This month our resident Wikizine Parents share their experiences of solo-parenting as we begin the approach to Christmas...
Kirsten says: Should we worry if our young people become ‘mum’ or ‘dad?’
Looking at pictures of my mother when she was my age pulls me up fast: the physical resemblance to me is striking. And it’s not just me who notices the resemblance - when my mother lost the ‘perm’ she’d had for over 50 years, my daughter remarked she looked just like me! (Hang on, I thought, I’m not yet in my late 70s!)
‘Like father like son’ ... ‘like mother like daughter’ These two English proverbs date from the 14 Century – and echo long-held beliefs that we are the children of our (same sex) parent. ‘As is the mother, so is the daughter...’
But it’s not just in looks that we are similar: my mother too was married for over 20 years before divorcing. She too had a long, painful and expensive divorce which need never have ended up in court – except that her husband (my father) couldn’t agree anything he didn’t want to hear. Just like my divorce then.
Some might have thought I’d learn from their divorce, but it is only recently that the similarities are occurring to mine and making me realise the lessons I didn’t learn from my parents acrimonious split which include:
I didn’t learn (or didn’t believe) that my marriage wasn’t going to last forever.
I didn’t learn that divorce was crap and often brought out the worst in everyone involved.
I didn’t learn that divorce can mean at least one partner to the marriage would never be as happy again as they had been in the marriage – but that they wouldn’t realise it until they had lost it.
The lessons I did learn are a mark of the difference between my mother’s generation and mine and include:
I don’t need a man to make me happy. No, I’m not gay or anti-men - I just happen to be able to fulfil most of my own needs and don’t need a man to help me do so. Having said that, I really love to have a man in my life but there is a vast difference between this and needing a man. I don’t think my mother recognised this: whilst she valued her independence and never wished to remarry, she always - from the time she divorced, except for a few months, needed to be in a long-term relationship.
I can do anything. Okay, I might be a farmer’s daughter but I draw the line at dressing chickens or skinning rabbits. But I have recently boarded an attic; taken three foster children aged 2-14 years camping successfully; moved house three times in two years, up-sizing each time and dealing with the crap that goes with renting (don’t get me started on landlords and agents) so that I can wear a number of different hats: mother, foster carer, mentor, (entrepreneur even on a good day). During my marriage I wore one of those hats – the mum hat. Since my divorce 5 years ago I know I am free to do what I want - and I do.
Children are multi-talented and mine tackle tasks they want to do, irrespective of whether they are the ‘traditional‘ male or female tasks. And I don’t mind who does the cooking – just as long as it’s not me all the time. My eldest son has been the Christmas dinner chef for many years because he loves cooking roasts and is superb at it, yet my daughter is the one who will get out the drill to put right a long-standing problem which her brothers (and I) would often ignore.
The important thing is that we work as a team to get the job done – though it can take ages. And if it doesn’t get done, it wasn’t worth doing anyway. In my solo parent household - without a ‘dad’ or an older adult male in the house - we all do more household duties, DIY and cooking and as a result we don’t have much time for TV watching, (though time spent in front of computers doesn’t seem to be compromised.) And I love the way some of us manage to sit down at the dinner table most evenings and talk, which is not only a great way of nurturing one another, but also a handy skill for young people to learn – how to connect and engage with others over food.
To find out more about Kirsten, visit her website here. Kim continues the theme: Like mother, like daughter…? I spend a lot of time thinking about my mother – who sadly died prematurely when I was 30 years old and my first child was just nine months old. And I cannot see any similarity there at all…
She married at 16 and produced three children at a young age. I have had two short marriages but actually had my kids out of wedlock and didn’t start until I was 30. Mum turned her back on a career to devote her time to being a full time mum – keeping house, cooking, taking us kids to school each day and then collecting us again. With two degrees and other qualifications, I was always a full time working single mum and hired a professional nanny to look after my kids from when they were just three months of age. Her entire life she had my Dad by her side – for better for worse, for richer for poorer and in sickness and in health. They were a loving partnership – a complete unit. I have had an assortment of intense relationships with a few short periods when I attempted to live with a man – not very successfully. But in the main, I was and am alone.
She was almost one of those earth mother types – delighting in the simple, home based things in life, running youth groups and spending most of her time with family and close friends. Whilst she always wanted to travel – Dad preferred to stay home – so she only managed to go overseas a few times. I am a busy professional woman spending much time in the City and all that it has to offer – theatre, restaurants, exhibitions - and I have travelled around the world both on business and for pleasure.
There was a clear division of labour in our house as I grew up. Mum did the cooking, cleaning and kids. She organised the social diary as well as the annual holidays at the seaside. Dad worked, managed the finances, did the DIY and the driving. As a single mum, I get to do it all myself. Nasty.
So the similarity between myself and my mother is rather limited. And it’s a constant source of sadness that as my children grew up she wasn’t there to offer guidance and support or to adore them as I do.
And then I look at my 12 year old daughter. She is just like me in so many ways. Her ability to appear completely self sufficient and confident on the outside, but craving attention and love on the inside. And whilst most of the time she is wise beyond her years (and significantly more mature in outlook than her contemporaries) there are occasions when she turns into a raging, out of control dervish who hurts all those around her regardless of whether they deserve it or not. She is bright – scarily so. She is ambitious – in a quiet, determined sort of way. And she is so keen to ensure that those around her are happy – she will put her own desires and needs aside. I’m a martyr too – but she does it with genuine good spirit. But she sure has my competitive streak. And to top it all she looks like me. It’s like holding a Dorian Grey mirror up to myself and seeing the younger, rawer version.
And the terrifying question that echoes in my mind every day and every night is this – if I grew up in a traditional, two parent happy family and ended up a single mum, what chance does my wonderful daughter have to find, forge and enjoy an enduring relationship in the context of a loving marriage as she was never able to see just how it should work from close quarters? And on this occasion I desperately hope that it will be not “like mother, like daughter” but “like grandmother, like daughter”.
Christmas past, present and future
I had imagined how our first Christmas in our grand new house after just 18 months of marriage would be. We would attend a glittering whirl of social engagements in Central London in the run up to the holidays as we worked the circuit of my husband’s business engagements. On Christmas Eve, when the kids were asleep, we would share a glass of wine and stifle our laughs as we sneaked around the house putting piles of presents under the tree. The huge Victorian house would be decked out in masses of tasteful decorations. The Aga in the cavernous kitchen would cook an ostrich-sized turkey with all the trimmings.
My husband (the children’s step father) would smile proudly over the beautifully decorated designer dining table in our stunning conservatory and tell me how much he loved me. We would sneak away for a short while to exchange private presents and delight in our love and passion. We would then all take a postprandial walk around the acres of the house’s private grounds in crisp, white snow. And then we would jet off to his home in the Caribbean for the New Year as we had done in previous years. I was living the fairytale…
But at the end of October I was forced to leave my marriage and return to my own little house (thank God I hadn’t sold it!) with two shaken and upset children and a crushing depression at the way things had gone so badly wrong.
It was the very worst Christmas. It was me and the two kids – trying ever so hard to pretend we were having a jolly time. I had to fight off the constant tears and speak in low whispers on the phone as my lawyer told me about the next horrid development in what must be the divorce from hell – even though I wanted nothing from him and had left everything (including my work computer) at the “matrimonial home”. Then I would shut myself in my bedroom to wail down the phone to my father and friends.
I was exhausted from trying to do all the shopping, wrapping and preparations on my own. I had very little money (the divorce lawyer was costing a fortune, I had invested and lost much money in “our” new grand house and the distress had not enabled me to work as much as usual) and all I wanted to do was curl up under the duvet and die.
There were no social events in the run up to Christmas. I was hurt, and scared, and embarrassed and simply not up to answering all the “What on earth happened to your marriage?” questions. And the thought of seeing any couple all loved up physically turned my stomach. I didn’t attend a single Christmas social event. Even the pantomime tickets for the kids had been left at the marital home.
On Christmas Eve I was all alone as the kids slept and the tears slid down my face as I put out their presents and peeled the vegetables for the next day. I felt alone and crushed and cried myself to sleep with a silent prayer that I would be able to get through the next day – for the sake of the kids.
Christmas morning – as the kids opened their presents from “Father Christmas” - I tried to share their excitement. But the empty space where once my husband had sat was like a neon sign shouting “On your own – On your own – On your own”. And apart from the small gifts from the kids, there was no stack of presents for me from my husband.
I left the kids in the lounge and started to tackle the Christmas dinner. And disaster – the fridge had broken down and the turkey wasn’t cold. In fact, it had gone off in a spectacularly smelly fashion. It went into the bin. I went to my bedroom, closed the door and cried.
Then I phoned my Dad in Dorset and cried some more. Christmas spirit had been replaced with self-pity. I was alone and unhappy and even the bloody fridge had it in for me. How could I do Christmas dinner for my darling children with no turkey? It seemed unfair and impossible. After brooding a bit longer I picked myself up and returned to the kitchen. The kids – engrossed with their presents – hadn’t noticed anything was amiss.
I raided the freezer and found some long forgotten Bernard Matthews turkey burgers (I cursed the nanny under my breath for allowing such food in the house whilst secretly thanking her for saving my bacon). So it was roast potatoes, brussel sprouts, a variety of green vegetables, roast parsnips and turkey burgers. We put on our Christmas cracker paper hats and ate it while trying ever so hard to act like everything was normal.
After the mountain of washing up – tackled alone – I snuggled into the sofa with a child under each arm and watched the TV. The kids laughed at the programmes, but my head was in a different place – trying to hold back the wall of pain and anger in my heart and act like a normal, happy Mum on a joyful Christmas day. I cried myself to sleep that night – dreadfully guilty about how I had failed to make the children’s Christmas a special one.
The following year was so very different. I was recovered. I was happy. I had a working fridge and a sizeable turkey. We had a party on Christmas Eve where I invited in all the neighbours as well as some friends and family and had a fantastic time. On Christmas Day the kids and I unwrapped our presents with gusto before a series of friends arrived to spend some or all of the day with us.
There were eight of us around the Christmas dinner table and the food was splendid – almost as good as the laughter, love and genuine happiness that drowned out the background seasonal music. Everyone pitched in with the clearing up. And in the evening more friends arrived and we danced wildly around the lounge, played silly party games and laughed some more. It was the very best Christmas. You can visit Kim's website here. Bob shares his own thoughts on the challenges of roles as a single dad:
JOSEPH – What a Man!
At this time of year there will be the usual hubbub in school playgrounds about who has got to play the part of Mary. The favoured girl this year, will for a short time at least, be centre stage. Mums at the school gate will congratulate “Mary’s Mum” too. When my daughter was chosen last year (for a role she didn’t fulfil – I’ll get to that) I got to school at pick up time to be met by an absolute frenzy of her classmates all shouting out that “Anya is Mary, Anya is Mary” That came from the girls in her class I should add – not the boys.
Find the boy who has been chosen to sit by Mary’s side as Joseph this year, and he’ll more than likely tell you to “shut up about it”!
And we will see such a scenario being played out in every crib scene in every church up and down the land. The lights will be on Mary and the baby. Joseph may, if the Vicar has been particularly sympathetic to the political zeitgeist, be a couple of steps behind the crib, but probably just out of spotlight. Failing that, he may find himself standing with the cows and sheep. A spare part. Wooden. Just standing there with not much to say or do.
Many single parents will relate to the feeling of added pressures at Christmas. Celebrating the nuclear family brings of course, direct comparison with our own fractured family life. There will be about 5 million children this year celebrating Christmas Day with just one parent. That can bring sadness to children and stress to both parents.
For lone fathers raising children on their own (of which there are over 200,000 in the UK), Christmas is especially difficult. The extra shopping, extra food preparation, requests to make costumes for the Nativity play.... I’m not going to call it “women’s work”, but I will say that the additional workload that Christmas brings tends to be “domestic” in nature – and many of us struggle on this front!
For my small family, it all ended in tears last year. The Church of England Primary School that Anya attended chose her to be Mary. This meant me having to go to the loft to find some sewing stuff and go on a hunt for fabrics that I could knock into shape, and Anya had to fulfil a public role as the ideal (some might say) perfect Mother.
As with the majority of single dad households there usually exists a very awkward relationship between child and Mum. To ask Anya to act out the role of a Mum on stage must have brought this absence from her life into sharp focus. It was not the best bit of casting in my opinion. Anya’s tears tore at my heart. Dad intervened. She was so much happier as a Sheep.
Non-resident dads generally get a fairly hard press these days, “non maintenance paying, lazy, irresponsible slackers” summarises the majority of media headlines. But the truth of course is that many Dads feel a particular sense of isolation from their children at Christmas. I will never forget a call I received on the 27th of December last year from such a Dad. “I only see my son once every month..., he told me...I think I am forgetting how to love him”. Honest - heartfelt – a man taking the trouble to ask for help and support. Christmas is always a busy time in the OnlyDads office!
And not all calls are from Dads. Mums ‘phone with stories of Dads promising the kids lovely Christmas presents and then not delivering and of Dads not paying Child Maintenance in the months preceding. OnlyDads is not immune from knowing that some Dads behave in a way that is quite frankly appalling.
As many readers will know, OnlyDads is not a Father’s Rights based organisation. Rather we try and support single Dads (and Mums) make the most out of what can be a difficult situation. This can (and does from time to time) bring us criticism from Men who think we are “letting the side down”. But the real people who are “letting the side down” are those Dads (and some Mums) who do not put their own children centre stage – and if ever there was a time to step up to the mark – Christmas time is it.
This Christmas, when we look at the crib scene, perhaps we ought just to spend a second or two extra taking a look at Joseph. There just might be something of a role model going on. He may not be that active in the Nativity story. But the facts speak for themselves. He was a working man – who found himself in a situation without money or shelter. He has by his side a girlfriend who is pregnant. (is it even his baby?). Most men will recognise that the above scenario would be a little less than ideal.
But good old Joseph – at least he didn’t leg it! You can visit Bob's website here.