Parenting alone can be dull at the best of times – you don’t get out much in the evenings and find yourself taking pleasure in the simplest of things. A quiet cup of tea alone becomes a ‘treat’ and the anticipation of sitting down on your own to watch Come Dine With Me is what gets you through the day.
Tonight then I am in heaven. I am watching The Big Fat Quiz of 2009, I have a cup of tea in one hand and a box of After Eights in the other. Belle is in bed reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – very wholesome – and Bee is barricaded in her room on msn, probably swigging from a can of Relentless – not quite so wholesome, but out of my way at least.
And I get to spend two hours imagining what it would be like if David Mitchell were my actual real life friend… I indulge myself with a fantasy that we casually meet at a party and David is impressed with my ready wit, laughing out loud at my sarcastic take on the news events of the day. Maybe one day I will get to go out in the evening and then who knows. A girl can dream….
Dating as a single parent is a tricky business, requiring a lot of determination and very supportive babysitters. When you’re part of a couple, going out is easy, but who exactly is supposed to have the kids for you when you haven’t got a useful partner at home? Rather a chicken and egg scenario there I fancy… So imagine dating a single Dad – how on earth do you carve out time to spend together as individuals and exactly when is it ok to introduce the children?
As a single mother of two daughters and a serial online dater I have yet to find time to regularly leave the house on my own, let alone establish a Proper Grown Up Relationship. I don’t count the elderly ladies I meet at checkouts who woo me hilarious tales of cut price cruises and mixed up prescriptions.
When I recently met a single Dad online, with kids the same age as mine I thought I might be on to a winner – here would be someone at least who understood my predicament and would be able to cut me some slack if I turned up to a date half an hour late and covered in playdoh. What I wasn’t expecting was for him to propose we each take our kids on our first date! I’m a fairly liberal parent – I have been known to buy Fruit Shoots – but this was moving too fast even by my standards.
Needless to say I politely declined, but it left all sorts of unanswered questions for me – just how to you manage the practicalities of dating as a single parent? Should you go for a single dad, or does that just complicate matters even further? And really – kids on dates? Is it a sensible solution to a simple problem of logistics or just too creepy…
New Year’s Resolutions:
- Write blog – check
- Get people to read blog – hmmm…. trickier. Top tip from a friend – ‘make it interesting’. Damn. I knew there was something….
In true New Year scrooge style I went to bed last night at 11pm and turned my phone off. I have never been a huge fan of New Year, which is a good job seeing as I was stuck at home Being A Parent. I did have my first child free afternoon since December 19th though (not that I’m counting) and had a lovely time in the pub drinking gin and playing pool badly. Gin in the afternoon really is the way forward.
I staggered walked swiftly home to be back for Belle at 6pm and even managed to throw together a wholesome supper. I then set about finishing up the red wine in a bid to make myself feel thoroughly sick and hence ready to embrace an alcohol free January. I reinforced the teetotalism by emptying some Baileys into the sink at 9am this morning. Nothing like the smell of Baileys on a slightly queasy stomach to put you off drinking completely…
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…