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#19: Solo Parent, Be Strategic! - with Colleen Higgs
Episode 1921st February 2023 • Holding the Fort Abroad • Rhoda Bangerter
00:00:00 00:32:23

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Synopsis:

Today my guest is Colleen Higgs. She and her husband have five children. As a professional turned mum, she knows what it is like to be frustrating when parenting is efficient! In her blog Unpacking Parenting, she challenges us to stop using measures used for efficiency and look at parenting in a completely different way. Colleen also knows what it is like to live abroad and have a travelling partner. She is just about to finish a solo-parenting stint of two years. She shares with us some of her insights on this life and what has helped her.

In This Episode:

  • Applying (or not) to parenting the principles we learn in our professional life.
  • Transition times
  • Don’t compare
  • How does living in your season look like
  • Some practical tips

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www.unpackingparenting.com

Transcripts

Rhoda Bangerter (:

Welcome to Holding the Fort Abroad, the podcast for expats with traveling partners. My name is Rhoda Bangerter and I'm your host. I'm a speaker, author, researcher on the topic of families where one of the partners works away from home a lot. My guest today is Colleen Higgs. She trained as an engineer. She's a mom of five. The wife of her husband who works away from home. Colleen and I are in the same mastermind group. A mutual friend of ours introduced us a few years back. Colleen blogs the Unpacking Parenting for professionals turned moms who enter parenting with high expectations and are usually doing better than they think. I highly recommend signing up for her newsletter. You'll get plenty of inspiration and practical advice. Colleen, thank you for joining me today. I am very excited to have this conversation with you.

Colleen Higgs (:

Me too. I'm looking forward to it.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

This conversation is gonna be combining the angle that you are looking parenting at with also the reality, because you are living this right now, right? Your husband is away two weeks at a time and comes back for three days. And you've been doing this for what, a year and a half now?

Colleen Higgs (:

Yes. We're on the till end of 19 month stint. Yes.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

Okay. Okay. So can we start first with, can you explain a little bit what Unpacking Parenting is about and how you came to it? Kind of the angle that you're looking at it. Cuz it's not about parenting per se, is it? It's not about, you know, how to make a meal plan or how to parent a child.

Colleen Higgs (:

I’ve also been an expat a few times and the first time I went overseas I was 23 and very enthusiastic and very inexperienced and disorganized. And I stayed up the night before my flight till all hours, like rolling clothes and rearranging everything like Tetris style, trying to stuff in as much dark chocolate and candy as I possibly could for eight months. Cuz I wanted everything that I could possibly want for the whole trip all at once. And of course since then I've learned to pack really differently. But I think sometimes we do the same thing in our parenting, especially those of us who come to it from a professional background. We want to learn everything and, have all the skills and be all prepared from the get-go. And we don't need to, and it doesn't work and it's kind of stressful and we end up carrying a lot heavier load and expectations and stress about it than we need to. And so yeah, I say I used to be an overachiever and now I'm a parent.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

.

Colleen Higgs (:

That's the end of the end of my overachieving days because no one feels like an overachiever as a parent.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

Yes. Parenting is messy, parenting is trial and error. It's a lot of, you know, second guessing learning. There's no real measurements is there in terms of sometimes, when we are professionals, we have an objective and we measure and it's measurable and achievable and yes, to a certain extent we can have those with our children, but something happens or doesn't quite always going a straight line, does it?

Colleen Higgs (:

No. It's not a predictable input gives you a predictable output and I think we've sort of been trained through schooling and work culture and whatnot, that that being productive is good. Getting a lot done in a short time is good. Feeling qualified and confident is good. Like you never feel any of those things as a parent. I rarely feel any of those things as a parent, especially in the early years. And that doesn't mean you're doing it wrong, it means the metric for doing it right has changed. What your children need is maybe not for you to get the most things checked off your to-do list in the run of a few hours.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

Right. I think in the light of the way that the lifestyle that we have when our partners are gone a lot, I think this is even more appliable. I mean, I think it's applicable across the board, but I think this is something that we have to remember even more. I think because we're so parenting most of the time and we just can't apply those metrics. I think it's important to remember to give ourselves grace and remember that even comparing ourselves to other families - I always say you just can't compare your family. I remember once I was comparing myself to the family living across the road from us, you just can't, they've never moved. Their parents were down the road, the in-laws within the next village.

Colleen Higgs (:

They have Sunday lunch with the grandparents every week and they had the same routine 20 years ago.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

Yeah, exactly. They have the same routine, and the grandparents took the kids every weekend, so No. .

So I'm excited to hear your experience over the last year and a half, but also pulling from the years as an expat, because you've had different combinations through the years. Your children were born in different countries. Your husband's been traveling on and off, away or home. So you have sort of all the different perspectives here. And then always keeping in the back of the mind this angle that you have of measuring parenting. And I think that feeds into some of the notes that you sent me. So I asked you one of the question, what have you learned? He goes away for two weeks, come back three weeks. That seems to me like a very short time to come back.

Colleen Higgs (:

Yeah, he's usually home about three or three and a half days out of every 14. So during the school weeks, with the exception of sometimes a full day on Friday, some and a Monday morning during the school week, I'm solo parenting.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

So how'd you do it? Tell me. I mean, does it seem ‘more’ than if he was home or different?

Colleen Higgs (:

Well, yeah. So maybe the first thing is what you just said. Don't compare. I mean, we've all heard that advice that you don't have to be a solo parent to know that you're not supposed to do that, and yet we do it anyway. I would say when you do compare, you have yourself permission to do less than other families appear to be doing, or less than other moms appear to be doing because you're going through a transition, which is a huge mental and emotional load. You know, if you've moved and you're adjusting to a new place or you've moved back, or you just started solo parenting or you just moved back and you're getting used to not solo parenting and these are all huge transitions.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

Or he's just home for three days and he's gonna go again .

Colleen Higgs (:

Right, right. So yes. And I do find my younger boys, our children are from four years old to 16, but the youngest ones especially, they're a little off the first couple days after he leaves with like bedtimes are harder, they push back harder. They're not as quick to listen to me. And that's every second week it gets old. But yeah. So that idea of it's okay to maybe not do the volunteer things or a lot of what we do is the mental load and the emotional part of supporting children, it doesn't show up on the calendar as an activity, but it's still taking energy.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

That is such a good point. And that does not show up on the calendar, as time that has been spent and well spent.

Colleen Higgs (:

It's something I definitely do very different than I used to is how I treat my calendar. I put almost everything in it now. It's only been the last year or so that I've gone electronic, but whether it's electronic or paper, like this morning there's a thing in my calendar that said, ‘move the food from the freezer to the fridge so it'll be thawed for tomorrow’. Things like that and all…

Rhoda Bangerter (:

You put that in your calendar.

Colleen Higgs (:

Well, just those things,

Rhoda Bangerter (:

The steps to do.

Colleen Higgs (:

There's just too many things in our brains. There's an organization class I did or something, but she said your brain is not a USB. Like, get it out of your brain . You don't need to keep all these things in there. All those little extra things that no, I won't remember in the rush of the morning, but it will mess me up tomorrow if I don't do it.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

But I like it because it's in the calendar, not in a separate to-do list. Then you can see it in the flow.

Colleen Higgs (:

Yes. And sort of check it off and move on when it's done. And even pick up times for kids. Because I have four different times and they change every day based on extracurriculars. So again, it just helps me when I look at it in the morning, I can kind of visualize a little better the flow of the day and if someone does offer to drive somebody, I know exactly what/where they could help more quickly.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

Oh my word. I like that. So do you look at the day before or something, or the week you set up?

Colleen Higgs (:

As I know things, I put them in sooner than later and I have a shared app with my daughters who have their own basketball games and practices and music and whatever. So their main things can be in there as well. So I usually look the night before, but even if I don't, at least I can glance in the morning. I mean, I've run into trouble many, many times where something's on the calendar, but the calendar's at home and I haven't looked at it and I forget, I'm sure I put it down somewhere, , but…

Rhoda Bangerter (:

There's a lot of things to juggle. But I like that idea of putting a to-do list on the calendar. And even I ran across a thing called inbox zero, which is the aim to get zero emails in your inbox. And that is to, you know, either answer it straight away or put it in your calendar. So you are actually putting the time aside to answer that email. And it's the same concept really, saying, well, ‘I need to prepare this a food , so I'm gonna actually put that time out in the calendar and blank it out.’ Right? Which makes total sense. So how do you do it personally for you to not completely get exhausted?

Colleen Higgs (:

Well, sometimes I have been exhausted. I've gotten a little better at, I think preempting that. It took me a long time to be okay with paying for childcare just to have a break. You know, it seems more legit to pay for childcare if it's to go make money or for a particular special event. But I'm pretty sure it was one of your podcasts that said, you know, basic rest, it's not a luxury. It's not superfluous. It's more like changing the oil in your car. If you don't do it, it will be ruined. You know, there's some basic maintenance and you just don't get that time to yourself, so you need to take it sometimes and not waste more mental energy feeling bad about taking it.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

Yeah, totally. I loved what you said as well in your notes about what other moms do that wouldn't work for you.

Colleen Higgs (:

Oh, yes, yes. I believe I've heard other podcast hosts say that when they do the episodes about what's saving my life right now. Those are really popular episodes and sometimes there's some great tips in there, but basically everything you listen to has to go through a filter of ‘my life is different than their life’. My life is different than their life because some of the things they say are just, they will absolutely not work for me. And they’re just like a total tease. They like ‘Oh, get up, I don't know, read for 20 minutes in the morning before kids get up.’ Like, my big kids are up late and my little kids are like, that's just not gonna work. Not gonna work. Or I don't know, pop ads or I don't know. But yeah, sometimes as a special event maybe, but some of those things that are like, just build it into your routine or just make a goal and make it happen.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

That's the whole reason, well, it's part of the reason why I started the podcast, but also all the work that I do is like, practically everything had to be filtered through the life that we have, the self-care, the time we take for ourselves, the career. Because even that, I think we have to look sometimes on a longer scale. We have to play the longer game rather than a shorter game because everything is more intense. And with this transitioning in and out, even in Richelle Fuchs’ episode she was saying people compare us to single parents, but we are not because single parents have a system and then they stick with it. Parents who are solo parenting, who have a partner who comes in and out, well then they're in a system and they change system, then they change system again and they change system again. You're constantly changing. And then even if you're changing between two systems sometimes, like we ended up having transitions within a transition where you're moving country while your partner is still going back and forth to wherever they're working from. And so I think a lot of things have to be… even friendship circles. Asking for help, all that kind of stuff has to be seen through the filter of having a partner who's coming in and out of home in a way.

Colleen Higgs (:

Yeah. And it's tricky, for a long time, when the kids were younger, it was like, ‘Oh, if daddy's home then it's just family time.’ But after a while, you can't really live that way. You can't expect your 14- and 15-year old’s not to have activities on the weekend so that they're always free to spend all the hours with dad. I mean they make a point of getting time in with him, but it can't be a shut down the whole schedule or not choose to do things because he's in and out either. So it's tricky finding the balance there of making sure that there's family time, without asking them to not sign up for things because you can't be committed on the days when dad might be around. That's not fair.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

Right. Yes. Especially if plans change and then you're like, ‘Well, I held back, but then your plans changed, and you are not coming in the end.’

Well this is not a question I sent you ahead, but do you think your kids missed out or I’m missing out? That's often something we ask ourselves. It's like, ‘Oh, am I messing up my kids because dad or mom is not around?’ I think it is different for moms and dads if the mom is traveling or if the dad is traveling. There's still research that needs to go into that, but I'm curious.

Colleen Higgs (:

Right. Well, ours is unusual I guess in that we were back in Canada for a couple years and away for a couple years and back in Canada for a year and back and forth and now we've been here about five years. But the nature of that expat work was that we would be back a lot in the summers. So really, I mean, our kids saw their grandparents more than nieces and nephews who just live a little further away in Canada, but have a more typical vacation schedule.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

But I mean, compared to the dad. Being away two weeks and then coming back for three weeks, does it…

Colleen Higgs (:

It's big pro and big cons. But no, I definitely don't think they miss out on the whole. Now when we've been overseas, he's had more time at home in the evenings and whatnot, but if he were to take a local job here, he still wouldn't be home till at least six, often seven in the evening most days. And he would leave by seven in the morning. So yes, he could get to a few more basketball games and whatnot, but when he comes home on those three days, yeah, it's super short, but he's off during the school day. And he takes the kids out for one-on-one time or does special things with them in a lot of ways. They get more time with him than they might. There again, it's just hard to compare.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

Yeah. I'm looking at the notes that you sent because there's so many good points and I'm hoping that potentially we can maybe turn it into a blog.

Colleen Higgs (:

Being strategic is huge. Well, that one I was just telling you before we started, I said buy a boot dryer. For years, we live in Canada and we'd have wet mittens everywhere trying to dry them. And I realized my neighbors had a boot dryer, which is this contraption that you put mittens or boots on, and it's basically like a hair dryer that blows up inside them and just deals with that so much quicker. It's so much less mess. And it's just a small thing. And during soccer season it's lovely because wet soccer cleats are horrible. But the idea of just investing in those little things that make your daily life a little less messy and a little simpler, that is one way to be strategic in other bigger things.

Like food prep's always been a challenge. And of course, I think anyone who's moved to another country knows it. It’s just groceries can become more time consuming because you don't know what you can get and you don't know what you can make, and you don't just go to your default regular foods and you can't find things then. And every time we've gone through a transition, just figuring out how best to handle food has always been a challenge and sometimes a very big frustration. But we've tried lots of different things and I would just say keep trying different arrangements. Just don't stay stuck. I had a neighbor who used to cook a couple of freezer meals a week for me, and or a while in Argentina, we had some hired help, and whether that's help with the childcare, so you can cook or help with the cooking, which turns out you have to be quite organized to have good help with your cooking . That was my downfall there. But yeah, just try different things and don't stress if it's not ideal from the get-go!

Rhoda Bangerter (:

Mmm. And also you said taking a step back, that's important.

Colleen Higgs (:

Yes. You can't be strategic if you have no brain space.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

Yeah. And that's often what we get caught out with. I think a lot of us, we just don't have the time to step back, and so you're not necessarily being as strategic as we could be. Whereas if we take the time and say, ‘Okay, well I am going to take an hour’, and sometimes even bringing someone else in and saying, ‘Okay, I need help being strategic because I can't see the wood for the trees’ or whatever the expression is.

Sometimes bringing someone else in and saying, ‘Okay, I need to help here.’ Because some of the things we do sometimes may be taking way more time than they should be. And if you take 30 minutes out of an hour and actually look at it, you could save like a half a day or a whole day out of your week, and then spend that doing something that you're actually gonna enjoy. So when I saw you'd written that point down, I was like, yes. That's also another great point because I think sometimes it's just hard to stop when you're on hamster wheel and trying to juggle everything together. You're afraid one of the plates is gonna drop if you stop, but…

Colleen Higgs (:

Yes. And you get really reactive.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

So how would you suggest doing that then? Have you got any light tips about what things to look at?

Colleen Higgs (:

Yeah. I've done a few different things that help definitely getting everything out of your head, like making a list of ‘These are all the things I'm handling right now’ and starting to group them together or see what you can offload. Like I said, food was my big issue, so my husband would suggest hiring help for that, but it turns out I needed to be really organized and plan really well for that help to be maximized. Maybe hiring help for laundry, which takes way less planning, but still takes time. Maybe just sort of figuring out either the thing that really drains you and or the thing that is just easier to to hand off to someone else. Or I mean, my bigger kids can do their own laundry, that sort of thing. To start to get a few of those things off your plate or just say, I don't have to do this for now in this season.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

Lower standards, just slightly. On some of the things I realized that I was cleaning, I was trying to clean to my mom's standard, and I'm like ‘That's my mom's standard. She didn't have my life and it's not necessarily a value for me, so why am I struggling? And it's taking me all this time when really I can live with a bit more mess. My threshold is a bit higher’ . So I think that's a useful one as well, you know, saying, ‘What am I doing that someone else's kind of value or someone else's standard?’

Colleen Higgs (:

Right.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

So there's thinking outside the box in terms of what can you offload, what can the kids do? What's taking too much time and can be simplified and then what can I just stop doing or that I'm doing that's just not necessary.

Colleen Higgs (:

Right. Right. And of course with cleaning, you get into the decluttering and all of those things, which are helpful, but it also may not be the time for us to tackle a big decluttering project. But one thing we do do several times a year, definitely after Christmas and birthdays and stuff is we just tell the kids to go to their rooms and pick out 10 things that they're ready to get rid of. And it doesn't stay on top of all the clutter, but it helps.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

And it's feasible.

Colleen Higgs (:

With toys and games that they're done with. And it's them, it's not me going through everything for all the children.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

Yeah. And it's doable, right? They won't take that long to do it.

Wow. Well, I’ve seen you do it from afar and I kind of try and keep telling you that you are handling a lot . So I think also, you know, encouraging each other, let's say to remember that you're juggling a lot and there's a lot going on, but did you get a bit of time for yourself?

Colleen Higgs (:

Yeah. A couple weeks ago, I had a weekend away and , it was kind of a tease because we're on the last couple months here and it just gave me that taste of, ‘Oh, I could actually get things done if I had a few hours in a row.’ But yes, yes.

Well, in our mastermind group, in January we all went through and said, what are your big goals for the year? And I said, survive until mid-March and then make a goal maybe by May. And I think that was a good answer, but then as soon as I had a window of time, I'm like, ‘Oh, I am not satisfied with that answer anymore. I wanna move on, I wanna be done. But that whole ‘just the live in your season and realize you're carrying a lot’. And I would say, as the overachieving type, learning to give yourself permission to make stupid mistakes, that's been one that I've learned quite gradually. But I didn't have that in my twenties or as an early mom, I think.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

Yeah. Do you feel like now that you're coming to the end, it’s what, another few months now and then he'll be back home for good I suppose, I mean, he won't be traveling for a while away for the work. Do you feel like it's starting to kind of go ‘Oooh, the last stretch it’s actually kinda hard’?

Colleen Higgs (:

Yes. I got a lovely note from a friend who's a retired military spouse and she said it's really human to get really impatient and it could be a good teaching opportunity for your kids, for them to see that you struggle.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

Aww. . It's like, ouch.

Colleen Higgs (:

I felt like it was lovely and I felt seen… and I also don't really wanna hear it!

Rhoda Bangerter (:

Yeah. , it's like, ‘Great, my kids are gonna see me struggle and it's a good thing’ .

Colleen Higgs (:

Yes.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

What are you looking forward to most?

Colleen Higgs (:

I don't know, doing fun things, I guess? Maybe getting hikes or ski or just have a bit of space for things other than managing the day-to-day, I think.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

Do you think there'll be more time like for spontaneous outings or there'll be less need for planning?

Colleen Higgs (:

Somewhat, but I have found that's something my Jamie often asks me like, ‘What do I want my days to look like when he's back?’ And I've realized I think it'll be more helpful if we figure out which roles I can reliably offload. If we don't schedule, we're sort of tripping over each other. He's trying to help the kids get out in the morning, but I'm still doing it too. And it doesn't save as much time as it could .

Rhoda Bangerter (:

There's gonna be a pretty big transition period there, hasn't it? Cuz you've been doing this for what, a year and a half now?

Colleen Higgs (:

It'll be two years.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

It'll be a complete change of routine cause you'll both be there.

Colleen Higgs (:

So figuring out a new division of labor.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

Maybe we need to schedule another chat once you've transitioned and see what your insights are being the other side of the coin .

Colleen Higgs (:

Yes. It's a running joke that I keep reminding him that I do not work for him.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

. Well thank you so much.

Do you wanna add anything before, and then please let people know where they can sign up for your newsletter to get all the practical advice that you give, but also just inspiration as well in our parenting journey.

Colleen Higgs (:

Right. Well yeah, so it's unpackingparenting.com and there is a spot to sign up for newsletter on the homepage, unpackingparenting.com. And if you go to the blog, there's a few things about productivity and a different way to look at your to-do list and like I talked about just that food's always been a challenge, so different things that we've tried and…

Rhoda Bangerter (:

Chores as well. You've written about that too.

Colleen Higgs (:

Yeah, I still haven't figured that out. It still doesn't work.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

. But I think that's an evolving target. You know, .

Colleen Higgs (:

That's true. They all help do some chores but, you know, not completely.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

. Sometimes I used to say it's gonna be an act of self-care for me to do the chores myself because it was just, it was much more work trying to keep them on track. And I get it that it's for them to learn and it's a teaching moment and part of parenting, but sometimes I'll just like, do you know what? I'm just gonna do it all myself because right now I don't have the margin or the patience to actually steer them and give them the framework. So this is it, right? It's accepting that it's evolving, that we need to give ourselves grace, that it's a very specific kind of way of life.

Colleen Higgs (:

And you won't ruin your children because you lost your patience once and or did the chores for them a couple of times.

Rhoda Bangerter (:

. It's a long game, isn't it? It's a long game. But thank you. I think you raised some really important points and I think that from someone who is living it, it's hot off the press, as it were. So I appreciate it. Thank you very much, Colleen, for joining me today.

Colleen Higgs (:

Oh, thank you so much Rhoda.

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