Spring Cleaning your newly single Love Life... The lessons I Iearned on Valentine's Day that every 'Single mum' should know...
If there’s one day in the year guaranteed to get a sarcastic eye roll without even trying it’s Valentine’s Day. Nothing quite says ‘I love you’ like an M&S Meal Deal for a tenner, does it? I have to say until this year I have always quite liked it; for starters it’s 2 days before my birthday so I always get excited about presents and generally being spoiled (yes spoiled, it’s my birthday). Plus there’s the opportunity to pretend - with decreasing credibility as the years go by - that those early birthday cards dropping through the letterbox are actually Valentine’s cards, even if the handwriting on the envelope does look suspiciously like my Dad’s. And he’s signed the card with an incriminating ‘love from Dad’.
But this year felt different. It was my first one as a single person for probably 25 years – how sad is that? Or is it? Should I congratulate myself that for the past 25 years I have had someone (3 different people if we are counting) who have wanted to call themselves my partner, or should I thank God that this year I neatly sidestepped the search for the perfect ‘only you will get this incredibly personal joke’ card?
The day itself was a bit of a shocker – a fun ‘getting to know divorce’ mediation session in the morning set things up a treat, my head thumping after a late night early birthday booze up. A leaking toilet then threatened to completely ruin the afternoon as water poured through the kitchen ceiling. Thank God (again) for my wonderful friends who rallied round – positioning buckets, entertaining children and pouring much needed wine until the whole episode felt like nothing more than a slightly irritating dream.
Once everyone had gone home and I was left to reflect on the day, I found myself getting all Carrie Bradshaw about the whole deal. It made me realise that what I missed most was the easy intimacy of an established ‘relationship’ and how, when I met new people, I tried to recreate this way too soon. When it comes to relationships I am an absolutely sucker for romance and sentimentality and am (almost) a standing joke amongst certain friends for my ability to fall head over heels in record time. Can you imagine the wedding speeches: ‘yes we met on Tinder - it was love at first swipe’?
If I’m being kind to myself I would say this is partly due to the fact that I have an open and fairly easy going nature – I like to see the best in people and am a terrible ‘people pleaser’. The idea of casually standing up after 15 minutes on a first date and announcing ‘I’m sorry this isn’t for me’, or even coming up with some vaguely plausible excuse to leave fills me with horror. Instead I’m all ‘oh, you like progressive techno jazz folk music – what a coincidence, so do I!’ or ‘so you enjoy camping on sheer rock faces in Scotland in the middle of winter – gosh, we just have SO much in common!’ etc. Thank God for Wikipedia and tequila – the ultimate distraction when fabricated knowledge and enthusiasm threaten to be exposed.
Beyond the first date things seem to get even more confusing – it’s like being dropped into a computer game with no clue how to play it: Blind Date meets Wreck It Ralph. It’s no good pretending I’m a 20 something freestyler without a care in the world – I have two rather significant ‘cares’ (my kids) and most of the people I meet do too. Equally, I can’t pretend I’m cool with a casual hook up: for me it’s the romantic equivalent of a massive bag of Haribo – easy to do with not much thought, but ultimately unrewarding. I think I need to be honest with myself and admit that what I really want in the long term is someone to share the good stuff and the not so good stuff with, who will also put the bins out for me. But maybe it’s going to take some time for me to find them and for them to find me – which when you have the patience of a crack addict can be hard to take.
So this is what I am learning...this is a journey. I have questions I need to ask myself about what I want the next phase to look and feel like rather than just ‘how long is this going to bloody take’? I need to stop wildly projecting to the final destination whenever I meet someone, asking those all important questions like: Where will we live? How will they get on with my children? Will they join in with impromptu early morning One Direction kitchen discos? Perhaps these life changing issues can wait, after all.
So my rational, considered promise to myself is to enter into things with a more balanced perspective. To not fall in love at the first kiss or imagine fabulous evenings spent cuddled up together on the sofa before we’ve taken our coats off (let alone anything else). Essentially I am going to try to turn off the ‘extra sparkle’ filter that threatens to mentally Instagram each date and leave it forever imprinted in glorious ‘X Pro II’ on my brain.
And yet if I’m honest, there was someone I thought about a lot on Valentine’s Day. Who, despite everything I have just said and everything I am trying to do, reminds me that my head and my heart are two entirely separate entities. I may have stopped short of the Instagram filter but in my mind he definitely has a cool border around the edges. Who knows where it will lead and there are certainly reasons why the answer to that question may end up being ‘nowhere much’, but I guess that’s something I just need to learn to get my head around. Maybe I’ll set up a meditation course for the seriously patience deprived – isn’t it about time we were recognised as genuinely afflicted, for God’s sake??
Whatever happens, I'm going to hope that by next year the sentimental romantic me is back. You can keep your heart shaped desserts, but it would be so nice if one of those cards wasn’t 2 days early, after all.
So how would you feel if your husband announced one day that he was tired of your marriage – tired of you, in fact? Would you sob uncontrollably, clinging to his tear sodden ankles and begging for him to say it isn’t true? Would you take a pair of scissors to his best clothes, angrily snipping and ripping until they were reduced to rags? Or would you breathe a huge sigh of relief, knowing that you feel the same and frankly like you’ve been handed a get out of jail free card?
When it happened to me I think I wanted to do a bit of all these things; like so many other situations in life, it didn’t feel clear cut. A part of me was distraught – who wouldn’t feel personally slighted by the rejection? Plus there were the kids to consider – our girls were still young, and it felt like I’d personally failed them as a parent. My inability to ‘keep my man’ had jeopardised their safe, unthreatened existence and I was inadvertently exposing them to a life of emotional uncertainty. In the part of my brain labelled ‘mother’s guilt’ they were sure to grow up with eating disorders, anger issues, or at the very least bloody awful taste in men.
And yet another part of me felt strangely excited, exhilarated even, at the thought of experiencing a new type of life. A world which was in my control (yes, I like to be in control, there, I said it) and where perhaps there were adventures to be had – naughty, fun adventures, guaranteed to entertain and shock my still coupled up friends who I could tell were looking at my situation with horror but also a generous dollop of envy.
So far the reality is proving to be a bit of a revelation. I’m not going to lie, as time goes on it feels more and more like an opportunity – a gift horse whose mouth I am not just going to look at, I’m going to grab it and snog it fully on the lips. Hey, let’s not pretend for one minute that there aren’t some low points – putting the bins out for starters, so dull. But the advantages to my newly solo status are pretty cool at times too.
At a practical level there are numerous positives (apart from the bins, did I mention the bins?) I don’t have to eat dinner every night which means I’ve managed to lose a few pounds – or at least I would have done if I hadn’t replaced dinner with wine and occasionally chocolate. Still, it’s great knowing I could if I wanted to. The washing basket doesn’t seem to overflow quite as often as it did, and I might get round to saving some cash by dropping Sky Sports at some point in the future. Let’s not be too hasty now, though. The childfree days and evenings when you hand over responsibility are bittersweet – yes, you miss them and their comforting warmth, but wow, those lie ins are a treat after so many years of relentless early starts.
But it’s the emotional benefits that I’m really enjoying. There’s the old cliché that it can feel as if a weight has been lifted from your shoulders, but guess what, it turns out clichés are clichés for a reason – that is exactly what it feels like. Now, don’t get me wrong - my ex (or rather my soon to be ex) husband is not one of life’s bad guys. I wasn’t forced to line up the tins in the cupboard with the labels facing out – it wasn’t ‘Sleeping With Enemy’. Equally, I didn’t wait for him each evening with the kids dressed in matching Mini Boden outfits whilst nervously smoothing my hair and straightening my Cath Kidston pinny. In fact it was quite the opposite, which was perhaps one of our problems. Apart from the obvious ‘giving birth thing’ we were equals in pretty much every sense: earnings, childcare, housework. But because of this, there was a lack of definition to our roles which could quickly lead to resentment, resentment that perhaps didn’t get discussed through a lack of time and / or inclination, and which eventually festered to become something which, in the words of said ex, eventually caused him just to ‘blow up’.
Since we had our children, I think we both forgot that actually we could be fun people together. Yes, you have fun with the kids – you laugh at their hilarious (and of course unique) words and actions. Occasionally you find yourselves smiling together at some shared secret – the crushingly dull dinner guest that no one wants to sit next to, or the terrible Christmas presents you get every year from a certain relative (naming no names – Mum). But then there are the other times, which over the years just seem to get more and more frequent, when it feels like a competition: who can feign the most disinterest in a story or anecdote, or who can most pointedly fail to see the humour in a joke. Who is the most tired, run down, put upon. Who is most generally ‘misunderstood’. It is both a miserable and exhausting way to live.
So now that weight has been lifted I don’t feel like the bad guy any more. It turns out that I am still reasonably amusing (when I want to be) and that I have fortuitously surrounded myself with possibly the funniest, brightest, most uplifting bunch of friends a person could possibly wish for.
Yes, there have been tears, but I think I have also laughed more in the past 3 months than I did in the past 5 years. Proper, howling laughter that makes your stomach hurt and lifts your spirits like nothing except perhaps tequila could possibly do.
It also transpires that I am still reasonably attractive. There’s nothing like a couple of babies and a stale marriage to have you running for the Per Una section in M&S (OK it never got that bad, but you know what I mean), but now I have rediscovered a love for getting dressed up and – as our grandmothers once might have urged each other to do – ‘making the most of myself’. Again, I am in danger of doing my ex a disservice; this isn’t about his shortcomings, this is much more about mine. He would always notice if I had my hair cut, or compliment me on a new outfit, but it didn’t give me the thrill that I get now from noticing a guy clock me as I walk through the pub, or getting a cheeky text from someone I have been out on a date with.
As someone once famous once said, with freedom comes responsibility, and this is something I am still getting to grips with. The children will always be my number one priority, but it is difficult not to burn the fishfingers when you get sidetracked by a particularly dirty email conversation, or daydreaming about your next big girls’ night out. There have also been times when I have thought, seriously, is this appropriate behaviour for a mother of two? Not because it is in any way ‘unbecoming’, I have no issues with that and would fight anyone who did (how’s that for unbecoming), but because it could actually compromise my role as a mum. Gatecrashing a party and pretending you’re ‘with the band’ is fun – really it is properly fun – but waking up 3 hours later with the hangover from Hell and the school run to get through is not.
So that’s my latest challenge, my ‘next big thing’. Have fun and explore the world with all it has to offer, but keep things in perspective. Don’t rush into anything. Don’t rush out of anything. Learn from your mistakes and never, ever accept tequila from a man who calls himself ‘Dangerous Dave’...
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