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: .

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.


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:

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.

Liked this post? You might also like: My vagina is noisy - the underground world of fanny farts

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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

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 but after a few months it seemed cleaner to have my current URL. My lovely new hosting company - - 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.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

I'm cacking my pants about Blogfest

I'm cacking my pants about Blogfest
I'm thinking I'll hide in the loo
I'll be a tiny bit sick in the toilet
And eat my crisps in there too.

I'm cacking my pants about Blogfest
I'm just a country girl from the west
What if I trip over my laces
Or spill coffee all down my string vest?

God, I'm cacking my pants about Blogfest
What if I spit or break wind?
Best not eat bread beforehand
And make sure I'm heavily pre-ginned.

But I really shouldn't worry about Blogfest
Cos I know some already from Tweets
There's I am Jean Hatchet for onesers
She's one I can't wait to meet(s).

And Learner Mother, she's lovely
So I think all will be ok
And if all else fails to settle me
I know there'll be gin at the end of the day.

Looking forward to #Blogfest - see you there!

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Half term has broken me

It is now Wednesday evening. I have had a full three days to recover from half term. And yet I am still broken.

At the end of each school holiday, I feel a little bit like a fag end that's been ground into the earth by my children's heels. But this one - this one was worse.

Much worse.

Now that I'm a single parent, I play the competitive parenting game. This means that MY school holidays are going to be the most fun, the most varied, the most educational. And the most bloody tiring.

For this last week, I'd planned two trips away. (Yes, I know - already you're saying, "what WERE you thinking?" Answer: I don't know. I must have been drunk.) One was to go up to the Peak District with my Dad, brother and his family and my uncles. A super duper extended family holiday giving my boys a chance to meet up with their cousins and everyone else to swap family jokes and generally have a fabulous time being jolly.

Sadly, I hadn't factored in the shitty 'inn with rooms' that I was staying in with my kids; the sour faced landlady, the disintegrating bed, the non-existent breakfast. I also hadn't quite realised that the eye trouble my dad was having caused him to drive on the wrong side of the road for most of the time. It is hard telling your dad that he is about to kill you, your children, and probably anyone else on the road whilst keeping a level voice and trying desperately to mask your unconscious shaking.

It is also hard seeing your dad as an elderly man for the first time. Driving wasn't his only problem; he also had trouble with the family walk of 4 miles, wanting to stop half way for a wee and a cup of tea, and almost falling over through his wobbly balance on the downhill stretches.

Then the alarming drive back to dad's, which we survived, and the tiring drive back home, only to fall into bed and get up the next day, still exhausted, and do a full day's work.

The following day, last Saturday, marked Adventure Number Two: a trip to London. The kids sat behind me on the train and argued for the entire one hour 45 minutes. I had to take their games away from them, like toddlers. When we arrived at Paddington, Teen suddenly became awe-struck with the station and the trains, and requested 'time out' to go on every single platform to inspect every single sodding train.

And this was just the beginning.

We tubed it to London Bridge, our plan being to see the poppies at Tower Bridge before settling into our hotel. This is what we were met with:

After much shuffling and sniffing other people's armpits, we eventually saw them - and they were breath-taking.

By this time, the boys' moaning was hitting somewhere between a 7 and 8 on the Moanster Scale, so we sloped off and checked into our Premier Inn room.

I am in love with Premier Inns. The beds are good, the rooms are clean, the service is great. And when we got there on Saturday, I practically stuffed £3 into their pockets to let me have WiFi for 24 hours - because kids with WiFi equals at least an hour of rest for me.

That night, we went to the theatre. We loved it, but the journey home involved hitting Leicester Square tube at 11pm on a Saturday night, after which, Tween said, "Mummy, I am never coming to London again."

Yet another night sharing a room with two boys who are bigger, louder, and smellier (just) than me. Followed by a day of heavy rucksack madness, tramping around the London Dungeon and other wonders, all the time being slowly pulled backwards by the weight of my overnight clobber.

The disappearance of Krispy Kreme from Paddington did nothing to cheer us up. And by the time we were on the train home, my back was broken. I'm sure it was.

I think I was delirious by the time we reached our home town, and I only remember pieces of our twenty minute wait for the taxi -although I do remember kissing the taxi driver when he finally arrived. He was rather taken aback.

I can't tell you how glad I was to see the boys go back to school on Monday. Work isn't easy, but at least the arguments there are pretty civil, punches aren't thrown and people at least try not to fart loudly. I've had to take proper big horse pills to try and dull the pain in my shoulders, but tomorrow is my day off and, apart from surfacing briefly to shoo the boys out of the door, I will be mostly lying down.

Doing bugger all.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

When to introduce the boyfriend to your children

Golly gosh and bugger me backwards. I've only gone a bagged myself a man. He's got all his own teeth, a full head of hair, takes his shoes off upon entering and brings flowers., he is still married (separated though) and no....o he doesn't have his own place and he probably is on the rebound from a horrendous split but NONETHELESS - he's mine.

I met him off the internetascope. First meeting: crowded bar, my town. Second meeting, crowded pub, my town. Third date: gig, his town.

Fourth: my house.

Fifth: my house.

You'll have noticed that he comes to me a lot. And that's because going to his town, an hour away, is almost impossible. In fact, when you've got children, dating is almost impossible full stop.

My kids, teen and tween, are on the cusp of being ok to be left for a couple of hours. Which I did for the first and second date. But the dates were on school nights, and so on both occasions, I pulled my Cinderella act at 9pm and skiddadled back to my offspring, making sure that they hadn't pulled each others' arms off or set the house on fire. I couldn't really relax on the date and what's worse - I couldn't drink.

You might ask why I didn't get a babysitter. Well, I did for date 3, which turned out to be a mammoth ask, as I was away from 7 til 12 (on a school night). I was so grateful to my friend that I practically offered to give her my soul in recompense for my dirty-stoppoutedness.

So here's the problem. I can't sensibly leave my children on their own. And yet I can't afford to pay for babysitters, and I don't have the ability to repay friends who babysit for me.

So how on earth are you supposed to date a man?

The practical answer is: bring him to your home. Which brings me to the extremely long-winded point of this post.

When should you introduce your boyfriend to your children?

I've done my research, and it backs up what my own common sense is saying: don't introduce him until you're sure. You're potentially setting a bomb off in your children's' lives; be sure first. Be sure.

And yet. How the eff are you supposed to keep leaving your children to go on dates in the first place? Unless, of course, you have extremely understanding parents living nearby, OR have a limitless wallet, AND are ok with leaving your children in the evenings on a fairly regular basis. (I, I've discovered, am not.)

The only solution is, once you've vetted him for possible axe-murderer tendencies, to bring him back home. Children and all.

Now. I know that red flashing lights have been set off. All the advice is to take months to decide that this is THE ONE - and then do the introductions. And I know that I may well be wrong, and this may come and bite me in the arse in ten years. I know all this. But my logic is thus:

1. My kids know I am dating. They are old enough to understand what this means - ie, that I am meeting men in order to 'try them out'. To see if he and I hit it off.
2. However, they are FULLY ASSURED that I love them first, they come first, I think of them first, that basically THEY WIN when it comes to my life.
3. My date doesn't sleep over when they're in the house.
4. Also, until the kids are in bed, the door where I am (with the date) and them (the kids) is always open. I want them to know that we are just talking.
5. I don't want them to feel uncomfortable in their own home, and am positioning this man as a 'friend' - at least for now.

And having said all of that, I have so far brought home only two men in two years. It is hard to find a man that seems to suit; it is hard to arrange to go out on a date. By the time these mountains have been climbed, you realise that the fact you've managed to meet anybody at all that you vaguely like is a bleedin miracle.

But as I'm writing this, I'm wondering if I'm just being selfish and actually, what I'm doing is putting my own needs above the needs of my children. Thing is, I know that I need to be careful. And I strongly feel that my personal life shouldn't be put on hold until my children have flown the nest. That a strategy of honesty, reassurance and love is actually ok.

Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

The uphill struggle to parents' evening

There's this hill. It's over a mile long. I cycle down it to get to work (9 minutes). I cycle up it to get home (an awful lot longer).

Over the summer, I told myself that, now my youngest was no longer at Primary school and could walk to his new school, I didn't need to drive. What I needed to do was to get on my bike and tackle that effing hill.

And so, since the beginning of September, I've ping-ponged up and down said hill almost every day. Over the weeks, I've learned many things about the downhill run, including how to avoid the pot holes at speed; that skirts really can fly up in your face if you're going fast enough; and that, if you have your brakes on all the time, you will soon hear the shrieking of metal on metal, smell burning rubber and witness an occasional naked flame (which is not good).

It's the uphill part though, that has caused me most heartache. Literally. It's made my heart. Ache.

My first issue was: heat. September seemed to be full of blisteringly hot late afternoons, and as I laboured up the hill in my Granny cog gear, I would attempt to strip off everything I possibly could, without being arrested for Mum Nudity. I would go so slowly that sometimes, I would fall off. Literally. People walking - with sticks - would overtake me. My heart, which already has a hole in, would occasionally shout "WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK?" and tell me to stop. Which I did. But after a short rest, I'd carry on with the hill torture and battle my way home, usually pushing the sodding bike for the remainder of the hideous journey.

And when I got home, I'd immediately (in this order): drink a pint of water, say hello to my children, take a paracetamol, have a cold shower and lie down. For an hour.

Six weeks later and things have got a bit better. I still hate the thought of the long journey home, but I can do the hill in one sitting now, and this week, I actually overtook a walker. Although, to be fair, he might have been walking the other way.

So this brings me to tonight's shenanigans. It was Parents' Evening, and I'd ridiculously booked my slots far too early, giving myself 30 minutes to not only cycle up the bleedin hill but to make sure I was in some sort of human form when presenting myself as a parent to my kids' tutors.

I had to put pressure on myself. Today was the day when I was going up a gear.

But about twenty seconds after I'd gone up one gear, three things happened: 1. my heart appeared to beating so hard that it filled my whole chest cavity, and my throat, and may have been popping out of my mouth, 2. my breathing became so loud that it smothered the clamour of all passing traffic, including a tour bus, and 3. someone had rushed in and fixed invisible lead weights to my thighs, which were burning like buggery.

By this point, it was raining hard. My eyes were swimming, and my nose was dripping. There were various other 'ing' words that I really don't want to talk about. Every car that passed me gave me an additional soaking and I started to scream, "THANK YOU!" at the top of my voice to each one. The final straw came as a Range Rover overtook me and then turned left in front of me, into the gates of a local private school. "THANK YOU, YOU FUCKER!" I screamed as I wobbled around the bulky boot of the car - then realised that the driver had heard me and so cycled off at top speed (2 mph).

I eventually made it to the top, and checked my watch. Eight minutes before my appointment; my house was a minute's cycle away, and the school five minutes from there. I couldn't go straight to the school because, to be honest, I looked like a banshee and smelt like a cowshed. I needed to get home, wash, brush and go.

The race was on.

My road is two-way but narrow. Normally I wait like a good girl for traffic coming towards me but today, I was in full 'chicken-playing' mode. I was stopping for no one. So precisely 56 seconds after reaching the top of the hill, I was home.

There is no easy way to say this, but essentially, I gave myself a good mopping. Impulse was used to cover any latent smells. My helmet was taken off, a brush pulled through my hair, and then my helmet was back on. A quick 'hello, goodbye' to my eldest and I was off again.

You know when you thought it was raining hard, and then it really starts to rain hard, and you suddenly think, "Oh....NOW it's wet." That.

The road was flooded. Water was getting in the top of my boots. I couldn't look up because it felt like God was sticking crochet hooks in my eyes.

So after five minutes of blind cycling, I arrived at the school. I locked up my bike, and took off my helmet.

And as I walked in, I caught sight of myself in a the window. I looked like a cross between a tramp, a bonfire Guy, and a parking attendant (high viz, see).

And with this knowledge, I strode into the school hall, dripping, hand outstretched towards my tween's apparently terrified tutor...

Sunday, 5 October 2014

10 (alternative) tips on internet dating

Well, I've had one fairly successful internet date and obviously this makes me the world-renowned guru on the subject (it doesn't). More to the point, I have had more unsuccessful, dismal, disappointing, crushing dates than you can shake a stick at - so I thought I'd draw some positivity from this ultimately extremely depressing experience to bring you 10 alternative tips on internet dating.

If you've signed up to a dating website, sure as eggs is eggs you'll have googled 'tips on internet dating', 'safe dating' or 'find me an arsing boyfriend and be bloody quick about it'. Everybody's jumped on the bandwagon, offering nuggets of wisdom - even the broadsheets (see this article from The Guardian back in March). The same spiel will appear and re-appear: 1. be safe, 2. have a strategy, 3. market yourself ... etc etc, bla bla bla.

If you're teetering on the edge of internet dating, you need advice from someone on the ground. That's me. And here it is.

1. Choose your website carefully

Oh my effinglordy-ness. There are literally hundreds of dating websites out there. My view: paid ones are best. The very fact that you have to pay (sometimes quite a lot) sorts the wheat from the chaff. There are far fewer people on them, but the quality is higher. And the website that you choose will reflect the 'type' of potential partner on there; for example, Guardian Soulmates is (generally) littered with left wing, cycling musicians who are great at writing. Muddy Matches is its antichrist, a sort of right wing dating site for young farmers, which rates you in terms of 'muddiness'. Best not to ask.

But the point is, choose the site that floats your boat. If you're looking for an arty, introverted, vaguely depressed hippy - Soulmates is for you. If you prefer the Hunter-wellied, Hooray Henry with beagles, pop along to Muddy Matches. And there are shedloads of sites for anything in between. (Uniform Dating, anyone?)

2. Don't spread yourself too thinly

After much angst, you've put up your profile. You've 'Liked' or 'Winked' or 'Hoofed' (I just made that one up) some people, and they've reciprocated. You're in touch with one, two, three people. Now five. Now seven. And the feeling of being wanted, of being liked, is immense.

BUT. Don't let everyone have a piece of you. Think of yourself like a big round cheese, segmented up into 'time and energy'. Now, I'm a working single mum so, already, 40% of my cheese is devoted to work, and 50% to my children. That leaves a measly 10% for everything else, including meeting new people.

Be picky. Don't just keep seeing someone because they like you. If you feel the spark, keep going. If they score anything below a '9', make your excuses and head onto the next.

3. If they're new to the website, jump on them

It's a cattle market, no doubt about it. There is old beef that's been hanging around for months (sometimes years - I kid you not), so when fresh meat appears, it's a feeding frenzy. I'm exaggerating a bit, but if someone's profile appears and you like the look of them - get your oar in, get in touch and meet. ASAP.

4. Be brave and meet face-to-face, soon as.

I'm scared of meeting people. If I could, I'd live in a virtual world where I'd fall in love with someone via email. Words are powerful to me, but a meeting has the potential for disaster; I could get lost, I could trip over, I could have cabbage in my teeth, I could spill my wine down my front, he might think I'm ugly, he might notice the width of my thighs.... see? It's a wonder I get dressed every day. (I don't.)

The point is, this guy might be the best wordsmith in the whole of christendom, and yet face-to-face, he might do nothing for you. So. Words are lovely, important, they set the scene - but they are not real. Wrong foot him by suggesting a date early on. He'll be impressed.

5. Stay local and split the bill

I'm going to say something a tiny bit controversial, and make huge, overwhelming generalisations. Here goes.

People dating at our age, more often than not, have children. Generally, the children spend more time at their mother's houses, than their fathers. Therefore it is potentially more difficult for women to physically get out of the house and date; the children effectively create a barrier to meeting new people.

I am finding it hard. I have spent 18 months not going out, but now I find that I need a raft of babysitters on hand. I can't afford it (number 1), and number 2, my kids aren't happy with the sudden change. And neither, if I'm honest, am I.

But I can't stay trapped in the house until my kids are 18, can I?

So some sort of compromise has to be negotiated. If the guy lives in another town, ask him to come to your town to meet. This will save on valuable time away from your kids. If and when the relationship gets going, you can talk about how to work it out to make sure everyone is happy (and not left with an empty wallet).

But when you're on the date, split the costs. Please don't expect him to pay for everything; you are not Lady Mary and he is probably paying his ex wife an arm and a leg and is living in a bedsit. So offer to buy him a drink, and watch his face light up.

6. If you're nervous - tell him

I've learnt that nerves are ok - as long as you admit to them. If you don't say anything, your date might assume that dribbling/stammering/falling over/spilling your drink/uncontrollably winking are just parts of your multicoloured personality.

Saying that you're nervous is cute. And articulating it immediately makes you feel more relaxed.

7. Have a drink - but only one

I need a drink when I'm on a date. I just do. I have a glass of red wine - I don't care what sort - and it helps. It's not just the warm, comforting feeling that the alcohol gives me; it's the glass itself. The stem gives me something to fiddle with (probably in some sort of semi-erotic way, now I come to think about it), in a way that a normal bog standard tumbler of Diet Coke just couldn't.

If you're not driving, have another drink. But stop there. Do not get legless; terrible things will happen. You will reveal too much, physically and verbally; you will fall over on your way to the toilets; you will spit; there will be mum-dancing. There will possibly be flirting with the waiters, and a revealing of the long, sorry story of your divorce.

Two drinks is your absolute limit.

8. Check your teeth

Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman was right. Dental hygiene is key to a successful date. Look at your teeth before you get to the date, and during when he's not looking. Take floss, or those teepee sticks, with you. Bits in teeth are just..horrible. It's making me have a tiny wretch even now. *shudder*

9. Have a deadline on the first date

Set yourself a two hour limit on the first date, and come up with a great excuse why. Mine is concrete; my kids are just old enough to be left on their own, but only for two hours. And then I have to be back. This has the double-win of:

- if the date is awful, you've got an escape route,
- if the date is wonderful, you leave him gasping for more. Sort of.

Caveat: If you're going to be the first one leaving the bar, make sure that your skirt isn't tucked into your knickers. He will watch you leaving. Showing your arse at this stage is probably not a great idea.

10. If it goes well, resist the temptation to get in touch too soon

This, for me, has been the hardest lesson to learn. If I like someone, I am all over them like a rash. If I haven't heard from them within ten minutes, I text them, showering them with compliments, sending them links to jewellers shops, asking them about baby names.

Unsurprisingly, they get a tiny bit put off by this, and quite often have disappeared into the ether.

So I have learnt to sit on my hands. Literally - sit on my hands. My thinking now is: if they like me, they'll get in touch. If they can't really be arsed, nothing I can say will change that. So I do nothing (except for daydream of our wedding day - there will be red roses and confetti in the shape of hearts) and wait.

Good luck with your dates - I'd love to hear about them.


Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Eleven years isn't long enough

A boy in Tween's year died this weekend. He was eleven.

We don't know how he died, but there are rumours of bullying and suicide. The school is in shock, parents are holding their own children closer. We are all waiting for news.

And while we are waiting, we are thinking in layers. At the top: we try to put ourselves in the shoes of his parents and we can't breathe. It is too painful, and we withdraw from our empathy, glad that it has not happened to us. We have the advantage of being able to dip in and out of the terror that comes from the death of a child. Not so his parents, his siblings, his grandparents. We allow ourselves a minute to think: what if?

It would be hard to keep living.

And then, a layer below. Thank God our own children are alive. We hold them close. We talk to them about sadness, about the importance of sharing, of talking. Because we know it could still be them. We look at them in a different light; with a love that doesn't often come on a Tuesday tea time. Seeing clearly their young skin, their innocence, their potential for life. We feel lucky.

So lucky.

And then. The concern for the school, for the staff. If the poor boy was being bullied, and he did take his own life, there will be enquiries, fingers pointed. The school is a good school and the pastoral care is excellent, so what happened? Guilt will claw at the teachers - should they have done something more? But for now, there are too many ifs and buts. We may find out that the rumours are false.

And the last layer. A realisation, or a reminder more like, that life is finite. That we all end, one way or another. But we hope that we end in a certain order, with the eldest dying first, and the youngest last. We are all owed a good go at life.

Eleven years isn't long enough.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Internet Dating

So here I am, back on the internet, searching for love.

However you look at it, internet dating is an odd thing. I know it is practical, I know that everyone's doing it, I know that it doesn't carry the social stigma that it maybe once did. Even young people do it, for God's sake! But looking at pictures of people, like jars of sweets, and picking the ones that you fancy (literally) off the shelf - it all makes me feel a bit....shifty. A bit wrong. Sort of - on the wonk.

Surely I should be able to meet someone at work and fall in love? Oh, no, hang on - everyone is a woman where I work, apart from the MD (whose wife is a friend of mine) and a 26 year old man who thinks I'm his mother.

So not at work, then. Ok, so I should be able to go out to a bar and meet someone there! Shouldn't !? Ye-essss...except that the men you meet in bars in the over 40 bracket are of a certain type. Very lovely, I'm sure, in the dark and with their mouths surgically sealed.

That last bit was catty. Sorry.

Anyhoo, where does that leave me? Chatting up men in Sainsburys? (I've been tempted.) Joining the cycling club? (Yes, if I wanted a sudden heart attack.) Standing in the street with a 'lonely and desperate' sign? (Don't tempt me.)

So internet dating it is. Round one of my on-line dating experience was not a huge success; I met two guys - one was an accountant who lives with his cats in a mansion on the edge of a forest (bodies under the patio, anyone?), the other seemed perfect but texted after the date saying that he 'wasn't ready for a relationship' yet - having said that, he's still on the dating site 18 months later. And then he texted me looking for a job.


And then the boyf came along so that knocked things on the head for a while.

But now, boyf has told me that I shouldn't put all my eggs in his basket. I didn't really understand what this meant, as I only have one egg to put in one basket. I can't go round falling in love with multiple men (sadly), putting multiple eggs in multiple baskets - my thingy (psyche, feeling-maching-thingy) just doesn't work that way. So I've been extracting my egg from his basket and, now it's nearly all of the way out, I'm ready to re-house it. *shudders*

So far, so good. I've got a date tonight with a man who is good with words and lives fairly locally. Two big ticks. I have a mental list of questions to ask; 1. Are you an axe murderer? 2. You've never been married - what's the matter with you? 3. Why have you got a picture of yourself with a herd of alpacas on the site? etc.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

To the Scots

Firstly, let me say this. I am not Scottish. I do not have any Scottish heritage. I have a vague handle on how some of the Scots feel about the English, but only because I watched Braveheart and half listened in History lessons at school.

I do though, get that you're pissed off by being governed by a third party. And that you want to run things yourselves. For God's sakes, what's wrong with that? You are your own people, your own country. You are a proud race with a wealth of history and culture, and a strong financial centre that I'm in no doubt will weather any approaching storm.

But, oh God. I don't want you to go. Yes, I'm English and yes, I have absolutely no right to ask you to stay, but please - stay. I want to feel proud of your achievements like I do now; I want to shout and scream and celebrate when Andy Murray wins Wimbledon again (which he no doubt will). I want to revel in the Edinburgh festival, the best of its kind in the world. I want to be able to climb Ben Nevis, like I did when I was eight, and not feel like a visitor, an alien, in your wonderful country.

I want to feel part of you.

And I want you to feel part of England, Wales and Northern Ireland too. I know that it's a huge ask, given the shedloads of baggage that has come with the union and our past, but I want you to come down south - yes, to London - and revel in its fabulous side (because it's yours too). To show at least a flicker of contentment when Wales wins the Six Nations (it will). To celebrate in our joint successes in the Arts and Sciences. To share in our innovations and inventions, To help us keep our heads as joint Nations, when all around are losing theirs.

And finally. I bought this yesterday. Even though I recently learned that tartan does not come from Scotland, this to me is a little bit of the Highlands, in a bag. I mean, not 'in a bag', but just - 'a bag'. You know.

I love this bag. But if you leave, I won't be able to look at it for a while.

Monday, 15 September 2014

Last night was like a Miranda sketch

Looking back, perhaps I shouldn't have gone out and eaten alone. It was a decision influenced by my gut rather than careful planning. It was bound to go tits up.

Yesterday was odd, in that I had a blind date in the morning (I thought it went well, but he later texted to say he was seeing someone else. Fucker.). A lady came all the way from Birmingham to pick up some beads.

I watched Skyfall. That wasn't odd. That was bloody great.

By 6pm, I was hungry. After much discussion with myself, I decided I'd earned a takeaway, so ordered a Wagamama takeout. (I have never done this before.)

Off I went to Wagamama. When I got there, it looked so inviting that I asked the waitress if I could eat in. (I have never eaten on my own before. I don't know what came over me.) I was sat at the tiniest of tiny tables, flanked by single women pretending to work on laptops. I didn't have a laptop, or a paper - or anything, except my phone, which I immediately scrabbled out of my bag and started texting furiously. To no one, of course.

My food came and I thought how I brave I was to do this. How grown up I was. Look how I use my chopsticks, as if I really was Japanese. How....


Now, picture, if you will, the scene. I have noodle juice all over my face, eating alone. My ex is chatting happily to his girlfriend and I thank my lucky stars that a) she doesn't know who the bloody hell I am from Adam, and b) he is as blind as a bat and, even though he is standing but a few feet away, cannot tell the difference between me and the seven foot tall hairy waiter standing next to me. (Although this might be more to do with my lack of recent Immac-ing.)

Tween is always in his own world, has spied the menu and his thoughts are on food. But Teen has seen me. Teen's eyes get so huge that the encompass his whole face. His jaw slackens.

I go white.

He makes a little smile with his mouth, and the whole party sit down at the next table. My boys face away, my ex and his squeeze face towards me.

I slide a little bit under the table. I might have had a little wee.

My brain is overrun by parallel thoughts, by far the loudest being HOW THE FUCK DO I GET OUT OF HERE? But also in the mix is: Jesus, the boys must be embarrassed. This is the first time they've been introduced to her, and now they've got to deal with their Norman No Mates mother sitting behind them. And also, this: God, she's young. How must she be feeling? That's a tough gig. And: What in the mother of Mary does she see in him?


I text my friend. She doesn't answer in a nanosecond, so I give up on her, cussing. SOME FRIEND.

I decide to get up, nonchalantly, hoping against hope that I don't slip up, trip, fart, belch or cause any disturbance that would draw attention to me. I slide myself against the wall around the restaurant until I come to a halt next to a waiter. The manager, I think.

"Please." I hiss. "My ex husband has just come in with his girlfriend who is TWENTY YEARS YOUNGER THAN HIM and MY kids." A bead of sweat falls off my nose. "Please." Tears form in my eyes. "Help me."

The manager looks at me with pity. Thinking about it, he might have been studying my noodle juice. He takes me by the elbow. "I understand," he murmurs, "let's sit you at the back." And he pulls me to the back of the restaurant, sweeping up the remnants of my food as he does so and settling them back down in front of me.

I sit next to a couple who aren't talking to each other. I am desperate to tell them what's going on, but manage to pin my mouth shut.

"Would you like some water?" the manager asks. I nod weakly.

From my new position at the back, I have a good view of the merry party. My ex and his girlfriend are still oblivious to my little cameo performance, but Teen has told Tween, and Tween keeps leaning back and staring at me. I wave and smile, but he can't make me out against all the happy noddle-eating visitors.

It is better here, at the back, but now I am trapped, and daren't walk past them to leave. So I keep ordering more food in the hope that they will finish. Noodles, gyoza, cheesecake, coffee  - and still they were there.

I needed back up.

I texted my plumber friend who I'd enjoyed a small dalliance with some time back. I was supposed to meet him later but PLEASE could he come and rescue me? I gave him a potted explanation and sat back to wait for a response.

It came quickly. 'I'll be there in 5 minutes.'

My God. Six words have never been so gratefully received. And lo, after some more nervous phone-fiddling and cheesecake eating, he was there. Liked a much smaller, more Irish and less attractive 007. At that point, I truly loved him.

We laughed (O how we laughed!) about the situation and drank an awful lot of coffee, waiting for them to leave. They didn't leave. And he needed the toilet (I, dear reader, had gone earlier by mistake, if you remember).

He said, "Hide behind me", forgetting that he is two inches shorter than me and built like a twiglet.

It was never going to work.

So he went in front and I attempted to walk, camouflaged, behind him. He managed to hide about a fifth of my body behind his athletic (but miniscule) form. As we were leaving he stared at the girlfriend. Stared and stared. And he said:

"You are better than her."

And suddenly, it wasn't 'what I call' such a bad night, after all.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Writing a eulogy and having a burning new business idea

I haven't been able to write posts for a while. I haven't even been able to look at my blog - the stats, the comments, the 'Google shares' that I usually get so excited (or disappointed) about. I haven't been able to do much at all, really. Because this week, I've been writing my step mum's eulogy.

When I offered to write (and read) it, I had no idea of the time it would take. The emotions it would spark. The sleepless early hours, anxious that everybody who should be included. The crafting of emails to other grieving relatives, gathering in as much information as possible, from every part of her life.

And the gnawing sensation in the stomach, a reminder that you'll be reading this out, in front of your step mum's coffin, in front of everyone who loved her.

It is the most difficult thing that I have ever had to write.

It started like a wraith, a transparent, untouchable, uncontrollable concept that I couldn't pin down.

After hours of writing and scribbling out and scrunching up, it eventually became more tenable, workable, visible.  I eventually settled on a tone that I thought was appropriate to her, and my 'audience.' I felt that, when it came to the crunch, I just wouldn't be able to read out a mournful saga of how much we all missed her, what a cruel disease MND is, how unlucky she was to have had it - so I made it light hearted. I chucked a few jokes in. I talked about her sports car which constantly broke down - so much so that she became friendly with the local guys from the AA; about her disastrous first date with my dad, who only saved the day by sending her flowers afterwards; about how most recently she liked to join in the conversations of my disastrous love life, tapping out advice on her iPad 'text to speech' app, laughing.

I gathered in stories from her teaching friends about dancing the can-can at the Year 12 review, and going on the Big Dipper at Blackpool with her Year 7s.  About how, despite not being able to move anything apart from her hands, she ALWAYS beat us at cards.

It was only at the last paragraph, when I knew it was safe for me to break down, to blubber uncontrollably, that I could talk more emotionally:

Motor Neurone Disease is perhaps one of the cruellest ways to end a life, but A bore the disease with courage and spirit. She must have had dark days, but whenever we saw her, she was just ‘A’ - always bright-eyed, smiling, immaculately dressed. And when we remember her, we will think not of MND, but about that elegant woman with the fur collar and the long legs. The talented teacher. The card sharp. The do-er of crosswords and sudokus. The linguist. The lover of sea and sunshine.

We will all miss her.

Her funeral was yesterday, I read it, I cried, it's done.

And I got this from my Dad today, which made me cry again.

I was so proud of you yesterday.
I know how you were feeling, but you held it together brilliantly.
I had to keep my eyes closed – I daren’t look at you.
But everyone loved the Eulogy itself and the brave way you delivered it.
The catch in your voice at the end was noticed by the audience, and that for many was the crowning touch.
I was surprised but so pleased when D called for the congregation to applaud.
You deserved it.
Lots and lots of love

PS (Post Crypt): Crematoriums on Trip Advisor

On a different note: I've been to a few crematoriums in recent years and, by jove, they vary tremendously. Yesterday's - Lodge Hill in Birmingham - comes highly recommended. If they reviewed crematoriums on Trip Advisor, I'd give it 5 stars. The chapel really was like a little church - clean and bright and intimate. It's an enormous place with a lot of dead people rolling up, but we didn't feel pressured to get out or move on before we were ready. The graves and memorials were well tended.

In short, even though it was a place for dead people to come - it was very much alive.

The worst crematorium I've ever been to was in Luton. It was like sitting in a dusty school gym; cobwebs all over the ceiling, sparse, unloved. We might as well have been in an empty warehouse, sitting on crates. I thought: this is appalling. We are saying goodbye to someone who died in tragic circumstances, loved by so many - and the curtain that surrounds her coffin is stained by God knows what.

The deal is this, I guess. If you choose to go down the cremation route, you are funnelled to whichever crematorium your funeral directors work with. The local one. It makes perfect sense - except that, with other big events (weddings, for example), you can choose where you get married. The world is your oyster. And think about schools - you have carte blanche (almost) to choose which school your child goes to.

So why are crematoriums not reviewed somewhere? Why can't we choose where we're burnt? After all, most of us will end up in a crematorium sooner or later. I can see it now - " - plan your perfect goodbye".

Who's in?

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

After suffering comes relief

Last Friday, my step mum died of motor neurone disease. Actually she died from respiratory failure, caused by her ever-weakening lungs shutting down. She was, in fact, lucky in death; after a morning of struggling to breathe, her GP gave her a sedative, and she died in her sleep.

That very morning, she had said to my Dad that she didn't want to go on any more.

Her daily life and been hard. She couldn't move. She couldn't talk, or swallow. She couldn't lift her head. She'd lost control of her saliva production, so dribbled constantly. She'd become incontinent.

But her brain was still functioning perfectly normally. And there lies the cruelty of the disease; she could see exactly what was happening to her.

My Dad, who had become her carer, is grieving. He is heartbroken. He has seen the woman he loved being ravaged by a disease, eaten away. And now he's in the strange place where most of him is consumed with sadness, but a small part of him feels relief - and guilt for feeling this way.

She was a quiet and dignified lady. With no children of her own, she and I formed a close bond. She was a brilliant grandparent to my two kids.

We will all miss her.

The timing of her death coincides with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. ALS is what the Brits call Motor Neurone Disease. It's wonderful that the Ice Bucket Challenge has taken off, and I understand that it's raised £250,000 for the MND Assocation, and around £34m for the ALS equivalent in the States. That is an INCREDIBLE amount of money for relatively small charities.

Who knows? The Ice Bucket Challenge may lead to a cure to this horrendous disease. A washing up bowl, some ice cubes, a tap. And a cure to thousands of peoples' suffering.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

24 hours

In the past 24 hours, I've gone from loved one to singleton. I've called the police. I've been to the dump to get rid of mouldy confidential files and a rat's skeleton.

What a difference a day makes.

You may remember that my ex's wife has some issues with me (this is an understatement). Their break-up two years ago was messy; he told me his marriage was over, and we started seeing each other; unfortunately he hadn't let his wife in on the deal, so when she found my texts on his phone, she chucked him out.

All very understandable.

He told her at the time that he was going to 'find himself' and try to make it as an artist, on his own. What he actually did was take a quick trip to Paris, take some photos, then came back and carried on with life as usual. Seeing me.

This did not go down too well with his wife who still - for some unexplainable reason - still loves him. She refuses to admit that he has done wrong, preferring to believe that I cast a witchery spell over him, Morgana-stylee, and lured him into my arms with my mermaid's lyrical singing. And fishy smell.

Her hatred of me is immense, and she goes through spates of texting me poisonous nuggets; some of which are filled to the brim with astonishingly crude swear words, some refer to me as 'it', some make no sense whatsoever, some are threatening and - once - an apology. Her last crop of texts winged their way to me last week, whilst I was camping with the kids.

I feel a whole range of emotions for this woman. Guilt, obviously, for the part that I have played in the break up of their relationship. Pity too, for a woman so in love with a man that she can't see he has treated her like shit for years (I am not the first affair). I feel like shaking her, trying to open her eyes to what he has done to her.

But she won't see it.

The empathy I feel for her has stopped me from responding to any of her texts, because I feel, in a way, I deserve them. It is a whipping, a punishment. But recently she overstepped the mark by threatening me, and after that one, I texted her telling her that, if she did it again, I would approach my solicitor or the police.

She did it again. So I had the conundrum of what to do when a naughty child oversteps the mark again and again - do you follow up on your threats? Of course. You have to.

My solicitor recommended I approach the police and so, with some trepidation, I completed the '101' form online. Within half an hour, I had a response asking me to book an appointment with an officer, or come into the station. The nice lady said it sounded like harassment, or 'malicious communication'. Within another hour, I had a text saying the same thing.

Blimey, I thought. They were certainly taking this seriously.

And then the phone went, and it was the boyf. And in a nutshell, he said he wanted a break from me until Christmas, because he's realised that he needs to 'find himself' like he said he was going to, a couple of years ago.

I thought: Fuck You. I said: I'm not waiting for you.

I didn't sleep very well. I rolled around and thought of all the effort I've put into boyf, into managing his depression, into keeping our long distance relationship alive, into punishing myself with his wife's texts. And increasingly I thought: You Utter Shit.

At 8am this morning, my local beat PC called. He was concerned, he said, and would like to come and see me. I explained that I had just been chucked, and that I thought this would mean the texts would stop.

Oh dear, he said, you've not had a great 24 hours, have you?

He made me laugh. And cry. I just about stopped myself from asking if he was single (that bit was hard).

And my day was topped off by work. I'd been tasked to clean out the 'corridor of doom' (such is the importance of my job) and I found such delights as a rat skeleton, many hairy spiders, pigeon poo by the gallon and several extremely long worms. As well as kilos of mouldy financial material.

And now I'm sitting here, knowing logically that splitting from the boyf is right, good and proper, but feeling that my heart is breaking.

It is a bit shit.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Top five tips for holidaying as a single parent

We've just come back from a week's camping in Wales. Well, I say camping - we stayed in a yurt and it was as luxurious as camping can get. A proper bed for me, a stove and a grill, a log burner and a compost loo, too.

I took the boys there last year - my first outing as a single parent - and the welcome couldn't have been warmer. Not only from the campsite owners, but from the other camper families who took pity on me the minute they saw my ashen face.

We had an unexpectedly glorious week then, and our repeat visit was just as enjoyable. I'm learning as I go, though; the first trip held some unexpected challenges (extremely cold nights, essentials left behind, the issues of all us of living in a confined space) which I'm almost getting to grips with now.

Here are my Top Five Tips for holidaying as a single parent.

1. Pick somewhere low-stress. For me, this means staying in the UK. I cannot be faffed with going to the airport with the kids at 3am, then stressing at the other end about buses or hire cars or making myself understood. I am a worrier, and I know my limits - but if you're laid back, and can enjoy the journey as part of the holiday (lucky bastard), then by all means, travel far afield with the kids. If you go abroad, consider going 'All Inclusive' so there's no cooking or washing up needed.

2. You'll be madly packing for your children, like you always do. But don't forget that this holiday is for you, too. Pack items that YOU will find useful, even luxurious. My tip for this year: a camping chair to take to the beach. Previously I'd have been happy to sit on the wet sand and watch the kids in the sea, but this chair - plus the addition of a five pound wind break - made going to the beach an absolute pleasure.

And while we're on the subject, don't just make packed lunches that the kids like; treat yourself, too. A really nice soft drink for you, or a proper coffee from the beach shack. If you like to read a paper, then buy yourself a blummin paper. Get the kids involved with the Codeword puzzle towards the back.  And then, when it's been read, get the children to scrumple it up, and burn it on the camp fire.

3. Go somewhere where you'll meet other families. You might love the thought of being in total isolation with your children (quick question - are you mad?) but I would advise picking a place where your kids will find friends to play with. It's a balance though, isn't it, because my worst nightmare would be to end up in a crowded hotel and surrounded by screaming children. *shudder* 

Choose well, Yoda, because you are going to be stuck there for a week or more.

4. Do things with your kids, but if you need some separation from them, don't be afraid of seeking out things that they would enjoy doing (whilst you have a snooze). Last week, I booked the boys onto a bushcraft course for a morning. They did a similar thing last year and, to be honest, they were a bit moany about going. But I knew that, if they didn't go, the probability that I would melt down through lack of sleep and space was high. So I twisted their arms a little and actually, that time apart did us all the world of good. (And they enjoyed it too.)

Conversely, book activities that you can do together. I booked Coasteering last week. If you haven't heard of it before - it is not really a suitable activity for a 43 year old woman. It is three days on and I still can't really move.

It's all about exploring the coastline - by climbing up craggy bits and jumping in, bobbing about in caves, clambering over barnacled columns and eating seaweed that tastes like Pizza Express doughballs (TRUE STORY). I absolutely loved the thought of it, but hadn't really realised how physical it was - the jumping in was fine but you had to climb out and back up again and that, ladies and gentlemen, is hard work for someone with a bigger than average bottom.

Anyway, the point is, we did it together, cheered each other when we'd done something brave and helped each other when we were struggling. I even saw my teenager (13) being chatted up by a group of 17 year old girls. Which was an odd feeling - pride and horror and joy and sadness all in one roly poly lump.

5. If you're holidaying in the UK, plan for wet weather. And the cold. Seems obvious, but the first year we went I had been led astray by a particularly good batch of weather beforehand, only to be pelted with a full day's rain when we arrived. This year, we packed lots of board games - but they were board games that we all liked to play. Our particular favourites are Dominion and Ticket To Ride - but we also like Settlers and Carcassonne, too. I'm afraid I won't let them take Monopoly or Risk (suppresses screams). I'm talking boys here: take balls. All sorts of balls - tennis, foot, soft, bouncy - whatever you can lay your hands on. Plus bats, rackets, stumps, frisbees.

And hoodies. As many hoodies as you can shake a stick at. Or something.

If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be this: don't put unnecessary strain on yourself. If you are cooking, take lots of packet rice, pasta and sausages. This is not haute cuisine week. They will survive if they don't get their quota of organic artichokes for a few days. Get the kids to share in the chores, and if they're old enough, show them how to make you a proper cup of coffee in the morning (I'm not joking). Keep your sanity through any means.

If you can do this, you and your children will have a fabulous time, wherever you are.