Monday, 29 January 2018

My Solo-Parenting Survival Plan

The man returns today from his latest trip. Already I am grateful that he will do this afternoon's school run, pick up a few groceries and help with maths homework. Honestly, if you are a single mum and reading this, I don't know how you do it. Sure, the odd week here and there isn't too diabolical, but to single parent every day? Well, hats off to you, is all I can say!

For those of us less practised in the juggling act that is the life of the working single parent, I have pulled together the things I do to make Tim's absences a little easier to bear. If this is not your life season right now ... lucky you! May this serve as a wee glimpse into this aspect of our lives.

1. Lower your expectations
I have found that my usual, overly ambitious self has to be put firmly in her place when Tim is gone. Far better to reduce my expectations of myself for a short time. I need to focus on the essentials and postpone my plans to host guests, or run races, or participate in everything on offer, whether socially or at work. If the kids are fed and clothed and where they should be when, I pat myself on the back. This enables me to get number 2 right, which is ...

2. Leave plenty of margins
It appears to be a pattern that is almost predictable, that when Tim is gone the dog will get sick, or the washing machine will break, or a tree will get blown right onto our fence. Somehow, I have learned to expect the unexpected at times like these. (This week, for example, my lower back totally seized up.) Unless I leave margins, I will get completely overwhelmed by such small dramas. When I leave margins, I can be more present to the kids and have extra energy to spare should the unexpected happen. Which sort of connects to number 3 ...

3. Keep the main thing the main thing
It's hard when your dad is not around. You miss the way he reads out loud to you, which just seems to make everything feel alright with the world. You miss his help with the sort of homework that he just explains so much better than your mum. You miss his silly jokes and walking the dog with him. In short, the main thing when Tim is gone is my ability to be present to the kids. Does this mean that I give them all my attention all the time? Uh, no! But it does mean that we might skip church because it feels more important to spend the morning in our PJs, chilling with books and hot chocolate. Because their mental health is my mental health!

4. Simplify anyway you can
Yes, this does mean we might eat (veggie) burgers more than once. It does mean the dogs get their basic walk and that has to be enough. It does mean laundry is pulled straight from the dryer and folded, without passing the ironing board (oh, wait, that's what we always do!). Anyway, you catch my drift. Life has to be simplified, and that isn't a bad thing.

5. Have enough structure for things to run smoothly
I'll be honest, when Tim is away I feel like it's a great opportunity to drift away from structure just a bit more than normal. Bedtimes can easily get extended, workouts skipped, homework or music practice postponed. It feels like life should be easier that way. In reality, though, everyone gets overtired because they went to bed late, I get grumpy because I missed the energy-boost of a morning workout, and we have meltdowns because homework has piled up and become overwhelming. Everything runs more smoothly when I pay attention to getting the girls to bed on time, when I set my alarm to get up early and spend an hour with my bible, journal and dumbbells, and when I track the girls' homework schedule. It also helps to post on the fridge the days until Tim's homecoming and to have Manu tick them off (perhaps along with a motivational quote chosen with my teenager in mind!).

6. Don't forget to have fun
When you have to be the all-singing, all-dancing solo parent it is very easy to forget to do any singing or dancing at all! But a dance party after supper, or a sleepover in the sitting room, or even putting the clearing up on hold to take 10 minutes to laugh over silly online videos, can really lighten the load. I am a task-oriented person and when I'm feeling too much responsibility, I need reminding to stop all the busyness and just giggle with the girls. It's the best therapy there is!

Parenting isn't easy even when there are two of you. Solo parenting requires the prescription of great big chill pill. At least, that's what helps me survive.

And now, off to the airport to draw this particular solo parenting escapade to a close.

Friday, 26 January 2018

They know my name

It was a spur of the moment thing, really. I hadn’t really trained for it but I figured I’d been feeling pretty strong. I could run for two hours; heck, why not do a half marathon?

I went ahead and filled in the online entry, taking a quick look at the map of the 21km route. Since this is an annual event in the town where we live, I’d be running from the local sports centre and right past the bottom of our street. Who knows, I might even get Tim and the kids to get out of bed to cheer me on!

I checked in with the running club via WhatsApp. And yes, a few others were taking part in the shorter, 7km route. Just one other woman would be running the 21km. We’d probably see one another at the start line and that would be it. But I’m used to running solo, so I don’t need to feel supported, necessarily, and I didn’t think too much about this being a community event.

We’d entered the shorter race as a family a couple years prior. It rained the whole way around and as I remember it took us more energy to get the kids to the finish than it took to actually run! That was early in our time in Spain and I don’t remember seeing any faces I recognised lining the route. We thought that by entering a local event we would feel a sense of belonging, but it sort of had the opposite effect. We got home, soaked through and feeling miserable. Another of mommy’s bright ideas fallen flat.

So my expectations for the half marathon were not high. So much the sweeter, then, to receive unexpected gifts of encouragement along the way.

Women from the running club had congregated at the start line. I’m not as regular a participant as I would like in the club - sometimes the hundreds of WhatsApp messages about hairstyles, kids or where to find good deals on running shoes all work to obscure the vital information about where and when they are meeting to run - but they still treat me as one of their own. Which means, I wear club kit and get to be included in the endless round of team photos at the beginning, middle and end of club runs. Somehow, in spite of the muddle I sometimes make of communication, I do feel I belong with these women. I run, they run, we’re all female - it’s as simple as that.

It turned out that another friend had also entered the race and we ran a short part of it together. He lost me on one of the many hills and I found myself looking for him for the remainder of the race. In the end he only came in 1 minute ahead of me, but during the race that minute kept him out of sight. So, after we’d passed the point at which the 7km route turned towards its finish line and the half marathoners toiled on, I mostly ran alone.

Yet, all along the route, non-particpating members of the Corredoras de Alhaurin were cheering and supporting the runners. And here’s the thing: they knew my name! They called out, yelling for those they recognised as one of them. And, somewhat to my surprise, that included me! Those standing close to the finish held out a hand and ran a few metres with me. All of them cheered their strength and support.

It was a special moment for me. Not because the race itself was spectacular, or because I am some sort of champion. But because I felt as though I belonged, that this is my home. I am known by name, included and recognised as part of the group.

During our 4½ years in Spain, I have not always felt this sense of belonging. Often, I have felt confused and shut out, missing vital cues that might explain why all the shops are closed on a particular day, or why all the other kids have gone to school in some costume or another. It takes time to learn enough of a language to feel competent in following directions, or asking for some help or assistance. It is not easy to feel the one who is perpetually a step behind everyone else, finally figuring out how to become a member of the local swimming pool, or turning up for appointments on the wrong date. 

I am sure those humbling moments are not completely behind me. But in the meantime, I will revel in the sense of belonging I had, to run as a local in a local event. 

Believe me, it was sweet.