I remember someone telling me, when I was pregnant with my first child, that being a parent meant always feeling guilty, and I remember thinking how sad that was. I quickly banished it from the list of ‘helpful’ comments I received around that time, when my huge bump turned me into a piece of public property destined to receive endless advice, mostly unwanted. I never forgot it though, because parenting, and mothering in particular, lends itself to an overload of guilt if we are not careful.
I am a single parent with four daughters aged 14, 11, 8 and 6. I believe that we (single parents) are still underrepresented both culturally and in everyday life. I find myself carefully thumbing bedtime stories on the shelf to make sure they don’t make my children feel less than they are: yet there is so much to celebrate. Rather than focusing on what we no longer have, I hope I can show them what pleasure there is to be had in the little things.
The concept of looking after ourselves in order to show our children how to value their own health is important. Carving out space for me is an ongoing challenge – those minutes don’t just appear, and there are fewer than I would like – but it is essential, and it places mental health high up on the family agenda.
My evenings have become almost non-existent, full of baths, books and bedtimes. I’ve started setting an alarm early in the morning, lighting candles, making tea and watching the sky grow lighter. It’s the only part of the day when someone doesn’t’t want something from me. During lockdown, my eleven year-old organised films for her sisters so I could see my therapist via zoom. ‘It’s mummy’s special time’, I could hear her whispering, ‘don’t disturb her!’ The same daughter recently created a Minecraft mansion; amongst the fountains and football pitches there was a writing desk especially for me. The image of me sitting quietly is hiding in her head somewhere, making its mark. I’m currently studying online, with lectures taking place just after I have tucked the two youngest girls into bed. More than once I have seen a little blonde head bobbing on the screen behind me and turned around to fold a small child into my lap. It would be great if she stayed in bed, but at least she is quiet. I am there for them all the time, but they mainly respect the time when I need to do things for myself.
I only need a little bit of respite – ten minutes reading the paper or in the bath before someone interrupts me – to appreciate the intensity of solo parenting. I remember the years when I was breastfeeding baby after baby, and then carrying a child in a sling or on my shoulders. Sometimes I was pregnant as well as breastfeeding and that created a whole new level of exhaustion. During that time, I almost forgot what it was like to walk alone. It has taken me a while to rediscover the simple joy of my own space, enforced by having my own bedroom that is only shared if a child creeps in during the night. Now I crave my daughters’ arms around my neck, wisps of their hair in my mouth. Sometimes it’s only when something disappears, that you realise how much you miss it.
I am learning to lose that feeling of not being enough, and accepting that I have to be. Sometimes a fear that I will get ill or have an accident catches me off guard, and then enough won’t even come into the equation because I won’t be here anymore. Perhaps this is what spurs me on to run in laps around my back lane while the girls whizz up and down on their bikes. Maybe this is why I pack hot chocolate and towels into a bag and gasp in the freezing sea while a small child clings to my neck. And it’s probably why we plant seeds in my tiny front garden, just to feel the sun on our arms and the breeze on our cheeks. These acts keep me grounded, make me feel smaller and less significant, but in a good way. I can’t control everything.
In the middle of the storm, someone wise told me that I had to take a long-term view on my mothering. They told me that when my daughters stopped needing me so viscerally they would look back with affection, catching glimpses of our life as a tribe of girls. This would be my advice to you. You are in this for the long haul. Love yourself as much as you are loved.