I'm a divorced parent who struggles with setting a limit on screen time for my three kids.
I want them to respect me, but I also want them to like me — and I need to get my work done.
Parenting as a single mom means discovering my limits, giving myself grace, and finding balance.
Though I try to give my kids only two hours of screen time a day — tablets, TVs, and video games included — that desire is at odds with all I have to accomplish. As a single mom, I find it difficult to keep them occupied while getting through my to-do list; they know the devices are there, and if I'm depriving them, I'm seen as the bad guy.
One Saturday morning, I woke up, fried the bacon, and whisked the eggs for breakfast. As soon as the last piece of extra-crispy bacon was on the plate, all three children asked, "Can I go on the computer?"
In our house, the computer is the holiest of the screens, and there's fierce competition for time in front of its glow.
"I want to go first," the youngest, Tommy, squealed.
"You always go first!" the oldest, Genny, responded.
"No, I don't! You're lying!"
"You're both lying," the middle child, Nicky, said. "You both always go first. But what about me?"
I took control. Tommy would go first, then Nicky, then Genny. Everyone would get 30 minutes — they'd log their start and end time with me so I'd know they were being fair.
"Mom, can I use my tablet while I wait?" Genny asked.
"That's not fair," Nicky said. "That should count as her electronics time. Unless I can watch television while I wait ..."
I feel like I can't win
I felt myself wavering. In my head I had the conversation I would've had with my ex-husband. "Can they be on other screens while waiting for the computer?" I asked myself. I'm prone to emotional responses, and I was looking to a hypothetical other for a logical answer.
I want my kids to like me, even though I know I'm not supposed to be their friend. I also want them to respect me, and I feel like I can't figure out the right balance.
I knew a strong parent was needed, and I reminded myself I could survive their complaints. I want my kids to learn how to deal with difficult feelings, which means I need to deal with my own.
I came to a conclusion. "No electronics while waiting," I said. "We have toys and the worldwide outdoors. And the millions of Legos in the basement."
Eye-rolls and disgruntled murmurs.
"It's creepy down there," Genny said.
I don't like to put adult pressures on their shoulders, but the reality of single parenting can't be completely hidden from them.
"Guys, I have to finish up work I wasn't able to this week because I was tending after you," I said. "I need to pay bills and grade my students' essays, and I wanted us to do something fun, too."
There was some back-and-forth. Finally, we compromised. They'd spend 15 minutes reading, and then they could each have time on their tablet or watch TV while they waited for their 45 minutes of computer time. I could work and focus on what had to get done.
My reprieve was short-lived
"I want a snack!" Tommy said.
"Help yourself," I said over my shoulder while heading to my desk.
Just as I opened my laptop, I heard the pat, pat, pat of little feet. I was interrupted again by pleas for junk food.
"You can have fruits or vegetables," I said.
A moment of silence as I scanned our bills.
"Mom?" Nicky asked from the doorway. "Can you cut up a nectarine, please?"
Nectarine chopped, and I was back to the laptop. Then Tommy wanted grapes washed and Genny needed help brushing her hair.
I fulfilled these additional requests, and 10 minutes later I returned to the office. I imagined what my ex-husband might do; I realized he'd probably be playing computer games too.
I reminded myself I can do this without anyone's advice — but a coffee boost might help.
I need help, but it's just me
This would've been a natural time to reach out to friends or family to give me a break, but, unfortunately, my circle is small. I'm the one who asked for the divorce, and I moved after it was final. My friends and family didn't understand why I wanted to separate, but I knew it was the right choice. I'm afraid my friends will say they told me being a single mom would be hard; it makes me feel like I can't ask for their help.
So on this day, I did it the hard way. I got dressed, grabbed the keys, and loaded the kids into the car to drive to the coffee shop, since I hadn't made it to the grocery store that week and I desperately needed caffeine.
Twenty minutes later we were back at home, the kids finishing off their doughnuts. I reviewed my to-dos.
Then I heard arguing in the other room.
I warned them, "If I have to come out there, everyone's going to their rooms for five minutes!"
Five minutes — how pitiful. Why can't I be stronger and more consistent? Why can't I be like those sitcom moms who get it all done and parent their children with perfected glares and stern instructions?
"I think my coffee is broken," I mumbled.
"Mommy, can we have more electronics?" they asked. Finally they agreed on something.
"Fine," I said. "I'm going to nap."
I felt defeated — like I had failed again.
I'm trying to cut myself some slack
I know I need to change my mindset and believe in my abilities. I can't compare myself to fictional characters or reality-TV stars with nannies, chefs, and tutors on speed dial.
This wasn't even a total fail; I took only a short nap because the coffee kicked in, and I headed downstairs feeling more confident.
The kids were on the Wii playing an active three-player game. I justified the extra electronics by telling myself that at least they were up, moving around — not loafing in front of the TV for hours like I did when I was a kid.
I was also present with them, even if I was working. I'm discovering what works for my family and what my limits are.
Needing the help of screens doesn't make me a bad mom
Maybe giving my kids a little extra screen time doesn't make me — or you, or anyone else — the worst mom of the century. I'm trying to be easier on myself, realizing I'm doing the best with what I have. We all are.
Like other parents today (perhaps especially single parents), I'm considering the research on screen time but also balancing that with our experiences and needs.
I'm giving myself the grace to recognize that the experts aren't living our lives and that I don't have to be a "perfect" single mom but rather a good-enough mom who loves her family and is willing to be flexible and creative in the face of challenges. Even if sometimes that means starting a Saturday off with good intentions only to have my kids' bacon-greased fingers all over the keyboard by noon.
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