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The numbers are staggering almost one family in four is headed by a single mother - and that figure is steadily increasing. If you're in that category - a woman who by necessity is in the work force and who is doing her job at home as well as everything else a man could do for her - you most likely feel tremendous stress in today's world.

"When you're single, you have to take care of those `other' things - the sprinkler system, the insurance adjuster, the roof that needs repair," says a single mom who knows."You feel bad because you're divorced so you have to make sure you do it all. You have to make your kids' Halloween costumes because all those mothers at home (with their husbands) have made their kids' costumes. You take time off work to go to the school programs because you don't want people to say, `Oh look, Terry's mom couldn't be here because she's working.' Yet, you don't want to be treated any differently at work because you're a mom - to have anyone say, `Well she could do the job, but she has kids.'

"I've had to push so hard since I've become a single parent, that every now and then I've sort of blown a circuit," says another single mother. "I remember the day a police officer stopped my car for speeding as I zipped from work to school to collect my second-grader. The unsuspecting lawman strode up to my window and I exploded.

" `I can't take this any more!' I yelled.

" `What can't you take, lady - driving too fast?' he inquired dryly.

" `No, the rushing. My little girl is standing all alone and. . ..' Whine, whine, whine.

" `Oh, for . . . get out of here,' he told me. And I did."

For the single mother in particular, and today's woman in general, cutting corners is an absolute must. "Being a single parent is a lot to cope with," observes a mother. "I figured out very early on that if I was going to make it work, I needed to relax my standards somewhere. And I decided to give up the fantasy dinner table with lovely portions of meat and vegetables."

If she made the "fantasy dinner," her kids might get a better meal, she admits, but then, she says, "I wouldn't have any time to relax and enjoy being with them. Instead, I do some cooking on weekends that I can heat up in the microwave during the week, and we usually get dinner out at least two nights a week. It's fun, and it isn't too expensive, and it gives me time to breathe at the end of the day."

Another woman, who speaks of relaxing standards, says: "As long as I can't see it - meaning as long as I can sweep it under a rug - I'm not going to worry about it."

Kate Nolan, the single mother who earlier described her run-in with a hapless lawman (and who is the author of the article, "We've Come a Long Way, Baby"), writes of subsequent stress-control measures she took: "Not long after my brush with the law, I discovered a far more reasonable solution to my stress: Get off the tightwire whenever you can."

As a result, Nolan says, she started using her sick days: "I'd take a personal holiday once in a while, a mental-health day . . . I would take annual vacations, too. The breaks were necessary, a chance for some intense but unhurried time with my kids and a great opportunity to go to all those exotic lands - specifically, Adventureland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland - that my parents never showed me."

If you're a single mother, alleviating stress means coming to terms with the fact that you're going to miss some steps - and it needs to be OK! Says Antonia Van der Meer, author of the article, "Free Yourself!": "There will inevitably be times when you'll forget to bring a snack to your son's nursery school or miss a class field trip because of business - or miss an important phone call at work because you were on the field trip. So be it. You are human. You will make mistakes. That's life."

Alleviating stress also means giving up the goal of raising perfect children while trying to do your difficult balancing act with kids and employment. Turning out perfect children simply isn't possible, so relax, says Van der Meer: "Even if you stayed home every day darning socks, baking pies and kissing your kids' scraped knees, your life and your children's lives still would not be perfect - because no mother, no child, no life is ever perfect."

Finally, alleviating stress means you need to give yourself a pat on the back for what you are accomplishing. Remember the comforting words of one mother to her divorced daughter: "Linda, before you go to bed, say `Good for me! I survived another day,' because surviving in your situation is incredible."

- Dr. Larsen is a therapist practicing in Salt Lake City.