Things fall apart: As a parent, doing nothing is the hard option to choose
In the last year, Liadan Hynes’ marriage fell apart. She is now working on adjusting to the new reality. In her weekly column, Things Fall Apart she is exploring the myriad ways a person can find their way back to themselves.
“My parents have offered to take Herself for a slumber party, but I’ve nothing planned and the next few weekends are busy, so I don’t really feel like going out. I’m not sure if I’ll take them up on it,” I say to the Work Wife.
Her chin drops, and she looks at me with horror.
“I would kill to spend a few hours on my own in my house,” she responds, voice lowered an octave to underline the urgency, the gravity, with which she views my teetering upon refusing this offer of overnight childcare.
“The best thing you can do for someone with young kids if offer to take them,” is one of my Mother’s favourite maxims. And she is right. Not indefinitely, obviously, but for long enough to give the parents a break.
Post marriage separation, I don’t think of myself as a single parent; the title feels diminishing to my ex, a denial of the level of day-to-day involvement he puts In. It doesn’t describe our situation.
But it is different to be parenting as a single person, rather than as a couple, living with a child on your own.
Mostly, it’s wonderful. After a time of difficulty, there is nothing like the joy of a four-year-old to lift you out of things. A person who announces their love for you first thing every morning on waking, accompanied by the unbridled affection typical of a child that age; part lovely, part akin to being wrestled by a small bear which might accidentally kick you in the face at any moment. A person who stages impromptu interpretative dance sessions around the house as you make breakfast, whom you will overhear muttering to her dolls in her own language as you potter about.
But there is also of the course the daily grind of parenting. The put-on-your-shoes-wash-your-hands-eat-three-more-bites-ok-two-more-put-on-your-coat-we-have-to-leave-go-to-sleep-go-to-sleep-please-for-the-love-of-god-go-to-sleep relentlessness of it.
And there is always something to be done. Tasks to complete, to-do lists screaming to be ticked off. That’s just parenting, whether on your own, co, or as a couple. It can sometimes make doing nothing the hard option to choose. Having some me-time, much as that phrase, like others such as journey (we’re all one now of course), and self-care (so hijacked and hackneyed by now), has been slightly ruined.
And so the Work Wife is right. It would be absolute madness to turn down this offer of no-strings-attached-free-childcare, even though there is nothing planned with which to fill the time.
So I don’t.
That morning Herself opens her eyes and asks “Is it time to go for my sleepover yet?” a question repeated throughout the day, alongside deliberations over whether she will have popcorn or ice-cream with the movie she will watch with Grandad. Maybe both.
I drop her off, the door opens and she announces proudly “I’m here for my slumber party,” before marching triumphantly into the house, a casual shout of “love you Mommy” thrown my way, but not a hint of a backward glance. I dash for the car, slightly teary at the sight of her, ridiculous I know, but she is so tiny, with her huge backpack. There’s also disbelieving relief at the lack of paraphernalia that now goes with handing her over for a night. No bottles, formula, special sleeping bags, fear that she may wake every hour of the night.
And I positively revel in the lack of any plans.
I go to the gym. Do one class, then another; yoga. I get home and collapse on the couch, from which I barely move for the next few hours. I watch an entire hour or so long video on my phone of Sali Hughes interviewing Claudia Winkleman in a bath (hugely entertaining stuff in case you’re wondering), then binge on detective series. I take a moment at six o’ clock to savour the fact that I am not involved in the wrangle of dinner-bath-bedtime, before lying back down on the couch to continue doing barely anything. I start a new book and stay up late enough to get halfway though, because I will not be getting up to the alarm clock of a four-year-old the next morning.
“Is it lonely on Sunday’s if she’s with her dad?” one friend asked recently.
“Is it amazing to have all that time on your own when she’s with her dad?” another asked.
None from column A, some from Column B, as it happens.
Ours is a fairly choppy arrangement, without long stretches where Herself is elsewhere. More a mixture of time with each on their own, with all together, with all and extended family.
Where there was couple time, there is now, most likely, me-time, while the other parent has Herself. If your marriage has fallen apart, then chances are couple time wasn’t all that much fun towards the end, and so you get on board with that me-time, and enjoy the hell out of it.
I suppose as well that parenting might feel a bit more extreme when you’re not in a couple, and so you relish the break. Although maybe parenting is just extreme in some way whatever your circumstances? Either way, single or not, you take the me-time, and do absolutely nothing with it, if that’s what you need. Not ticking off from the to-do list, not doing things that would be easier to do without kids but are still manageable with them (a quick food shop, a charity shop run to dump the clutter, even the lightest of tidying).
A few months ago, the Work Wife was invited to a Bootcamp for a long weekend, and allowed to bring a friend. Me. Beyond the obvious endorphin high of constant exercising, was the amazing feeling of stepping off the roster of feeding, clothing, man-handling a little one. Beyond turning up to classes or meals in appropriate clothing, all responsibilities were parked. It was heaven. We, both mothers of young kids, immediately attempted to extend our stay to the full week.
The Mother has suggested she take Herself away on a little two-day trip. It will be her first time away on her own holiday. There will be a train journey, visiting the numerous cousins, and my mum and my aunt, both, like all my mother’s sisters, child-whisperers, absolute naturals with small kids.
And in the meantime, for me, there will be me-time.