Staycation…

Sunday 2 August 2020

What a week! Challenged to keep myself sane with no car and then the re-introduction of Lockdown across Greater Manchester?

Originally, it was scheduled to be a few days of fun, as the teens, cases bulging, piled out of the house for a holiday with their ‘down south family’. After 5 intense months of solo-parenting, my calendar promised plans of hopping about for a few bright lights, late nights and fizz-fuelled reminders that sometimes to be a good mum, it is important to forget about being a mum! However, with trusty Toyota Windsor out of action, not only threatening to blow a 4 figure hole in my bank account, but also putting the brakes firmly on any road-trip plans, I call my more distant pals to cancel and gear myself up for an economical staycation.

I replan with gusto. I set up some local lunches and meetups for the second half of the week. To fill a couple of days near the start, and to save a few more pounds, I decide not to pay someone to tame the overgrown wilderness we call ‘the garden’, but to tackle it myself! For a confirmed horticulture-phobe, this turns out far better than I hoped.

I call upon one person to give me a lift to the garden centre and before I know it a team of gardening experts emerge from the ranks of friends and family to lend a hand. There is, as I’d feared, lots of back breaking work, clipping and clearing. Indeed, by the time we finish, the stack of garden waste bags, appears to re-enact the final scenes of the ‘Feeding of the 5000

” …and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over” (Matthew 14 v 13-21)

But, to my great surprise there is also creativity: planting, colour, design and beauty. And those bits, I do enjoy. Gardening – who knew it hid such secret delights?

Call it a divine domino effect, but as our honest efforts and toil catalyse the garden into some sort of shape, I roll seamlessly into the the more social events of my stay-local week. On a sunny Thursday afternoon, I manage a Prosecco and strawberry picnic in the park. As I am dropped off, I allow myself the foolish optimism of thinking that the week is really going rather well. That same Thursday night, smiling and tipsy, I flick on the TV and the news report on the Greater Manchester Lockdown, freezes my grin and brings me crashing back to sobriety.

… from midnight tonight, people from different households will not be allowed to meet each other…” (Matthew Hancock)

Oh my goodness! For this single mum, the return to social restrictions feels like the prison door slamming shut. Saturday night restaurant plans – up in smoke. Monday lunch plans – down the drain. No-one even allowed in to help with the garden anymore! Those divine forces clearly have other plans for me this week … at least there’s gin in the cupboard …

The music centre bill..

Saturday 18 July 2020

It drops through the door and sits on the mat; the Music Centre Bill for Autumn term 2020. I scoop it up with the rest of the mail and head to the kitchen, planning to read it over a morning cuppa. But I don’t. Instead I sit, with my tea and just stare and stare at the envelope, gripped by a dread of opening it at all ….

Is it the finances? No, that’s not it. I’ll be honest, getting an invoice is never the greatest moment of the day, but this one will have a due date of September 2020 and I have two more pay cheques before then. Plenty of time to get those funds together.

What then? It is this. Into my July morning comes the realisation that, for the first time since I can remember, there will only be two names, not three on the letter. The chances are that my eldest will not be joining the other two back at Youth Orchestra in the Fall, because she will be heading off to a new life at University. It is a sudden sign that we are rapidly approaching the end of an era. And I am blind-sided.

Of course a University place is not guaranteed for my girl this October. (Who knows what grades will emerge for her from the national machine currently calculating and balancing covid-estimates for all our examination hopefuls this Summer.) But if not this year, then next. And if not to Higher Education, then ultimately to some independent form of adult life. The time for the four of us and family life, with all our glorious traditions, daily routines, crazy plans and fitting comfortably together … it’s over in the very near future.

I’ve known it was coming, but this letter suddenly makes it feel very real and makes my heart feel very sad. I flick the kettle on again and push the letter aside for a moment. One more cuppa and then I’ll face it ….

A second driver …

Saturday 11 July 2020

Tonight marks my first trip to the pub for over 100 days and suddenly the insane amounts I pay for monthly new driver insurance seem worth every penny!

After weekend upon weekend of ‘Ninja Warrior UK‘ and re-runs of every James Bond film in the catalogue, a Saturday Night ‘out’ beckons . Woohoo – what a prospect! I straighten my hair. I dig out scent. I try a dash of lipstick. I brush down a jacket and polish my heels. I seek teen approval on several jewelry combinations. And I am ready. There is only one snag. The pub is miles away…

Living , as we do, on the edge of Manchester, public transport is terrific …or was. The messages about using it, as we stutter out of Lockdown are not wholly encouraging.

“Consider all other travel options …”

Plan ahead, allow extra time…”

If your are travelling, wear a face covering, keep your distance from others, clean your hands frequently …

So when my eldest offers to give me a lift, I am overjoyed.

Being the only driver in the house is a major pain in the proverbial for countless lone parents. In hectic non-Covid times, it was undoubtedly the source of much of my mental and physical exhaustion; single-handedly juggling the impossible logistics of four very busy lives. And for me, so rarely was there a break from the challenge of timetabling and delivering all our transport, that I once actually burst into tears of gratitude when a colleague offered to pick me up for a work’s night out! And tonight it feels very much the same.

Having a co-driver has come at a cost. New driver insurance is jaw-droppingly expensive. My eldest passed her test many month ago and we finally took the costly plunge as she turned 18. It has meant some sacrifices, money is only finite after all, but I have no regrets at all about postponing a few other plans. For me, it has meant reducing stress and occasionally feeling carefree. And that, after 10 years of single-parent grind is simply priceless. It is a life line I wish I had been able to afford sooner but, as is sadly so often the case in our strange society, it is those of us most in need of a break and some support who are least able to afford it.

Still better late than never! I am driven to my night out. I enjoy a pleasant evening in a NorthWest bar dipping its toes back into the night-time economy. The highlight however… my lift home. Yes, as the clock strikes 10:30pm, my carriage in the form of trusty Toyota Windsor, pulls into view and home we go. We laugh, we sing along to Heart 80s. We are warm. We are dry. We are happy.

A second driver, for me it is a single parent game changer!

Lockdown week 12: The cooking rota

Saturday 13 June 2020

Twelve weeks of ‘Staying at Home’ and I finally wake up to the idea of a cooking rota! I may have been slow out of the starting blocks on this one but, even with a few hiccups, it is definitely worth the wait!

Did I say ‘woke up to the idea’? Meltdown moment would be a more accurate description! Over 2 months, of having to plan and serve up twice as many meals as usual, has weakened me. But with stress cranked ever higher by work deadlines and a battery of difficult decisions, someone bouncing into the kitchen and innocently asking,

What’s for tea mum?” finally tips me over the edge.

I rant. I shout. I despair. I blub. And, as even a trusty cuppa fails to revive me, the cooking rota is born. Small Boy nods and shrugs. My eldest whips up a spreadsheet. Prom dress daughter asks if she can choose her own recipe,

I am following this really great vegan YouTuber !”

In the end, they all opt to design their own menus. In fact they all appear quite excited. I career around the Supermarket, filling my unwieldy trolley with: sriracha, spring onions and balsamic vinegar and then wait for the week to unfold.

Small Boy is up first. If he’d only checked that we had some oil in the house before deciding to feature ‘home cooked fries’, things might have gone more smoothly! I am summoned into the kitchen to survey a mountain of carefully chopped potato pieces and one very empty bottle of frying fuel! I call up the stairs for my Eldest to run him to the shops and settle back down, for a rare moment with a good book.

Fifteen minutes later, she pops in to watch some TV. When I look a little puzzled and ask where her brother is, she tells me she told him to ‘walk‘. It’s quite a trek …and I am starving, so I take pity upon my youngest child and head out to collect him. It is a good job I do. I spot a disconsolate figure shuffling home empty-handed and discover that, despite two full circuits of the one-way aisles, a sorry Small Boy “couldn’t find any oil. I help with the shopping and we are soon home ready to carry on cooking. There is no deep-fat fryer, so we improvise with the vegetable steamer and by 7pm are all sitting down to our first cooking-rota meal.

It looks great. It tastes great. So good in fact that Small Boy wants to save the oil to use again. I make the mistake of pondering aloud, how we will store the vat of still-hot fat. None of us, alas, are quick enough to intercede as Small Boy, enacts his bright idea of re-filling the original containers and two plastic bottles meet their end in the oily heat. We recycle the unfortunate, shrunken remains in the blue bin and set the oil aside as a problem for another day.

Prom dress daughter’s ‘Bang Bang Cauliflower’ and ‘Sweet Potato Lasagne‘ from my Eldest are served up with far less drama and are also totally delicious. Their food is fresh. It’s flavoursome. It’s new. I realise that it has not only been a real treat for me to get a break from cooking but the three of them have also dragged our family meals out of the rut of my tired, old cuisine. Moreover, I think they enjoy it!

So, ‘Three Cheers‘ for vegan YouTubers and any other sources of my teens’ inspiration. Variety and creativity are definitely back on the menu. Let’s hope they are here to stay! Bring on week 2 of the cooking rota…

Lockdown week 6: May

Sunday 3 May 2020

May! Oh my goodness. Was there an April ? How many weeks since I last saw a pub? Did I dream it, or was there once world where we used to eat somewhere other than the kitchen? Was I ever challenged by goals greater than clearing out the garage? Will life ever get back to normal?

The giddiness that marked the start of Lockdown now seems like a very distant memory. Whereas my eldest dyed her hair pink 6 weeks ago, this weekend, I have to confess to my slight relief, she purchased the chemicals to turn it back to a glorious, chestnut brown.

Prom dress Daughter redecorated her room and it looks terrific! The lime-green and peach colour scheme she chose 5 years ago is gone and in its place, we have clean, crisp, white walls and one feature splash of lilac. However her shopping list for new furniture, fixtures and fittings , a carefully, crafted creation as long as … lockdown itself has been put on hold and with it her motivation for each day ! (Cruel Covid means that none of our tips are operational and I have forbidden the dismantling of old beds and desks until they open their gates once more.)

Home schooling – what a roller coaster! More late marks for Small Boy this half term than in his previous 10 years of schooling, as I battle daily to get him our of bed. Prom dress daughter is sinking, under a sea of essays on complex , self-taught topics, and anxiety over the impact of all of this on UCAS predictions. My eldest, powerless to do anything about her exam grades and future now, does all the work sent, but without any of her signature drive and enthusiasm.

Gosh 6 weeks is a long time and they are struggling. No friends. No going out. No escape from each other. No break from me! I know that it is my job to fix them and I do try. I am trounced at basket ball most afternoons. I am there for Boris the Gecko’s bathtime. I turn my hand to homework. I try to be a counsellor, careers advisor, cocktail mixer and confidante… But the truth is that I am not good enough. No-one is. To quote the wisest of cultures,

“It takes a village to raise a child

And I am only one. One definitely stretched and certainly stressed single mum, who is finding the going very tough…

Lockdown week 4: Struggling…

Saturday 18 April 2020

Has is really been only 4 weeks? I am struggling …

During the first 2 weeks of Lockdown I was working. It was busy. It was challenging. It was creative; rethinking how to operate with most pupils and staff working from home. It felt strange and scary but very fulfilling. At home, the girls dyed their hair and ordered yoga mats. Small boy grew (and grew) his curly locks, jacked the basket ball stand ever higher and actually did quite a lot of school work. My brother rallied the entire family with Bingo, The Grand National and Quiz night on Zoom. And I felt optimistic about us sailing through these strange new times.

Then came the Easter Holidays … on Lockdown. The sun shone, the alarm was switched off, all structure fell away and it should have been idyllic. But, unable to go out, unable to meet friends, unable to do anything ‘non-essential’ everyday quickly became much like the one before and I began to find the going incredibly tough. The Government experts advocated exercise, so I ran most days. On social media, friends were cooking, cleaning and revamping so I tried those too. I baked. I spent hours spring cleaning cupboards and organising ‘useful string’, matches and batteries into recycled plastic tubs. I queued on DIY sites to order paint and rollers. I even washed the cutains! And it all used up a few hours but it didn’t lift my mood. Jobs I’d normally squeeze in between doing things that make me happy , had suddenly become the focus of the day … and I was lost.

And I still am. I know how important it is to stay at home. I am horribly aware, that those battling this cruel illness would swap their situation for mine in a breath. I do give thanks each day that my children are, up to this moment, safe and well. Nonetheless my dial is resolutely stuck on ‘sad and low’ at the moment. I love my teens, but I also miss adult company. It is really not a great time to be a single parent.

I do have my kids however. The girls, in particular, have been far more upbeat than me. My eldest found a ‘Make me a Cocktail’ app and we mixed delightful drinks for our sunny garden which was fun. Prom-dress daughter insisted that we preserve ‘Take-Away Friday’ and this week we even found a chippy to deliver, which was heavenly. So I resolve follow their example, get a grip, get inventive and rethink how I handle the next 3 weeks . I need a way to make the days count, as opposed to just counting the days. I need even more of their inspiration …

20 years …

1 April 2020

Today could’ve been my 20th Wedding Anniversary!

My Wedding Day 1 April 2000

But obviously it isn’t! Instead I find myself very much single, very much a mum and very much stuck indoors in the middle of a national corona virus lockdown! Covid -19 does, however, leave me with far more time than usual on my hands. In consequence I elect to battle upstairs with the rusty ladders, sway unsteadily into the loft and root around for my old wedding pictures. Eventually, I unearth them, buried in an old black briefcase and I sit down with a coffee to dwell upon life. Let’s face it, life never quite turns out as you planned!

Look at me all smiles, white frock and flowers. Blissfully unaware of the tidal wave that was to come crashing through my life just a decade after saying “I do!” Marital breakdown is a terrifying time. I felt as if someone had just swept into my life, torn it into pieces and cast them from a tall building, to see if they could find a place to land. The pain, the heartbreak, they were body blows. The dawning shock that I was now a ‘single mum‘ was difficult to comprehend. I remember the horror of having to tell people and trying not to cry. I hated being cast as a victim, and feared everyone’s pity. I remember the challenge of rethinking how to live every part of my life, how to maintain stability for the kids and how to pay for it all.

But I made it through. I rebuilt my entire world. I learned that if, like me, you don’t like being a victim then don’t be one! Take back control! The teens are successful and seem, at least for the moment, to be very happy. I have kept a roof over our heads. I have held down a full time job. I have managed, with a few personal sacrifices, to provide the kids with many of the opportunities I enjoyed as a child. I run, I read, I write, I play music, all of which is a joy. I still shudder when faced with a DIY tasks or an over-ambitious cooking quest. I still shed the odd tear over the sheer grind of daily life when you are the only adult in the house. But, having battled through the complexities of the family law courts, give me any official, legal or financial dilemma and I rise to the challenge better than most.

Do I miss the companionship and closeness? Do I miss having a ‘partner in crime’? Do I miss having a husband? In one sense, yes I do. I miss the husband the girl in the picture above was dreaming of. The daughter of a cinema manager and musician, weaned on films and tales of romance, I fear that she actually thought that life was destined to be ‘like the movies.’ Somewhere deep inside, I suspect she believed that ‘true love would conquer all,’ and that with marriage came the guarantee that everything would end ‘happily ever after.’

But no marriage breaks up because it’s happy. Towards the end of our alliance, life was very miserable for both me and Ex-hub, And I am sure that neither of us misses that at all. Life is strewn with cliches, possibly because they are wise old words, and this one always strikes a chord with me

It is better to be alone that in an unhappy relationship’

So whilst I did not make it to my 20th anniversary, the last 2 decades have certainly not been wasted. I emerge with great strength, determination, multi-tasking talents beyond compare and three incredible children. And I’m ready to make the most of … tomorrow! Forget anniversaries and landmarks, I have learned that it’s best to take life one day at a time …

Look after yourself…

Friday 24 January 2019

After a busy week, Friday comes to an early end. I am too ill to make it through a full day and am sent home. I wonder if ‘looking after yourself’ is a mantra I should take more seriously?

It is probably about 6 days ago that I first start to have pains in my finger. I stick a plaster over it, but by Tuesday, the whole thing is such a swollen and angry mess that I call at the Pharmacy on the way home. ‘Infected‘, is the swift diagnosis, ‘You need to see a GP!’

Wednesday morning, at 8 am sharp, I am on that phone. I call the Doctor to be told that I can have an appointment … on 4th February! So I give up and get on with the day. It’s a super-frantic day as it happens. No break, no lunchtime, post-work training, followed by an even later meeting and then home… to fill up with petrol and set out in the gloom and fog for a 3 hour drive to Newcastle.

A final university interview for my eldest takes us to the North East and what a great part of the country it is. We check in just before 10 pm, feeling weary and jaded but the warmth of the welcome from the staff is amazing. They make us nachos. They help us with maps. They wish us lots of luck for the interview tomorrow. But even they look rather alarmed as I struggle to sign us in…my finger is now the four times its usual size!

Not much I can do about it the next day however, as my eldest runs the gauntlet of another MMI circuit. Newcastle university looks stunning in the freshness of a January morning and, as my daughter disappears into the building, I settle on a bench outside thinking how wonderful it would be to study here and how I just don’t know how to cope with another disappointed drive home if it goes badly. I want to do something to help… so I say a decade of the rosary (Catholic readers will understand!) … and then, as a wave of panic begins to take hold, I say another to calm myself down. I am just about to soothe myself with a third when another mum sits down clearly wanting to chat. Hurriedly hiding my malformed hand underneath my scarf, I put aside my prayers and launch into conversation. She is a delightful woman, (you could say heaven sent) and time passes quickly. When my eldest emerges, she is in an upbeat mood, ‘Not great, but the best I could’ve done!’ she smiles. Well that’s good enough for me! We grab some lunch and then actually sing our way back down the motorway. I am so high on relief that, for a few hours at least, I forget about the stabbing sensation in my finger.

Back home, I throw some food together, before my eldest and I set out again. She has an evening concert. It’s an all-ticket event for local dignitaries, as opposed to proud parents. So I just drop her off and although I am now feeling shattered, the pain in my finger is so miserable that I decide to be sensible and head to the Walk-in Centre. Sadly we are no longer in the North East.

“The waiting list is full”, snaps the receptionist and steers me out of the door.

Which brings me to today. I plan to fit in an early visit to the Walk-in Centre. I arrive at 7 am. There’s a huge queue. There’s a 1 hour wait and my first meeting of the day is at 8:15 am. I give up. I drive to work, whereupon one of the first-aiders, recoiling in horror at the sight of my poor, grotesque digit, firmly applies a huge blue plaster. I am starting to feel rather peculiar and queasy. At break-time I am finally sick and my boss send me home, insisting that I get myself checked out.

This time I resolve to camp out at the Walk-in Centre. When I am seen, a lovely nurse takes one look at my finger and prescribes a 7 day course of anti-biotics. With kindly concern, she also suggests that I give myself a boost with ‘multi-vitamins’, explaining that I look ‘very run-down’. It stops me in my tracks. It’s a blink-back-the-tears moment. For a second I feel that, busy as she is, this woman notices that I don’t just need ‘fixing’ I need a little bit of care too, and that’s pretty rare in the life of a parent. Thinking hard, I do recall my Ex, back in the mid-90s, once driving from Liverpool to Manchester with cough medicine, because I sounded a bit croaky on the phone. But that’s over 20 years ago! Quite a long time to spend looking after everyone else, rather than ever feeling looked after myself!

So I do treat myself to a tub of ‘multi-vits with iron’ and turn optimistically homewards, contemplating ways to take better care of my own health and well-being. I don’t make it into the house however before getting a call from Small Boy’s school, announcing that he has been sick and needs collecting. A text from my eldest flashes across the screen, reminding me that we have a friend staying tonight. And, as I eventually do turn the key in the lock, Prom-dress Daughter appears claiming to have ‘tonsilitis!’

I rather fear that, like most parents, ‘looking after myself‘ is just going to have to wait … hopefully not for another 20 years!!