Saturday, 13 December 2014

Advice for Single Parents at Christmas

I was recently approached by a representative from the Co-operative Legal Services, who asked if we could do a Q&A session with Jenny Beck, an expert in family law, specifically about managing Christmas as a single parent.

There are approximately 100,000 children under the age of 16 in the UK who have divorced parents. That's 100,000 Christmases this year which won't conform to the 'norm', and 100,000 reasons for us as single parents to worry that we are doing whatever we can to make it a happy Christmas for our kids. If we don't get on brilliantly with our ex spouses, Christmas can be...well, absolutely hideous, quite frankly.

We all want to make Christmas special for our children.  So, with help from The Secret Divorcee's Twitter followers, we've compiled a list of questions for Jenny to answer, in the hope that it might give some support over what can be a very difficult time.

This is not a sponsored or promoted post, but it's definitely worth mentioning here that the Co-op do produce a free guide for separated and divorced parents about how best to enjoy a stress-free Christmas with their children. You can access it here: http://bit.ly/12kw6LI .


The Q & A


Q. My husband looks after our children every alternate weekend. Last Christmas fell on days when I was looking after them, and I told my ex that he was welcome to see them over the Christmas period. He said he would do that, but wanted me to 'take that time back'; in other words, that I should look after the kids for an additional time at a later date. I refused, and he decided that he didn't want to see the children. In addition, he told his friends and family that I had refused him access. This year, again Christmas falls on days when I'm with the kids. My ex has said that, if I do not agree to his terms, he will refuse my access completely when it is his turn to have the kids over Christmas. I have capitulated, unwillingly, but feel that he has blackmailed me. I just want to spend Christmas with my children – I don't want to steal any time back. What are my rights here? 

A. You are in a difficult position here as you don’t want to inflame the situation but clearly don’t want to have no voice in the arrangements. You and your ex need to focus on what is best for the children and agree a way of co-parenting and making arrangements not just for this Christmas but for the next, and the next and birthdays and holidays. Perhaps approach your ex with the prospect of mediation? A mediator will listen to both of your arguments and help come up with a solution. I would strongly recommend you look to agree a ‘parenting plan’ so that you can use the process of mediation to tackle some of the issue which might cause problems in the future. 

Q.  My ex-husband and I have been separated for a year. I left him because he was aggressive and volatile towards me – but never to the children. However, I know that Christmas is potentially a 'pinch point' point for him and I'm nervous in leaving him alone with the children over the festive period. What should I do? 

A. If you are seriously concerned about the welfare of your children you should seek legal advice straight away. It is vitally important that you take no risks at all. 

Q. My ex-wife is having the children this year for Christmas. It's the first year I will have been without them and I have told her that I will ring to speak to them in the morning. She has told me that she will not answer; that when they are with her, they are with her, and I should keep away. Surely this isn't fair, and not good for the children? I'm finding it very hard to deal with. 

A. Christmas is a very special time for families and for separated families it is important that they find some common ground and compromise in terms of child care. I would perhaps leave your ex-wife to cool off for a week or so and then approach the subject again. Try to arrange a time that suits both of you for you to call the children. In addition to this, I would recommend you look to agree a ‘parenting plan’ so that you can use the process of mediation to tackle some of the issue which might cause problems in the future. 

Q. My ex-wife and I have been divorced for nine years. We have two children – now 11 and 13 – and have managed the Christmas period by alternating who has the children; until now. My ex and her partner have a 3 year old baby, and she is saying that she wants our children to stay at their home for the entirety of the Christmas period, so that the 3 year old isn't unsettled. But it's my turn to see my children! I think that they are just making an excuse to hold onto the children, but what rights do I have to see them? 

A. The law really doesn't look at the rights of parents but focusses on the rights of children and the importance of agreeing arrangements which are in their best interests. I'm not aware of your usual living arrangements or how close together you live but on the face of it, it would certainly be in the children’s best interests to spend time with both you and their young sibling. I would suggest you try to be flexible and compromise with your ex-wife so as to achieve a middle ground and thereafter fix some clear rules for the future to give the children the certainty they need. 

Q.  My ex-husband has family in Egypt and wants to take them abroad for Christmas. I do not want him to take them. What are my rights? 

A. No parent should take their child out of the country, even for a holiday, without the permission of everyone who has Parental Responsibility. If a parent has a residence order in their favour they can take the child abroad for up to one month, but it is still good practice to talk to the other parent, especially if it affects arrangements for them seeing the child. If you are worried about your child being taken abroad without your permission you can take urgent steps to stop this so you should seek legal advice.

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Before signing off, I have to mention Gingerbread, a charity specifically for single parents like you and me and another fabulous resource for advice. They have produced a fact sheet about managing at Christmas, and you can read it here: http://www.gingerbread.org.uk/factsheet/46/Christmas-Top-Tips

With lots of love and festive wishes for a calm and peaceful (and somewhat magical, of course) Christmas for you and your children.

Merry Christmas!

The Secret Divorcee xxx

Thursday, 4 December 2014

My vagina's all over the place

I'm sure that, once upon a time, my vagina was 'peachy'. Probably before I had kids - you know, that time when all my insides suddenly came out.

I remember it vividly. I'd just had my first baby and, like a lot of women, the labour hadn't quite 'gone to plan'. What I mean by that is, after the first twelve hours of labour, I got my birth plan and rammed it down my husband's throat. After 24 hours, I had consumed all the drugs the hospital could offer and was in an epidurally induced haze of Hello Magazine and jelly tots. I had lost all feeling pretty much everywhere. I couldn't even remember my own name.

So when it was time to push, I hadn't got a bleedin' clue what I was doing. I was making the right noises - I think. Sort of mooing. And I was holding my breath so my face went red. And I tried and tried and tried to shift the sodding alien that appeared to be stuck in me, by imagining - as we all probably did - that we were having the most enormous, melon-shaped poo.

It appeared that I may have pushed a little too hard. Because when Tween had slithered his way out, quite a lot of my vagina kept him company. I was too high to care, too impressed by my own powers of drug-induced pushing to notice that part of me had exploded. Nurses came and looked and tutted, and there were mutterings, and suddenly a needle, and then AN AWFUL LOT OF PAIN (which, quite frankly, I'd had enough of for one day).

And then, thankfully, sleep.

The next day, A MAN came to look at the battleground of my netherparts, and told me in a matter-of-fact tone of voice that my stitches had all come out.

"What have you been doing?" he asked, sternly.

I looked at him, bemused. What The. Actual. Fuck. did he think I'd been doing? Getting it on with my husband after giving birth to a 10lb baby with an inside out vagina? Or masturbating, perhaps, because I couldn't stand a single night without some form of sexual gratification? Or just wiping my wee off REALLY HARD?

"Never mind. It will heal naturally." And then, an afterthought: "Given time."

At that point in my life, I really didn't care. My baby was in special care (had he been smothered by my moving vagina? Perhaps we'll never know). I was glad that he was alive. To be honest, I wasn't really thinking too much about my lady parts.

Time passed, and I was aware that - although healing ok - my vagina didn't have the same...form... as before. My labia or 'beef curtains' (as one boyfriend fondly called them) drooped so far between my legs that they could have really done with their own bra to hold them in. Tucking them up worked for a while but, inevitably, after a few hundred yards of walking, they would fall out and start swinging like a cats cradle.

One day I made the mistake of putting a mirror between my legs and having a good root about. It was shocking. My nethers were unrecognisable, and seemed to have morphed into chopped liver (with added gristle).

This is roughly what a normal vagina looks like:


And mine:


I have never examined my vagina again.

When I was married, it was ok to have a shattered front bottom. My husband understood what had happened - he'd been there, for God's sakes - and so he could never, ever, EVER express any form of disgust. Which he no doubt felt, but was forced to cover it up unless he was happy never to have sex ever again.

But now I'm single, what do I do? When I'm about to go to bed with a bloke, do I say, "Umm...bit embarrassing this...but do you like chopped liver?" Do I turn out the lights and hope he doesn't notice? Or do I celebrate it and dangle my curtains in his face?

I don't know. So for now, at least, I'll keep on tucking in the hanging bits and hoping for the best.

Postscript: By the way, if you are properly concerned about the way your labia look, Women's Health Victoria have this wonderful website which will no doubt set your mind at rest.


Brilliant blog posts on HonestMum.com

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Tween and the Pubic Hair

"Mum! MUM! I've got a PUBIC HAIR!"

I said nothing, but a tear rolled down my face. So that's it, I thought. Both my boys are now becoming men. The pubedom has arrived.

I've already written about the onset of manhood in Teen - a subject which, quite frankly, I find disturbing. But to see the physical evidence of your youngest saying farewell to his childhood and hello to pubes, sweat and (mild vom) wet dreams...well, that's a whole new level of mother misery.

After the hairs had been promenaded, I was then forced to look at the armpits. Thank God - nothing. But that little smudge under his nose suddenly looked more prominent. Less dirt, more ... predator.

It's strange how these milestones in Tween hit me with a depressive thud, whilst when they happened to Teen, they caused mild excitement. When Teen walked for the first time, we all whooped hysterically for joy. When Tween walked, I pretended to smile but all I could think was, "WHERE HAS MY BABY GONE?" (in a mildy bonkers fashion, I grant you.) I couldn't wait to see the back of Teen when he went to school, but Tween's first day left me misted up and miserable. And when Tween left Primary School? I am still sobbing now.

The youngest child sort of sweeps up the joy of childhood, making sure there are no loose ends left behind. Thomas Brio trains are sold or given away (sob), as are space hoppers, sand pit sets and all sports equipment made from foam. Now the house is packed with adult sized everything; tennis racquets, trainers, and enough footballs in the garden to make my own ball pond for giants.

And the house has a smell about it. It wafts between sweat (bad) and Lynx (worse), so before any visitors come I am forced to throw open all doors and windows. Even in the middle of winter.

I know I sounds ridiculous. You have children, and they grow up - right? Even more perverse - you spend half of their childhood wanting them to grow up faster: sleep more, cry less, walk more, generally be a bit more...well...useful. But time has been a bit elastic; very slow at first, and suddenly it's sped up, and jumped on me when I wasn't quite concentrating.

And suddenly, this is me. The mother of men.





Friday, 28 November 2014

Grimacing on my son's birthday

I love Tween. I would do anything for him. Including, for one night a year, meeting up with his Dad, and pretending to have a good time.

It was Tween's birthday on Monday. He is twelve. I was encouraging him to have a party with his friends, but no - he wanted to go out for a meal and then to the cinema. Tween, Teen, Dad and me.

The happy fractured family.

To say this depressed me somewhat is an understatement. My last meeting with Tween's father involved him telling me that he wasn't going to let me see my kids over Christmas, for spite's sake. He underpays his child maintenance. He refuses to get involved in any school-related activity.

His girlfriend ate the birthday cake that I made last month for Teen.

So you can appreciate perhaps that spending an evening with this guy would not be top of my list.

But of course, you can't say no. And it is just one night. So, with a fixed smile - more of a grimace - I said I would like nothing better in the world.

I arrived at Tween's chosen eaterie to be greeted by a sulky Teen, a snotty ex husband and a Tween who looked like he was on acid. His eyes were shining and like dinner plates, and he had a huge smile on his face, bigger than I had seen for a long time.

He was just so happy that we were sitting together - just sitting, as a group, and talking - that it was hard not to let some of his positivity rub off. And so I was polite to my ex, as he was to me, and even Teen stopped sulking when he saw his huge hot chocolate advancing towards him. We talked about school and about The Hunger Games and Christmas (leaving aside my ex's previous ridiculous words) and even jokes.

During the short walk to the cinema, Tween bounced around between us, excited and moony. And in the cinema, with the ex and I book-ending the boys, he looked content. It was a look that I hadn't seen for a long time, bearing in mind the hard time he's had slotting into Secondary school.

It made me feel sad, and guilty. I had wrecked the structure of this family. Despite my efforts, I cannot fulfil the role of a man, and similarly my ex cannot be me. I saw for the first time how my children miss us being a united front.

It has made me think. But there is nothing I can do to mend it.

Brilliant blog posts on HonestMum.com

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

When your son's friends have left him

Teen (now fourteen) had friendship issues when he moved up to senior school. But, to be honest, I expected it. This was the boy who, aged three, had pushed his friend into an easel at nursery after a minor tiff, giving her a black eye.  As punishment, he was forced to sit in the Principal's office for hours.

I learnt two things that day:

1. This boy takes no prisoners, and
2. Never, EVER, send your pre-schooler to a nursery which is up its own arse enough to have a 'Principal', never mind a 'Principal's Office'.

Teen went on to form friendships at Primary school, but he was always regarded as a bit 'on the edge'. Always a bit sidelined. And so, when he moved to Secondary School, it was no surprise that he suffered unkindness.

He was lonely. But because he was used to it, he dealt with it (with some help from the lovely pastoral care people at the school). And now, aged fourteen, he's happy. He has friends - admittedly, I've never seen any of them, but I can hear them coming over the Xbox loud and clear - and my spies tell me that he is never alone in the playground.

But when Tween started at senior school, I thought it would be entirely a different kettle of fish. Tween has always been sociable, fairly sporty, with a wide group of friends. And initially, it was fine; he arrived with two good friends from Primary school, and they went round together, stuck to each other like glue.

These two other boys are super sporty, and it was inevitable that Tween - a bit bulky and slow - would be left behind. Literally. They are moving on to other friends and this, coupled with some mild bullying from a couple of other children, has left him struggling.

It is heartbreaking. Last week, he was retching on the way to school. He would smile at me and tell me everything was ok, with tears rolling down his face. He begged me not to tell the school, not wanting to be a 'grass'. Night times are spent talking, going round in circles, stroking his hair, cuddling him, telling him that these things take time to iron out.

This is the time when single parenting is hard. I bang on about how I happy I am now that I am single, but at times likes these, I would give anything to have another adult to lean on. My ex is being as useful as a paper bag in a storm and, to be fair, he would have been just the same had we still been married. But at the moment, I feel sorry for my son, and sorry for myself. It is a tough time.

Having reassured Tween that I wouldn't approach the school, I have told them, of course. They have been reassuring and have put a subtle plan in place, but ultimately, Tween has to put feelers out, be brave, and make a new set of friends. We all know how scary this can be, even as adults, so it will take time.

In the meantime, I will be there with the sick bucket, the tissues, the cuddles, the teddy. Hot chocolates.

Because that is what parenting means.

_______________________________________________________________

This post is linked up to....
And then the fun began...

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

10 tips on how to write a blog (and what I can learn from my own ramblings)

After a year of thinking 'Google + - WTF is that?' I actually managed to post something today, and wonder of wonders! - got a comment back. The lady in question is a single mum, like me, and is looking to set up a blog, but is unsure where to start. She needs pointers.

Now, I am no expert and believe me, as I typed the title into this post, I did it with tongue firmly stuck in cheek and a healthy dollop of irony. My blog looks like my house; a bit tatty and dirty, half drunk bottles of gin hidden behind chairs. Think charity shop rather than Boden. I'm certainly not up with the latest trends. But I continue to write and some people pop in and visit from time to time, so I thought - you know what? Maybe I have picked up some knowledge along the way that might be useful to others.

Well, here it is. See what you think.


1. What will you write about? Why are you writing?



Think about it. Are you using this as a personal outlet? Just somewhere to spout, offload? Or do you want to really attract readers? Or both? Focus in on one category - your USP, if you like - and stick with it. 


2. Will you be yourself? Or anonymous?



This is important. If you're anonymous (like me) you are free to say a lot more - but the worry of being 'outed' is constant. You also can't promote your blog to your family and friends, which is a MASSIVE disadvantage. You have to be a good secret-keeper.

I was found out a few months into my writing. I had stupidly sent someone an email from my blog account, and my recipient had of course gone off and Googled the Fuck out of my email address. I was absolutely gutted; I had to shut down the blog, and start again with a whole new identity.

So writing anonymously has its difficulties; however, if you write as yourself, there will be no-go areas, so you may find yourself constrained and frustrated.

Choose carefully, Obi-Wan.


3. Think of a name for your blog



Consider this carefully, because it will be yours forevermore. There will be no switching when you get bored of it (unless you close the whole blog down); it will become part of you.

It sounds odd. But it really will.


4. Sign up with a blogging platform



In the UK, Blogger and WordPress are the most popular choices. Mooch around both and see which one feels best for you. Both have pros and cons - Blogger is owned by Google and I was recently informed that a Blogger site will do better for SEO (Search Engine Optimisation - how people find you), but WordPress seems funkier and more flexible. They are both pretty good - and are free!


5. Think about whether you want to 'self host' 



This means buying your own domain name and paying an amount for an external organisation to host it for you. You don't have to make this decision at the start though; I signed up with Blogger initially (and my URL was www.thesecretdivorcee.blogspot.com) but after a few months it seemed cleaner to have my current URL. My lovely new hosting company - www.swbroadband.co.uk - did the switcheroo for me and the passage was painless.


6. Post regularly, but always have something write about


Don't feel like you have to post every day. You may start off with plenty of material but after three weeks - unless you are Katie Hopkins, who seems never to be short of a word or two - you'll be as dry as the Gobi Desert. Make sure you post once a week if you can, and include links (great for SEO) and images (for reader interest). If you include other people's photos, also reference them. Don't include photos of other people's children unless you have express permission to do so.


7. Check your writing


Read it through for typos and to make sure it makes sense. At times I've posted late at night what I thought was a MAGNIFICENT piece of writing on some subjectorother, only to wake up and realise what a terrible pile of worthless and mis-typed crap it was. If you're writing late at night, pause before posting. Read it again in the morning. And THEN hit the Publish button.

8. Be sociable


Link up to Twitter (first), Facebook (second), then Instagram, Google + and anything else you have time for. Interact as much as possible. Respond to anyone who leaves blog comments. Join appropriate forums (for example, the Mumsnet Bloggers Network, who have been super duper lovely to me). You won't have time to do everything you want to - so find your balance and do what you can. Important: don't kick yourself for not having enough time. Just do what you can.

NB I have only half managed to use Twitter and have only just discovered Google +. I kick myself all the time. 

If you have the chance, go to a blogging event such as Blogfest or Britmums Live. If you're shy like me, it's shockingly hard to actually physically meet people, but it's THE BEST way to network, learn about blogging and really feel like you're part of a vibrant blogging community.


9. Stats, making money, and the whole commercial aspect


I check my stats constantly. TRY NOT TO. Also, try not ask other bloggers about their stats, because it will only depress you. Much better to motor on, promoting your posts through social media and just hope that they strike a chord with your audience. My most popular post ever is Ten Thing I Wish I'd Known Before Leaving My Husband. I can't tell you why; it's a mystery to me. I think it was picked up by Mumsnet as their Blog of the Day and perhaps I was just lucky that lots of women were considering jumping ship at that particular time.

As you gather readers, you may find that you are approached by commercial organisations to review products. Only do it if it fits with your blog; don't feel pressurised to review a zimmer frame, for example, if you're writing a baby blog. (Unless they're offering loads of money - then sell your soul in an instant and squeeze it in where you can.)

You can install Google Adsense (Google Ads) yourself (a walkthough here), which will start making money, depending on how many click throughs or impressions you get. I was initially rejected by Google because they thought I was a porn site (obviously) but I wasn't incensed because I had been approached by another organisation with a commercial offer. Six months later, with many contracts signed and the code installed, I am still waiting for this organisation to pull their finger out and actually get me on board. 

Moral: write because you love to write. Not purely to make money.


10. Write for others


Do guest blogs. Host linkys. Become guest writers on other sites. There is SO MUCH you can do to get your name recognised - if you have the time, motivation, energy. 

Tip: if you work and have a family, like me, you'll go through ups and downs. Sometimes you'll feel like your blog is going swimmingly, you're being asked to write this and review that, and the stats are up...but equally there will be times when ideas are thin and your energy is low. Recognise that this is natural and just part of the normal ebb and flow; and you'll be back at full throttle given time.

Good luck!

Oh, and because I said you should include images for reader interest, here is a nice but completely irrelevant photo of some cows that I took recently, entirely for your pleasure.














Sunday, 9 November 2014

Blogfest 2014

A wonderful day packed with ideas, tips and tricks for both rookie and seasoned bloggers.

Blimey. I was cacking my pants about Blogfest (see previous post). Finding my way to (and through) London, walking into a building filled with capable women, and then having to introduce myself to a proportion of them without doing something unintentionally embarrassing - it was almost too much to bear.

Nonetheless I, like all the other attendees, was up with the lark on Saturday morning and wended my way to the glorious Kings Cross station. Cue gratuitous photo of its quite incredible vaulted ceiling and remembrance tribute.


Kings Place, home of Blogfest for the day, was pretty impressive too. If I'm honest, anywhere with a long escalator impresses me. Also nice loos and leather footstools. Kings Place had all three.

Half way down the long escalator, when all these people came into sharp focus, I had a moment where I wanted to hot foot it back up again. Any ropey old confidence that I had sewn together that morning had suddenly left me, and I felt a stinging dampness under my armpits.

Managing not to trip off the escalator, I zoned in on the coffee, dusted myself off, and tentatively approached some unsuspecting women. Made by Maggie; Beau Twinsthe Scientific Parent, Stopping at Two and Tiny Footsteps - all of these clever people had beautiful Moo business cards, and what did I have? A smelly old rucksack and a biro that didn't work.

But they were all lovely. I mean - really lovely. Lots of people were obviously meeting up with old friends. But others were rookies like me, looking to meet and network and... well, swap stories. Eventually I did stalk - sorry, finally meet - my Twitter buddies, Michelle Davis and Samantha P; both glorious on Twitter, but even better in technicolour real life.

Highlights for me were hearing the inspiring Tara Cain talking about how she goes about making money from her blog (also Alicia Navarro from Skimlinks was funny - must go find out more about that), and Paul Armstrong's Social Media talk was IN-VAL-U-BLE. But top of the plops for me has to be the combination of Suzanne Moore, Camila Batmanghelidjh and Francesa Martinez's Think Bomb session. Camila's warm, wonderful, from-the-bowels speaking, with a lyrical essence, contrasted so well with Suzanne's earthy, witty, slightly loony thoughts, and then to hear Francesca speak about self-acceptance was - well, it was a brilliant combination of speakers.


Other highlights for me: Nick Hornby, Lisa Jarmin, Lucy Porter. Gin. The Fleet Street Fox. Scones. Good toilets. Seeing that Justine off the telly.

Gin again.

Well done Mumsnet. I shall be back again next year. With my business cards. And a bit more confidence.