There are hundreds of different reasons why couples end up separating and one person is left looking after the kids alone. But regardless of what road you took to reach this point, there are lots of people who know exactly how it feels when you get there.
Your life has suddenly changed. Not only do you have to singlehandedly ensure your children survive every day and do the things they need to do, but you have to accomplish this against a backdrop of tremendous emotional upheaval, and probably a colossal amount of guilt and anxiety.
Certainly for me, it hit me quite literally the moment my ex-partner walked out of the door. The unmanageable level of upset very quickly gave way to a quite pragmatic mania where I mentally itemised what I needed to do in the hours ahead to keep everything ticking over. I had three hours before I had to go and collect my girl from school. Then I had to tell her that mum wasn’t coming home (which, incidentally, was the single worst moment of my life – her face and sobs will be etched into my soul until the day I die). After that? Dinner. Bath. Bed. Tomorrow? Breakfast. And getting to school. Was her uniform ready? No. Get some uniform washed. Oh, and ironed. Urgh. How much food was in the fridge? Write a shopping list. Did she have ballet that weekend? Wash her ballet uniform. And figure out when she was next going to see mum.
The all-consuming nature of this new routine was actually a big help to me, as it limited the time I had to dwell on things. It also gave me not just a sense of purpose, but a sense of accomplishment. Yay, the girl didn’t succumb to a dreadful disease or die in a fire today! She had clean clothes! I made her laugh when she was in the bath! There were no tears from her today. The little things, but of the biggest possible importance.
Once those first tricky few weeks had passed I had just enough self-awareness to realise that while I was rightfully putting all of my energies into my daughter, I was putting none into me. And it was telling. Every moment I wasn’t absorbed in being dad I was hiding away in Netflix (Battlestar Galactica, as it happens). My iPad would go with me everywhere – the bath, the loo, when I was cooking, in bed. Any time I wasn’t actively engaged in parenting I was staring at the screen, the distraction protecting me from the horror in my head I was desperate to avoid.
Slowly but surely I began to realise that taking back control of my personal life and stamping my own mark on the day-to-day workings of my life was actually pretty satisfying. I don’t have to watch the soaps anymore! Yes, I will do the washing up once dinner is finished and not leave it until we’re out of plates. No, I shall not wash whites separately. Let’s be rid of that pre-set for Absolute Radio. And cancel the I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of here series link. I’m finally going to buy a white board and put it up in the kitchen so I can make notes of what we need from the shopping as I go along. And yes, I know I watched that episode of Star Trek just last week but I’m going to watch it again tonight anyway because no-one can stop me.
A real moment of personal triumph came that December. I was raised with an artificial Xmas tree. Unboxing, assembling and decorating it was one of my favourite things in the world. My ex had insisted on having a real tree because that’s what she was bought up with. I took great pleasure in assembling our new artificial tree that year, and have done every year since.
This is of course all very personal but if you’re finding yourself in this situation (as in, suddenly becoming a lone parent – not debating Christmas tree options) I would hope you can relate. The point of this all is that the whole situation got better once I started taking care of myself. A burnt out and exhausted parent is not a great parent. Yes, you want to give everything you have to your kids, but you can’t do that properly if you’re falling apart.
Ultimately you’re preparing yourself for an emotionally draining marathon, but it’s a race you can definitely finish as long as you get the preparation right. Here’s a few tips to help you along:
Ask for help
There are lots of people who do single parenting alone and there is nothing I respect more. It’s the toughest job in the world. But if you have people to ask for help then please do so. Family and friends who care about you will be desperate to do what they can, and even the slightest easing of the pressure will make all the difference.
The 24/7 nature of parenting, especially when your kids are young, is about as gruelling as it gets. Hopefully your child is spending some time with your ex-partner, but if not, see if you can have her spend the odd weekend with grandparents, and perhaps visit a friend’s house after school every now and then. That extra breathing space and time for yourself can be the difference between sanity and the loss of it.
Get Your Kids Comfortable With Separation
One problem that quickly raised itself in the months and even years that followed my ex-partner’s departure was my daughter’s growingly evident discomfort with being away from me. I can only presume that this stemmed from coping with the loss of one of her parents. Whereas previously she would barely give me a second glance when deposited with grandparents, these moments quickly became highly fraught affairs full of tears and sobbing. But I knew the only way to combat it was plenty of reassurance coupled with conditioning. I did leave her, and I did come back. And I kept coming back. Over time this seemed to help and while even now there’s still a sometimes a level of unease whenever she has to say bye to me, I think we’re nearly there.
Be interested in something that isn’t being a mum or dad. Whether it’s football or jogging or poetry or playing the harp or knitting or cheese rolling (or, in my case, video games, Doctor Who and Transformers because who on earth wants to grow up?), a hobby gives you a vital outlet for your energies and concentrations. A good hobby may also envelop you in a community of likeminded people, and surrounding yourself with people can be a very important coping mechanism.
Talk to People
The impulse can be to lock yourself away during tough times but being able to talk to people about how you feel is tremendously important. Often it’s family or friends who can offer this support, but don’t shy away from online socialising either. While there’s perhaps no substitute for a shared bottle of wine or game of FIFA with pals, there’s certainly great worth in getting involved in online communities. The internet is amazing tool to let you connect with other people who share your interests or your struggles. Search them out and introduce yourself.
Don’t Shy Away From Professional Help
It is perfectly valid to go to your GP and admit that you’re not coping. There are lots of support services in place for people in your position, and your GP is an excellent first point of call. Counselling can be a real-life changer for some people. Bottling everything up forever will do you no good at all.
Remember Things Will Get Better
The early days of a relationship breakdown can very genuinely feel like the end of the world. But as impossible to believe as it sometimes be, things will get better. Time is the best healer. Look after yourself and don’t hide away and you might be surprised just how quickly things start to look brighter.
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Image (cropped) by Les Chatfield under a creative commons licence