STAYING SANE AS A SINGLE MUM
I became a mum at the age of 24 and a single mum just five years later. The aftermath of the break up was a nightmare for me and for my daughter Kate, but I don’t wish to dwell on that here. Kate has now finished school and come out the other end. She's pursuing something she loves and is an intelligent, kind and resilient human being, despite the many sleepless nights I had worrying that I'd screw it all up.
Before my marriage broke up, I was working part time as a tennis coach. We had a decent sized mortgage and the usual expenses associated with a child, with many more on the horizon. When my marriage ended I knew that I'd have to find more work and life quickly took on a frantic pace as I juggled one ball after another, trying to keep them all in the air.
Some of those years are a blur, especially the early ones, and there is much that I am happy to forget. But there are certain lessons I learned at that time for which I am grateful.
My friends were amazing and I have a lot to thank them for. Between us, we came up with ways to help me stay sane and to get Kate and me to the happy place we are today. I'd like to share these with you here.
- Establishing a routine
I'm not naturally the most organised person in the world , but it is amazing how much reassurance I found in establishing a routine for myself, my daughter and our household and I know that it helped Kate to have a little certainty through uncertain times. We set up schedules for our days and weeks and rosters for chores around the house. All before and after school and weekend activities were clearly visible on a fridge calendar and through trial and error, we quickly learned to note and check on any changes from day to day. It amazed me how responsible Kate very quickly became.
- PRE-paring meals
I can't tell you how much getting organised in this area reduced my stress levels, especially at the end of a busy day. Each weekend I would plan for the week ahead. I would cook and freeze meals and snacks meaning that no matter what time I got home or how many activities my daughter had on, she, and I, always had something nutritious to eat. I recommend freezing meals in single portion sizes and keeping a good stock of salad vegetables and fruit handy to freshen up meals. Muffins, slices and biscuits generally freeze well too and cooked in bulk and frozen in portions are a much more cost effective snack than the packaged, store bought variety.
- Help with homework
I was very lucky here. Kate would come to the tennis centre where I worked each afternoon, and there she would do her homework. Bev was a kindly grandmother who worked behind the counter and when Kate needed some extra help with maths or guidance on some tricky comprehension, Bev was always willing and able to help . Kate loved Bev and Bev loved helping Kate and a very strong bond developed between the two of them. I will be ever grateful to Bev, for each evening after a busy day for both of us, homework was one less thing we had to worry about. If you know someone, a brother or sister, a family friend who can step in for a little homework help now and then, use them. It is very easy for kids to fall behind at school without anyone noticing and if you don’t have time to check in regularly, having someone else who can could save a lot of extra work down the track.
- Accepting help and giving back
When you are doing it tough most people want to help. My advice: let them. I've never much liked asking for help but had to swallow my pride if I was going to be able to work and have Kate get to school, get through school holidays and other regular activities. People were only too willing to offer a hand. Having neighbours with children at the same school in primary was a blessing and my wonderful neighbours quickly took it as read that they would have an extra child in the car some afternoons, and other friends stepped in to help in the holidays. I know it wasn’t expected, but it always made me feel better when I could return the favour. I would drive their kids to school in the mornings and home from parties on a Saturday night. This incidentally, as the soon forgotten taxi driver in the front, is the best way to learn what is going on at school and socially for your daughter and her friends.
- Don't try to be super mum
Sometimes the guilt makes you feel that you have to attend every school function and help out with everything from reading in class to baking for the fair. Do what you can but say no when you need to. As someone said to me early on, you need to be a reliable person, but you don't need to be relied upon for everything. For me, learning to say "sorry I can't do that" was life changing.
- Build networks and connections at school
I was never one for hanging around the school playground, and even if I had been, I didn't have the time. I found that if I wanted to keep up with what was going on ant school, I could check in with a couple of Kate’s friends' parents and I made a few connections with teachers at school who I could contact and update as necessary. It's important to be kept in the loop but I quickly found that it doesn't happen unless you make the effort.
- Checking in and talking to my child
It's very easy for days, weeks, even months to roll by without fully engaging because life just gets so busy. But we all know just how important it is to keep talking to our kids. For me, the best time to discuss things with Kate, things like school, friends, and yes, even sex, was in the car on the way to and from activities or just casually as we were making meals. Much less pressure when the focus was not just on her I found and I was much more likely to get more than a grunt if I kept it light and casual.
- Regular exercise
It was hard getting out of bed each morning but once I got into the habit I found that an early walk helped me to plan the day ahead, it also gave me the energy to face it. Sometimes I walked with friends and it was a great chance to catch up with what was going on in their lives and to discuss things outside my own dramas and concerns.
- Try not to go there
This can be very hard. Bitterness can eat you up and it's hard not to bad-mouth your ex partner especially when they are doing everything to defy what you want and what you think, know is best for your child. And his family didn't make it any easier. But I wanted Kate to know her family so I encouraged visits to Grandma , Aunty Jean and cousin Jess until she could decide when she was older, whether or not to pursue the relationships. Navigating the ex and his or her family will be different for each person, but try to be guided by the wishes and the needs of your child first, and not your feelings for your ex or the in-laws.
- If you are worried about your child seek help
If you see signs of depression or other mental health problems, act straight away. The earlier there is intervention, the better the outcome. Understand that school counsellors are a wonderful resource but may not suit every child and that in order for your child to get real and lasting help, they have to feel comfortable with the professional they are seeing. If your child is diagnosed with a depressive illness, as mine was, don't be afraid to inform the people who can make their life a little easier. This might include a teacher, or year advisor, family and friends. It made all the difference to my Kate to have people she could turn to, who understood her struggle.
With thanks to Molly and Kate* for sharing their story. You can share your story and help others in the process. It is through sharing stories and experiences that we can learn to empathise, to understand and to navigate the many challenges that life throws our way.
(* names have been changed)