Monday, 31 December 2018

Thank you, 2018

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a really low ebb emotionally. Depression and anxiety were hitting hard and I felt like a failure as a parent. I needed to make dinner, and instead I was sobbing uncontrollably.

On impulse, I reached out to a friend who was a single mother, who had gone through much bigger challenges than I was facing, and—most importantly—who had shared some of her struggles with depression on Facebook. I messaged her asking if she had any advice or things she’d like to have known…

She immediately wrote back: “First of all, I love you. You are wonderful, and strong, and amazing.” Followed by a long, reassuring chat with sympathy, sharing and advice. My tears dried up, and afterwards, I made dinner and things were fine. 

Oddly, this woman and I have never met, and we hadn’t really talked in years. We met about fifteen years ago on a text-based online roleplaying game and for ten years we’ve been Facebook friends, idly keeping track of each other’s lives without necessarily communicating.

But that was enough for me to get hold of her when I needed her. That was enough for me to know she was the person I needed. I know a lot of single mothers, and I’m sure many of them have found themselves crying at a time they need to make dinner… but they hadn’t shared that. This friend had… and because she had been that candid about her journey, I knew she would be the voice of experience I needed in that moment. 

Don’t knock internet friendships and don’t knock over-sharing. Sometimes these things are a lifesaver.

Don’t knock the more traditional form of friendships either. My closest friend geographically lives on my street. Twice this year, I’ve called on her because I was having a panic attack while the kids were at home. Both times, she’s dropped everything and come to get me through it, calming me down and doing some on the spot parenting. I can never repay her for that.

These are just two friends of the many who have helped me get through this year. I don’t know if they all appreciate just how grateful I am to them, so in the spirit of counting my blessings, I sent as many as I could remember a note of thanks, and I’d like to put the full list here. It’s been a year of gestures, big and small, that have meant the world to me. (In the interests of keeping this vaguely concise, I’ve mentioned only the gesture that made the biggest difference to me… A lot of the people on this list have helped in multiple ways.)

Thank you…
… to my brother and his wife for getting me out of the house and doing stuff when it first happened. The advice was to say ‘yes’ to everything, and they gave me no shortage of things to say ‘yes’ to.
… to my parents who have, at times, driven me crazy with their helicopter worrying, but who have given me very real practical help. I feel like I should be too old to be using them as a safety net, but apparently not yet!
… to the old family friend whose husband had left her in their retirement years, who shared with me her conflicted feelings and sympathized with mine.
… to the friends who came and watched Survivor with us every week for three months, keeping a tradition alive for my kids, despite the problems with their own marriage.
… to the mutual friend who understood that I needed to talk with sympathy for my husband, and who helped me deal with those complex emotions.
… to said mutual friend’s boyfriend who stepped up to the grill when I organized a barbeque with no real plan or preparation for how to cook everything.
… to my photographer / reprobate-Mom friend, for helping me celebrate the last wedding anniversary and the first Christmas alone.
… to the school friend who isn’t on social media but remembered to email me on my birthday to check how I was doing.
… to the University friends who drove me around and helped watch the kids on our annual UK trip.
… to every old UK friend who reached out with messages both of moral support and practical information on living in the UK.
… to my mother-in-law and sister-in-law for coming together for my cousin’s wedding, demonstrating to me and the children that whatever happens, we’re still family.
… to my cousin for inviting my sister-in-law to her wedding, despite having met her only once before, at my wedding thirteen years ago.
… to the wonderful people in attendance at my Montessori workshops who made that such an uplifting experience which gave me so much hope for my future.
… to the guy who invited me to a Christmas party among a social circle I thought I had lost.
… to the guy I met on a dating app, for taking me on when I was so screwed up, for sharing a month of caring for and understanding each other, and for allowing me the most graceful break up in history when I realized I wasn’t ready.
… to the parents of my children’s friends, who invited us to parties, gave my children so many fun experiences and offered their sympathy and support at every turn.
… to my daughter’s teacher who shared her own experiences and showed so much patience with my unreliability.
… to the couple who played Santa Claus and dropped a Christmas gift on my doorstep just when I needed it.
… to the friends who confessed to me in private that they were also going through the end of their marriages, even if they didn’t want to talk about it publicly. It was good to know I wasn’t alone.
… to the crazy nerds at the parkour group for teaching this introvert that she’s more capable than she thinks she is, and for being obnoxious to my children in all the right ways.
… to the internet friends who let me hang out like a wet blanket in their AirBnB during a Boston meet up, when I wanted to do nothing in good company.
... to so many people who I'm probably and regrettably forgetting.
… to my children who have been loving and amazing, who  reminded me to have fun when I forgot, who have put up with one hell of a lot this year, and who have given me the motivation to reach out to people when I needed to. 

If it wasn’t for the children, I would have been too afraid to bother my friends on my account… yet bothering friends helped me regain perspective on how lucky I still am. There’s a line in one of my favourite books, the Millstone by Margaret Drabble: “If I asked more favours of people, I would find people more kind.”

This is the lesson I am taking away from 2018. Thank you, all.

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

A Little Piece of Miracle

Some Christmas miracles are about good friends and good timing...

A little after 9pm on Christmas Eve, I was putting the kids' presents under the tree and becoming increasingly conscious that there was nothing there for myself, barring the little tissue paper package that my daughter had brought home from school and which had promptly been buried by their gifts.

For the record, my family aren't terrible people. I had asked for giftcards this year so I can buy a new camera. I assured them that that was all I wanted, and there was no need to get anything else just so I had something to unwrap. I tend to get twitchy about gifts that exist for the sake of gifting and never actually get used, so I fully believed this at the time. On a material level, I didn't care.

My cat knows that all I need for Christmas is her

Yet one of the things that sometimes gets to me as a single mother is that I am nobody's priority. The children are my priority, but by the nature of that relationship, I'm not theirs. We say it's the thought that counts, and my Christmas tree was telling me that nobody was thinking about me.

It's daft, but I was fighting a lot of feelings on Christmas Eve, and this was just the final straw of desolation.

Then came a ring at the doorbell. I answered it to find a giant pink Disney Princess giftbag on my doorstep with a tag saying "Merry Christmas, Sarah."

Going downstairs, I found one of my friends about to pull out of my drive. The bag was from him and his girlfriend... she went through divorce with children some years back, and it was her idea to do this for me. He hadn't been sure if I'd be home, but when he saw me, he stopped his Christmas Eve errands and let me make him a cup of tea. (He got unlucky that this was the year we stopped doing cookies for Santa.)

When the kids came home the following morning, they opened their gifts, and I went through that bag which contained a stocking and other assorted silly gifts, all individually wrapped. I giggled a lot, felt loved and thoughts were counted all over the place.

Note to self for next December and all the ones thereafter: if I have a newly single parent in my life, make sure they have something under their tree that isn't for the kids.

For the record, the solutions I went with for my earlier Christmas dilemmas was to have the children spend Christmas Eve with their father. He took care of their stockings and they opened the rest of their presents with me, mid-morning. For dinner, we joined with my friend's family who were welcoming and merry in all the right ways. So on a practical level, Christmas was very easy for me this year, and on an emotional level, there was a lot of good along with the inevitable. Very grateful to everybody who helped out.

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Completing my Course

Last week, I submitted my final piece of coursework, completing all the requirements for the Montessori Diploma I started in March 2017. I was supposed to complete in August when I did my workshops and took the exams, but owing to all the divorce stuff going on this year, I fell wildly behind schedule and they granted me an extension. Even then, I hoped to complete in October. But things kept on happening and interfering, and although I was still plugging away at it whenever I had time and focus (the latter being a major issue this autumn), I grew concerned that I was not going to complete it in time to actually apply for jobs.

So in November, I decided that enough was enough and I was going to make the coursework a priority. And then about two weeks later, I realised that me making it a priority didn't mean the rest of my life made it a priority...

So I went to extinction level. For three weeks, I treated the coursework as my newborn baby, and sat on the sofa with it to the exclusion of almost everything else. The laundry was done, but that was about it. The house went to rack and ruin. The children were largely left to fend for themselves: screentime restrictions were almost totally lifted, but they also had to make most of their own meals.

I feel like I have seen this story elsewhere online: the mother, for whatever reason, stops doing the cooking and cleaning, the home environment degrades... and the family suddenly realises just how much she does for them; reformed and loving, they step up to the plate and start taking the burden of household chores on themselves.

Yeah, not in my house. It is quite possibly a Christmas miracle that none of us died from dysentery.

(That was a joke. No need to call social services.)

The other result was that I stopped going out almost completely except for chauffeuring the kids and the weekly grocery shop. Once a week, I would go and socialise with a few friends—and that was all the adult interaction I would have for that week.

It worked. I finished my observations of my friend's toddler and wrote out the child study. I studied and self-tested for the last three topics of my curriculum planning module and wrote out a concept web and a subject web for a theme on snakes. And I submitted that last piece on my daughter's last day of school before Christmas.

However, three weeks of isolation amid clutter is depressing to say the least, so it wasn't as triumphant a moment as you might expect. I submitted, then cleaned the house in a daze. The kids were ecstatic to hear that I could actually do stuff with them again, but I only felt numb and weepy for a couple of days.

Fortunately, I have tremendously kind friends, and since last Friday, I've been to a Christmas party, celebrated my birthday—taken out to lunch by one pair of friends, taken out to dinner by another—caught up on some parkour training and have another party to attend tomorrow. I feel well and truly rehabilitated into society.

It's perhaps today that it's really sunk in. I'm done. (Assuming no corrections are needed.) I still have a lot of other crap to do, but I can write for leisure again and not feel guilty about it.

I don't know when I'll get my result... probably not until after Christmas. Based on the exams I took over the summer and the earlier coursework I've done, I should be on track for a distinction, if I can maintain that mark through these last two modules.

I want that distinction. I know it doesn't really matter... the key thing is passing and getting the diploma, and God knows, I was never really bothered in school about the difference between an A and a B. But this year's been hell, and completing the course was so much more difficult than I ever imagined it would be... Getting a distinction would be a personal victory on a couple of different levels: I was able to keep all the crap going on this year from interfering with this aspect of my future, and this is something I am really and genuinely good at.

Because I am. I'm incredibly smart about this stuff. I get what I'm doing with these young children and I love doing it. It's never going to earn me a lot of money—something which is unfortunately far more relevant now than when I started this course—but this is a career I will be successful in.

Anyway. That's step 1 of the move, finally complete, so I am... roughly six months behind schedule. Le sigh. The next few steps can at least be more concurrent as I try to find a job after not working for eight years, figure out where I'll be living and how much everything is going to cost... I've already started on this, but this weekend, I'll give myself a day off and take my long-suffering children to Dickens Town followed by Mary Poppins.

Friday, 14 December 2018

Ending the Magic

The scene: the school run. Me driving, the kids in the backseat.

My son asks me: "Do you believe in Santa Claus?"

Now, I detest the Santa Claus tradition. I think it's an outdated custom from an era when children were scared into good behaviour. I'm uncomfortable with the fact that it makes me lie to my children... and I'm really annoyed by the fact that the lie actively sends the wrong message: Thanks to Santa, Christmas isn't about giving presents but about receiving them.

"But the magic of Christmas!" cry all my friends and family. And I grumble "Bah, humbug," give into peer pressure and carry on lying to my children and wondering when on earth they will finally twig that Santa can't possibly be real. (My brother told me when I was five, so I don't really remember believing.)

This year, my son is ten. So when he's asking me if I believe in Santa, I'm thinking he wants an honest answer. Not to mention, this year, I've been extra conscientious about being upfront with him. So...

Son: "Do you believe in Santa Claus?"

Me: "No."

Son: "But how do you think the presents get under the—Do you put them under the tree?"

Me: "Do you really want to have this conversation?"

Daughter: "I bet you won't get any presents this year."


Me: "I probably won't."

Daughter: "... you only got, like, two, last year."

This appears to be a shining example of the difference in cognitive development between a seven year old and a ten year old. Or perhaps of believing what you want to believe. (For the record, I actually got plenty of presents last year.)

My son persisted in asking questions, so I finally told him we should have this conversation that evening. As soon as he got home, he asked again, and I said we'd wait until his sister had gone to bed.

"Uh oh," he said immediately. "That's not a good sign for my imagination."

"We don't have to have this conversation if you don't want to."

He did. So at bedtime, I asked him what he wanted to know.

"Do you put the presents under the tree?"


And that was that. Childhood over. Soul crushed.

He had a lot of questions, which I expected: where did we buy all those small presents for the stockings? Where do we hide the presents? (I didn't answer that one. His theory is the garage.) Did I wrap my own presents? How do we put them under the tree? And of course: "... Wait. You eat the cookies and milk, don't you??"

What I didn't expect was how cross he was about the magic not being real. He actually felt we should have come clean when he was younger so it wouldn't be so sad to find out. He'd always liked the idea that there was still some magic in the world, because Santa came at Christmas.

"What about those Santa tracking apps?"

"It's all made up."


I did talk about my own thoughts about the spirit of Christmas being in the giving and the love, but by and large, he wasn't as interested in that as he was about the mechanics of this great deception. So we also discussed why we had kept the pretense up, and I advised him not to say anything to his friends or sister, explaining that if people still want to believe, we should let them believe. (Not always the greatest philosophy, admittedly.)

He agreed with me, but apparently he's going to ask his teacher how it feels to lie to her children. And he's going to campaign not to leave any cookies out this year.

His resolve not to tell his sister lasted all of five minutes. As he went to bed, he poked his head in her door (he likes to wish her goodnight) and told her that I'm the one who puts the presents under the tree. She apparently took it pretty well. I suppose we'll see what she says tomorrow!

Oh, and he checked with me about the tooth fairy as well. So we destroyed all the magic tonight. At least with that one, he was unreasonably entertained by my account of how I'm always petrified he's going to wake up while my hand is under his pillow.

Anyway, they'll be at their father's for Christmas. We'll open our presents when they get back, and—if I need to—I'll let them think I opened my stocking earlier. Then we'll go to dinner with a friend's family. Everything will be low-key, and I have minimal planning to do which is a huge relief. Next year, I can get back to being excited about everything Christmas. This year, it's not about the magic.

Bah, humbug to all and to all a good night!