For three months, My Lawyer and I have lived in different countries. As our family emigration nears completion and the kids and I prepare to join him in Amsterdam, here are ten things I’ve learnt over the last ninety days of long-distance marriage and solo-parenting three confused children.
1. The key to a successful long-distance marriage is to AVOID RESENTMENT.
2. AVOIDING RESENTMENT IS IMPOSSIBLE. Three months is a QUARTER OF A YEAR. He’s lonely. LONELY! My ears are still ringing two hours after putting three unsettled kids to bed. Oh hang on, that’s not my ears – that’s my phone ringing, because My Lawyer is LONELY as he lies on our sofa in Amsterdam in an uncluttered oasis, bathing in silence. It is so quiet in his – I mean, our, apartment, that he can hear the occasional ring of a bicycle bell from the street, or the turning of keys in our neighbours’ front doors as they return home from work at a reasonable hour (the balanced Dutch lifestyle we have been promised). He greets me plaintively: “What are you doing?” “CHANGING MY TAMPON FOR THE FIRST TIME IN FIFTEEN HOURS.” “I’ll call later.”
Just… try not to completely hate each other for more than 25% of the time. You’ll probably be okay. Unless you die of Toxic Shock Syndrome.
3. Find someone in a similar position to you who will nod and say, “it’s so hard, isn’t it?” Just one good listener will do it. To paraphrase Brené Brown, a research professor of social studies and TED Speaker extraordinaire, anyone who begins their sentences with “At least….” can jog on. When you want to offload but are told to count your blessings, you are being told to internalise your worries; that your feelings aren’t worthy of an audience. So you stop sharing, and close down emotionally. For more on this, I can recommend this animation of Brené Brown’s TED talk about empathy. If you want to delve further, there’s a fantastic case study in the self-defense mechanisms of the narcissist in a recent film called The Batman Lego Movie. It’s a masterclass in subtlety.
4. If you’re living with a partner right now, there may well be things that your partner does for the household, whether it be practical or administrative, that you probably think are a massive, incomprehensible shag. Let me tell you now, EVERYTHING is achievable with Google. In terms of household maintenance, My Lawyer and Google are interchangeable. You do get a lot of information in answer to every question, and most of this information is irrelevant… but you get that with Google too. (Oh come on, that’s a good one.)
5. If you are in opposing day/night time-zones, schedule calls. There is nothing more irritating than just chancing it ad-hoc, miscalculating times and accidentally calling each other at 3am, when you might be sleeping soundly, or alternatively might be lying uncomfortably beneath one or more sleeping children, unable to answer the phone.
Even better, email. When My Lawyer was bed-hopping in San Francisco, we eventually deduced that it was much more productive for us to email, because we could be specific in what we wanted to say and then delete any profanities before pressing send.
6. The kids will interpret events for themselves in pretty creative ways if they are not given the correct information, in simple terms, several times over. And over. And over. I have lost count of the number of times that I’ve explained to the six year old that My Lawyer and I are not getting divorced, but what she understands is that a mum and dad living apart = divorce. She’s just assessing what she sees against her knowledge of familial organisation, and divorced parents are more common than families in the middle of a very drawn-out international relocation resulting in temporary parental separation.
7. If you’re ok, the kids will be ok. If you are not ok, they will know, and will find different ways to tell you. The six year old recently explained, as part of a larger plan to elongate bedtime, that her naughty behaviour had been because she felt worried. “I go MENTAL when I am worried,” she told me.
“I think everyone does,” I said. “I know I do sometimes.”
“Like when you say ‘shit’?”
The eight year old, on a particularly difficult day, handed me this note:
The three year old, always with me, day and night, now won’t dress beyond socks and pants and answers only to the name “Baby Snake.”
To any passer by on the street, we look like a fairly functional, if partially clothed family. But I hope I’m building up a picture that says more accurately: Highs and Lows. Anxious eight year olds, stepping up into Dad’s shoes. Swearing six year olds. And naked snake babies. At best, we are hanging in there.
8. You get so used to being the only one in charge that, if and when you do get a break, you may initially struggle to enjoy it. The cumulative affect of the vice-like grip of sole parental responsibility can border on something like Stockholm syndrome. Hey, if the door opens, get the hell out of there. Those tyrannical little bastards won’t notice that someone else is operating the remote control.
9. Every second of silence you can claw for yourself is crucial for your sanity, or rather, for minimising your insanity. There is a moment somewhere, each day, that you can claim for yourself, like Den in a game of It. For me, currently, that moment is five seconds long, at 3.40pm. I have picked up the kids, they have been loaded into the car, they are talking, arguing, crying, complaining. I close the car door and seal in the noise. I stand by the driver’s door with my eyes closed for one… two… three… four… five seconds of silence, before opening the door to the cacophony. Back into the driver’s seat. Just like motorway driving, you shouldn’t be allowed to parent for more than two consecutive hours without a rest.
10. I don’t have the first fucking clue what actual, permanent solo-parenting must be like. After three months, with a sympathetic and supportive partner to talk to, and good support from friends and family, I am on my knees. Unless you have a child with special needs, there is no free respite care facility available to lone, unsupported parents outside of social services. How many consecutive hours can you parent safely for, really? To stay mentally well, and for your kids to be mentally well? Your first break will likely be scheduled according to the weight and frequency of your paycheck.
There are around two million single parents in the UK, and over 90% of these are women. There are organisations such as Gingerbread who provide practical support, advice and networking opportunities for lone parents, but they rely on donations to keep the support going. Join me in donating if you can, because apparently there’s no magic money tree. Not for this, anyway.