Single moms (and their kids) miss out on one-on-one time

Thanks to a public school schedule that doesn't always jibe with the day care schedule, I've spent more one-on-one time with my kids in the past couple of weeks than since my youngest was born. It made me a little sad about being a single mother. Walking on the street holding the soft hand of just one of my children, chatting without the distraction of another sibling offers a side of a parenting relationship that is not often explored if there is not another parent in the house.

In a two-parent home, one kid may spontaneously join a parent on a grocery-store run. One child might join her dad washing dishes while the other plays games with his mom. Spontaneous one-on-one interactions have their own dynamic between two people, parents and their children included. These episodes are rare in single-parent homes. In a single-parent house — especially when kids are little and usually clamoring for attention — there is one overriding dynamic: Everyone, all together.

On our “mommy day” Lucas giddily sat on his big sister's booster seat as we ran errands around Manhattan (he later recounted this as a highlight: “And then I told Helena and her cried!”). We went shopping for a new car, my son strapped in the middle back seat, his chunky little legs sticking straight out, patiently looking out the windows on the test drive. At the local diner, Lucas insisted on sitting next to me in the booth and popping catsup'ed fries in my mouth. Without his outgoing  big sister present, I see the assured, confident part of my son shine brighter than usual.

Later, Helena and I spent our mommy day shopping for school clothes and then for sushi lunch. She impressed me by tackling the unfamiliar seaweed salad with chopsticks like a pro, and politely declined further wasabi after a failed try. Without a little brother competing for my attention, my sometimes dramatic daughter showed me a remarkable patience and calm. While we sat across each other for an afternoon coffee/hot chocolate stop, chatting about what “family” means to different people, I glimpsed a young lady, not the collective “kids” that Helena forms with her brother.

This week had me thinking about relationships with my children are not unlike relationships with others: With a romantic partner it is advised you make time with them with the rest of your family, with friends, and alone — just the two of you. I also find that true of friendships — sometimes close friends need one-on-one time to catch up in an intimate way that is impossible without the distraction of spouses, friends or kids present. As my children grow, I realize how  important it is to nurture different facets of our relationships: The three of us as a family unit, around other loved ones, and one-on-one, just me and one of them.

I'm not sure how to build in routine one-on-one time with my kids. In fact, last year my friend, time-management expert Laura Vanderkam gave me a time makeover, and we had to scrap my desire for this special time, since it just didn't seem to fit in my life. But now my life is slightly different as my children attend different schools, are on different schedules, and are becoming different people.Question: How do you fit in one-on-one time with your kids? Is it harder for single-parent families to nurture relationships as individuals?

About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, noted blogger, and bestselling author. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.  Find out Emma's top Single Mom Resources here.


  1. Terri on July 27, 2016 at 12:48 am

    This is a great article and is exactly what I’m worried about as I search Google for some pearls of wisdom, but not much in the way of an answer to the question. I’m a single mum of a 7 and 5 year old. The ex husband hasn’t been around for years and it’s been just the 3 of us. I catch glimpses of my kids individual personality at odd moments we get to do stuff as a 2 – which inspired me to create a “golden time” that we have once a week, the kids taking it in turn to choose an activity that we do one on one, the other keeping themselves occupied with the TV, game or book understanding that even if it’s something they want to do this is their siblings time with me and they can choose the same activity at their golden time. It works remarkably well – I didn’t think it would – but they treasure their time and respect their siblings time because of it. I just wish there was more of it possible as it always has to be home based!

  2. Anne on September 24, 2013 at 3:47 pm

    It also gets easier as your kids get older. Even when I was married, I was always the only one parenting and felt time alone with one kid was so precious. Now that they’re big enough to stay home alone and are more independent, I get lots more time alone with each.

    • Emma on September 25, 2013 at 2:09 pm

      I guess that is the thing with parenting – you can never see beyond the day :)

  3. Honoree Corder on September 12, 2013 at 12:10 pm

    BTW, you look amazing and beautiful in those pics Emma.

    • Emma on September 16, 2013 at 9:51 am

      Thank you – I uploaded one to my OKCupid profile :P

  4. Erica on September 11, 2013 at 6:29 pm

    This hit home for me because I just literally had my first one on one time with my son last week since the divorce/separation (almost 1.5 years now). I guess last year I did get some one on one time with my youngest while this brother was in school, but I did not get the same one on one time with my oldest.

    Unfortunately, when the time came last week I couldn’t even enjoy it 100% because I had my first real mommy/career guilt as well. My school had a recruiting event and I decided to skip it to keep my promise to my son. I basically had done a cost-benefit analysis in my mind and decided that breaking my promise and figuring out last minute child care was not worth one event with one employer when there would be more. And I really was feeling fine about my choice. But just a few minutes before the event, a classmate called and asked me what I was wearing, assuming I was going and told me how “everyone was going to be there”. So, then I worried about ruining my job prospects with this firm.

    Anyway, I did end up having a lot of fun with him, but at first I definitely wasn’t 100% there. My ex and I do have vague plans to switch them and do it again… but that will probably be at least a month or so away. So, it is kinda depressing the coordination it takes to schedule one on one time (like you said, it can’t just be a spur of the moment trip to the store or something) and it will happen maybe be 6 times a year if we’re lucky, and even then some unplanned event could encroach on our time as well.

    • Emma on September 16, 2013 at 9:57 am

      Yeah, I hear you on all accounts.

      This comment stood out for me: “Anyway, I did end up having a lot of fun with him, but at first I definitely wasn’t 100% there.” — I’ve been writing and speaking a lot about working mom guilt lately, and find that many of us check out at both work and home because we feel guilty about not committing more of ourselves to work when we’re with family and vice versa – not just for one-off events like your career fair, but daily decisions. Wondering how you could have gotten over that and enjoyed your son more?

  5. Laura Vanderkam on September 11, 2013 at 8:49 am

    I agree that one-on-one time is awesome. But you can be married and still not have one-on-one time. For instance, you can have more than two kids. Your spouse can travel or work a lot. The only people who don’t have to work to make one-on-one time with both kids are those who have one kid. (Thanks for mentioning me, btw!)

    • Emma on September 16, 2013 at 9:57 am

      Laura, I often think of these very points when I am feeling sorry for my single-parent status :)

  6. Honoree Corder on September 10, 2013 at 8:21 am

    Although I only have one kid, I would suggest scheduling one-on-one time for each of your kids with your ex, so you simultaneously have one kid at a time {if practical}. If not, you could try scheduling a playdate for just one of the kids to facilitate that precious one-on-one time.

    As a side note, it would have been nice to have two kids, and would be nice, because I think the kids enjoy having a sibling and someone always around to play with. I sometimes regret not having another child when my daughter was still little.

    I guess the grass is always greener, right? :)

    • Emma on September 16, 2013 at 9:59 am

      Yes, I keep thinking that I should coordinate with the ex for one-on-one time but I never make it a priority. Thanks for the kick in the butt.

      And I really so love having two kids. Really fun now, but a great gift to them as they continue their relationship independent of me.

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