There is a scene in the film About a Boy where single parents gather in a shabby church hall chanting the words “single parents alone together”. I remember watching that film and feeling patronising levels of sadness for the chunky-knitted troupe and their lonesome responsibilities.
Well, I am one now – a SPAT (Single Parents Alone Together). And, while I don’t sit in healing circles with other solo parents, I am solely responsible for two little girls on “my” weeks. That means financially, administratively and emotionally – the expected 360-degree parental experience but without a co-founder.
There’s no option of “darling, can you just…” as I’m wrangling one child into the bath, untangling another’s algebraic equations while on a work deadline.
There’s no one else to quickly put the kids’ tea on while I try and fail to establish why the Wi-Fi isn’t working. There is no one other than me to desperately try to locate the one school skirt my youngest will wear despite there being three dry and ironed options at the ready. There’s no one to make it clear they aren’t being ignored while I’m trying to keep our financial futures sound. On those weeks that I am in sole charge, there’s no respite. And while I play a good game with coat hanger smiles at the school gates and manic cheeriness at work, it hits me hard because the load used to be half.
Before you go below the line to comment, let me be clear: this is no pity party. I am fully aware that I remain in a privileged position. But with parents a good three hours away and limited flexible childcare up for grabs, I’m a maternal island. The homework and school form-filling buck ends with me. And I’m not sure months of pre-divorce mediation could have ever prepared me for being a man down. The ratio of 2:2 was just about manageable but 2:1 with an unrelenting job and odd hours thrown in for good measure is a little weightier.
Perhaps the straw that’s broken the mother’s back recently is their sibling rivalry. I can handle the baseline parental admin – school run, pick-up, homework, drama club, tea, bath, story and bed – with the efficiency of a FTSE CEO. But the second I tend to something other than mediating their squabbles, all hell can break loose.
I confess that I nearly lost it two weeks ago when they were fighting over an old toothbrush that neither of them had used in months. While muting a work call and finding my eldest’s favourite Minecraft T-shirt, I shouted, “if you don’t stop fighting, I’m going to lose my temperature”. At which point they rolled about on the floor laughing – “Mummy did you mean temper?”, just as I realised I wasn’t on mute and had lost all parental control.
But there’s beauty in the banal even if I’m on the edge at times. Those moments where we lose it together and I am able to sit on the floor and explain why my internal heat was rising. Every parent hits breaking point but previously there was usually another adult in the room with his opinion on how I should have handled it. Or vice-versa when I was there to passive-aggressively parent the parent. (No one needs the post-tantrum analysis starting with, “I just don’t know if we should…”)
Reassuringly, child psychologist Dr Martha Deiros Collado says that it’s not about remaining calm at every parental juncture, it’s about how you repair when you’ve crossed the line. And how to encourage kids to repair relations when they have. This is arguably a trickier task with a six- and 10-year-old than with older kids, but a little powwow with the three of us goes a long way.
When things get overwhelming, I look at a small tattoo I have on my inner wrist of three stick people. An odd salvation, sure. But that permanent ink depicts me in the middle with my girls on either side and the artist is my youngest daughter. On my chest there is a tattoo of a simple triangle. The tattooist asked why I was getting them both and my answer was as a reminder to have fun along the way. That we’re just three girls at different stages of life trying to work it all out – me more than ever right now. A little triangle of humans who share the same DNA and while homework needs to get done and shoes need to go on, there’s always room for joy among the chaos.
But there is one bit that no one really tells you to prepare for post-divorce. Once the kids are down, the lunch boxes are packed and the hollers for “I’m thirsty can I have a drink?” stop, an eerie silence creeps in. That time from 9pm every night used to be the reserve of Netflix (and not chilling) with my ex. It was punctuated with “want a cuppa?” or even a fleeting argument about something nonsensical by the dishwasher.
That’s when it really sinks that you’re alone. Not in the parenting and homework cajoling but in the calm after the childcaring storm. That was when the tears are far more likely to roll after a bad day at work with no one to download with. That’s when I feel an innate understanding of the SPAT chants and the need for a hug in a community hall that smells of feet.