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What Single Moms Really Want, From Someone Who Has Been There

March 21 is National Single Parent Day. Instead of empty praise, try folding her laundry. Trust me.

March 21 is National Single Parent Day. This might not sound like a big deal, except it really is — just ask the 15.7 million kids living with a single mom in the United States. Actually don’t ask them. Ask me. Ask me how to help a single mom in ways that are going to change her life for an hour or a week or the rest of her days. Ask me because I’m a single mom who was raised by a single mom who knew all of the best ways to help. To make my life raising four little boys tolerable some days, manageable others, and sometimes... sometimes just the most fun ever.

My mom raised my brothers and me on her own until I was 13 years old, but she had help. She had family in town, though we all know what a glorious double-edged sword that can be. My grandparents were co-conspirators with us kids more than help, though don’t tell them I said that. They loved eating junk food and staying up late to watch black-and-white shoot-em-up movies or Danielle Steel miniseries with their very small grandchildren. They loved to let me skip school. Also they loved to roll their eyes with me behind my mom’s back if she was trying to discipline me, which brings me to the first way you can help a single mom.

Model Respect

One of the less fun parts about being a single parent is that it’s really awkward to ask for respect. Like when I had to ask my sons to give me Mother’s Day presents as though I was just that desperate for tissue paper flower bouquets with a side of Nesquik cereal for breakfast. Asking your kids to respect you, to listen to you, to consider you, is not something that comes naturally and it can also feel sort of embarrassing. Like you’re asking them out on a date or something. So if you want to help out your single mom friend or daughter or sister or whoever, show her kids how much you respect her. How much you like her. How fun she is, how worthy. She will like this but also her kids will maybe see her as someone who is more than just their mom. Note: This is also good advice for all moms, I think.

Be Her Partner

So there was this one week when my mom came to visit me and she sort of became my spouse for a week. I was tired, all the time tired, working in an office all day and trying to manage the four boys at night. She moved in and married me, I think, but like a movie marriage from the ‘50s where she cooked me dinner, poured me a glass of wine, got the kids to start their homework, and slept in a separate bed. It was only a week but it got me over a real mom hump.

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Gift Certificates

We all know gift certificates solve pretty much anything, but this is sort of different. My mom once sent me a gift certificate for $50 for a fast-food chain. Enough for us to eat there one-and-a-half times if we were careful. Even better? A $50 gas card. Enough to give me the freedom to drive around with a coffee after school drop-off, which we all now know is the most personally romantic thing you will ever do from this day forward.

Dirty Laundry

This is a big one, deep breath: Go to your single mom friend’s house. Tell her to take a bit of a rest. And then go into her laundry room and put it all away. I mean, all the way. Into drawers and everything. If your single mom friend doesn’t have basket upon basket of laundry waiting to be folded and put in drawers in her laundry room, she is a better woman than me.

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Bath Time

Do you know what sounds better than “I love you”? When you tell a single mom, “Why don’t you go have a bath?” My mom would sometimes add, “Why don’t you make yourself a tea?” into the equation. For some reason her offer that I take some time and go lie down for a nap never worked, but a bath? I’ll take one right now if you tell me I should.

Secret Stash

When my oldest son turned 9, my bank account was empty. One of my jobs didn’t pay me, and his birthday was looming like a black hole that would suck us all in as easy as anything. I called my mom, thousands of miles away in California, and she said, “Honey, I left a check in your cookie jar the last time I visited just in case.”

Pick Up Their Lice Shampoo

That one might be just for me. But one time I had a friend drop everything with her own family to run to the grocery store to get me lice shampoo as all of my boys stood lined up in the bathroom, Saran Wrap coiled around their itchy scalps. This was so precious to me. Especially since they gave me lice, too.

Include Them When Their Kids Are Gone

When single moms sometimes see their kids go away to visit their other parent, this is the time when the clock is ticking. When the walls can close in. When being alone feels more alone than you knew it could. This is the time to step up for your single mom friend and let her just be your friend. Invite her to things that might be traditionally couple-y. Go for a walk. Brunch. Don’t make her ask. It feels real bad when she has to ask, trust me.

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Surprise Her

At my lowest point, I thought about giving up. Around that time people would say to me, “I don’t know how you do it,” and the truth was I wasn’t doing it. Sometimes I wasn’t doing it at all. The kids were unhappy, the house was a mess, and I was one vacant stare away from being gone for good.

And then I came home to find a package on my door. A little lasagna with a bottle of wine and a note that read, “You’re doing a great job, Jen. Keep going.”

This saved me for real.

See Her

I cannot say this enough. Pay attention to your single mom friend or daughter or sister or whatever. Make sure she doesn’t slide away without you noticing. I don’t want to be one of those people that acts like single moms are just so brave but do you know what? Forget it, yes it’s so hard. Whoever you are, it’s just so very hard sometimes. And thankless. To do all of that loving and maybe never feel like you are getting loved. To pay attention without having anyone watch over you.

Single moms are like everyone else. Like the song says, they need someone to watch over them. Be that someone.