In which I ponder…single parenting


I consider myself fortunate to have found myself a single parent when my children were 14 and 12 years old and not when they were younger. The sheer volume of work, every minute of the day, that very young children generate must be overwhelming on your own, and I take my hat off to the amazing mums and dads who do it.

Occasionally, over the years I have had friends tell me that they have been a ‘single parent’ this week.

‘John’s been away on business for 4 days, so I’ve been a single parent too’, they say.

Anyone who is actually a single parent will recognise this sort of attempt at joining your (not particularly desirable) club, and it’s well meaning, of course. Any time spent caring for children alone can be exhausting.

But of course, this isn’t really what single parenting is.

Single parenting is parenting with no prospect of anyone taking equal responsibility for those tasks. Ever. There is no one coming in 3 or 4 days to give you a break. There is no one at the end of a phone to tell you you’re doing a good job and they’ll be home soon. And of course, it’s not just the parenting. You will be doing all that mumming or dadding alone, and then absolutely all of the other responsibilities of adult life and of householders will be exclusively yours too. Going to work (that bit is pretty easy really), paying the bills, sorting out the tax, doing the housework, maintaining the car, maintaining the garden, maintaining the house, doing all that household admin. All yours and yours alone. Lucky you! No one is going to run that errand for you while you cook the dinner, or run quickly round with the hoover. No one is going to sit on the phone for an hour trying to sort out a problem with your phone bill while you make a start on the laundry. No wonder single parents are so knackered.

Post separation/divorce parenting for me has turned out to be quite different to how I had imagined. There has been no 50:50 split, not even every other weekend relief. Six evenings a month are spent with their father and his new partner – if they are not away on holiday or on business, which is often. No half the holidays each. No attendance at parent’s evenings and one long weekend in Melbourne for my son and 5 days on the Gold Coast for my daughter being the sum total of holidays spent with their father in nearly 5 years. And when he is not well, he cancels. Oh how I’ve wished this worked the other way…All this is his loss, of course. But it has meant that the burden of working out arrangements which balance my work and half decent parenting have been…challenging.

As they’ve gotten older, of course, the need to be there in a supervisory capacity has reduced, but the need to have a presence, to exhibit my commitment to parenting them and my availability to them has to some extent gotten greater. Through these teenage years they need to know you are there, that you love them and that they are your priority at all times, even when they are being – quite frankly – a bit dreadful.

So it’s not really been the tasks that are so exhausting. No amount of food preparation, taxi driving, laundry, homework nagging, concert and sport watching and cleaning up compares to the sheer overwhelming responsibility of it all. The agony of decisions, for example, about where they can drive, with whom, at what sort of time of night, is left entirely up to me. Which parties they can attend. What time they should be home. Who they can hang out with. I could go on. Obviously the children always think I am being over cautious and I probably am – I have no-one to run these decisions past. There is no one to say – don’t worry, they’ll be fine…and then to sit up with you allaying your fears when they are late and not answering their phones.

I’ve never felt the loneliness of being the single mother of a teenager quite so keenly as on the occasion of my daughter’s 16th birthday party. If I had any advice to other parents about 16th birthday parties, it would be to strongly advise against them based on my experience, but suffice to say that by 9.45pm I had closed said party and contacted parents to collect their children. As if I didn’t already feel terrible enough about it all (and with the distance of time, it was not soooo bad – some smuggled-in alcohol and a couple of drunkards), in a conversation with a father after the event, he said to me – in a tone that could only be described as judgemental and patronising –

‘I understand you are a single mother’

and then went on to suggest that in view of this I should have known not to hold this party. Because obviously there was only one way this could possibly go, given that I am a single mum…

Over time I’ve developed my own system to check out my decisions in the parenting realm. I ask myself – if the thing I am afraid of happening, actually happened – if they crashed the car, went missing, got hideously drunk and did something silly – would I feel comfortable explaining to other people (including their father) what safeguards I had put in place to prevent this from happening? It’s not foolproof but it helps. I’ve explained it to the children, and they seem to accept it. I’ve never been the parent of young adults before, so I’m just feeling my way…

I’ve been so very, very lucky to have great children, who actually have given me very little to worry about. But all parents know that this doesn’t stop us from worrying. Sometimes I think I’ve done a good job, they are nearly done – it looks like I am going to be able to send them out into the world safely and as great human beings. But I know there is still time for it to go wrong and that, in fact, parenting is never over.

What is sure though, is that I wouldn’t change a minute of any of it. Being a mum and raising my two children will, without a doubt, be my greatest achievement, my greatest joy, and the absolute best use of my time, my energy and the space in my brain.

And God knows, as I get closer and closer to the moment when they both fly the nest, I know I’m going to miss this part of my life terribly.

In which I ponder…ageism, sexism and the single middle aged woman


When I left my husband my self esteem was pretty much in tatters, but after many months of bewilderment, crying and hiding in my bed, I dusted myself off and created an online dating profile.

Much to my surprise, I seemed to be attracting the attention of men in their late twenties. I was suspicious – it must be some sort of trick surely, that would end with them relieving me of my life savings and leaving me with a broken heart. Except that  I had no savings and my heart was already broken – so really – why not?

So I went out on a date with Tom. I met him in a bar after attending a charity function, at which I mentioned to a girlfriend that I was going on a date with a 25 year old.

‘Be careful’, she said. ‘You’ll get a reputation.’

‘A reputation for what?’

‘You know…a reputation…’

And so it began – my introduction to what I could now be judged on.

As it happened, I met Tom at the bar, and wasn’t massively impressed. But he wanted to meet me again for dinner, so I went, and this time I realised I had misjudged him, probably because I was a bit drunk. He was an exceptionally unusual person. He only drank water – ever – and he had an inner calm at his core that I’ve never seen in anyone before or since*. We saw each other exclusively for about 5 months, at which point it became clear that he was too busy with his two businesses and his job for any sort of relationship, even the very casual one he had with me. But what was important about this relationship was that very quickly both our ages became very irrelevant. We shared interests in film and books, and he was significantly more mature in many respects than I was. He actually knew who he was, what he wanted and where he was going – and he was going there. I literally had no idea. Where I was all at sea, he was the mainland – reliable, constant and sure.

Then I met Jake. I was very suspicious about him initially. He was 28, a model and a tv presenter and was – by anyone’s standards – exceptionally attractive. But it turned out that he liked me and found me attractive – to the extent that we saw each other until I dropped him at the airport six months later to return to his native Ireland.

A friend told me ‘these young guys are just using you’.

‘What for?!’ I asked incredulously

‘For sex’, she said.

If it wasn’t so hilariously ridiculous I’d have been angry. He was a half Italian, half Nigerian model who had won Mr. World. He could get sex anywhere. Each morning that I woke up with this man in my bed I thanked God and anyone else I could think of that he had come into my life, even for a fleeting moment. In my 44 years, I never thought I would ever see a body like that up close and personal – and I was very grateful I had. If anyone was using anyone for sex, it was probably me. I knew we weren’t waltzing off into the sunset together – we were enjoying the moment. And despite assumptions made about the basis of our relationship, the truth was that much of the time we spent together was passed busking on the piano and writing treatments for tv shows.

People would say to me – what on earth have you got in common (the subtext being – apart from the obvious…)? But the reality is that these days the differences between the generations are not so much a gulf as a small crack that is easily stepped over. We often listen to the same music, frequent many of the same watering holes, watch the same movies and have similar outlooks on life. Many younger people are better travelled, more stocked up on life experience than my generation, who had fewer opportunities and were burdened with more expectations than today’s young people. And in many respects, at this point Tom, Jake and I were at similar moments in our lives – looking forwards in a changing world, with everything still to play for.

However, this sort of attitude to these relationships led to some friends – mainly women sadly – starting to take a view of me and my behaviour that can only be described as judgmental. Along with the boyfriends, my clothes started to come under scrutiny (‘you’re not twenty you know’ a friend told me once when we were shopping together). Then my weight, and my renewed interest in keeping fit – all obviously designed to ensnare young men apparently. You exercise too much, they said. Why are you bothering with all that? Erm – well, because health and all that…

The reality was, though, that I had never pursued younger men, and in fact the vast majority of the men I’ve dated have been mid to late 40s – probably just as you’d expect.

The hypocrisy of all this is, of course, that if the tables had been turned and I had been an older guy dating younger women, people wouldn’t have been so appalled. And even if they had reservations they would have been very different to the ones expressed to me. Sadly, I still think much of the judgement would be about the woman – gold digger, seeking a father figure etc etc.

Of course, the other level of hypocrisy here is that here I was being judged on my behaviour as a completely single woman, dating completely single men, ironically by people who didn’t feel it was their place to judge my ex husband on his behaviour as a married man with married women. Some of them remained friends with my ex husband, whilst their relationship with me waned, largely because they were disapproving of some of my choices post-divorce and, I think, because he quickly settled down with a new partner, and therefore looked superficially more socially acceptable than me in my dangerous singledom.

Very few people met either Tom or Jake. In fact I have very rarely introduced anyone to any of the men I’ve been in relationships with over the years – probably because of this early experience. I don’t want to be judged and I don’t want them to be judged. I’d rather leave any relationship to develop away from the interest of others, so that both of us can find out whether hearing the views of friends and family is going to be relevant or not in the long run.

Tom’s now 28 and lives on the Gold Coast, having opened up a second office for his private equity company. We still talk regularly and spend the odd weekend together. We like each other. It’s as simple as that and nothing more. I really hope that some day in the future he realises that working might deliver ‘things’ but it won’t ever make his heart sing. As I said to him the last time we spent some time together – ‘you should really get a girlfriend. It’s such a waste…you’d make someone a great boyfriend’…

Jake returned to Ireland, where he now presents the national lottery on TV, met a beautiful Zumba instructor and had a baby boy.

For myself, I think my period of dating significantly younger men is over – but when I look back on Tom and Jake, I feel like they were a gift. My heart was broken and I’d lost all faith in myself as a woman. Those two relationships restored my sense of womanhood, my self esteem and helped destroy my fear that there might be something wrong with me that had led to my ex husband’s extreme infidelity. And they both treated me with enormous respect at all times, behaving as though they felt they were lucky to be with me – which has contrasted enormously with men from my own generation, who have behaved generally much more as though they thought they were entitled to me in some way, and that I should be grateful for their attention. These were transformative relationships for me and I’m so grateful for them.

No regrets.

*actually this isn’t entirely true. I had seen it in someone once before – a 52 year old commercial lawyer I went on a couple of dates with who had, quite uniquely, also been a hari krishna monk for 8 years. He had an extraordinary presence and stillness, and when I mentioned to Tom that he reminded me of this man, it turned out he was his uncle…

Names have been changed to protect the innocent