Lone parenting is an extreme sport with no training

February 2024

WAY member Meredith reflects on the relentlessness of widowed parenting – and the importance of asking for help…

family with dog in hiking gear

Having a child can be tricky. Some people always knew they wanted kids, whereas others were surprised by the pregnancy. Some people desperately wanted children, but it just wasn’t meant to be, whereas some people didn’t particularly want children at all and, well, life had other plans. No matter where you fit into these buckets, one thing you never plan for is that the person with whom you’re bringing this new life into the world will be gone from your family unit far earlier than either of you knew.

I was 47 years old when my husband of nearly 20 years died unexpectedly of a heart attack. He was 49 and died on our daughter’s 11th birthday in May 2022. The following month was her first Father’s Day without him, and to be honest, I don’t even remember what we did that weekend in June. But by that point I had found WAY Widowed and Young and read about the charity’s annual Father’s Day gathering and I was determined that’s what we would do for the following June.

Mother’s Day for us has always been one of tradition. I decided when my daughter was young that every Mother’s Day we would go away for the weekend, just the two of us. We first went away when she was five and took the Eurostar to Paris. We ate croissants in the local café, did a riverboat cruise up the Seine, scaled the Eiffel Tower, and ate escargot in the evening. She was hooked. The following year we went to Brussels, where I had lived in the late 90s, which meant I could introduce her to all of my favourite things – chocolate, waffles, and flea markets. Venice and Amsterdam followed. I had everything planned for Prague in March 2020. We all know how that ended. We spent Mother’s Day 2021 exploring London, where we live, with a delightful afternoon tea – there weren’t too many places open to be more creative. We were heading to Gibraltar in March 2022 when I caught Covid the week before. Another year shelved. This was growing tiresome.

Much like Mother’s Day 2021, we spent 2023 being tourists in London – Madame Tussauds, the London Eye – because we were due to move out of London the summer after my husband died. This year, we’re heading to Belfast where my daughter is excited to see the Titanic exhibition. She and her father used to do Lego together, and the last set they completed before he died was the Titanic, so this has a special place for the both of us – like we’re taking him along for the weekend. 

Being Mum and Dad

For us, celebrating Father’s Day in June is harder because obviously he’s the father who’s no longer here. And we’re joining a WAY meet up this year, as we did last year, which was exactly the right thing for us – to be around other adults and children who understood what we’re going through. As an aside, this is precisely the reason I joined WAY in June 2022 – I knew no one else who had lost their person overnight as I had. My daughter knew no other children whose parent had died. And so being a part of a group of people who fully understood what we were experiencing was comforting and reassuring that we would get through this.

"And not just survive but ultimately, hopefully, thrive."

Mum and daughter in front of fountain and museum

But back to Mother’s Day (and Father’s Day) -days that typically put the mother or father on the pedestal for the day – the kids (if they’re old enough) bring us breakfast in bed, perhaps, or take us out for a nice lunch or make us a special dinner. All with a handmade card and maybe some flowers or chocolates. 

So on the upside, we’ve now gone from being the centre of attention for one day to getting two days because we’re playing both roles now. For the other 363 days of the year, it’s the kids who get the focus, the attention, the support, the unconditional love. And I’m not going to lie, it’s exhausting. It’s relentless. And some days it’s quite simply soul-destroying. Particularly if you have hormonal teenagers. 

I suspect most of us have friends who are divorced, and the kids shuttle between two households, giving one set of parents a break, typically every other weekend.

"But lone parenting is an extreme sport where you must operate at peak performance, with high endurance and yet no training."

You’re literally parachuted into the 24-7/365 parenting minefield but without an actual parachute. There’s no manual, no instructor, no safety net. Many of us lone parents don’t have family living nearby to help ease the burden. I’d venture that most of us also don’t have friends who truly understand what this new life is like and therefore don’t proactively offer to take our child/children for a day or a weekend to give us a break. They’re not intentionally behaving this way, but it just never crosses their mind that the surviving parent might need a day or a weekend off. And my goodness, what do people do who have more than one child? It’s hard enough to find someone willing to take and entertain one child, let alone multiple.

Asking for help

In the beginning, when you first become widowed, people all around you are asking how can they help, what can they do? Yet we are too stunned to know how to answer their questions. How could I possibly know what you can do when this is a situation that I’ve never been in before? And the further you get away from the ‘deathiversary’ date, the less people ask what they can do for you.

So, we need to bring it back to ourselves first and foremost. You already know that when the plane is experiencing turbulence, you put the mask on yourself first and then on your child. So we need to keep remembering that and ask for help. Someone may or may not say yes when you ask them if they could take your child for a few hours (or days), but they will definitely not say yes if you never ask them.

Instead of New Year’s resolutions, make this your resolution for Mother’s Day (or Father’s Day). Pick a day or a weekend where you need your alone time and then send the text asking for a few hours of reprieve. And if that feels too hard, the next time someone asks what you’re doing one evening, say that you’d really just like to have an evening off so you can (insert your favourite vice) and would they be free to help out with childcare for a few hours.

My late husband and I are both American and moved to London for my job in 2010. I have no family here, but I do have a strong friendship group who were immensely supportive in those early days. It’s true that the outreach by friends does dwindle as they return to their own lives, which has prompted my friends in the US to ask if I’ll return there to live. But London is where our daughter was born and where she has grown up. She may choose one day to go to university there, but for now, the friends she and I both have are enough to keep us here.

For me, the past 22 months have brought my daughter and me closer. Of course, we have our moments, but we also know all too well that life is precious, and we shouldn’t waste moments shouting at one another or ignoring one another. We have a dog, so whenever our voices escalate the dog just walks out of the room. This has been a good reminder to both of us, diffuses the situation and makes us laugh every time. If you don’t have a pet who does this, my advice is pick a word or phrase that each of you can say to the other in the heat of the moment. “Stop being such a poopy pants” is an old favourite! It will break the tension and maybe, just maybe bring a smile to your face and make you forget, even for a moment, what you were upset about.

"Lone parenting is exhausting but it’s also our superpower. Never forget it. I guarantee your children won’t." 

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