Christmas…with my Ex!

Wednesday 30 December 2020

With the afternoon news a distressing chaos of tiers and school disruption, I decide to turn off the radio, enjoy a last Mince pie and relish the closing moments of Christmas 2020. Even with restrictions, even spending much of it with my Ex, it has been a welcome break from covid …

The great day itself, the 25th, is the usual flurry of wrapping paper and presents and the house is soon rocking along to the tune of Small Boy’s new electric guitar! One major change however is that ‘Christmas Dinner’ is, alarmingly, entrusted to my questionable culinary skills, for the first time in many a year. Indeed, I struggle to recall ever before being left in sole charge.

‘Thank the Lord for Corona!’,

I am almost heard to cry as spuds and sprouts need to be peeled, parsnips roasted and oven space juggled for only 6, instead of our usual family gathering of 11 or more! Does it go well? I think so! As Boxing Day dawns, my head still buzzing with guitar strumming, I knock back a couple of Anadin-extra, tip a crate of bottles into the blue bin on Boxing Day, and resolve that we were probably all too sozzled to care in any case.

Ex-Hub is the next to arrive and stay for a few nights; another unusual festive twist. Winding the clock back a decade, to the time of our separation, we did initially continue to spend Christmas together. All my idea and not, alas, for the noblest of reasons. Yuletide; it is my special time, my season of magic and sparkle and cherished family traditions. So, when it came to negotiating Xmas -access, hating the idea of entering the world of ‘alternate years’ that other single parents described, feeling physically sick at the prospect of waking up on a Christmas morning without my children, I took control of the Holiday calendar. I established a tradition of New Year and Easter with Dad, and Christmas with me for our trio. Inviting Ex-hub to celebrate the December 25th festivities with us if he wished, was probably, if I am honest, my idea of a final deal-clincher.

So I confess, not my most selfless act, but I was met with little opposition; it seemed to suit everyone. I’d say that it enabled both new households to establish their traditions and ways of marking, with certainty, great celebrations on the British calendar. Whatever the theories, this division of holidays works for us and as such I recommend it, not as a blue print for any other family as we are all unique, I recommend it as an example of ignoring convention and expectation around how you parent, co-parent or share-parent and in finding your own way!

But back to teaming up for Christmas. which we managed for 3 or 4 years. Whilst some may find it odd and I fully respect that for some it is unthinkable, we are not the only family to try it. Red columnist Olivia Blair’s article highlights the case of a woman who now enjoys Christmas with her ex, despite citing the festive holiday when still together, as a key catalyst in their break-up! More in tune with my experience, Kelly Baker, describes how the great healer of time heals the hurt and pain and allows you and your Ex to operate as people who do actually share common interests and can enjoy each other’s company again … if only for a few days.

Eventually, as Ex -Hub and I both moved onto new relationships, sharing Christmas came to a natural end. Until, of course, this year!

Oh Corona virus – it has destroyed the teens’ face to face contact with their father and ‘down south‘ family. How to visit? Where to stay? What to do? Balancing health risks for vulnerable family members … it has thrown up more problems that we have been able to solve and, in consequence, contact has dwindled to Zoom calls and x-box games. So as Christmas is the season of good will, a few weeks ago, I took a deep breath, stocked up on alcohol and invited Ex-hub to stay for a few days in December.

And the visit goes well. Walks, games, films and family meals – all washed down and smoothed over with plenty of wine. Yes, pickling the liver, is clearly a shared strategy for both parents on this occasion! In occasional awkward moments, I sternly remind myself that, for the teens, it is a wonderful opportunity to check in with their dad in person – an even better present than the electric guitar! For me too, possibly because I am a little out of my comfort zone, Christmas day guests and even Ex-hub are both a great distractions from everyday worries. The stresses and strains of our ever changing covid-life do indeed recede for a few days.

But, as Ex-Hub’s expensive electric car, glides off the drive at the end of his visit, the realities of covid -life close in once more. My stomach knots, my heart says a sad farewell to Christmas and my head turns with apprehension and dread towards a grim New Year…

Home for the hols…

Tuesday  22 December 2020

One of the most shocking stories, in a weekend of dramatic news, is the closure of the Dover-Calais crossing which leave thousands of lorries and passengers stranded, for days, on British motorways. Closer to home, with Christmas only days away, it also fuels fears of food shortages on our supermarket shelves. Amidst reports of ‘panic-buying,  I contemplate the best time to brave the aisles for the annual yuletide shop. Someone else has other worries on their mind,

“Gosh – could it lead to an avocado shortage? That would be terrible!”  exclaims my Eldest.

I reel around. Prom-dress daughter splutters on her coffee. Small Boy is frozen, his cereal spoon midway to his mouth, then turns to stare too. My lovely daughter, just smiles at us all,

What? I’ve just got a great new recipe for smashed avocado and chilli…”

Yes, my first-born is back from University for the holidays!

I honestly didn’t know what to expect from this first home-return. Several decades ago, I recall being an utter pain and, more currently, several witty articles warn parents to ‘brace’. But my girl has been an absolute delight. The old adage says that ‘education broadens the mind‘. Whilst some may challenge this, the recent interesting study by Jessika Golle of the University of Tübingen, in Germany, finding that it was not that University broadens minds, rather that work ‘narrows them‘, my daughter is noticeably more open minded…and not only in terms of her culinary choices! Her views on environmental issues, mental health and well-being, the value of money and so many more issues have all developed and deepened since she left our homestead 3 months ago. 

She also brings a refreshing independence into the house, which supports, rather than challenges my weariness and working hours. I arrive home to meals on the table. She does all her own washing.  She encourages the other two to be a little more self-sufficient. And all requests, to do any activity or meet anyone, are delivered with a courtesy and respect I find astonishing. Don’t get me wrong, we have always been close, but towards the end of Summer, she was clearly ready to strike out and make her own way in the world. And occasionally this lead to friction and resentment at having to follow someone else’s rules. Teenage brains are, after all, programmed to rebel in the important quest for independence (Blakemore et al)

So, whilst I steeled myself for a bumpy ride with student vacation number one, it has been a joy. My daughter seems completely at ease with herself and all of us. Is it meeting new people? Is it having a clear sense of purpose once more after the long months of Lockdown? Is it a reflection of her happiness with life? I am not sure. What I do know is that she lights up the day and that her visit is a huge boost for everyone in the house. The odd crazy food request… a quirk we can all accommodate!

With a smile, I add ‘avocados’ to my lengthy shopping list, accept my Eldest’s cheery offer to come with me and we head out together to re-stock the cupboards

Let’s hope those horrendously caught up in the chaos and gridlock at Dover make it home for Christmas too…

From hot tub to …

Saturday 19 December 2020

… to hollering, to humdrum, to … hissy fit? I am still not sure which of my alliterative choices to plump for! What it is, sadly, safe to say however is that ‘hot tub heaven’ did not quite go according to plan!

The tub is delivered and installed without a hitch on Thursday evening. By Friday morning, it is brimming with hot bubbles and up to temperature. I pop 2 bottles of prosecco in the fridge and head to work, for the final time this tumultuous term, in high spirits. Upon arriving home, alas, we peel back the covering to find the tub has lost around 50% of the water. It takes a good hour to refill and another 3 for the company ‘engineer’ to come out and give us the ‘all clear‘ to hop in. This they do, assessing that ‘the plug‘ has most probably, ‘become dislodged.’ Nonetheless by 7pm it’s cozzies, flip-flops and hot tub here we go!

And it is simply glorious. The tub and awning take up half the back garden, spectacularly transforming the outside of the house into our own personal spa. As all four of us sink into the warm froth, the sounds of laughter and happiness fill the air. We are no longer in a grey, drizzly corner of a Northern Tier 3 town; we are on holiday, in a luxurious alpine retreat, pampered, relaxed and without a care in the world.

We should just buy one mum!” enthuses my Eldest as the fizz flows in our glasses.

“I am staying in for ever!” grins Prom-dress daughter

I have drifted off into a more immediate dream of my own. This weekend! This weekend, there will be no; housework, no supermarket trips, no cooking, no thinking about work and mass testing and …. stop! None of that! Nothing but ‘the tub.’ Run then relax in the tub. Read a new book in the tub. Watch the teens having fun in the tub. Wine and beer in the tub. Utter bliss! After a year dominated by stress, worry and sadness I realise that it is just what I need! A wonderful evening ends and we head to bed.

I actually set my Saturday alarm for the first time in weeks and at 7:30am, pull on my run gear with thrice my usual enthusiasm. As I open the kitchen door however, I hear beeping and it is coming from …’the tub’. Outside, I find that, once again, the water level has dropped; this time dramatically to a level that might just about cover your toes. The machine flashing in panic, I despondently re-tap the engineer’s number on my phone. I am directed about, for a mad half-hour, trying out various ‘ home remedies’ before they announce that I am booked in for an afternoon visit. At this point I take stock of the situation and suggest that instead, as I face yet another 12 hours unable to make use of the 4 day-hire and there is no guarantee that the problem is fixable, we call it a day. And so it is that the hot tub is taken away.

The company could not be nicer. They insist on a full refund and also offer a free booking in January. Nonetheless, as the van pulls away from my drive, I sit down and burst into tears. Yes, I am ashamed to confess, I blub like a baby. With the back garden back ‘to normal’, the mirage of ‘weekend-away’ evaporates and my usual Saturday of drudge and dreariness descends like a heavy cloud. It’s covid life: grimy bathrooms, dusting and cleaning, battling around Tesco, no meeting friends, no playing music, no nights out and just never-ending worry – worry about everyone and everything. It has taken its toll on many. It has taken its toll on me. The teens fuss around with cups of tea and kind words and, lovely as they are, to escape the guilt of feeling like a ridiculous child instead of the parent I am supposed to be, I wave them away, dry my eyes and head out for a run.

Now, as ever, that does stop the tears, if not the sadness in my heart, and as I turn the key in the door, I have ‘gotten a grip‘ and am ready to carry on. Which is just as well as my 80 year old mum has called. One of her ceilings has fallen in. By calamitous co-incidence, she is also Prom-dress daughter’s accompanist for today’s re-scheduled Grade 8 violin recording. This could take a bit of sorting out. I could almost be thankful not to have the distraction of a heavenly hot tub in the garden… almost …

Give a little love …

Sunday 13 December 2020

You give a little love and it all comes back to you
La la la la la la la
…”

Bugsy Malone: Paul H. Williams

Looking back, I would probably highlight motherhood as, if not the first, then most definitely a significant induction into the the world of human kindness. As word spread of the arrival of my daughter, the gifts and small parcels flooded in, from all corners of the land. Friends and family, neighbours, the cleaner at work, the window cleaner, distant acquaintances of my parents and my in-laws parents … it just went on and on. I was utterly overwhelmed that so many should take the time and trouble to think of us. And into that same moment of dawning realisation, about how lovely most people actually are, came the sudden guilt about all the births I’d failed to mark with the thoughtfulness of a posted baby-grow or little pack of bibs. And I’ve tried my utmost to make amends every since. For that it the beauty of small acts of kindness; they spread!

Yes, the domino effect of thoughtfulness and goodwill is one of the unexpected joys of living, and in a miserable 2020, has seemed more important than ever. A couple of months ago, some of our neighbours were caught by ‘the virus’. I sent a text offering to do their shopping, whilst they endured isolation, and this week, upon hearing our news, they dropped in with bags of groceries and a tray of donuts. As we finally emerged back into the world this weekend, I wiped the sugar coated crumbs from my lips and made sure I offered to nip to ‘Big Tesco‘ for a workmate, who went down with corona a few days ago. And so the baton passes on.

Sometimes, I am humbled to say, these gestures have been far from ‘small’. In the bleakest moments of life; the death of my father, the breakdown of my marriage, the (thankfully small number of) serious crises for my children, the love and support of those around me has been so incredible, that I’ve often wondered that I’ll ever be able to repay them. Whilst I may always feel deeply indebted to some of my dearest friends, what I have been able to do, in honour of them, is this. When meeting others facing challenges or sorrows, I have now found the time and words to offer them the care and understanding I’ve been shown. And perhaps ‘passing on the baton’ is the best way to ‘repay’ my friends and family. Perhaps that’s why no act of kindness, be it small or large, is ever wasted…

And so the year ends…

Sunday 29 December 2019

As I pull into Norton Canes, the service station on the M6 Toll Road, it seems as good a place as any to reflect back on 2019 and put together my final post of the year.

It is homeward bound after a lovely Christmas break in Oxford and Cambridge. My old university stomping ground as it happens, but on this occasion, just exciting to be visiting friends and family, as opposed to wandering around the dreaming spires. The closest we come to anything you could deem an ‘Oxbridge activity’ is breaking out of a Cold War themed Escape Room (with 5 minutes to spare.) We are the ‘Squad of Seven’ – move over Cambridge Five!

The Toll Road on the return journey, now that is my guilty pleasure! I loathe queuing. I am really not a patient waiter. In my time I’ve driven huge (and probably time-costly) detours to avoid the grim misery of gridlocked traffic. So paltry charge of £5.60 for the utter luxury of 27 miles of well-lit motorway, wide lanes and a joyous lack of other road users seems a very small price to pay! Eventually, of course, it will be a return to the endless cone-lined crawl of the 50 mph zone on the M6, but a coffee break delays that for another half an hour, so here goes…let’s review 2019. I take a deep breath, I fire up my blog on the laptop, click on ‘January’ and step back in time.

It is not just the end of the year in a couple of days, but also the end of a decade. As I re-read my blog however, re-visiting each month in turn, I realise that one year is more enough for me to look back upon. I try to decide if, as the midnight bells chime on Tuesday, 2019 will it count as a good year or one to regret? But there’s no answer to that…because it’s neither. What it is, is just one full calendar year… 365 unforgettable days of ups and downs. And I like that. There have been moments of great happiness; fun times, cloud-9 times, laugh-until-you-cry times. Equally, I’ve shed a fair few tears and I re-live days of disappointment, even sadness. I’ve met new people and I’ve had to say ‘farewell’ to others. I’ve relished new challenges and I’ve battled with the drudgery of daily routines. I think it’s called life! It strikes me that we don’t actually need significant temporal landmarks such as years and decades to make sense of our lives. In actual fact every day matters. And that is true of any year. The difference for me in 2019 is that so many more days have been captured and will be remembered. Because I have written their stories down and that’s one thing that is not going to stop.

Exactly one year ago, the blog was my New Year’s Resolution. Little did I know how much I was going to love it … just love writing again. It’s not enough to tell you that it’s fun to have a record of the year to re-read and share. It has been a complete joy. I start with a blank screen. I set off. I rarely know where I’m going or what I want to say. The words just dance on the page, then blend and reform into thoughts, sentences and stories. It feels exciting, it feels creative and it has been, without question, astonishingly therapeutic. I recommend it to anyone. Whether it’s building basket ball stands (Slam dunk – my most popular post of the year) or conversations with your friends that transform your outlook on life (Single parenthood necessity) any day or event can make a memorable tale.

Carrying on with my blog, that’s a definite ‘Yes’ for me. I would also add writing to my previous tips of running and reading, for any stretched and stressed parent. All three pastimes are free and flexible. They fit around you and your schedule and are fantastic for health and well being. Hey, reading, running and writing – the veritable 3R’s of sanity, for people of all shapes and sizes.

Glancing up from my reveries, I notice that it’s getting quite dark. I drain the last of my coffee and reluctantly, resign myself to the fact that my therapy time is up for today. If I ever want to get home again, I need to face the M6 ….

Its the most wonderful night of the year …

Sunday 22 December 2019

The best moment of any school holiday is the first Sunday night. In place of the usual grim evening of ironing, of planning lessons, of finishing reports, of last minute homework, of sorting out dinner money, bus passes and gym kits … in place of all of this is just an excited glow of freedom. Pressure and deadlines melt away and two weeks of seemingly endless time and opportunity spread out in front of me.

Christmas is a busy time of course and I still have much present purchasing and wrapping to do. I still have to brave the food shop for my contributions to this year’s big family Christmas dinner.(Thankfully, for all, I am put on desserts and instructed to ‘buy them’. Surely even I cannot go wrong with this one?) And my teens are a popular trio at the moment, which means lots of ferrying around to meals, movies, skate-dates and parties But compared to my usual day job …

So will I be doing any school work at all in the next 2 weeks? Of course I shall. But it certainly wont be in the next 10 days and it will only be finite and manageable tasks. I intend to start back in January, replenished and refreshed. And the experts agree with me. In her 2015 article, “It’s official, teachers must relax over Christmas to avoid burnout” , Sarah Marsh examines the evidence from a City University, London study of 90 teachers which concludes that time off allows teachers to “restore their emotional energy” . Those who fail to switch off and continue to worry about work were found to have made far less good a recovery from the demands of the term than others. Relaxation should be our quest and amidst all the tips from the teaching and health care professional come many of my familiar lifelines: reading, exercise, family time, trash TV ….and laughter.

A glance at the time tells me I have an hour to kill before I collect Prom-dress daughter from her a friend’s house. I think feet up, a mince pie and a bit of Daniel Craig sounds just perfect ….

Christmas carols, Christmas chaos….

Monday 16 December 2019

The last few days have been a hectic mix of the familiar; traditional Christmas carols concerts, parties and drinks, with the unfamiliar and definitely less festive challenge of University interviews for my eldest.

Friday takes us to Yorkshire. The University grilling takes almost 3 hours. The drive home, along a flood hit M62 even longer. The alpha-mothers in the parent room, whose knowledge of UKCAT scores and entry criteria for every Medical school in the land is encyclopedic, have left me feeling like a total failure as a mum. I am agitated by the motorway queues and lane-closure confusion. And my lovely girl is clearly deflated by her interview. Nonetheless upon our return, she summons up the energy to don her party dress and step out for the evening, and I rally enough reserves to drive Prom-dress daughter to another social gathering and feed Small Boy, before heading gratefully to bed.

My eldest gets to sleep somewhat later than this. She is home not long after midnight. And I am sure of the time because she stumbles into my room upon her return, a little the worse for wear, switches on the light and slurrily gushes ,

I really, really love you mum!”

I reciprocate the sentiments, persuade her that now not the best time to go and visit her brother, and steer her off to bed.

To her credit, by 10am on Saturday morning, both she and Small-boy are at Victoria Station in Manchester to play 2 hours of Christmas carols and songs with their local band. Quite a few of my family gather to listen, over cheery cups of Costa coffee and a catch -up on the latest news. It’s a lovely event that stirs the heart and replenishes the seasonal community cheer. I stay in town for a number of afternoon/evening drinks with friends and, as Sunday dawns and my eldest and I now pack our bags for a trip to University interview number 3, I have only a mildly banging head to contend with. We hit the motorway again and are checking into our hotel by 5pm.

Our Monday interview starts at an astonishingly early 8am but again it is 3 hours before my eldest emerges. This one is ‘the worst yet’ and feeling pretty sad and despondent we slink back to the car and set the satnav for home. I feel that sickening terror that every parents knows of wondering how we will cope with the disappointment if all the hard work, and I’d make that 3 years of hard work, ends with rejection and the end of my daughter’s dreams. But today it takes me less time than usual to shift this paralyzing dread. Because… she is such an amazing, driven and talented girl. And that means lots of alternatives, lots of choices and lots of ways to have a bright and happy future. Hey, at least when she’s tipsy, my girl ‘really,really loves her mum‘, I’ll make sure of it !

Even if I hadn’t cheered myself up, back home the usual chaos is enough to distract anyone. Prom-dress daughter and Small Boy both have a Christmas concert to play in … at 6:30pm. In a last minute change of plan however, Small Boy has also been selected to make his debut on the school basketball team, in another venue…ending at 5:30pm. Fortunately it’s Monday. My mum arrives for piano lessons. We shelve these and she agrees instead to feed the girls and drop Prom-dress daughter at the concert hall. Without stopping for food, I head out to the basketball tournament to cheer on my tall, gangly bean of a boy. It just so happens that the venue for this sporting spectacle is about 3 minutes from my mum’s house…and I have a key. At the final claxon tolls, at 5:45 pm, I whisk him, off to mum’s. She is not there, because … you’ve got it … she is at my house! Small Boy changes with the speed of Clark Kent himself, I thrust 2 packets of crisps and a bottle of Lucozade at him and we speed off to the concert.

We arrive with moment to spare. Small Boy’s grinning face races off to take his place in the orchestra. Prom-dress daughter, already in situ, gives us a smirk and a wave. I sink gratefully into my seat and the carols begin. ‘Silent Night‘ … how lovely … and if only….