The other day I was talking to a friend who has two sons. She was telling me about how she’d gone out for the afternoon with just her eldest son, and how lovely it had been to sit and have a drink and a chat with him. Then she stopped herself and said “you probably think this is silly; you do this with S every day!”
The thing is, I didn’t think it was silly. If anything, I thought it was a good reminder.
When it’s just you and your child, it’s really easy to forgo the “quality time” aspect of things, in favour of things like doing the washing up or making sure there are clean clothes in the wardrobes and food in the cupboards. I’m self employed too, so that adds an extra layer of “things which take up time and attention.” Just as in any relationship, when you spend that much time together with just the two of you, it’s easy to forget to make any of it quality time – you’re just in the same building at the same time.
It’s easy to get to the end of the week and realise you’ve not actually spent any time together. Well, I mean, aside from school we spend all of our time together. But there’s being in the same house as someone, and there’s spending time together.
Spending quality time together is important to me – to us – because it’s how we maintain a close bond. It really is S and I against the world here, and I try really hard to make sure we maintain that bond. Often on the rare occasions S has trouble containing her emotions or doing as she’s asked, it’s usually because we’ve lost that connection. A few minutes sitting on my lap having a cuddle, and she’s usually right as rain.
The parenting books talk a lot about bonding and attachment with babies, but once they’re out of the toddler stage, what parenting books there are out there tend to be focused on sleep. I’m mostly making up this parenting lark as I go along to be honest; even when I do read parenting books I’m apt to either shout at them or launch them across the room. Or both!
Here are some of the ways I make sure S and I stay connected…
- Saying the same things. S and I say the same things to each other, in practised little dialogues every day. We say the same things as she goes into school, as she comes home from school and as she goes to bed. I don’t mean we say the exact same thing to each other, every day – but I ask the same questions, and she gives versions of the same responses. I believe this gives her a sense of continuity and something she can rely on. Which sounds weird now that I write it down, but it works for us.
- Question and answer. This is quite similar to the one above, but we have a set of questions we ask each other, which have similar responses. Instead of telling S I love her, I’ll ask her, how much do I love you? She’ll then reply with one of several responses, my favourite of which is bigger than a unicorn horn! Sometimes she’ll tell me there’s a “new bigger” and come up with something else too. I might also say what would make me not love you? and she loves to shout, NOTHING!
- Holding hands. S is probably the only five year old I know who holds my hand all the time while we’re out of the house. Even when we’re in shops or parks where there is no danger of being run over, even when I tell her she doesn’t have to hold my hand, often she will choose to hold my hand. I think that provides comfort and connection for both of us.
- Celebrating silly anniversaries. S and I have numerous designated “special” days throughout the year. We celebrate random anniversaries, including Easter Monday because she was born on Easter Monday. We don’t necessarily have big, expensive days out on these days – but I do try to do something with just the two of us. We might go for a walk, or out somewhere for a meal. I might buy her a balloon or something. Most importantly though, we spend time together, and we do something that makes the day different from an ordinary day. Really, these dates on our calendar are more just reminders, little prompts to not just have another ordinary day, and to do something a little special.
- Cuddles. We cuddle a lot. Like, all the time. In the mornings if S wakes up while I’m still in bed she will join me for cuddles. Then there are pre-breakfast cuddles, post-breakfast cuddles, impromptu cuddles on the way to school, playground cuddles… you get the idea. Possibly the best parenting tip ever is to just ask “do you need a cuddle?” It solves most problems in our house and is a great way to make sure we’re both ok. Cuddles are good for you.
- Aromatherapy balms. This might be the weirdest thing on this list, but I don’t care. I have a set of Scentered aromatherapy balms, and each morning before school I put a little of the “Love” balm on her wrists. The idea is that when she sniffs it during the day, she remembers that I love her. Quite often on the way home from school she’ll tell me about a time during the day when she sniffed at her wrist. This morning when I put it on for her she smelled it and said, “it smells like you love me!”
- Routine. I know we have what some would consider a very rigid routine, but it works well for us and we don’t deviate from it often. We get up at more or less the same time, and we go to bed at the same time every day. After school we walk home together and do more or less the same things before bed. On the days when I have to finish work, I will do so usually while sitting in the same room as S while she either plays, draws or watches a Peter Pan dvd (she’s obsessed by Peter Pan).
- Taking time. Sometimes I find it’s easier to just admit defeat and give up on whatever I was planning to do. Sometimes in the evenings, even as a big grown-up five year old, S can be unsettled and it’s just easier if I’m near her. Since I’m strict that “bedtime means bedtime” I won’t bring her down to me; instead, I go upstairs and sit with her for a while until she feels more settled and calm.
- Magic breathing. When S is having trouble managing her excitement or her emotions, we will sometimes stop and do magic breathing together. I can’t remember where I learned this from, but it’s a great way to calm an over-excited child, but also to re-establish that connection. I take her hands and crouch or kneel down to be at her level, and we breathe deeply together. As we breathe in, we lift our hands and as we breathe out, our hands lower – and I try to maintain eye contact with her. We only do it for 3 or 4 breaths, but it really helps.
The thing about being a single parent is that S often ends up having to be more independent than other children her age. On school days her alarm goes off while I’m exercising (or hiding under my duvet – either way, she gets herself out of bed). She dresses herself while I’m in the shower. She opens her own curtains, makes her own bed and brushes her own hair while I faff about getting myself dressed. There are lots of other things she does for herself that her classmates or contemporaries will often have help with – but because there is only one of me, and I can’t always come when she wants help, she has learned to help herself a lot of the time.
Although she is quite independent in certain areas of her life, it’s also very important to me that we maintain our close relationship. I am the only parent she has, and she doesn’t really have an extended family who take an active interest in her life – so really, I am all she has and ours is the only close relationship she has. I think the same is probably true for a lot of single parents, especially those of us with an only child where we can often find we have a very close bond. That bond is something we need to work to maintain though. I suppose it’s a lot like being married, where it’s easy to just let things slide, or you can make an effort to still appreciate each other and spend time together that is not spent washing up or painting the shed!