Project Awesome

Making my life more awesome

We’re working together to make our house a home

So, having gained sole custody of a house and decided I’ll be staying here for a while, I’ve been working on my relationship with it.  Here’s what I’ve done:

I’ve bought some plants – Aldi’s finest.  Possibly.  I don’t really expect them to last long, because I have quite a slug issue going on, but it feels like a token effort.  I’ve also been looking at pictures of other people’s small gardens on Facebook and Pinterest, and am starting to feel quite excited about the possibilities.  Al fresco dining with a child-sized picnic bench, for example.  I’d feel slightly oversized all the time, which could be fun.

Aldi's finest


I’ve also ordered some paint tester pots from Dulux, following negotiations over acceptable colour-choices with my sister.  I’m not very good at painting, and get bored quite easily, but I’m hoping I’ve developed enough maturity over the past couple of years to actually clean the paintbrushes properly when I’ve finished them, rather than hoping someone else will do it.

I’ve finally found some kind of solution to my cleaning dilemma.  I don’t like cleaning.  I’m not bad at it, but I’ve always got things I’d rather do.  I’ve toyed with the idea of paying someone to clean my house, but they’re bloody expensive, and it seems like quite a lot of hassle, and I’d have to find someone willing to work in a house as untidy as mine without pulling a constant judgey-face when they talk to me about what needs doing.  So I’ve decided I’m going to pay myself to clean.  Two hours a week, for £10, which seems like a bargain to me.  Just cleaning: bathroom, kitchen, hoovering and mopping – no washing up and no tidying up, all done to my standards (low) and how I like it.  In return I get a clean house and a bit of money to spend on things like books and coffee.  Everyone’s a winner – ‘everyone’ being me, apparently.

And it turns out that it’s quite nice to have a tidy house. I spent quite a lot of time this weekend tidying, discovering lost toys under the sofa, and the whole of my kitchen table, in preparation for hosting a barbecue – inviting friends round as part of my campaign to make my house feel like a home again.  Finally, aged 34, I learnt how to put my barbecue together and light it, though managed to leave the cooking to other people, and had a fabulous Bank Holiday afternoon with three friends and our combined seven children, eating food and having a lovely time.

Big Girl has also been contributing to the ‘love your house’ mission.  Just before leaving for nursery this morning she rushed to the toilet.  She washed her hands (good) but forgot to turn the tap off (not so good), so I came home to find water flooding into the kitchen through the light, and no electrics, and no idea what to do.  Fortunately, a friend found me an electrician who came and made things safe for me.  And as ‘replace light fittings’ was on my list of things to do, that’ll soon be one more job ticked off the list.  Once the ceiling has dried out, that is.

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There are many reasons not to go to Ikea with small children. I ignore them all.

The company I work for shut all its offices today, giving us an extra day off to thank us for working hard and voting it a good employer.  I like this – it feels like a proper, Victorian-style holiday where all the mill workers head off to Blackpool to take in the sea air.  Despite the girls being booked into nursery, I decided to have a lovely day off with them and take them to one of their favourite places: Ikea.  More meatballs and chips than sand and salt-water, but as they had been asking to go for a while, it seemed like a good idea.

Here are a few of the reasons why I *shouldn’t* take my children to Ikea:

  • They delighted in turning off all the lights in each of the little show apartments. I told them that Ikea like the lights to be on so that people can see what they look like and might actually buy them.  They persisted in turning them off.  I tried to turn them all back on before we moved on.  Small Girl managed to break one of the lights.
  • I pulled down a retractable blind to see how it worked and couldn’t work out how to put it back up.  This is quite embarrassing.  I hope someone will fix it.
  • Small Girl tried to open a cupboard in one of the ‘bathrooms’ which fell down and the corner banged her head, making her cry for quite a while.
  • Big Girl and Small Girl played at tea parties with the cups and saucers in one of the display houses.  My ‘putting back neatly’ skills are not up to much.
  • When changing Small Girl’s nappy, I smacked her in the head with my shopping bags.
  • I had to say approximately three hundred times ‘What did I say? If you listen to me and do what I ask we will have fun at Ikea.  If you mess about and run away we won’t have fun, and we will go home without buying anything’.  Firstly, never start a sentence with ‘What did I say?’  They don’t know.  They weren’t listening.  If they were listening, they clearly don’t care.  And you sound like everyone’s mother who has ever lived.  Secondly, this threat holds precisely no weight once you get past the checkout.
  • Big Girl and Small Girl both wanted to walk along the chest-high wall outside the shop.  I didn’t feel confident enough to let them both do it at once, so Small Girl went first.  Then it was Big Girl’s turn, but Small Girl sat on the pavement crying and refusing to move.  I didn’t want to move away from her as we were by a big road, so I let go of Big Girl’s hand and told her to stand still and balance while I got Small Girl up.  Despite being perfectly capable of doing this, Big Girl’s love of drama obliged her to fall off the wall and lie crying in the ivy and bushes.  Although her beautiful new Cinderella princess dress got wet, this was much better than the likely outcome had she thrown herself onto the pavement.

And here’s the *real* reason why I shouldn’t be allowed to take my children to Ikea.  Small Girl got lost.  I’d been watching them all the way round the shop, but it’s one of those places where they get a little ahead or a little behind (reasonably often one each way) and it feels like a safe environment to do that.  Except in the cookware section, just after I’d said to Big Girl “If you get lost, stand on one of the arrows and I will come and find you.  But you’re not lost, because I know where you are”, I realised I didn’t know where Small Girl was.  Big Girl and I walked on for a little bit looking for her, and then back again, looking more urgently, and then spoke to one of the members of staff, so that they could do a ‘missing child’ announcement.  And then we waited.

At work, we have a fire alarm test every Wednesday at about ten past ten.  Every week, it goes on just past the point of comfort, and every week we all start wondering if this is a real fire alarm and whether we should be heading out to the car par.  And then it stops.  This was like that.  The staff were looking.  I was waiting.  And there was a sense that she had been missing for slightly longer than was normal.  She wasn’t in the cookware section.  Nor in the bathroom section.  I remembered the news story a few weeks ago about a man who had tried to abduct a toddler in a shopping centre.  I tried to reassure Big Girl that Small Girl was find and the staff would find her.  I felt anxious.  I don’t know where my children are when they are at their dad’s, but I know he is looking after them and they are safe.  I didn’t know where Small Girl was, or if she was coming back, or if she was frightened. And it felt so very wrong.

The interesting thing is that usually at this point (Small Girl is a ninja who has got lost in Ikea pretty much every time we’ve been.  But, like the fire alarms at work, normally not for this long) I would start worrying not only about how I would live the rest of my life without Small Girl, but also how I was going to tell her dad.  Somewhere along the line, I’ve gained more confidence in my parenting, and less of a sense of connection and responsibility to Ex-Husband, and less of a need to answer to him or live in fear of his superior parenting skills.  Telling their dad that I had lost one of our children was not even a consideration.  Which feels like an achievement.

And then one of the people searching waved to me.  We hurried down to him and around the corner and I could see a small child, my small child, with two old ladies and a member of staff.  I hugged Small Girl, and I cried and she cried, more because she felt the situation called for it than anything else, I think, and then I cried some more.  And eventually I stopped crying, and we were ok, and we finished looking round Ikea.  Just a little more *carefully*.

The first time I cried in Ikea was, I think, the first time I went, with Ex-Husband.  I said that the map of the shop didn’t seem to relate to the actual layout of the store.  He looked at me as if I was possibly the most stupid person to have lived and pointed out that it was a *linear map*.  I cried.

The second time I cried in Ikea was just after Ex-Husband left me – ostensibly because I am too terrible to live with and he hadn’t loved me for a really long time, but really because he wanted to have sex with someone else.  Mutual friends of his new girlfriend told me that when she told them that she was having a relationship with him, she said that she didn’t see how me being left on my own with my two tiny children was her problem.  I cried with rage, hurt and a sense of impotency and injustice.  Quite loudly.  For quite some time.

The third time I cried in Ikea was when I met up with another single mum friend, again just after Ex-Husband had left me, and she suggested that I get tested for STIs.  Until that point it had never occurred to me (being ‘the stupidest person to ever have lived’, clearly) that he might have had sex with his girlfriend while he was still with me.  I cried so much that an old lady came and offered to hold Small Girl for me, possibly fearing that I might suffocate her because I was holding her so tightly.

And the fourth time I cried in Ikea was today.  My children took advantage of my emotional state to oblige me to buy them a large fish cushion each.  This is *really really* why I should never take my children to Ikea.

Seriously. Fish cushions.

Seriously. Fish cushions.



Well yes, actually I *do* think I should be able to do everything I want to. But thank you for asking.

After getting my Decree Absolute, and the consent order which means that my ex-husband cannot benefit from any equity in the house, I am suddenly consumed with a desire to move house.  I would like a garden.  But, more importantly, I want a house which feels entirely mine.  I want a house which does not have all the painful associations of the past couple of years.  I want a house which Ex-Husband has never had the right to walk around, where he has never gone to the toilet as a matter of course, which we did not choose together, where he does not know the storage location of carrier bags.  I want a new house for my new start.

I have some difficulties in achieving this.  Firstly, a large part of my income is derived from benefits.  I’m ok with this, but many mortgage lenders aren’t.  More significantly, I don’t have much equity.  I have no real idea how much my house is worth, as nothing has sold on our street for a while, but I’m guessing that if I do owe less money than the house is worth, it’s not by much.  And, as nothing has sold for a while, there’s a good chance that my house wouldn’t sell either, unless it was at a price too low for me to buy anything else.

My brain runs round and round, worrying at the options like a dog trying to find a ball its owner only pretended to throw.  I think the reason I am not finding an immediate solution is because there isn’t one.  I think my brain has come up with this whole concept of moving to fill the void left by the divorce.

I wonder if I would actually be any happier living in a new house.  It would be *nice* to have a garden for the girls to play in, but then I would have to look after it, and I already fail to keep a house tidy.  It would be *nice* to have a bathroom with a window, but I don’t really spend that much time in there.  It would be *nice* to have the possibility of a bedroom for each child, which might solve some of the difficulties at bedtime.  But if I had three bedrooms, I would probably lose my lovely attic/sewing room/child-free room with views of the local hills.  That’s quite a big sacrifice.

And I think what I really want wouldn’t be achieved by moving house.  And I think what I really miss is the social life we had in our house: barbecues and parties and friends round.  I relied quite a lot on Ex-Husband to facilitate them: to get the house clean in preparation, to cook sausages, to be calm and friendly.  On my own, and with two small children, it feels unachievable.  I feel anxious that my house is dirty (a friend suggested yesterday that I am ‘secretly tidy’.  I laughed. A lot).  I feel anxious when entertaining.  I like having guests but I don’t feel very good at it.  But moving to a new house wouldn’t make me more tidy or less socially inept.

And I’d love to have a house which feels like a home.  But I’m not very good at it.  I have a few friends who are creative and have beautiful homes with with bits of decoration and… um… stuff, which all looks artfully put together.  I’d love to have a home which feels like that.  What I actually have is a home full of surfaces covered in random clutter and post I haven’t dealt with yet, and interesting-looking sections of the Guardian which I like to pretend I will read one day.  My floors are largely colonised by Happyland people, bits of chalk, jigsaws and games emptied out of boxes by Small Girl and left there, books taken off shelves and put into piles because this appears to constitute ‘fun’ here, and small pieces of paper which are the result of Big Girl’s obsession with making ‘tickets’.  I’m not arty or tidy and moving house is not going to make me so.

What I do have is lots of friends.  A few months ago one of my friends offered to come and do a little bit of cleaning, to help me out.  Two days later she had re-organised my entire house and come up with a list of storage solutions and furniture re-arranging ideas to make my house work better and look better.  And my sister spent a morning arguing with me about which paint colours would look nice, as opposed to the paint colours I would choose.  She painted one wall of her flat cow-poo green and made it look good.  I spent a large part of last night looking at pictures friends shared on Facebook of their back yards and the good use they made of small spaces.  I have a remarkably quantity of exceptionally kind friends.  And I’m pretty sure I have enough friends who would be willing to come round for a barbecue, picnic, afternoon tea.

And I have a lovely house which is a bit like a tardis, with a working cellar and attic; security of tenure; largely reasonable neighbours; a safe neighbourhood; amenities – on my list of things I’m grateful for this house has always figured quite highly.  It feels a little churlish to feel unhappy about the house I have when I’m in such a fortunate position.

I’ve spent the past couple of years working through all the difficult situations and experiences I’ve faced, and growing and changing because of them.  I would like to move house, and at some point I think I will need to, to have more bedroom space for the girls.  But just now, I think that more than moving to somewhere new, I need to rearrange what’s inside my head and how my life works.  Oh, and learn to keep my kitchen tidy.


Finally, absolutely

“Oh good!” said my mum when I rang her this morning to tell her that I’d finally got divorced.  Then she laughed.  No-one would have believed, at my wedding 12 years ago, that my mum would ever welcome an announcement of divorce.  I’d always thought divorce parties were a strange thing to have – why would anyone be pleased to be divorced?  Well, after 9 1/4 happy years and 2 1/2 crappy years of marriage, I am delighted to have finally made it.  I’ve not really commented much on the experience here because, really, who likes to see other people’s dirty laundry? But I’ll do my best explain why I’m quite so pleased.

I spent the first six months after Ex-Husband’s surprise announcement that he was leaving, and further surprise announcement less than three weeks later that he was living with one of my closest friends, trying to convince him that our marriage was worth saving.  When I had exhausted all attempts to convince him to try to make it work, I filed for divorce on grounds of adultery.

It turns out that to divorce someone for adultery, they have to admit to it, or you have to have evidence: eyewitness accounts or a pregnancy.  While I’m delighted to have neither, it made it slightly tricky: he refused to sign the papers unless I agreed to split the costs of the divorce.  I didn’t want to divorce him for unreasonable behaviour, and I certainly didn’t need to see his five or six reasons why he could not longer bear to live with me.  So I conceded, and agreed to split the costs.  I’m glad I have his written admission that our marriage ended because of his adultery.  But if I did this again I’d go with pragmatism.

And then he spent quite a lot of time being obstructive and arguing with my solicitor about minor points, and I changed my solicitor because he failed to return phone calls or answer queries or do anything.  And Ex-Husband chose to use the slowest. solicitor. ever.  And then blamed my new, lovely solicitor for the hold-ups.  It’s been both tedious and excruciating, and every argument hammers home the reality that the person who once loved me most now wants to hurt me, and that we no longer have interests in common, and that I must learn how to leave him to look after himself after ten years of trying to put him first.

We argued for quite a long time about financial matters.  The house. The pensions.  All interspersed with arguments about contact arrangements for the girls.  Here’s what I’ve learnt: be pragmatic.  Choose your battles. Choose the things which really matter to you, emotionally, morally, financially, the things you can justify to yourself as being important in two or five or ten years, and fight for them.  And fuck the rest.  Calculate how much it’s likely to cost you to win, and decide whether it’s worth the fight and the stress.  I believe, absolutely, that I should have some of my ex-husband’s pension.  Having children and working part time and then becoming a single parent has reduced my income and my career prospects, and therefore had a massive cumulative effect on my pension.  I think he should compensate me for this.  But it would have cost at least a thousand pounds to go to court to try to prove this, and depending on the judge’s opinion, our pensions may have been ruled insignificant.  I compromised – I got to keep the house, which he was never going to get, and gave up rights to his pension, which I may or may not have won.

So while I still feel some sadness when I associate the word ‘divorce’ with myself, because who wants the pain of a failed relationship, I am delighted to have finally come to an end of the arguing and the uncertainty.  I’m celebrating being free to move on in my fabulous life.  I’m celebrating all the help and support I’ve received from my friends, and the new friends I’ve made through the experience, and the skills and strength I’ve found.

It’s funny.  Going to court this morning to get my decree absolute felt significant.  But in many ways, it’s just the rubber-stamping of a process which was finished a while ago – the financial and emotional disentangling of our lives.  Today is the two-years-and-seven-months anniversary of him leaving.  At the time I couldn’t ever imagine recovering. It felt so unfair, that he had left me, broken my heart, moved on – that he was happy and in a relationship while I was struggling and alone.  But now it feels different.  I texted him yesterday to ask him about the consent order for financial matters, which his solicitor had put in his file rather than returning to my solicitor, and had then mis-read a letter enquiring about its whereabouts.  After four weeks, I asked him to nudge her, as it was all I needed for the divorce.  And I asked him about the money for the court fees, which his solicitor had said he was giving to me directly, and which I hadn’t yet received.  His reply was rude, defensive and accusatory.  Clearly he is still bothered by this, and I am not.  And I think now, I’m free and happy.  I’ve survived a disaster.  He has to live with the guilt of knowing, deep down, that he’s behaved like a shit.  He’s in a relationship with a woman of dubious moral character.  He’s living with the choices he made and I’m living with awesomeness.  When he left, I thought there was no justice in the world if his relationship worked when he’d left me so brutally.  Now I think perhaps that is justice.

So, there’s celebrating to be done.  So far, coffee and cake.  Later, ice-creams with Big Girl and Small Girl.  And tonight, a take-away and cider with my sister and brother-in-law.  In a couple of weeks, a night out with drinking and dancing.  And I *may* just be ready to tackle the boxes of stuff in my cellar

Coffee, cake and my Decree Absolute (yes, I think it should be more impressive too.  Curlicue writing and gold leaf, please)

Coffee, cake and my Decree Absolute (yes, I think it should be more impressive too. Curlicue writing and gold leaf, please)

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Happily ever after ever-after

After stopping dating, I felt euphoric all weekend.  I felt as if I was on drugs.  I only realised *how* stressful dating had been once I stopped worrying about it.  “What’s this weird feeling? ‘Relaxed’? Really? I like this!”  And I felt as if a whole world of possibilities had opened up to me once again.  Of course I hadn’t put my life on hold once I started dating, but it took up so much time and brain-space (both of which are already quite limited) and there was a sense in which my future felt less certain and not entirely within my control – there were possibilities out there which weren’t entirely dependent on my choices.  Altogether, I felt stymied.  So I was wildly excited about yesterday, Monday, a whole day and night free of children, and people, and events.  Nothing to do.  Nothing at all.  Nothing.  Nada. Zilch.

I stopped dating because I wanted more time to do the things I love: writing, sewing.  I stopped dating because I wanted to do astonishing things, unencumbered by a relationship.  What I actually did with my glorious empty day was: tidy the living room (well, you might as well when there’s no-one to untidy it for two days); ring a builder; do some laundry; and watch 9 episodes of Doll House, a Joss Whedon sci-fi tv series from 2009. Not something I’ve been desperately wanting to watch.  Not something brilliant.  Just… something.  If I *were* Joan of Arc, what I would have done is updated my Facebook status with ‘Thinking about making Charles King of France, lol’ and gone back to eating crisps.

I also spent the day checking my phone.  Has anyone updated Facebook? Not in the last ten minutes.  Why has no-one texted me? Because you dumped the only person who texted you frequently, on the grounds that you wanted more time on your own.  How are you liking being on your own now, eh?

The truth is that I like being on my own.  But I also like company.  And I measure my worth, my efficacy, my value to the world, by the opinion of others.  If people tell me I’m great, I believe them.  If they tell me I’ve done something well, I feel it must be true.  If people spend time with me, enjoy my company, I feel worthwhile.  But when I’m on my own, when no-one is paying me attention, what makes me significant? What makes me matter? Without God, or any kind of external validating agency, (and at the moment I think I *am* without God) it’s hard not to feel a sense of nihilism.  We’re born, we live, we die.  Hopefully we have a positive effect on people we encounter, the people we love, but then they die.  And what, then, is the point?

I think this is what I want to explore now.  Over the past few years, I’ve found resources in myself to survive a crisis.  And now, having done some dating which felt, effectively, like a mini-relationship, I don’t feel so much like I’m post-Ex-Husband.  Perhaps I’m no longer just recovering from my marriage breakdown.  (My sister says she certainly no longer thinks of me as ‘post-Ex-Husband’ and that I should stop whining and get on with it.  Though that *may* be my interpretation of her sentiments).  Stopping dating, I am making choices about me, and my life, and what I want to do with it.  I’ve been reading two books by Sara Maitland, A Book of Silence and How to be aloneOne of her themes in both books is that although our society prizes individualism, both silence and solitude are somehow seen as dangerous: indicators of madness, badness or sadness. And it’s hard to escape the insidious cultural belief that ‘happy ever after’ only ever *truly* arrives with Prince Charming.

Just now I want to spend time on my own, doing the things I love (and I am really hoping that yesterday my brain just wanted a bit of downtime and tomorrow it will be motivated to do more than watch television and eat Nutella out of the jar) and working out what my value is to myself, what makes me feel worthwhile, whether it really matters that there’s some grand point to my existence.  And, conversely, I want to spend more time finding and making community,  building relationships which matter.  Finding euphoria in solitude and silence and society.

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Fish sans bicycle

So I did some more dating.  I met a nice bloke and we dated for a couple of months.  Last time I was single, I’m sure only Americans dated.  But now we’re all at it.

Last night I emailed him to tell him it isn’t working for me. I really don’t know why.  He should be perfect: interesting, geeky, patient, literate, knows how to use an apostrophe.  We have a nice time together.  I like him.  But for some reason, it isn’t clicking.  It just doesn’t feel right.

It became apparent early on that I have some issues.  Every time he referred to us as ‘we’ I felt physically sick.  This doesn’t surprised me – I’ve spent a long time training myself to say ‘I’ rather than ‘we’ since Ex-Husband left, and I’m not sure how I feel about getting back into this ‘we’ business.  I’m not keen on commitment.  ‘Probably’ and ‘maybe’ and ‘possibly’ have become three of my most-used words while talking to him.  I didn’t want to meet his family or friends, and I can’t really imagine involving him in any of my life which involves anyone other than me.  It’s been painful disentangling Ex-Husband from my family and my social life.  Why would I re-entangle anyone else?  I have serious trust issues.  The normal things, and then some quite mental ones.  He has a four-year-old.  Or so he says.  Does he really? Does he really agree with me on various issues, or is he making it up? His flat looks quite temporary – has he really split up from his ex?.  Given my history, and the experiences of friends I have made since my ex-husband left me for someone else, it’s not surprising that I worry about these sorts of things, but it is quite tiring.

Part of the problem is my lack of free time.  I have three blocks of two nights without Big Girl and Small Girl every four weeks.  To make a relationship work, I think I would realistically need to spend one of those two evenings with whoever I’m seeing.  But I also want to see my friends.  And I need time by myself to do all the other things I love doing (and occasionally some housework) and it just doesn’t add up.

Part of the problem is my attachment to romantic notions of singleness (which I know is not a problem many people have).  I like being single.  I like the idea of going out and doing astonishing things, unhampered by attachments, like Joan of Arc riding into battle on a big white horse.  But (a) it didn’t end so well for her and (b) I do already have two small attachments and (c) I’m not sure there are hordes of people out there waiting to flock to whatever banner it is I would be carrying.  There’s a risk that I’ll just end up wandering around, lonely and carrying a flag.

But ultimately, I think, the issue was that, here, now, he wasn’t right for me.  If I had been excited enough about seeing him, I think all this would have been surmountable.  I don’t feel regretful – I think I’ve made the right decision.  But I am frustrated that this has not worked out; that I’ve met someone who should be perfect for me and yet appears not to be.  That we are offered stories of romance and happy-ever-after, but in reality inhabit lives which are far more complicated.  That I wonder if I am damaged beyond repair.

However, I’m young.  I’m not even thirty-five.  I’ve only been single for a couple of years.  For the first time in my life I have a good idea of who I am and what I want.  I have things I love doing.  I want to write – currently about mermaids and time-travel and also possibly something about fairy tales.  I’m applying for membership of the Quakers, and I am engaging with ideas and action and growing.  I still really enjoy sewing while listening to Radio 4.  I want to enjoy this.



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