Tuesday, 31 December 2013

2013 - A Year of Regeneration

We-ellll.... Doctor Who's done it, so why can't I?

I am blatantly jumping on the '2013 Summary' bandwagon, and I wouldn't blame you if you just skipped over this piece, thinking 'nothing to see here'.  You'd probably be right.  I'm about to embark on a self absorbed journey into the last 12 months, nodding occasionally to world events, but mostly just revelling in my own doings.

It has been quite a year for me.  Last Christmas was my first as a single person for...well, for ever...and it felt good.  NYE was fine too, although that awkward bit at 12am - when everyone else was kissing their partner - was a bit sad.  Cold hearted January rolled in and I don't remember much about it, other than I was desperately trying to finish off my pilot exams before I ran out of money.  I had passed my written exams and just had the dreaded practical flight test to go.

I've written about the test before so won't bore you with the details; suffice to say that it took two attempts and a whole load of toughening up before I passed, with whoops of joy, on 8th February.  The day before I moved house.

My blood pressure must have been through the roof.  What the fuckity fuck was I thinking?  Moving house is stressful.  Moving house on your own, having just separated, is more stressful.  Moving house on your own combined with taking your effing NPPL is just crazy talk.

It all got done, of course.  The irony is that, now I am not part of the marriage machine, I cannot afford to go flying.  It is hideously expensive.  And in fact, part of me is glad that I have an excuse not to go up; I'm really not very good.  I get lost easily.  I don't take much notice of what's going on in the air, preferring instead to look at the prettiness on the ground.  I'm not great with the nobs and buttons in the cockpit.  I have the confidence of a squirrel.

The Luxor air balloon crash on February 26th had a particular resonance with me.  Nineteen people were killed.  Being a pilot holds a ridiculous amount of responsibility.

March came and went without much fanfare.  I was unpacking, probably, and painting my house white.  I don't remember much about it.  Maybe I was in some sort of zone.

April is a great month.  It's Springy.  Life starts appearing everywhere, properly.  It gets a bit warmer and generally everyone starts to feel a bit more lively.  Apart from Margaret Thatcher, that is, who died.

In May, the boyf and I went off in the campervan to the Gower and, in general, we had a ball.  Apart from that HUGE row we had on the beach, that is.  Oh.  I'd forgotten about that.

And while we were away, Andy Murray won Wimbledon.  Yes he bloody did!  Still pinching myself.  And here's a great pic to prove it.

July and August were surprising in that we had some genuinely glorious weather.  We went to Sidmouth with my Dad and his wife and we spent EVERY DAY in the outside pool.  We went camping to Wales and we had just ONE day of rain.  In fact, generally - it was hot.  We had a summer.

Added to which, a Prince was born, and I won the work sweepstake on his name (it was going to be George all the way).

Apart from the holidays, I remember most of the summer was spent in agonising negotiation with my ex, causing extreme money seepage to my solicitor.  By September we had knocked out an agreement, but not signed it.  Although I held my side of the bargain, it took another month for my ex to pay any maintenance.  I am still bitter.

Schools were back in September and the new agreement meant that I had the kids most of the time.  It was better - but exhausting.

As an aside, the most spectacular building opened - the largest public library in the UK, in my home town of Birmingham.  Ah...Birmingham, much maligned and infrequently visited, but full to the brim of the kindest, most honest and funniest people in our peculiar country.  Please go there, and see the library.  It is lovely.

In October I took my first photography commission.  A friend has an all-girl singing group, and she wanted me to take some photos.  I did, and by complete fluke, they were quite good.  On the back of this, I got two more commissions.  I've done one of them.  I was shit.

You win some, you lose some.

October and November are fogged up by kids' birthdays.  These are complicated when you're separated and barely speaking to their father.  Who arranges and pays for the parties (me, it seems), how do we buy the presents (oh, wait, I buy them) and the like.  Sitting with my ex at my boys' birthday parties, and pretending to be happy, was very hard.

Still, as a general rule, I quite enjoy November.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say that it may be my favourite month of the year.  Christmas is on the horizon, and my birthday is looming, too.  Bonfire night is always good craic.  All the good telly is in full swing and this year, the smell of a new Sherlock gives us all hope for the long, dark days ahead.

But on November 29th, a police helicopter came down in Glasgow and killed 8 people.  No one knows what happened.  No mayday call was heard, meaning that the pilot didn't have enough time to call in.  Too busy trying to save some lives.

And now, we're still just about in December.  The month catapulted away from us at some speed, like it always does.

I had a birthday, Nelson Mandela died.

I got divorced.

It was Christmas.

That just about sums it all up.

Friday, 27 December 2013

Ten Great Things About Being a Single Mum

Google 'Single Mum'.  Go on.  Actually, don't bother, because I can tell you exactly what results you'll get:

- First off, sponsored results: Dating sites specifically for single mums.  Cynical implication: we can't survive on our own.

- Second, a ream of financial advice sites.  Cynical implication: we're all broke, and can't manage our own budgets (which by the way, is blown to pieces in this ridiculous piece which implies that we're all on £70k a year.  We're not. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/8049211/The-benefit-of-being-a-single-mother.html)

- Third, a couple of single mum blog sites (I like this one:http://www.oldersinglemum.com/)

- And a whole stack of articles on JK Rowling, our poster girl and saviour, and proof that, even when you fall in this most heinous section of society, you can pull yourself up by the fingernails and become phenomenally rich.  And have your hair done properly.

This woman - yes you, Katie from Wiltshire - compelled me to write this piece.  She sums up the whole Daily Mail ethos of single mums.  In case you lose the will to live before reading the entire piece, the nuts and bolts of it is this; single mum on benefits, ensnared by the pressure of The Christmas Cosmos, felt like she had to spend money she didn't have on her children.  Took out 8 'payday loans' and now can't pay back the money.

She's been a bit of an eejit.

Katie overspent beyond her means - as many of us do, particularly at Christmas.  I bet she is a good mum, but is under the misguided impression that she needs to give her children things to make them happy, rather than telling them the cold hard truth that, actually, she doesn't have the money to buy them a huge amount and they'll have to make do with a bat, a ball, an orange and a £10 iTunes voucher this Christmas.  As well as some boxes and a whole heap of wrapping paper to play with.

I bet they'd have as good a time.

But I'm getting off the point a bit.  My point being that, according to the Daily Mail, 'Single Mum' = stupid and poor.  'Single Mum' also = pitiable.  And finally, 'Single Mum' = lowest echelon of society.

Which is a pile of poo and one of the reasons why I don't write for The Daily Mail.  (Not that I've ever been asked.  Which might be the main reason.  Harrumph.)

Anyway, I feel compelled to write a list of ten points on why us Single Mums should not be pitied, thought of as stupid, seen as benefits scroungers, or banned from couples-only dinner parties.  Here goes.

1. As a single parent, I've seen the bond with my children strengthen.  To be honest, when I was married, I felt like I wasn't a very good parent.  I thought that my unhappiness was because of my parental shortcomings; in fact, it was because of an unhappy marriage.  I'm not saying that now I'm a single parent, I'm the best mum in the world, but my parenting is more relaxed and - um - holistic.  I feel responsible and sometimes this weighs heavy - yet I roll with the good times too, and bask in the reflective glory of my kids.  Every time they make me laugh, are polite, try their hardest, are kind, say sorry, are clever, are brave...or sometimes just look lovely -  I am proud. Because I helped to shape that.

2. Being a single parent means that you are forced to develop a 'have-a-go' attitude.  Or at least, find help if the problem defeats you.  In other words; that drain isn't going to be unblocked by the man of the house - it's down to you to don the rubber gloves and get stuck in.  The Internet has become my best friend; YouTube tutorials exist about practically everything in the universe.  And as a back-up plan, I suggest making friends with a plumber.

3. Having a job as a single parent is a good thing.  Admittedly, it squeezes you - 99.6% of your time is either work or kids related - but your job gives you a welcome valve for letting off steam about your home life (and vice versa, of course).

I get very tired.  But I feel that I am supporting my family.  No one else.  Just. Me.

4. Money.  The first article which burbles on about a single mum earning £75k, and implying that most of this is through benefits - is complete hogwash.  I earn a pittance at work, compared to my salary pre-kids, so I do get some Child Tax Credit, equivalent to £400 per month - and very grateful I am for it.  I also get child benefit (£113 per month) and some child maintenance from my ex.  I am NOT swanning about buying Ted Baker dresses; I do have a summer holiday, but it is camping in Wales and staying at my mum's.  Christmas was mostly courtesy of The Pound Shop (and quite marvellous it was too).  I get my kids' clothes in the sales - and mine too, come to that.  I rely on birthdays to get vouchers to replace any white goods.

I am certainly not complaining though.  Having less money is not an issue, because now I am in control of precisely what I spend.  I can switch broadband providers if I am unhappy.  I choose my own car insurance.  I do not have to go cap in hand to my husband if my phone has broken and I want another one.  I just save up, and sort it out myself.

It doesn't sound exciting, but being in control of your own finances fills you with a sense of power.  You just need to be sensible and a bit boring - unlike Katie from Devizes, who has sadly learned her lesson the hard way.

5. It's peaceful at home.  I am under less stress.  I don't feel like I have to hide from my husband, and that actually, it's ok to spend time with my kids playing board games or the xBox or watching The Big Bang Theory - but it's also ok to say 'no thanks boys, I'm tired, so I'm just having a rest in my room for a bit'.  They get it.  My husband didn't.

6. Raising kids alone gives you a massive sense of fulfilment, and achievement.  They will pretty much always follow their own path but your advice and mentoring will have constant effects on the decisions they make.  Of course, it's not just you that they look up to - they are surrounded by all sorts of adults in their daily lives - but you are their rock solid foundation.  And it feels like that.  And that is good.

7. I am happier as a single parent.  The boys pick up on it.  I can honestly say that they are happier too.  Don't believe people when they say that splitting up a marriage is harmful to the children; if you are loving and honest with them, and act like a grown-up, they will be fine.

8. I don't have to see any in-laws any more.  I know. I am a bad person.

9. Holidays.  I admit it - I was scared of going on holiday at first, with the kids in tow.  The sense of responsibility was all-engulfing; so many things could go wrong, and I imagined them all.  And we were only going to Wales.

But we had a fantastic time.  Yes, it was tiring - physically and mentally - but my mindset was that, if they were happy, then I was happy.  So we just did what they wanted to do, which was pretty much constant body-boarding.  And making fires.  And playing hide and seek.  And reading.  And digging holes.

It works because you love everyone that you're with.  There's no tension because you agree to do what they want during the day - as long as they help you with the evening meal and the washing up.  That's the deal and everyone knows it.  Add to this the odd hot chocolate and marshmallows round the camp fire, and you've got the perfect holiday.

10. A sense of personal success.   Of course, it doesn't go as smoothly as I've suggested in all of the points above.  There are arguments, sticking points, sad times and illness.  But overcoming these, finding solutions yourself and generally muddling through, is ultimately hugely satisfying.  If there were a single mum's badge, it would say "I've had a go and mostly succeeded.  My kids are everything to me.  I work hard, am shattered, but am proud.  And I don't have to see my in-laws any more."

Obviously it would have to be a big badge.

Wednesday, 25 December 2013

A Christmas Message to the Airlines

Yesterday, Christmas Eve, was not a good day for the airlines.  Flooding at Gatwick airport meant that they had to contend with a power failure, as well as the adverse weather, and delays morphed into cancellations.  By 2pm, 54 Easyjet flights had been cancelled.  If we put a finger in the air and say that each flight had around 150 people on it, that's 8,100 adults and children who didn't make it to their Christmas destinations.

Now.  We all know that these things happen.  We are unlucky if we're caught up in it, but the lives of those people sent away yesterday probably won't be significantly altered in the long term.  They will probably get some form of compensation somewhere down the line.  They might have a chicken in the freezer that they can defrost, or some nice neighbours who will take pity on them.  Come Boxing Day, they might reflect that actually, they didn't have such a bad time after all.

Except.  Except...if the airlines had been upfront with their customers, using honest and accurate lines of communication, and sending them home the minute that they knew things were going to go tits up - then that's ok.  Annoying, yes, but in the end - there's nothing to be done.  Everyone can see it's been chucking it down and there's no leccie.  It's pants - but at least there's Dr Who on the telly.

But they don't.  They never do.  I haven't quite worked out why this is, but it must be to do with the financials.  My guess is that they are struggling to keep the flight 'live', even if it's delayed, because cancelling a flight probably means that they have to pay a whopping fine to - somebody.  So behind the scenes they try all means possible to find a plane that can take off within a couple of hours of its allotted time.

Imagine this.  OneWing Airlines is in the shit.  The flooding has meant that its flight schedule is up the swollen creek without a paddle.  Its three Customer Service advisors are being paid time and a half (possibly up to £9 per hour) to deal with the increasingly angry hoards, braying at the front desk.  Behind the scenes, they draw straws to see who has to go out and face them.  They don't know the full story or what's happening, or worse, have been misinformed, and have to deliver the bad news that - well - they don't really know when the flights will leave.  They are poorly trained.  They are not paid enough.  They are overwhelmed.

Meanwhile, the passengers are staging a revolt.  Their initial annoyance has turned to anger. They want - need - to get to Newcastle/Paris/Malaga for Christmas.  They have been waiting for hours.  Probably with small braying children.  They haven't had anything to drink.  They are afraid to go to the toilet in case they miss their flight.  The crush is hideous.  Things start to turn ugly.

The three Customer Service advisors are scared.  Instead of apologising, they are defensive, and start shouting.  One of them takes the decision to call in the police.

And now suddenly, an airport check-in area on Christmas Eve has become a military-like zone, controlled by men with guns.

Merry Christmas.

And so here is a thought for all airlines, whether cut-price or full-price.  Why not set yourself apart from the others by becoming the 'John Lewis' of your type?  Be the airline which prides itself in communication.  Make sure that, at pinch point times like yesterday (adverse weather, strikes and the like), you have one person who knows what the bloody hell is going on, and is trained to deliver the news to your customers swiftly and honestly.  Make sure you pay them well.  And to all your waiting customers - from the off, give them free drinks, maybe a mine pie or two at Christmas.  Hire more staff and tell them to smile.  If you pay them properly, maybe they will smile anyway.  Yes, it will cost you more.  But if you get a good name for customer service, you can put flight prices up a little bit and people will still book with you.  I know!  It's amazing!  Because - get this - good customer service is still important to us all.

Be honest, and communicate.  We all know that shit happens.  But if you treat us like human beings, we tend to make the best of it.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Merry Christmas! You are now divorced.

On Thursday I received my decree absolute.

This is one sheet of A4 which says, in a nutshell, you've buggered everything up and are now single.  Some people, I know, celebrate when this comes through (Absolut Vodka party, anyone?) but I feel sad.  Just sad.

This wasn't meant to happen in my life.  I didn't sit at my desk at school and think "Yes!  I'm going to be a famous singer in Madonna's backing troupe, get married, and then GET A DIVORCE!  It will be FAB!"  I thought I'd select a handsome, funny and kind husband, have two children, who will then have many grandchildren, and we would all have marvellously chaotic and colourful Christmases with overdone sprouts and too many Quality Street.   We would all sing carols around the much loved but slightly out-of-tune piano  There would be candles.  And snow.  Lots of snow.

Well.  Perhaps that will happen one day - to a point at least.  But there will never be that core family that you see in films; from It's a Wonderful Life to Home Alone - the nuclear family rules at Christmas.  They argue and shout and pull crackers and cry with happiness and watch telly and get in each other's way and snore and occasionally dribble.  I would like to be in that family.

My ex has said that he doesn't want to see the kids this Christmas.  He has not decided to to this because he doesn't want to see the boys; no.  He has done this because, taking them for a day means, in his eyes, that I get an extra 'day off'.  And I cannot be having that, can I.  So, in the true meaning of 'cutting your nose off to spite your face', he is not seeing them at all.

So.  My boys and I will spend Christmas Day with my Dad and his wife, my uncle, and a family friend.  We are all going out for a posh meal and no doubt the boys will be made a right royal fuss of.  On Boxing Day we are off to a friend's house for mulled wine and rounds of Stille Nacht (she's German, innit).  And then follows several days of Xbox, DVDs, walks, board (bored) games, friends, lie ins, late nights.  Topped off by NYE at a friend's house with boys the same age.

I hope the boys enjoy themselves.  I remember Christmas being a magical time.  So magical in fact, that I refuse to desist trying to keep it alive by making reindeer food, leaving something for Santa and trailing as many fairy lights as I can inside and outside the house.  I have stockings, sacks, hats, crackers, cake, mince pies, stollen, panetone (don't even know what that is), and Baileys.  I sing carols until I'm blue in the face.

I try too hard.

Tomorrow is my last working day and then I'm free as a bird until January 3rd.  So let me take this opportunity to wish you all a very Merry Christmas, whether married, single, divorced, poorly, sad, or full or life and laughter.  I hope you have a fantastic time with your loved ones.

Merry Christmas everybody!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The weight of responsibility for a single parent

I took my youngest son, 11, to rugby practice today.  It was his last session; although he's a tall and broad boy, so apt and seemingly perfect for the sport, he hates it.  He hates getting dirty, hates the shouting and the testosterone, hates the prospect of getting hurt.

And so I stood on the sidelines in the rain watching him and his team mates playing against a side that were so rough and dirty, they made me want to stride onto the pitch and punch the lights out of every single one of them.

I am not given to hurting little boys, but when an eleven year old punches another eleven year old in the face, breaks his nose, laughs and walks off - your whole body screams with revenge.

And when a scrum falls over and you see a boy from the opposing team stamping with full on studs on another boy's twisted knee, and then you hear this boy's shrieks that he cannot cope with the pain, that his knee is on fire, and he is writhing in agony - you feel the desperate need to impale Stud Boy with the tip of your umbrella.

My son was also at the bottom of this scrum and at first I thought the shrieks were his.  I wanted to step in and throw all the boys off, to see if I could literally get to the bottom of it, to uncover my boy, to comfort him and shield him and somehow make him better.

It wasn't him.  But seeing the pain in this boy's eyes, and the shock and hurt in his father's eyes, made me cry.

And tonight.  I have put my boys to bed.  But my youngest has a bad headache; he never has a headache, so surely this means that he got a knock in the match, and now has a blood clot?  Or perhaps he has meningitis?  Or a tumour?

The weight of responsibility, when you are the lone adult, weights heavy.

It is 11.30pm.  I will go and check that he is still breathing.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Friday the 13th

Remember this date.  The 13th December.  It is on this day, every single year, that I officially lose the plot.

I look back at the last blog post ('I Love December') - full of talk of log fires and tinsel and sodding Christmas cheer - and I think that I must have been on drugs.  (I wasn't.)  Now, just a few days later, the outpouring of Nativity Plays, Christmas parties, end of term exams, snot, tiredness, shopping, traffic, cards to write, phone calls to make, food to make/buy/plan for - coupled with a new cat and failing car tyres - added to the pressure of Christmas carol concerts and attempting to ward off voice-damaging colds with multiple sachets of God awful Fisherman's Friends... means that I've had enough.

It's the same every year.  The beginning of the December laughs and bounces its way into my life, with a birthday and the promise of something magical about to occur.  The John Lewis advert appears and it reminds me of all the good in the world, or Watership Down, or something.

But then, around 10th December, something odd starts happening.  I suddenly find it difficult to finish sentences.  Or even start them.  And multi-tasking becomes a thing of the past - a thing of November in fact - and the small tasks in life take longer and longer to complete.  I'm still doing washing up from three days ago, for example.

If I find I have a spare ten minutes, I treasure it like Smeagol with The Ring; I take to my bed, shut the door, and hide.  I have stopped chastising the boys for fighting.  I don't have the energy.  Instead, I have started to just move away into another room, put the radio on, and pretend I can't hear what they're doing.

This is bad parenting.

I'm wondering if what I really need is to hibernate.  I may be spinning off the John Lewis advert again, but that bear - is anyone else jealous that he can just sleep all the way up to Christmas?  And that the hare seems to have organised everything whilst he was snoring?

I would like a hare in my life.

It will pass.  There is a week of the school term left.  And then we are all on holiday.  There will be much jollity, mess, fighting, laughter.  I will force the boys to come on long, cold walks with me.  There will be family visits.  We will all catch up on sleep.  And before we know it, the gorging of Christmas will be over and January will be upon us, with its bleakness and blackness and Puritan resolutions, diets and sodding pilates.

So let's enjoy it while we can.

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

I Love December

I was just about to publish yet another post complaining about my ex.  Bla bla bla selfish bastard....bla bla bla doesn't want to see his own kids.... bla bla bla communicates like a doorstop...bla bla bla...

But no, I thought.  Sod that for a game of soldiers.  It is December, and that means two things.  1 - it'll be Christmas shortly.  And 2 - even more shortly, it will be my birthday.

When I was growing up, birthdays were magical times to me; one day in an entire year which is yours for breakfast in bed, slobbing and slobbering, eating, drinking, seeing friends if you like or not if you prefer, and unwrapping presents which, although not particularly expensive, have been carefully thought about and are always a wonderful surprise.

My husband was shit at this.  His piece de resistance was buying me a singing ice cream scoop for my 30th birthday.  It had broken in transit, and didn't even sing.

I really should have divorced him then.

At Christmas time, when the kids were little, I would insist on travelling up and down the country to see my relatives.  I loved it.  I loved all of my family, particularly my Granny, who would always sit with me and play the piano and sing.  I even loved the travelling, particularly at night and off the motorway, when we could peer into people's windows and watch their Christmas family tableaux, laugh at inflatable snowmen on garage roofs and stop in awe at houses lit up from floor to roof with thousands of multicoloured, flashing bulbs.

I have to admit being less enthused in visiting my husband's parents, who I found difficult to talk to.  I felt mean for allowing myself to be like this and would spend the entire visit in a tussle with myself, telling myself to be a better person.  Until it was time to go home, and the relief would suddenly make me into a nicer, more generous person again.

And the whole present thing reared it's ugly head again.  I would try hard to come up with an imaginative present that my husband would actually find useful; he used to either buy something inappropriate, or something I'd specifically asked for - or just told me to buy it myself.

I know I sound selfish, spoilt.  And I probably am, a bit.  But it wasn't the physical lack of present that I missed - it was the lack of thought that he'd spent on me.  Every year I would drop hints - eternity rings, flowers, leather boots - and every year I would get a pair of gloves, a bath bomb, a bottle of perfume I'd never heard of.

So my point is this.  Now I am, in effect, alone, then my expectations are zero.  Which means that Christmas is a very happy time indeed.  The kids and I will see family.  We'll watch an awful lot of crap TV with the log fire blazing.  We'll go on walks.  The boyf might pop round.  An awful lot of food will be consumed.

And this year we will have a cat to keep us company.  She is coming from the local rescue centre and we love her already.

I cannot wait.  Merry Christmas everyone.