This morning I wake at 8.30am to a silent house. Everyone but me is sleeping peacefully and I lie in bed for a while, wondering what to do next. I tiptoe to the toilet, not wanting to wake B and shatter my rare early morning solitude. I come back from the bathroom, cursing every creaky floorboard, open the curtains and get back into bed.
I gaze vacantly for a while out at the cold blue sky. I’m on my own but not alone. My ears are ringing with the silence but I am acutely aware of B asleep in the next room and A asleep above me. What would I do now if they were not here and I had no children? Since the age of 16, too young to have experienced any kind of freedom, my life, my mornings and my routines have been defined by others – by pregnancies, babies and children.
I try to imagine what I might do today if I really were alone, but I can’t quite get my head round the scale of it. What do childless people do exactly on their days off, during holidays, with their lives? What will I do when my days no longer revolve around packed lunches, school pick ups and parental visitation rights?
All the solitary gazing and pondering starts to make me feel a bit panicky. I don’t want to think about just me, I don’t know how and I’m bound to get it wrong. Instead I go downstairs and make a cup of tea deliberately loudly, banging cupboard doors and clattering the spoon noisily in the sink.
By the time I get back, B has woken up and scampered from her bed to mine. “Hello!” she sings, greeting me and the tin of shortbread under my arm with a grin. “I had a lovely sleep, but I missed you.”
I smile back. “I missed you too.”
Today I finally get round to reading Saturday’s papers and even get as far as some of the chunkier features in the Guardian magazine. An achievement indeed, as my BlackBerry brain is usually unable to even consider reading chunks of text larger than a rich tea biscuit.
I read a beautiful story, by Simon Van Booy, of a Christmas spent with his five year old daughter Madeleine, coming to terms with the absence of his wife, following her death two years before.
I know my kind of single parenting is never going to come close to the grief and loss that Van Booy and his daughter must feel, but there are still parts of his story that resonate. Their spontaneous visit to a Russian Orthodox cathedral for example, following an innocent enquiry by Madeleine, leads Van Booy to wonder whether he should, at some point, introduce his daughter to religion.
It is when faced with issues like these that you feel the absence of another person, another parent to share the responsibility of decision making. How can it be, you wonder, that I am expected to decide grown up things like this all by myself? But then as Van Booy’s says, “single parenting is sometimes just a case of sitting around by yourself in mild despair, not knowing what to do.”
I read in the paper today that the average UK family spends £16.84 per head on Christmas dinner. £16.84? That seems a lot to me for a meal that is mainly vegetables. For our family of three that would equate to nearly fifty pounds – that’s a lot of food even for me to eat, and given B’s sparrow like appetite and my teen’s propensity to only eat Sainsbury’s Basics 9p a packet super noodles, I could quite easily see me having to eat about £47 of that on my own.
This Christmas Day we are going to be breaking with tradition for the first time ever, well the first time in my lifetime at least. Every Christmas until now has been spent with my mother, and until a couple of years ago my sister too, plus various other family members, depending on whether we are talking pre or post parental divorce.
This year however, my mother and her partner are going to Ireland with my sister, who has recently had her first baby, to stay with my sister’s in-laws. Clearly torn between her two daughters, she spent some time trying to convince me to make the trip too, but apart from wanting nothing more than to stay home with my tree and the supplies from Hotel Chocolat, I don’t want to take the girls away from their fathers at Christmas. They may end up not seeing them much, but I want to give them the option. My mother and sister aren’t so sympathetic, particularly when it comes to B’s dad, but regardless of how I feel about him I don’t want to be the woman who stops him seeing his daughter at Christmas. Perhaps when she is older, and we have been separated for longer, but not yet.
And so I turn back to the all important question of dinner. B suggests we get pizza delivered, but this doesn’t feel terribly festive to me. The teen – I’m going to call her A – inevitably puts the case for super noodles. I’m undecided. On the one hand it seems somehow wrong to not even attempt to cook a traditional pigs in blankets style dinner, and I do LOVE sprouts, but on the other hand, what is the point if no one is really interested? B will eat the pigs and push away the rest and everyone knows that by the time you’ve cooked Christmas dinner the last thing you actually want to do is eat any of it.
We discuss the options and decide we can do without turkey and all the trimmings this year. If we are going to be on our own for the first time, we really don’t need to worry about tradition. We are unlikely to be spending Christmas day alone again in the near future, so we should probably make the most of it and indulge ourselves… Super noodles anyone?
Last night I took B to see Where the Wild Things Are. Although I know it’s been getting lots of great reviews, I didn’t actually know what the story was about and so wasn’t prepared for the effect it was going to have on B – as the credits rolled she was on my lap, being rocked back and forward, sobbing loudly. She is a rather sensitive soul and I think the character of Max had struck a chord with her.
In the opening scenes we see Max being ignored and ridiculed by an elder sister and frustrated with a work at home mum – both scenarios I’m sure B will understand well. Max’s anger and frustration are barely containable and he is prone to outbursts of uncontrollable, often violent rage. The look on his face near the beginning of the film after he has bitten his mother on the shoulder is one I recognised only too well – a look of panic almost, fear definitely, at the anger inside him, as the strength of his feelings overwhelm him.
As an intense, passionate seven year old, with an undeniably short fuse, B often experiences this same loss of control. As a parent it can be hard to deal with, frightening sometimes to see someone so small so angry, but imagine how it must feel to be that child, to feel so full of rage that you can’t contain it, can’t stop it spilling out of you, can’t help but shout and kick and scream.
After the film I asked B if she could understand how Max felt when he was running and yelling and hitting things with sticks. “Of course I can,” she said, “it’s when you feel so angry, you just don’t know what to do with yourself.”
As adults we are taught to control these feelings, to rein in the extremes of our emotions, but many young children have yet to develop this skill, if that is what it is. Is it actually a bad thing to be able to vent frustrations so immediately and ferociously? I spent nearly nine years with B’s father suppressing my anger about a whole host of things, keeping my annoyances under wraps, nurturing instead an atmosphere of unspoken, seething resentment. Perhaps we’d both have been much better off if I’d been able to stand on the kitchen counter and shout at him or run off into the woods and hit stuff with sticks…
Today is my local college’s rag day. I realise this as soon as I walk into town and discover the centre overrun with groups of teenagers wearing even fewer clothes than they normally do. It is bitterly cold today – I am wearing two scarves – but there are girls out in literally their underwear. My motherly instinct, such as it is, is immediately aroused, as I’m sure is the libido of many a middle aged man. I am worried for these girls. Surely it is possible to actually DIE from exposing yourself all day to freezing temperatures in just a bunny girl outfit?
The original meaning of rag day is of course to raise money for local good causes, and I do see a few teens clutching collection boxes to their shivering bosoms, but given no one actually asks me for money I’m not convinced of its effectiveness as a fundraising technique. I do see a gang of 16 year old pirates taking it in turns to swig from a bottle of own brand vodka. Very philanthropic.
I would like to be able to recall fond memories of my own college rag days, but I didn’t actually take part in either of them. For the first, aged 16, I was three months pregnant and, unlike my friends, the vomiting I was doing on a daily basis was not preceded by days and nights of wholesome, drunken teenage fun.
For the second, a year later, my own puking had been replaced by that of my six month old baby daughter. I gave birth at the end of July, between the first and second years of my A-levels, and had returned to college in the September when she was six weeks old. I suppose I could have taken part in this rag day, but with a baby at home you don’t enjoy that same sense of freedom that my friends would have felt. Day time drinking is really no fun when you know you have to be home by tea time to put a baby to bed. Plus any new mum will appreciate that baby-free time is precious – I had three A-levels to study for and all my spare time was taken up with essay writing and revision.
I look at the gangs of kids in town and, aside from feeling terribly old and frumpy, wonder if I have missed out. Did being a teenage mum keep me from enjoying my childhood to the full? Maybe, but if that just means I got to stay home in the warm, while my peers drunkenly roamed the streets in their pants, I’m not sure I feel too deprived…