Jess Macdonald had always wondered how single parents managed on their own. She never considered the benefits.
I’ll do it. Is there a lovelier, more welcome phrase to hear? I’ll do it. A world of reassurance, a sea of comfort, all there in three little words. If that sentence came to life, it would smile winningly, ruffle your hair, gently nudge your cheek and usher you off to the living room to put your feet up, because you deserve it.
It’s a phrase I don’t hear much these days. I am a walking cliche, and do feel free to hoik your judgeypants at me because I am an unemployed single mother on benefits in a council house. Not quite how I expected my life to turn out but it’s actually not as grim as I would have thought.
I’m very lucky in that my ex and I have managed to keep things amicable and he’s very good at sharing parenting with me. In fact, we’re both better parents now than we were when we were together.
I’m not supposed to admit that and it feels a bit like I’m breaking the fourth wall by saying it, but it’s true. We weren’t desperately unhappy together, but everything had become a little bit jaded, plodding and relentless. And resentful. We didn’t argue, but by kerrist, every day there were little niggles. Not even voiced very often, but my default facial expression was a gentle tut and rolling of eyes, with an inner monologue of “I’m sure you said you were going to do that/couldn’t you have sorted that out/why am I always the one to…?”
And I’m quite sure he had plenty of entries on his List Of Petty Annoyances that we all keep in our heads. Nothing worth ending a relationship over, but just minor snags that crop up and irritate, like a bit of fluff inside your sock.
When you’re on your own, that stops.
It stops completely, because there is no one else to do it. There is no one else to step in and say, “Hey, don’t worry about that thing you can’t really be arsed to do, I’ll do it!” and crucially, doing it. If something needs to be done now, then I have to do it.
“With no one else to try to pin responsibilities onto, you can’t wriggle out of what has to be done. If the children are arguing, I can’t turn to someone, make puppydog eyes and plead, ‘Can you? I’ve had them all day.’”
The element of choice has gone. If there’s a list of five things that need doing, I can’t just do four and then hope that my silent brainwaves of “Please put the bins out” reach another person. I have to put the bins out.
It can be knackering, to be honest. The night when the children were acting up, and the internet went down and it was raining and the school uniforms hadn’t been washed and the drain was blocked was A New Low. I would have offered every kind of favour to someone, anyone, to give me five minutes away from it. But at the same time I’m not relying on anyone else to step in and help.
Expectation can be an oddly draining emotion, because you’re not in control of events. Expectation combined with resentment is even more toxic. “I thought you said you were going to do it!” is a rather bitter cocktail of disappointment, frustration, and annoyance, none of which slip down all that easily.
With no one else to try to pin responsibilities onto, you can’t wriggle out of what has to be done. If the children are arguing, I can’t turn to someone, make puppydog eyes and plead, “Can you? I’ve had them all day.” I know it’s down to me and that just makes things somehow easier. Not to mention that I am lucky and I do get at least two childfree days a week so I’m not constantly on duty.
And, bluntly, I value my time with the children more. When we were a four-person unit, weekends used to slip by with nothing of note happening. I always felt slightly grumpy at about eight o’clock on Sunday evenings (and not just because the Antiques Roadshow was on) because it felt like we’d wasted time we could have used for doing something. Now at weekends when they’re with me I ask them what they want to do and we actually go out and visit places and talk and laugh and enjoy it. I know they do the same with their dad too.
I always wondered before how single parents managed on their own. Always felt that I couldn’t do it, that the beauty of having another parent around was sharing the load and being able to take a breather on tough days. I hadn’t thought of the benefits.
What are the hard bits? Filling my time when I’m on my own. Waking up in the middle of the night sometimes and knowing there’s no one else in the house. Days when it’s an uphill struggle and I just want someone to hug me and tell me I’m doing a good job. Or even just an OK-ish for now one (I know I am, but it’s nice to be told that).
Life isn’t as hard as you might think when you can’t make the choices, when you know you have to be the one to get things done, and no knight in shining armour is going to offer to clean the cooker for you. I’ll do it, because I have to. I’ll do it.
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Jess Macdonald is a quite sweary blogger and mother of two with Scottish hair. http://putupwithrain.blogspot.co.uk