How I Survived Seven Days as a Solo Parent

When my wife went away for a week on business, it was just me and two toddlers. And things quickly got real.

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For the past six days, I have been a single dad. My wife has been traveling abroad for work, her longest stint by far since we had kids, and I’m home alone with our two boys ⏤ one 3.5-years-old, the other 20-months. I feel like Atlas holding the world on my shoulders, and I have never been more in awe of single parents (or those who don’t get much help from their spouses) in my life. Also, I’m incredibly tired.

Raising two toddlers is hard enough work with two parents around. Spend a week on your own, however, and you more fully understand what athletes mean when they speak of being “in the zone.” You reach a state of higher existence where you block out every distraction and live entirely in the moment. It would be almost beautiful if it weren’t for the fact that you’re in a primitive survival mode. That and all the toys scattered around the house.

You have no choice but to operate at peak efficiency. You must minimize movements to conserve energy, yet maximize effort. One kid is upstairs. One kid is downstairs. You’re trying to cook dinner. A minute can’t go by without one of them needing engagement. “Daddy! Come down here!” You swoop out of the kitchen but out of the corner of your eye notice a small pile of dirty napkins that need to be moved to the laundry room. Reach and grab them in stride. Don’t let it slow you down, but do this now. It will save you time later. Did I mention that you are a neat freak?

While down in the laundry room, you hear a crash and a wail from upstairs. It’s your youngest, but it doesn’t sound life threatening. The stopwatch restarts on achieving whatever task the 3.5-year-old needed so urgently. Ah, a game of firefighter? You play for a minute, race up the stairs and scoop the little guy into your arms while returning to a now boiling pot of water. You notice the compost bucket is nearly full. A lot of cantaloupe rinds in there. You don’t need fruit flies tomorrow; that would inject an annoyance into the system you couldn’t possibly take on right now.

In an instant, you make a Terminator-style calculation. Three minutes left on the pasta timer. Baby in arms. Quiet downstairs. Fuck fruit flies. You can do this in 30 seconds. You mix in these small tasks that are necessary to keep the engine of the house moving forward. You put that dirty milk glass straight into the dishwasher. Have a second? Move the laundry. Wipe down the dining room table and the kitchen counters. You must think like a Zen monk and act like an octopus with a crystal meth addiction.

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You have no choice. If you’re lucky, there may be an hour between when they go to bed and when you must do the same. You can’t sacrifice a night of good sleep. You can’t afford it. Fatigue is the silent killer waiting to rob whatever measure of patience you possess ⏤ to sabotage all of your efforts. Plus, you need that hour to yourself as much as possible. Denying someone the space to decompress is a known method of torture.

It’s also a sad fact that you can’t rely on some of your usual tricks, techniques you would happily employ were a second parent in the house. Letting them watch TV is tempting, of course, but the 3.5-year-old is like an experienced predator. He can sense fear. One video and he knows he has you. After one, he will relentlessly stalk you like a crazed cheetah for more. The 30 minutes of relief will backfire and turn into a three-dimensional closed-loop negotiation until the time your spouse returns. And you need to be in the business of eliminating chaos and conflict, not breeding it.

One of the upsides, however, is that you don’t need to feel guilty about not going to the gym. A few days of solo parenting could be the new P-90X, a fad full-body exercise, and weight loss regimen. Adding a weekend makes it more like boot camp. On Sunday, I conceded the point and simply wore workout clothes all day.

I’m writing this on night six as the boys sleep peacefully in their room. My wife will be home tomorrow. A sense of relief is building, as is the feeling of satisfaction that comes from knowing that this particular crucible has been met. Or maybe it’s just that my bucket is filled, as our oldest says. Getting so much uninterrupted time with your children is a gift. There’s a special kind of photosynthesis that occurs when you’re the sole beneficiary of all the goodness they radiate.

Tomorrow it’s back to dual parenting. My wife will be eager to spend as much time with them as possible, and I’ll be eager to let her. But after a few moments to relax, however, I’ll probably peek in ⏤ you know, to see if anyone is up for a game of firefighter.

Sean Smith is a father of two boys and lives in Berkeley, California. When he’s not playing firefighter, he runs the Reputation practice at Porter Novelli.