accept help without feeling like a burden.

Also think about what you would do for someone the same situation. You would probably easily agree to spend an hour each week helping out a colleague in a similar situation and getting other friends to pitch in. Asking for help is giving other people the opportunity to do something good and help people they care about, it's not a burden.
posted by viggorlijah at 8:21 PM on December 16, 2012

If you have ten people in your life who wouldn't mind a day of weekend day care here or there, that means you have ten half weekends sorted, and each person would only need to do 1 in every ten weeks. Roster your friends and family, rally them for support, I think you'll find them more than happy to help. If they can't do daycare, they will be MORE than happy to come over for an hour, bring over a cooked meal, help you clean, even just keep your wife company.

I'm sorry you are going through this. Please for the sake of your family, do not try to be strong. Call for help, and it will come. I promise.
posted by shazzam! at 9:09 PM on December 16, 2012

I also disagree about daycare. Your daughter has gone through enough stresses and changing caregivers could be very hard on her. Moreover, she's not really old enough to reap the benefits of socialization. Right now, she's in her own home with her mother nearby, and you don't have to get her ready, transport her, or deal with drop-off and pick-up, or rush through updates on her day because you need to get out of there. And, perhaps even more importantly, your nanny may be able to help with cleaning, shopping, meal preparation, taking your wife to appointments, running errands and other tasks. You would have to discuss these issues with the nanny, of course. Having the nanny in place will provide stability, especially if, as you say, your wife is going to become more ill. And, if your wife is well enough some of the time, your daughter can still benefit from time with her mom or at least have comfort in knowing mom is nearby. I know nannies are expensive, but it sounds like you've already made the best decision.

Maybe you could get some friends/family to help relieve you one evening and one weekend morning/afternoon. You probably need some self care time.

Can you do your grocery shopping online and have groceries delivered, perhaps to be put away by your nanny?

Hire a cleaner to come in even once a month.

If your family isn't helpful, look around in your community. People may not know how to help. If you can be specific - "I need someone to go get groceries for us on one Saturday morning a month" or "I need someone who can pick up milk and bread for me on Wednesday evenings" are the sorts of things many people can fit in while going about their own lives.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 10:40 PM on December 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Seconding "Two Kisses for Maddy", which is a great read.

Stating the obvious here: the single parenting isn't really the hard part. Lots of people, including me, do it and you'll figure it out. The hard terrible awful part is losing your wife and your daughter losing her mother, and that's something that you need a lot of support around. People will want to help - ask them for specific tasks. Use Mealbaby to have people bring food. and can be helpful for finding sitters - having two or three regular sitters in rotation may give you more flexibility than a single nanny, and will help you get some evening and weekend time into the rotation as well, which may be important as your wife gets more ill.

Many cities have support groups for parents who lose partners, and these may be helpful from a logistical support standpoint as well as an emotional support standpoint.

As everyone has said here, ask for more help than you think you have any right to ask for. You have your entire lifetime to repay favors if need be - but this is when you need your people to take care of you and your family.
posted by judith at 11:25 PM on December 16, 2012

Also just in terms of getting more help on board, note that people often think that home hospice is for crisis points and the final few days. Hospice actually focuses on palliative care and quality of life at home and can extend from six months of care to even longer. At least a couple of your local hospice will likely have services where they can give you more in home help, including meals and errands. The services are free (or covered.) You might want to talk to your wife's physician about home hospice help - hospice is a great, great thing and a lot of families will tell you they wish they had asked for hospice sooner and that it was the lynchpin that held their care plan (and their family) together.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:41 AM on December 17, 2012

If you're involved in a church, there are likely scads of women who would love to set up a schedule where a different person prepares and brings you dinner every night. My mom was involved in something like this for two local families when the wife was very ill, and she loved being able to do it for the husbands. Contact your local church office if this sounds helpful.
posted by jabes at 9:01 AM on December 17, 2012

Hey everyone, thanks for your responses so far. Some clarifications and things: I have no philosophical problem with daycare, and may send my daughter to one part-time or in addition to having the nanny watch her, but there are two main issues with this, one being that my wife is home in bed all day, and would like, when she's able, to be able to see her daughter as much as she can. The other is that we're a bit afraid that sending her to daycare makes her more inclined to get sick being around a bunch of other kids. Normally this would be minor, but she can't be sick and be around my wife while she's getting chemo.

Work has actually been fantastic about this. I have essentially been off work for a month now and they haven't complained. I work for one if those Silicon Valley places with "unlimited" vacation. But it's not really "unlimited" and I do have to go back to work eventually, which I'm planning on doing after the holidays once the nanny is up to speed (she's only here two days a week until the new year, due to her prior employment).

As far as help, we have had a lot of genuinely helpful people doing things like bringing us meals and taking out our trash and yesterday afternoon I dropped my daughter off with the neighbors for a couple hours when I just really couldn't handle it and needed a break. But there are times, like the other day my mom was over here helping and got a phone call rushing her back to work on five minutes notice, that I feel like we need more dedicated help that I know can be there when they say they will. It's emotionally exhausting to call a list of people asking for help and everyone has to be at work or can come until 10:00 or after 4:00 or whatever and you just don't have the energy to try and schedule everyone and teach everyone over and over where diapers are and how to operate the washing machine and no, really, my wife can't have leafy vegetables, yes I know they're normally healthy. This all sounds and feels so ungrateful, and it makes me feel bad about asking for help because, yes, I do need specific types of help at specific times of day.

We aren't members of a church.

One thing that was said above, that I realize is true but is easy to forget, is that it gets easier as kids get older. If I make it long enough for her to start preschool, which is still two years away, then I feel like I've made it through the toughest part. Two years is a long time but at least it sets a limit of sorts.

I will check out some of the provided organizations but what I think I need to do is be more concrete about what I need from people who offer to help. If I can get people to make real plans and have defined tasks, it might be easier for everyone.

I thank everyone who's commented so far for all your kind and helpful words.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 11:20 AM on December 17, 2012

One other thing to keep in mind if you have a list of friends who are willing to help byt you find it hard to organize them: pick one of those friends and let that person be the organizer. So, in your scenario, you would call that person and let them know the problem, then let them make the calls to find someone at short notice who could come over. That person (or a separate one) can also act as the scheduler so they can be the person to call around and get people to bring dinner and THEY can tell people really, no leafy greens.

So, to address your comment: what I think I need to do is be more concrete about what I need from people who offer to help, one of the things you need is someone to organize all the other people who might provide the help you need.
posted by CathyG at 11:50 AM on December 17, 2012

I think CathyG makes a great point: if you have one friend who is a crazy organized person you could sit down with them and make a big list of stuff - what you could use help with, instructions for caring for the baby, what your wife needs (or specifically does not need or want) and let them draft that up for you. They - or someone else, maybe the most socially connected of your friends/family? - could be drafted as the "people organizer".

I do think if you're specific and if you can get a roster of help on a regular basis it will make you less likely to need emergency help which is always more stressful. Yes, there will be times when you just can't take it anymore and need to hand your child off RIGHT NOW and you need someone(s) for that but if you know that "tomorrow morning XFriend is coming to take baby to the baby gym class for two hours" that will help you get through because you see that break ahead of you.
posted by marylynn at 4:16 PM on December 18, 2012

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