Project Awesome

Making my life more awesome

Under pressure

Small Girl started school last week.  Aside from some tears on Monday morning, and the usual complaining about having to get up in the morning and not being allowed to wear pyjamas all day, she seems to be enjoying it.  And I love seeing her beaming face when I pick her up each afternoon, as if being collected by me is equivalent to a lottery win.  But she’s only four-and-a-quarter, so she looks tiny and it’s quite a lot for her to adjust to.  She comes home exhausted every day but struggles to settle to sleep.  And Big Girl, now in Year 1, is also adjusting to more structured learning and a new classroom and a new teacher.  So we’re all pretty tired.

Getting two children dressed and to school is not much different to getting one to school and one to nursery, except you can’t pass off a pyjama top as school uniform in quite the same way that you can pretend it’s nursery clothes.  But during the chaos of the summer holidays, lazy days at home and trips out and juggling arrangements for the girls and never quite being sure what day it is, I forgot quite what the school routine is like.

So, wake up at 6.  Get up and eat breakfast, hoping the girls will sleep until I’ve finished.  Experience, again, the minor disappointment of interrupted coffee.  Get dressed while fending off demands to play on the tablet before they are dressed.  Encourage children to get dressed.  Ask if they’ve put their knickers on yet.  Put their knickers on for them.  Negotiate around use of the potty and/or toilet and whether they want to eat breakfast at home before going to breakfast club at school. Put more clothes on them.  Explain why they aren’t allowed to wear pyjamas to school.  Brush their hair and teeth.  Get my lunch out of the fridge.  Ask Big Girl to put her socks on.  Ask Big Girl again to put her socks on.  Ask Big Girl how many times I’ve asked her to put her socks on.  Put her socks on for her.  Advise Small Girl that if she doesn’t wear her school shoes she will be walking to school in just her socks and they will be dirty and uncomfortable.  Explain that they can’t take huge cuddly toys to school with them because I don’t want to carry them to work with me.  Remember that I haven’t fed the guinea pigs yet.  Put on my shoes and coat.  Check the bathroom tap is turned off to avoid a repeat of the flooding incident a couple of years ago.  Feed the guinea pigs.  Ask the girls to put on their coats and book bags.  Walk out of the door followed by children wailing about various things including cold legs and being hungry and tired.  Try to encourage the children to walk to school without screaming at them.  Explain that Small Girl can’t have a carry because she is at school now and needs to walk, and that yes, she is tired, because she didn’t go to sleep until late last night.  And that yes, she might feel poorly, and if she is poorly her teacher will ring her and I’ll pick her up.  And yes, if Big Girl is poorly, *her* teacher will ring me, and I’ll come and pick her up.  And if they are both poorly, I expect their teachers will work out between them who will ring me, and I’ll collect them both.  And then we get to school and there’s some reluctance from one or the other to go into breakfast club, but we manage it.

And finally, I’m released.  And I walk to work feeling like I’ve already done a working day, and then, like a pinball, fall into a world of customers and complaints and problems and emails and phonecalls and priorites and meetings, and a to-do list which is never done.  And then I’m spat out again, back to school to pick up my two children and usher them home and convince them to, eventually, stop climbing trees and cartwheeling so we can get home, and disagreements over who is going to carry their coats and book-bags and directives to avoid standing in dog poo, and a desperate desire for them to walk at a reasonable pace home, and then into the house and shoes off and arguments about whose turn it is on the tablet and making tea and making a mess and then the usual long drawn-out saga of bedtime – overtired but not sleepy – and my need to make my lunch for the next day and get uniforms out and hang up laundry and fill the dishwasher and, finally, I crawl into bed, and I really haven’t stopped all day.

All this is compounded, just now, by announcements last Thursday of redundancies at work: voluntary redundancies at first and then, probably, compulsory redundancies.  Some people are pleased to have an opportunity to leave earlier than they had expected and some people are planning to leave with a better deal now, rather than waiting for compulsory redundancies. I do not want to lose my job.  I have working arrangements which suit me and a job I can do and I work with people I like.  I have a mortgage to pay and not much to fall back on.

I’m not really anxious about this yet.  But there’s constant back-ground stress.  Work feels very uncertain, lots of questions and people discussing what might happen.  Everyone is at risk.  I hope that my job is at less risk than some, but we don’t know how things will pan out, and even if I do keep my job I may lose some of my flexibility or my part-time hours or my guarantee of a return to full-time hours if I wish.  Terms and conditions are being looked at, and we may have to take a pay cut.  And if I do survive, there will be far fewer people to do the work, so my job is very likely to change.  While this could be an opportunity to find new and better ways of working, it feels very scary.

Working to get through each day with enough food and clean clothes available, and then hoping to keep my job plus, last week, trying to influence government policy on refugees, means that other issues, anxieties, concerns, disappointments are, to an extent, left untouched.  I go to bed each night and sleep, weirdly, deeply but badly, and wake up feeling tired and ten steps behind myself already, before I even start.

So I’m very excited about this forthcoming weekend.  It’s the first full week of school and, as I don’t work on Fridays, my first day where I’ll drop both girls off at school and then go home.  Their dad is picking them up tomorrow and dropping them back at school on Monday.  So I have a whole child-free weekend with very little planned.  I’m going to read.  And sleep.  And read.  And run.  I might meet up with friends.  I’m going to eat good food without arguing with anyone about it (this isn’t true.  I’ll probably eat toast all weekend).  I’m going to live in a clean and tidy house for three days (this also isn’t true – I’ll do some frantic cleaning on Sunday evening and wonder why I didn’t do it sooner).  It’s going to be a mini-break from my normal life and all the pressures of the past week.

All I have to do is survive one more school run…

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Brain failure

My depression is playing up at the moment.  Having increased the dose of my previous medication to the point where I was falling asleep while putting the girls to bed and had no time or energy left to do even the most minimal of housework, my GP suggested I tried a different drug.  So I weaned myself off Drug One (having a moment of giddiness and euphoria on the way down, when the soporific side-effects were first removed) and started, very cautiously, to take Drug Two.  Drug Two has not improved things.  Drug Two has left me feeling gloomy and tired, unable to make conversation, indecisive, apathetic and troubled by constant morbid thoughts.

It is like being swarmed by wasps at a picnic – no matter how much I shoo them away, they come back, relentless, until I give up.  And my surrender, in itself, becomes another shameful failure to despise myself for.

It is like trying to swim to shore.  I know that when I get there, there will be sandcastles and ice-cream.  And I desperately don’t want to drown.  But I’m tired of fighting the tide.

It is like running, unable to keep up, struggling under a weighted pack which no-one else is carrying; trying so hard and moving so slowly.

It’s a lack of oxygen, struggling to breathe.

It’s a surge of tears, threatening, behind my eyes.

It’s looking for something good and finding nothing.

It’s flatness and inadequacy, conversation dying on my tongue.

It’s a fear of something terrible, just out of sight.

It’s a wasted day, inert and immobile.

It’s self-accusation: blessed with abundance and unable to enjoy it.

It’s the hope that if I cry, or sleep, or run, this anxiety might be released.  But it never is for long.

It’s merely a failure of brain chemistry.

I think about my depression as a physical illness.  It’s not a rational response to something terrible which happened to me, and I don’t need to pick apart how I feel about to find a resolution.  I just think my brain got too tired last summer and stopped doing all the things it needs to do with chemicals.  I spoke to my GP this morning and she reassured me that, with a bit of scaffolding in place for a while, my brain may well get back to what it’s supposed to be doing.  There are probably things I can do to help: exercise; eat well; train it to look for positives rather than negatives; send it to bed at a sensible time; avoid too much stress.  And we’re moving onto Drug Three, which I hope will be more successful, at least, than Drug Two.

I feel fortunate to be able to see, most of the time, that there is a difference between my depression-warped perception and reality, even if I’m not entirely sure what reality is.  I know that what I feel about myself and my life and my abilities is probably not the truth.  I look at my friends, who seem to like me, and think that if I really were all the things I sometimes feel I am, they probably wouldn’t like me, so I’m probably not.  I’m engaged in a battle with and for my brain*, and it’s one I’m hoping to win.

*There’s a sci-fi film in there somewhere, I’m sure there is: The Girl Who Battled For Her Brain. Awesome B-Movie stuff.

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Achieving

Completing the Manchester 10k last Sunday was quite an experience.  So many people were running for charities (I started just behind a man wearing a lifeboat costume who lost me quite early on, much to my disappointment), and it felt as if all the supporters, spectators and organisers were working together with the participants to get us all to the finish.  People came out to stand and watch and clap and cheer.  Small children high-fived us.  Charity volunteers held up signs saying ‘Smile! You paid to do this’ and ‘Run like someone called you a jogger’ and passed out jelly-babies.  I ran the first 4k then alternated running and walking until a stitch hit at around 6k.  I tried to pick up the running again for the last couple of kilometers and then, finally, went for what was intended to be a sprint finish, but probably looked more like a desperate stagger across the line.  It was incredibly emotional – the culmination of a few months of training, the support of family,friends and random strangers, and a sense of achievement and relief.  I was delighted to have  actually finished the course, and in about 15 minutes less than I had hoped to, and elated and exhausted all at the same time.  I found my family and we went for food, and then cake and cocktails.  I’m now looking for another 10k to run – now that I know what a 10k feels like, I think I could run it faster and, probably, with more running and less staggering.

Today has also felt quite special.  It’s my divorciversary – the first anniversary of getting my divorce.  I stopped last night with friends who I haven’t seen for a few years, and spent the day with them and their children, and had a wonderful, relaxed time catching up, discussing politics, playing in the park.  It wasn’t planned to coincide with the divorciversary and it wasn’t something we discussed much,except as part of catching up on the past two years, and I’m spending the evening cleaning out my guinea pigs: a lovely-but-normal child-free Saturday.  I’d had vague plans to go out to mark the anniversary but they never quite came together, and I’m glad.  Firstly, the guinea pigs had got quite stinky, and now they’re not.  But, more importantly, the divorce no longer seems significant enough to need any kind of celebration.  A year ago it was a significant event, the culmination of a process which shut the door on a painful experience, but the celebration of that is in living this new, good, normal life I have, every single day.

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Finding space for silence

It’s much harder to find time to be silent in between getting up, getting the girls up and getting to nursery and work on time, than it is when on retreat.  It’s hard to find the energy for silence in the evening between the chaos and stress of bedtime and the desire to be asleep, not forgetting to feed the guinea pigs and take all the poo out of their cage.  It’s hard to settle into silence with thoughts of a hundred things I need to do and arguments replaying in my head and emails to reply to and plans to make.  And the more often I give up on silence to do something more urgent, more achievable, the less rewarding it feels, the less I expect it to be beneficial, the harder it is to commit to doing it.

Until Sunday I’d had the girls non-stop for two weeks, including a weekend away with the Quakers which I helped to organise, and a six-and-a-half hours-each-way trip to visit my grandparents.  By Saturday we were all tired and grumpy.  Big Girl had been a bit poorly, and she and Small Girl were arguing.  Small Girl wanted constant attention and to be cuddled and picked up, which is fine except for when I am trying to make breakfast.  Or get dressed.  Or make a cup of coffee.  Any attempts to put her off for five minutes induced crying and clinging and attempts to climb up my body, all of which made me want to hide in the bathroom and lock the door, except that they know how to unlock the door from the outside. Sigh.

So, when things were a little calmer, I thought I would try to have a little bit of silence, hoping to find a sense of peace to get me through the rest of the day.  I went to my bedroom.  The girls followed.  I explained that I was having some peace and quiet, and they were welcome to stay, but they had to sit still and be quiet – I want them to learn to respect my needs like I respect theirs, and to see how I practise my faith.  Small Girl got into bed next to me.  She wanted to sit on my knee.  I explained that she could sit next to me but she had to be quiet.  She asked me to pretend she was a dog.  I explained that she needed to be quiet while I was having some peace and quiet. Big Girl got into bed too.  She pretended that Small Girl was a dog.  Neither were sitting quietly.  So I decided to abandon my bedroom, leaving them playing at sleeping dogs, and make a new plan.

I’ve really struggled to find somewhere which feels conducive to silence, even when the girls aren’t in the house.  My attic should be ideal, being a room the girls aren’t allowed in without me, and being a lovely room, but it feels isolated from the rest of the house.  In the lounge I feel likely to be observed by passers-by, which is distracting.  My kitchen is… well, between the piles of washing up and the crap on the kitchen table, it’s not a place I choose to be.  And my bedroom is about sleeping and getting up and putting away laundry, but not about sitting in peace.  However, as I crept away to hide from my girls I found an unexpected solution – their bedroom: it has a door which shuts and it’s remarkably comfortable due to the piles of soft toys, clothes and bedding on the floor.  And it has almost no associations for me – in my mental picture of the house it barely exists.  In my mind, it’s more like a big cupboard than a functioning room, where I put the girls away at night, and store their clothes, but not a room I spend any time in.  I tucked myself away, sat and found calm, and then returned to my girls and their chaos: I’m not sure they realised I’d been away.  I visited again yesterday, while the girls were at their dad’s house, and enjoyed the silence, shut away from the world and the rest of my life – my own space for retreat.

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Three new things for 2015

Apparently December doesn’t exist for this blog.  December belonged to the land of fifth birthdays and fifth birthday parties and Christmas, and a rigorous timetable to achieve everything I needed to (almost) without hysterical crying in the toilets at work.

So here in we are in 2015 with three new developments:

1. Bunk Beds: Big Girl has been asking for bunk beds for quite a while, possibly since she first learnt of their existence, and also growing.  As she was starting to reach the point where she was too big for her cot-bed (she couldn’t fit all her cuddly toys in with her, at any rate), and as the girls’ room is too small for two proper beds, bunk beds seemed the only solution.  My sister gave them both a new single duvet set in preparation, so I was committed.

After some discussion on Facebook, my favourite form of procrastination when I want a decision to be made but am not quite ready to make one, it transpired that a friend had bunk beds she wanted to sell, and was willing to deliver them and help me put them up.  So I found myself last night trying to get Big Girl and Small Girl to sleep in bunk beds.

Big Girl, of course, wanted the top bunk.  Until she was actually in it, and then she wanted the bottom bunk.  Small Girl wanted to sleep in the top bunk, but she is too young.  There was quite a lot of excitement, and then quite a lot of crying, but eventually they were both asleep.  Tonight, again, there was a lot of crying, and about 20 minutes of repeatedly putting Small Girl back into her bed while she tried to leap out to look for treasure, until she got hurt and required a plaster, and eventually, eventually, she settled down and went to sleep.

Currently bunk beds feel like a regrettable necessity.  But they’ve also changed our bedtime routine.  Instead of having a story and drink downstairs and putting pyjamas on downstairs and then going upstairs and chasing round and cleaning teeth, and then settling Small Girl while Big Girl plays in my room, and then settling Big Girl, we do pyjamas and wees and teeth-cleaning upstairs, and *then* a story each in bed, and then I settle Small Girl while Big Girl sits on her bed being shushes, and then I go up and give Big Girl a cuddle.  It feels faster and more efficient and better-controlled.  And yes, currently about two hours of nightmare bedtime ensures, but once they settle into the new routine, I can imagine improvements.  Yes, just like I imagined the novelty of bunk beds would mean they would both lie down and go to sleep.

2. Guinea pigs.  Big Girl would like a rabbit.  So when someone at work was trying to interest colleagues in adopting some very cute baby bunnies, I did consider it quite seriously.  I consulted Facebook as always, and was told in no uncertain terms that rabbits were a lot of work, needed a lot of space and would probably destroy my house.  In addition, they are not great for small children as they are too big to hold.  Ah, but guinea pigs! Guinea pigs are lovely! And ideal for children! Big Girl and Small Girl know people with guinea pigs, and really like them.  I decided that we would get guinea pigs.  I told the girls that we would get guinea pigs, but not until after Christmas, and only when Small Girl stopped pooing and weeing in her knickers and on the floor, as there is a limit to the clearing-up that I’m willing to do.

It’s now after Christmas and Small Girl has (hallelujah!) pretty much got the hang of using the toilet, albeit reluctantly.  We took a trip to Tameside Rabbit and Guinea Pig Rescue with my friend Jo.  I wanted the girls to choose.  This is, probably, a mistake.  They would probably have been quite happy to come home to two cute little cavies, ready to give them names.  Instead they were faced with an overwhelming selection of animals who quickly all blurred into one.  Big Girl is about as good at making decisions as I am.  So they tried to choose two guinea pigs which had already been reserved for someone else, and then settled on the last two that we had looked at.  We’re now getting a hutch and all the essentials sorted, and I’ll collect them on Saturday while the girls are at their dad’s house, to let them settle in in peace and quiet.  I’m looking forward to our new arrivals, but wondering quite what I’ve let myself in for.

3. Three-and-a-half.  This isn’t technically new, because Big Girl was also three-and-a-half, about 18 months ago, but seriously, what is this all about? I love the toddler years, the ‘terrible twos’ (despite all the evidence to the contrary on this blog) – toddlers are funny and fascinating.  But Small Girl has suddenly turned into a monster.  Still cute, but a monster.  She says ‘no’ to everything.  She repeats what I say. I ask her to do something and she tells me to do it.  She screams if she doesn’t like something.  She snatches from Big Girl, and hits her (often with provocation, I would add in her defence).  And every time we go in a shop she wants *everything* she sees, even if she doesn’t know what it is, and whines.  I’m not sure where this has come from, but I’m hoping it’s a phase she’ll grow out of.  She’s lovely and funny and she and Big Girl are very kind to each other, and we have a lot of fun.  But, well, three-and-a-half…

Happy new year? I hope so!

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Even on a day like this, when you’re crawling on the floor…

This has been a difficult summer.

At the end of July I was booked in for another haeherroidectomy.  This was scheduled to take place while Big Girl and Small Girl were on holiday with Ex-Husband, to give me time to recover.  Unfortunately, due to his broken leg, he felt unable to take them with him.  Fortunately, I have fabulous parents, who will always help me when I need it and when they can. (If there is any possibility that you may become a single parent at any point, be kind to your parents.  You will need them.)

We stayed with my parents for a week.  I’ve always thought I’d make a good Victorian Gentleman Philosopher, sitting at a huge desk writing down interesting thoughts, with a housekeeper who occasionally brings me cheese sandwiches.  Now I realise I would also make a good Victorian parent.  Obviously not the kind who sends their children down mines, up chimneys or to the poorhouse because they can no longer to afford to feed them.  Rather, the kind who has a nanny, and children who are seen but not heard.  For the first few days after the operation I felt incredibly ill, and lay in bed sleeping and occasionally throwing up, and my mum would bring my children in to look at me, possibly to reassure them that I wasn’t actually dead, and forbid them from jumping on me.  Gradually I progressed to sitting up and, eventually eating, and then it was time to go home.

The following week consisted of taking the girls to nursery, sleeping, and trying to poo.

I had thought my third week of sick leave would be quite pleasant.  I had decided that I would be recovered enough to do some gentle pottering around, maybe leave the house occasionally, possibly have coffee with friends.  I hadn’t counted on Small Girl.  On the Monday, she was sick four times in one hour, on three levels of the house and on every pair of clean trousers I possessed.  On Tuesday she was sick outside her room at nursery when we went to pick up Big Girl.  On Wednesday and Thursday we were stuck at home, trying not to spread germs.  On Friday we went to the cinema to watch Sing-a-long Frozen.  It was not the week I’d hoped for.

Finally, Ex-Husband came and collected the girls.  He had looked after them for the day on a couple of Sundays, but this was the first time since he’d broken his leg that he had them overnight.  It was lovely to be able to go out, to sleep all night, to relax and to rest.

And finally, we went to Greenbelt.  Greenbelt is my favourite place in the world to be.  It’s a liberal Christian arts festival, and I’ve been almost every year since I was 19.  I stewarded until I was pregnant, and have taken the girls most years.  This year, Greenbelt moved from Cheltenham Race Course to the grounds of Boughton House, a stately home in Northamptonshire.  The new site is astonishing: fairy-light-strung paths through trees – big old trees that have lived for hundreds of years – and wide open spaces, ornamental lakes and hills and lawns.  We arrived on Friday, camping with my lovely friends Rachel and Chris, and wandered down into the festival to find the huge main stage and thousands of Greenbelters watching.  For the first time, Greenbelt really felt like a festival.  And the new site feels more like home than Cheltenham ever did.

However, this wasn’t a good Greenbelt for me. I hardly saw anyone.  I hardly went to anything.  We seemed to walk miles to get to anything, only to find things were closing just as we arrived.  I did catch up with some friends, but missed a lot of people I’d hoped to see.  It almost felt like a wasted weekend.

But Greenbelt is a bit like a family Christmas.  Just because you have a rubbish Christmas one year and argue with your sister, it doesn’t mean you never go home for Christmas again.  I may not have enjoyed much of Greenbelt this year, but I’d still rather have been there than not.  I love being surrounded by people who are kind and thoughtful and care about injustice and poverty and are talking about how to make things better.  Even if, for various reasons, I struggled to be one of those people this year, I’m glad I was there.  And I’m already planning how to make next year work better.

Really it’s just part of the way I’ve felt all summer: as if I’m crawling through my life, too tired, feeling poorly, everything too difficult, no energy.  Surviving.  Like I said, it’s been a challenging summer.

My girls are at their dad’s house just now.  He collected them yesterday lunch time and is bringing them back on Thursday in time for tea.  On Friday Big Girl starts in Reception.  I miss them, but I am glad of the break.  Yesterday I sat on the sofa, too tired to do anything, watching old episodes of Doctor Who (I still miss David Tennant’s Doctor) and slept for eleven hours.  Tonight I am going out for dinner with friends, and sleeping.  Tomorrow I am going to the cinema.  And sleeping.  I’m tired of crawling, and tired of feeling tired, and I’m ready for life to feel good again.

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As long as your happiness is not dependent on afternoon tea. Or small children.

Yesterday I was 35. I remember being very excited about approaching 30 – I’d done interesting things in my twenties and felt I’d spent the decade well, and we had plans for a fabulous life.  And then suddenly I found out I was expecting Big Girl and everything changed.

And, it turned out, changed more dramatically than I could have anticipated.  Here I am, stepping into the second half of my thirties a divorced mother-of-two.  My thirties have *not* gone to plan.  And 35 feels significantly different to 30.  30 still felt young.  While 35 doesn’t feel old, somewhere over the hill – but not *far* far away – is middle age.  And I’m not sure how I feel about it.

My birthday was lovely in parts.  Big Girl and Small Girl argued about who would get to open which of my presents.  Astonishingly, neither argued strongly for it to be me.  Birthdays have always been an opportunity to celebrate the person whose birthday it is, to make them feel loved and special, particularly when the person whose birthday it is is me.  And, for ten years, I had someone doing that for me.  This is my third birthday after Ex-Husband, and the first one I had no-one come and spend the day with me to help me celebrate myself.  I missed it.

We went to Uppermill, a little town in Saddleworth which is really quite lovely.  We played in the playground.  We teetered across stepping stones, Small Girl giggling all the way.  We went for afternoon tea, my treat to myself to make myself feel special and celebrated.

Except we should have booked.  Afternoon tea needed to be booked 48 hours in advance, because it has some items which are not on the menu.

I did not cry.

But I wanted to.  I wanted to cry until someone realised this was important and fixed it for me.  Because it’s my birthday, and I’m a single mum, and have to look after myself, and this was my attempt to make something from the horribleness of being alone because my husband left me, and we’ve come such a long way, and…

The woman behind the counter stood impassively as I said none of those things.  I ordered cake and chocolate milkshake for Big Girl and Small Girl, and a cream tea for myself.  Small Girl refused the chocolate milkshake because she is contrary, and neither of them actually wanted their cake, and Big Girl just wanted to eat the maltesers from the top of my cake, and my birthday seemed to be sliding into a disaster.

It’s time to stop living a shadow-life, one where I congratulate myself on living bravely despite my circumstances. To ditch the notion that there is a life I was entitled to.  To stop comparing my life to how it *should* be and enjoy what it *is*.  I had lots of lovely presents and cards yesterday, and 61 people wished me a happy birthday on Facebook. I got to spend a day with my beautiful funny girls balancing on stepping stones and exploring and eating cake.  In the evening I went out with friends, drank cider and performed something I’d written at a live literature event.  I am not a victim of anything.

I think it’s true that I have been brave.  What happened to me, when Ex-Husband left, was shitty, and carried on being shitty for quite a while.  But my life now does not, generally, require extraordinary courage.  I’m not a delicate little flower battling against huge odds.

And I do not need special treatment from women in cupcake shops.

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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.

 

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Everything is terrible. Everything. Well, sort of.

I have PMT. Again. (My friend, colleague, and man-who-is-slightly-squeamish-about-female-oversharing, Simon, will point out that this is now the fourth time in two days that I have informed him of this).  You would think that someone, somewhere in the universe, would say ‘It’s ok, Ms. Awesome. You have done enough feeling miserable for one lifetime.  You are now excused from PMT’.  But no, I have spent the past few days feeling miserable and irritable and shouting at my children. And then, of course, feeling guilty for feeling so very irritated by my children.

It *is* hard, when your life is as difficult as mine.  I have no friends, my house is a mess, I am alone all weekend, and it is likely that I will die alone and be eaten by Alsatians.  Although none of these things are true, they *feel* very true just now  Well, my house *is* a mess, but there’s a fairly simple solution to that.

It’s been a funny few weeks.  I have felt like I’ve had lots of possibilities being thrown at me: I found a job I desperately wanted, and was offered an interview, my mortgage company agreed to consider giving me a sole mortgage – it felt like everything was open to me.  And then it all fell down again – the underwriters said no, and it turned out there was no actual funding for the job.

And now, two and (almost) a half years after Ex-Husband left, when I am finally starting to feel stable and happy, I am also able to see the damage the end of my marriage has done to me.  Every so often I discover that a fundamental belief I had about the goodness of the universe has gone.  This morning Ex-Husband picked up the girls.  He has a new car seat for Small Girl.  I say she is not big enough for it yet.  He says she is.  He takes away my baby in a car seat which I do not believe will keep her as safe as she needs to be.  I feel powerless to protect my children.  I cry all the way to work, bawling in the street in a way I have not done for a long time.  It’s not just my fears for Small Girl’s safety; it’s my realisation that the sense of efficacy I have always had, my belief that I can affect and shape the world around me, is gone.

And then, recently, I got out my flexible working contract and discovered that when I changed my hours at work, that was made permanent rather than temporary as I had wanted.  I had relied upon my right to go back to full-time work at any time as part of my argument for being given a sole mortgage, and for my sense of financial security.  But beyond that, I wondered if this had been done on purpose, whether my full-time contract had been taken away from me deliberately and my employers were trying to screw me.  This is nothing to do with the inherent evil of my employers – it was due to a misunderstanding and has been quickly rectified –  and everything to do with my fundamental ability to trust.  I cannot rely on the world to be kind to me. Neither can I trust my friends to actually like me or to continue to like me.  And, although I feel I would now quite like to have another relationship, I find it hard to believe that anyone would really want to go out with me, that anyone could like me that much, and that if they did, we would negotiate all the hurdles, all my fears and issues, that I could make another relationship work.

I know that these are irrational fears.  I’m not asking for sympathy or reassurance.  (Although if you know any funny, interesting, single men in their mid-thirties, I’d welcome an introduction).  I’m just not sure where the healing comes from.  I don’t know how I get past these things.  I have chosen to keep trusting people and so far I have not been let down.  I have set out to shape my life into something I want it to be.  I have chosen to look for the good things in my life.  But I still feel lonely and sad and afraid sometimes.  And I don’t think it’s just the PMT.

Perhaps I am learning to live with reality. There are people out there who can’t be trusted.  I can’t always control what happens to me or the people I care about.  This has always been true.  But in the middle of the cataclysm which caused all this destruction, I found compassion, graciousness, and faithfulness and extraordinary kindness.  I can hold onto these things and I can be brave and I can look for new goodness in an imperfect and uncertain universe.  It’s not over yet.

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How birthdays are like sandwiches

Birthdays are difficult in a single-parent family.  Well, for me, anyway. Without a rational, reasonable adult to show some appreciation for all the hard work put into a birthday, and commiserate over the less than lovely bits, it can feel a bit pointless.  Today, Big Girl’s fourth birthday, started quite badly.  Despite having lots of lovely presents which she was really pleased with, new birthday pyjamas and a birthday helium balloon, she spend quite a lot of the morning crying, complaining and refusing to choose which breakfast cereal she wanted.  I was trying desperately to get us all ready to leave in time to get to Eureka! for her  birthday trip, preferably without shouting, and she hid under the kitchen table and said she didn’t want to go.

It’s hard for her as well.  She’s already had one birthday at Daddy’s house and there’s only so much excitement she can take.  She’s already tired because – well, all children seem to be tired in the run-up to Christmas – and the heightened excitement and expectation of her birthday seems to also increase the unhappiness she has about living in two homes.   And if it’s hard for Big Girl, pity poor Small Girl.  *Two* days of it Not Being Her Birthday, of presents she can’t open and cake which isn’t for her.  It’s almost unbearable.

Today has been like a sandwich.  Getting up was pretty horrible, and we had the sort of bedtime you get when a two-year-old sleeps for an hour-and-a-half on the way home at 5pm.  But the middle, the filling, was pretty lovely.  We went to Eureka! with two of Big Girl’s friends and their parents, who are also friends.  (A small piece of advice, single parents with more than one child: cultivate friends with only children.  It improves your adult-to-child ratio on trips out no end).  We had a train journey, and we explored the museum, played at cooking and garages and delivering post and found out about our bodies and made interesting sounds.  The museum was fairly empty so we got to play with most things as much as we wanted.

And while it has been difficult, I’m no longer thinking back four years and wondering how it all went so wrong.  It is sad not having another adult to share this with, someone else who loves Big Girl as much as I do.  But I had a fun day with two good friends.  And I think back over the day, all the different things we’ve done, everything which has made Big Girl happy, and I have a sense of accomplishment.  *I* did this.  All by myself. It’s quite an achievement.

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