Covid-19 has hit single mothers particularly hard. Not only are single mothers overrepresented among the many millions of the newly unemployed, but a large percentage are essential workers, such as grocery clerks, health aides, and nurses. In my work on behalf of solo mothers, I’ve identified five key stressors they currently face: (1) fear of catching the virus, (2) managing their children’s fears and disappointments, (3) co-parenting challenges, (4) inability to work, and (5) worrying about being able to afford their homes or food. No one should have to worry about such basic necessities, but the hard truth is that today’s single mom families are teetering on the edge of economic catastrophe. They are scared and scrambling on behalf of their kids. There is no greater stress!
Worry robs us of sleep, undermines our focus, ratchets up our nervous system, and generally makes us feel out of control and miserable. Structural help, policies, and support systems are needed, but they take time. There are no easy answers. The following six more immediate strategies are aimed at nudging struggling moms toward emotional wellbeing. We are all challenged by the pandemic, but by using these psychological tools, we can feel stronger, happier, and more in control. You’ve got this!
1. Get grounded. A common outcome of anxiety, stress, and PTSD is rumination – a focused attention on your own stress and anxiety, to the point that you can’t imagine a solution and become paralyzed by negative emotions. Rumination can increase heart rate, blood pressure, and a host of awful, anxious feelings. Getting grounded is essential to feeling better. Alex Tripoli, an associate clinical social worker who works with clients who have panic attacks and PTSD, aims to ground his clients out of rumination and back into their other senses. Whether in person or online, he asks his clients to describe objects around them, noticing their texture, smell, or any sensory cues that will bring them back into their bodies and ground them in careful, mindful observations.
Tripoli isn’t surprised that single moms are having a hard time right now. “Moms are neuro-biologically wired to have empathy for their kids,” he says, “so if kids are struggling, there’s a good chance moms feel it.” When it comes to reducing anxiety and rumination, Tripoli refers to the interconnected cognitive triangle of thoughts, emotions, and behavior. “It’s useful to know that we can change, or at least influence one by changing the other.” As you go through this list, consider that by managing one part of the triangle, you can positively impact the others. Grounding techniques can break the cycle of negative thoughts and physical feelings that come with rumination.
2. Address emotional pain. A pandemic is not the time to ignore your emotional pain. While many of us are comfortable treating physical pain and ailments, we don’t pay adequate attention to our psychological injuries. It’s important to monitor and protect our self-esteem by avoiding negative self-talk and learning to break away from rumination. Guy Winch, whose popular TED talks and books, such as Emotional First Aid, tackle the science of emotional health, encourages us to stop the “emotional bleeding” by identifying and addressing the negative cycle we’ve entered.
As moms, we think nothing of researching colic, strep, or ringworm, but when it comes to mental health, we don’t always apply similar resourcefulness. Winch suggests that we educate ourselves about the impact of our psychological wounds by seeking information and support. I personally have worked to acknowledge where my emotional pain comes from and have learned that focusing on gratitude helps me feel emotionally healthier. I work on being grateful for the small moments of connection with my children, my health, and my family’s ability to laugh at almost anything. Try making a gratitude list to remind yourself of what’s going right instead of focusing on what’s wrong. Regardless of your strategy to bolster against emotional bleeding, be proud that you are addressing it and working to cure your pain!
3. Accept Uncertainty. The uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus—how it’s transmitted, how to treat it, how long social distancing will last—only adds to single moms’ anxiety and stress. The sooner we can accept that “the only certainty in life is uncertainty,” the better our ability to tame our fears, writes Dr. Anatasia Kim. Kim pushes us “accept the actuality of the COVID-19 pandemic. Neither denial or overreaction will change this truth.” Facing up to the fact that our current reality is challenging allows us to work on our mindset. Whether by practicing gratitude, mindfulness, grounding techniques, or positive self-talk, we should work on accepting that change is unpredictable and that we have the psychological tools to get through it. For example, Beverley Kalil, mom of two, shared that she was at risk of being overcome by the sadness and uncertainty of the pandemic but was able to shift her thinking to accept uncertainty. “There was no earth-shattering solution, no quick improvisation, no running to solve, but instead a gentle acceptance and kindness to myself with a promise that this too shall pass,” she writes. “I don’t control everything. So I smile and see my new superhero strength as patience.” It helps to acknowledge that we just don’t know the twists and turns this pandemic will take, and that’s OK.
4. Confront Fear Through Self-Care. For single moms, a deadly virus ratchets up an already anxious day-to-day reality. Instead of being paralyzed by fear, this is the moment to gain a sense of empowerment by taking control over situations. Dr. Diana Raab suggests that we can “balance our fear by maintaining a sense of well-being during these types of challenging times” through enhanced self-care, such as healthier eating, more sleep, exercise, journaling, and careful hygiene practices.” “Surrendering to the reality of the virus,” she concludes, “will make you less captive to it.”
Solo mom, Bonnie Wattleworth Schindler, who endured the illness and death of her husband, concurs. “Focus on what you can control even if it’s silly,” she advises. While caregiving, she became obsessed with a Reddit thread called Skincare Addiction. “My husband was dying, but I was going to figure out my formula for fabulous skin. It sounds very weird, but it ended up being a form of self-care, and something I could control and master.”
Single moms are notorious for putting themselves last while selflessly focusing on their children’s well-being. Now is an excellent moment to seek power through self-care and take charge of your health. Fitness and healthier eating make your body stronger, bolster the immune system, and even release endorphins that make us feel better! Improved self-care doesn’t need to feel like a punishment. Set realistic goals, don’t overdo it, and choose exercise that’s fun and practical, such as dancing with kids, pushing a stroller, trying some easy yoga poses, or watching a free workout video. Your body and mind will thank you!
5. Extend Kindness. I recently asked Donna Cameron, author of A Year of Living Kindly: Choices That Will Change Your Life and the World Around You, how the act of kindness relates to our current COVID reality. “Kindness may not sound like a powerful weapon against a global pandemic,” she told me, “but it has the capacity to combat fear, inspire trust, and bring people together—even as we maintain physical distance.” She explains that it takes courage to extend kindness. “To look out for our isolated neighbors, to notice who’s struggling and seek ways to help them, to exercise patience and withhold judgment, and to bite back a snarky comment when our buttons are pushed.”
Cameron also encourages single mothers to practice self-kindness: “If you aren’t taking care of yourself, you won’t have the wherewithal to care of others.” A shift toward self-kindness is a dramatic and healthy one for many moms. Cameron also encourages us to think about how our kids will look back on this time. “Will they remember the stories of scuffles over toilet paper, of hoarding and price-gouging, of angry finger-pointing at people of different nationalities?” she asks. “Or will they tell their own children and grandchildren how, even in isolation, people found ways to connect with and support one another?” It’s difficult to feel self-pity and anxiety when we’re extending kindness to our communities, our families, and ourselves. “It’s how we retain our humanity,” Cameron says, “and emerge from the pandemic stronger, more resilient, and committed to creating a better world.”
6. Seek Joy. Over a decade ago, the writer Ariel Gore began investigating what brings joy to women. In light of the pandemic, she re-asked women the question, “What brings joy?” Gore writes, “Nobody’s happy right now. Either we’ve got a deadly disease or we’re freaked out we’re going to get a deadly disease; our income has tanked or we’re freaked out our income’s about to tank; or we’re finally facing the fact that we’re totally not going to Paris next month. It’s a global grief sandwich.” But she insists this is the ideal time to aim for joy. In her survey, Gore found that there remain solid generators of joy that we can turn to. Many of them involve tapping into our creativity and nourishing our soul: enjoying nature, music, writing, drawing, gardening, cooking, and dancing. If you’re still searching for your own joy and haven’t tried any of these, give them a go. Better yet, please share what brings you joy – you deserve that and more! Stay well!