Wednesday already! The return-to-school light at the end of the tunnel is most definitely visible. Don’t get me wrong, I love my kids. Of course I do. More than life itself and all that, honestly. But good grief they can be dull. We are a mind numbing 12 days into the school holidays now and I can feel my brain shrinking, my inspiration fading. If I have to spend much more time with them I may forget completely how to actually work.
I know most parents, particularly working ones, will claim they relish the opportunity to spend Quality Time with their families over the Christmas period, but I am prepared to wager that most of them are lying. The single parents most definitely will be stretching the truth. For single parents, holidays are just like longer, more tedious versions of what you do every day anyway i.e. spend all your time doing things for the children.
Because my girls have different fathers, fathers who seem to have completely opposite working patterns, I hardly ever seem to be able to coordinate visits, meaning I get very little time to myself at all. These holidays seem to have been particularly bad. A has so far spent no time at all with her father, save for Boxing Day afternoon when I was with her too, so that really doesn’t count. B has spent two afternoons with her Dad. Which adds up to very little ME time. None in fact.
The complete lack of personal space is beginning to take its toll and I can see and hear myself behaving childishly and erratically, losing my patience and being unnecessarily snappy. Not something I am proud of, but perhaps inevitable under the circumstances. Roll on next Wednesday I say, when both children will be back at school and I can enjoy behaving erratically on my own, in the privacy of my own study, with only Radio 4 to shout at…
Coping on your own as a single parent can be tough, and bedtimes are the toughest. It’s the end of the day, your patience is frayed to breaking point and all you want to do is sit in bed eating cheese and biscuits and watching Gavin and Stacey.
Well that’s what I wanted to do this evening at least. Unfortunately Belle had other ideas. To start with she wanted to sleep in my bed. Sleep has always been an issue for Belle – she didn’t sleep through the night until she started school – and when her Dad moved out nearly two years ago I admit she regressed a little. It has been less than a month since she has been back in her bed full time and this evening I was determined not to slip back.
I can be a fairly selfish mother when circumstances demand it, and by 10pm, when I was having to pause Gavin and Stacey for the fourth time, I felt they did. I had already been delivered a picture of a crying face, accompanied by a tearful shout of ‘that’s how I feel!’ and then a short note, written on a piece of toilet paper, asking to come into my bed. Realising she was not making progress, Belle had moved on to gently groaning with pain, occasionally crying out ‘ow!’
It was at this point that my patience finally gave way and I was forced to take action. Under the guise of a concerned parent, I went to investigate the source of her pain, and concluded that the only way to treat it was for her to take some medicine and lie completely still, arms by her sides. I rummaged in the medicine box and found some soluble paracetemol – suitably disgusting – and expressed my regret that yes, she would have to drink it all.
To her credit, she managed to force it down. “Can I read my book now,” she asked quietly.
“I wish you could,” I said, shaking my head sympathetically, “but we can’t take any chances. You must lie absolutely still until the pain has gone.” Funnily enough, the recovery didn’t take long. I had barely time to get back into bed and load up my next cracker before I heard the pages of Matilda rustling. Job done. If I had been a mother in a previous generation Belle would have definitely had gin in her bottle at bedtime…
As a single parent, coping with Christmas can be a logistical nightmare. In my case, with two children by different fathers, you’d expect the problem to be doubled. Factor in my own parents being divorced, and we do often find we are spending a lot of the festive season in the car and juggling diaries.
I consider myself extremely lucky therefore that my relationship with Bee’s Dad is such a smooth and friendly one – it really makes things so much simpler. While Belle went off to her Dad’s for the day, I was able to spend Boxing Day with Bee at her father’s house, exchanging gifts with his family and sharing a bottle of Cava with his wife.
For some people, the idea of spending any length of time with your ex and his wife might seem an odd one, but for me it makes perfect sense. I have known them both a very long time, I know their families and besides all that, I LIKE them. How lovely it must be for Bee to have separated parents who can be genuinely nice to each other, rather than having to go through the strained and frosty handovers on doorsteps and in car parks that so many estranged parents are prone to.
It takes so much of the stress out of being a single mother when you can get on with your children’s fathers. For the moment I’m grateful to have such a good relationship with just one of them – to expect it from two would be just plain greedy. Besides, if I had lovely harmonious friendships with them both, where would I get all my hilarious and shocking single parent horror stories??
So yesterday was Christmas Day, our first ever spent alone as a family of three, and, much as anticipated, it was fairly dull. It started out well, apart from Bee’s obvious lack of excitement over having to get up at the hardly ungodly hour of eight o’clock to open her stocking with her sister, and soon everyone was in their Christmas pants and socks and ready for some fun.
Things seem to peak late morning with the opening of both a very loud bottle of bucks fizz and the presents under the tree. A particular highlight was watching Belle open her microwave oven. Hours in front of the Disney channel have really brought out her overacting abilities and she did us all proud with her exaggerated surprise and bewilderment.
Then we got to that tricky stage of the day, just before lunch, when other people normally turn up or you leave to go somewhere more interesting. At this point we all seemed to realise that our insistence on ‘staying home to be with the tree’ rather than travelling to Ireland with my mum and sister had left us with a rather long day ahead. I had worried about how Christmas was going to be different from any normal quiet Sunday at home and now I know – there isn’t the obligatory trip to Sainsbury’s in the afternoon to break up the day.
We did get an outing though to the 24 hour garage at the end of the road. I may have been super pleased with myself for getting the microwave, but I let myself down spectacularly by not noticing B’s cake decorating kit also required batteries…
Tonight I am spending Christmas Eve in the style I do every year – I am panic wrapping piles of stocking presents while drinking wine and eating chocolates I don’t really have room for.
I have managed this year to wrap up my under-the-tree presents in plenty of time for B and A to give them a good poke and try to guess what treats I have bestowed upon them this year. B is very impressed with the large heavy box under the tree for her, imagining it to hold something fantastic and exciting.
Little does she know it is actually a microwave. Yes, a microwave may not be the kind of present you would normally buy for a seven year old, but there is, for a change, method in my madness.
B’s main present is a particularly tacky looking cup cake maker, which she has been drooling over ever weekend in Sainsbury’s for the last four months and which was, luckily for me, in their half price toy sale. Unfortunately, it was only when I was wrapping it that A pointed out the instructions – ‘delicious cakes ready in the microwave in only 30 seconds!”
Now there is always a toy at Christmas that you don’t realise needs batteries, but this is a whole other league, not just a question of popping out to the newsagents for a pack of AAs. I don’t own a microwave – I don’t quite trust them – but can’t bear the thought of B opening her cup cake maker and not being able to immediately whip up a batch of wholesome baked goodies.
So in the morning B will be rushing to open her biggest present, full of excitement, never imagining it to be kitchen white goods…
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.”