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How Single Parenting Brought Me Closer To My Kids

Remembering my parenting style before my marriage broke down, is a bit like trying to remember what order my sofa cushions were placed in before a catastrophic hurricane blew down my house.

It’s hazy at best after two years, but I remember being frazzled for the vast majority of the time. A combination of contributing factors; there are three of them, they are all high-energy crazy boys, they were at that time 9,11 and 4. I worked freelance which sounds glamorous but comes with it’s own pressures. The weeks flew by in a whirlwind of work, taxi-ing them to football, doing homework and arranging to see friends three months in advance then inevitably needing to reschedule.

As guilt-inducing as it is for me to admit, I recall that I was quite numbed to my life. A little bored, a lot restless. I remember lots of time scrolling on my phone in our gorgeous big kitchen-diner while the kids talked to me. I was a loving, devoted parent, but not a particularly present one. I vividly recall a conversation with my ex’s sister who was separated telling her how jealous I was of her ‘free’ weekends and all the time she had for herself.

So when we split and that exact dream scenario became a reality, I was shocked how untethered I felt even when they were out of the house for just one night. I missed them viscerally, craved them painfully, their smell, their touch, their voices, their unrelenting fighting and messiness. It was a physical sensation which sometimes bordered on panic.

The big firsts were the worst. The first time they drove long distance without me. The first birthday meal without me. The first Christmas. The first holiday abroad. Let me tell you I’ve never felt anxiety like I did the first time I knew my babies were all boarding a flight without me. What if the plane went down? What if they got travel sick? What if they wandered off and got lost in the airport? It has taken me a lot of time and work to control my anxieties around them being away from me in any context.

Almost two years down the line lots has changed. After a horrendous court case which saw my nervous system shot to hell, I’m finally, I hope, more secure. I’m settled into a lovely new home, I have a great fulfilling job with amazing colleagues, a new relationship and I’m surrounded by people who love and support me. What hasn’t changed since those early days are my feelings for the kids. The crazy love for them, the intensity and urgency of it, has not diminished.

And so to the point of this piece: how being a single parent has made me a better parent.

Before I start; a disclaimer. Some people (mothers?) won’t like what I’m about to say. Some will secretly agree with what I’m saying but know it’s not socially acceptable to admit.

Here goes. When I had my kids 100% of the time, in a marriage where I was unhappy, I felt burdened and resentful and trapped. I felt that there was joy ‘out there’ that I was being denied. I felt all my needs were overlooked in pursuit of putting theirs first.

Having broken out of that and looking at it from the other side I now know that yes, there was joy out there I had been missing out on, but there was also a lot of pain. I am a better parent now for two main reasons. The first is that the experience of being separated from them makes me cherish every second I have with them. The second is that as selfish as it sounds; I get to fully reset every other weekend. Time off from responsibility and demands. Time to take a breath and prioritise my own fun.

So two years on what does my new parenting style look like? Well, there’s no more scrolling on my phone in the kitchen. Instead I’m out on bike rides with them, kicking a football about with them, watching movies with them. I’m soaking up every moment. No more moaning about them either… and woe betide anybody who criticises them to me (within reason; I’m not blind). After the upheaval they’ve been through I just swell with pride at how well they’ve coped and are continuing to cope. Seeing them pack their bags to go to their dads still has me as riddled with guilt now as it did in the very beginning. They didn’t deserve to have their normality upended but in the main, they’ve handled it with maturity and grace.

I’m more present, more engaged, more interested in every little thing they tell me. These days I never take them for granted. I’m softer. I let them away with more. I don’t sweat the small stuff and I try my best to lean into their crazy rambunctious behaviour instead of squashing it out of them.

They’ve become closer to me too now, I know that without a doubt. At first that was because of separation anxiety and insecurity. Which just adds an extra dollop of shame to my Extra Large Double Chocolate Guilt Sundae. 

I blew their little lives apart with the decision I made and naturally they clung to me. Luckily the tearful handovers which ripped my heart to shreds every other Friday are a thing of the past; I think they look forward to spending time with their Dad which is great. They don’t cling to me anymore, but instead there’s a quiet certainty about our relationship. They know, because I have proven to them, that they’ll come before any man, any job, any social engagement, any holiday. Single parenting has shone a light on them being my absolute priority and I know they feel that.

We are a team. A unit. They are protective of me in a way they never would’ve had to be if I’d stayed with their dad. They have stepped up and we all look after each other rather than it being the one way street of me meeting their every need whilst sacrificing my own.

The open conversations that come with (or should come with) divorce or separation means kids have to grow up fast but it also provides an opportunity for honesty and my kids have learned how to be open. They’ve learned how to express feelings and fears, dreams and dread. There is no repression or pent up feelings in this new unit of ours. They’ve shown astonishing maturity in accepting that I had to make the decision to leave their Dad and thus far, don’t hold any of that against me.

My wonderful sister-in-law Katie, who has been my rock from day one of this shitshow has long begged me to drop the guilt. To realise my kids will be OK, and so will I. To stop telling myself the lie that I am somehow selfish because I left my marriage, and to start telling myself the truth; that everyone deserves a chance at happiness and I should celebrate my bravery in going after it.

Well Katie. You’ll never believe this but as I write these words I feel tearful (standard) but… proud. Proud proud proud. Of me and of them.

By Sarah Hughes


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