For a lot of parents, the first day of school comes as a welcome relief after a summer filled with too many unscheduled days. With school comes hours of structure and supervision, built-in social time for kids, homework at night and reasonable bedtimes.
But even in a two-parent household, juggling the daily routine -- class schedules, extracurricular activities, work and personal time -- is a major challenge. For single parents, the academic year can send the stress level into the stratosphere.
Just ask Laurel resident Colandra Coleman, 10-year-old Derek Giles's mom. Coleman's ex-husband lives in Philadelphia, and she has no family here. Though she has school mornings "down to a science," including waking up an hour before her son, there's no time for even a decent cup of coffee. And although she usually picks up her son from after-school care by 6 p.m., she says that since her divorce in 2001 she has felt "guilty for not doing anything other than saying, 'Here's your dinner,' 'Is your homework done' and 'Get in the tub' " on school nights.
She tries to read him a story or play a game with him at night, but confesses, "I'm drained and exhausted. I do it because that's what mothers do, but I wish there were someone else there to alternate with."
The routines "are backbreakers for single parents," says William J. Doherty, author of "Take Back Your Kids: Confident Parenting in Turbulent Times." "Those put them over the top in a way that doesn't happen in two-parent households because they can trade off."
Add another child to the mix and the situation gets more complicated.
Arlington single parent Gina Urgena feels torn on school nights when both her daughters, ages 7 and 9, want her to help them with assignments at the same time. Vienna single dad Gary Gomez, whose two boys, ages 6 and 9, live with him during the school year, finds it hard to make it to both of their events on weekdays because the activities often take place simultaneously.
And on Saturdays and Sundays? "I don't have weekends," he says, explaining that he's so busy taking the boys to church, Sunday school, sports games and 4-H that he has little downtime for himself.
Having an ex-spouse nearby who is involved in the children's lives would seem to reduce some of the burdens of the school year for single parents. But when children move from mom's house to dad's and back on a weekly or more frequent basis, logistical problems can result. Who is responsible for purchasing school supplies, filling out forms, scheduling teacher conferences and making sure the children have the correct homework assignments at each parent's house?
Susan Folwell, a single mother of four boys, ages 6, 11, 14 and 16, faces such challenges. Both she and her ex-husband live in Clifton and the children stay at each parent's home on alternate weeks. The parent who houses the children during a particular week is the custodial parent, so each one fills out a separate set of emergency forms and needs to make sure he or she has copies of all the necessary paperwork from three schools (two years ago it was four). Communication with her ex "isn't always smooth because you don't always remember to fax or e-mail" every detail, she says.
Children's problems and anxieties related to school compound a single parent's worries and unfortunately, in the first couple of years after a divorce, certain issues commonly pop up, says Judith S. Wallerstein, author of "What About the Kids? Raising Children Before, During, and After Divorce." These can include problems with academic work, difficulty separating from a parent, the resentment of older children who have to supervise younger siblings after school, and fear or boredom among children who regularly come home from school to an empty house.
Despite these challenges, single parents can find ways to promote a balanced and happy family life, as well as success for their children in school. Here are 10 stress-reducing strategies recommended by family life experts:
* Pool resources: Share a babysitter, join a baby-sitting co-op or trade off child care duties, such as picking up kids, with a neighbor or friend, says Della De LaFuente, deputy editor for work/life at Working Mother magazine. Doing any of those helps the parent but also serves as "a great way for kids to meet each other and play together," she notes.
* Ask family members to help: This can save money, give your life more balance and help you achieve a higher comfort level while at work. As a bonus, it brings the family together, De LaFuente says.
* Don't reproduce the excesses of two-parent households: Many children in intact families are overscheduled in their extracurricular activities, says author Doherty, who is also a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. Feeling guilty that you can't do that "is like feeling guilty that you can't overfeed your child," he says.
Additionally, many parents are over-involved in homework, Doherty says, because they view it incorrectly as "a parental chore and not a child responsibility." Better to let the child do most of the homework on his own, he advises.
* Don't tailor individual meals: Single parents tend to cater to each child's whims at dinnertime "because there is no other parent to say, 'Forget it, I'm not eating hot dogs again,' " says Doherty. But resist the urge and simply prepare one meal for everyone.
* Enlist your child's help: Kids can do age-appropriate household chores. Keep a master calendar for all activities, and prepare the following day's clothes, lunchbox and backpack the night before, suggests single mom Urgena, founder of the Single Parents Community Network, a Washington area support network.
* Expect scheduling conflicts: When they occur, prioritize and alternate events for each child, says Urgena. Give preference to one-time special events over weekly ones.
* School and teachers play an important role: Children in recently divorced homes may need extra attention. Teachers may be more tolerant of forgotten or late assignments if they are aware of issues such as a custody arrangement, says Wallerstein. "A sympathetic teacher means a lot more to a kid just out of a breakup than to a kid from a home with two parents," she notes. "School is for many of these children the most continuing part of their lives while many other parts are breaking up."
* Involve your employer: Many companies now offer flexible schedules to employees, including telecommuting. De LaFuente advises checking with your supervisor on scheduling options. Single mom Susan Folwell arranged such a schedule with her employer, the Women's Center in Vienna, and works full-time every other week when her ex-husband has the boys and part-time when the kids are with her.
* Cut yourself some slack, and don't expect to be able to do it all.
Says Urgena: "The house may be messy, you might have cereal for dinner and your lawn might need mowing, but it is important to enjoy the journey and not let the to-do list take over."