Forget trying to impress your toddler with the latest from Annabel Karmel – a recent study of 4,000 mothers showed we rely on a grand total of just nine dishes to feed our families.
Nine dishes. I’m pretty impressed. I have two. Pasta with tomato sauce and pasta with cheese sauce. Or sometimes, when I am feeling particularly disenchanted with motherhood, we have shreddies for tea. Who are these women whose children will happily eat casseroles and curry? One of my daughters once refused to eat cucumber, claiming it was ‘too spicy’.
With two children and a seven year age gap, catering for everyone’s tastes, at mealtimes and otherwise, can be a struggle, and I do find myself offering up the same bland dishes again and again. It’s just laziness. I’m a busy woman and, unlike 81% of the mothers in the survey, I don’t have the time or enthusiasm to create two or three different meals every night.
But cooking is just one of the many areas of parenting I could do with improving. As a single mother, juggling two kids and three home based jobs, I admit sometimes the boundaries blur between work and family. I know weekends and evenings should be about the children, but I often find myself having to encourage ‘independent play’ while I sneak off to reply to emails.
My teenager is fine with this. A can amuse herself for days at a time with just an iPod Touch and a family size bottle of Fanta. Belle is not so easily amused. What I need to do is encourage her to take an interest in cooking – maybe I could do something Wholesome like teach her to make a nice cheese sauce…
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…
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.”
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…
In my true fickle style, I have decided against the annual summary. As hilarious it might have been for others to read of my failings, my disastrous dates and my general parental incompetency, I am not convinced it would be a terribly positive activity.
I thought about it a lot last night in bed, by myself, reliving events from 2009, and, to be honest, the exercise didn’t do a lot for my self esteem. I was pleased to think that I had progressed from my seven year old sleeping in my bed every night to her only falling asleep there, but I’m still not sure that is a massive achievement. Are there many mothers who have to lug their quite grown up children across the landing every night before they can go to bed? Resolution for 2010 – convince Belle that her bed really isn’t such a bad place to be.
When you spend every evening on your own it is easy to become too reflective, to think over things you have said or done and wonder if they have somehow contributed to the aloneness. Should I have mentioned the naked dinner party photos on a first date? Did I eat with my elbows on the table? Was a bottle and a half of wine TOO much? Probably.
The truth is that none of these things should really matter in the grand scheme of things, and I shouldn’t be giving these thoughts any space in my head. Forcing myself to recollect every horrendous liaison is guaranteed to make me feel about 14 years old, plagued by irrational self doubt and loathing. I hated being 14 the first time – I don’t want to do it again.
Of course this is all classic procrastination. Post one – introductions, post two – this is what I’m going to write about, post three – no it isn’t actually after all…. Maybe at some point I will just get on with it.
A second post! A great start. (I have never written a blog before – is it the kind of thing you are supposed to acknowledge, or is that terribly uncool? Should it be like a shy, new relationship, where you just sort of do it, without anybody mentioning what is actually happening?)
With only 18 days left of the year and a shiny new blog to exploit (I mention it directly at the risk of breaking the Rules of Blogging), it seems like a good time for some reflection. 2009 has been an interesting year in lots of ways. I’ve left two jobs, launched myself into the scary world of self-employment and been on a string of dates – most notable only for their blandness. Friends call me fussy, but frankly it takes more than a bag of yogurt to impress me. But that’s a story for another time.
So as the end of the year approaches, I am feeling the urge to capture some of its highlights. Partly just so that I don’t forget them – I have an appalling memory – but also to celebrate my achievements, learn from my mistakes and hopefully make some plans for the year to come.
To do this properly, I am going to need to be honest, both about the things that happen to me and my feelings about them. I understand that this may not always show me in the best light, but surely that is part of the process? Sometimes I make stupid decisions and behave badly, put that is a part of me, and I will have to accept that. I could write a flattering version of events, pretend I have never said or done anything hurtful, but that wouldn’t teach me anything about myself. Plus it would be terribly dull to read…