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Becoming A Single Parent: The Change Curve

12/01/2017 13:45 GMT | Updated 12/01/2017 13:45 GMT

Becoming a single parent was the worst and the best thing that has ever happened to me. At the time, it was devastating: I felt I had screwed up my life and my children's lives fundamentally, irreversibly, unforgivably.

It is only now, with over a decade of distance, that I can look back at that first year calmly and understand the stages in my journey towards acceptance and self-forgiveness. This is the story of my transition.

Stage 1: Denial

All change starts with denial. In my case, most of the denial happened prior to the break-up. By the time my first baby was six months old I knew deep down that we weren't going to make it. But for three years I did everything I could to ignore that voice and prove it wrong.

I have never been good at quitting - once you have children that decision becomes even harder. How bad do things have to be before the alternative is better? How much can I tolerate? How low can I reduce my expectations before I give up hope on a happy childhood and do something that I know will blow their worlds apart?

Years later, my eldest son told me that his earliest memory was sitting on the stairs listening to his parents fighting. That is something I wish I could take back. But I'll never know whether I held out too long: one night my husband packed a bag and the decision was made.

Stage 2: False Positivity

My first reaction was relief. It was over. I wasn't being shouted at any more. The line was drawn and I was elated. I could take control, make plans and start rebuilding.

I threw myself into becoming a single parent like a manic project manager, finding ingenious solutions to practical obstacles in a desperate impersonation of a perfect mum. I knew I wasn't really happy but at least now I had hope.

Stage 3: Grim Reality

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that being a single parent with no money looking after a one-year-old and a three-year-old isn't so easy. When you're a single parent, it's always your turn. When they wake up at 5am, it's your turn. When the stinky nappies need rinsing, it's your turn. Emptying the bin, washing up, raking up the leaves, reading the story, clearing up the Lego, playing their favourite game - there is so much to do when you have young children and when there is only one of you it is relentlessly, constantly, always your turn.

The silence took it's toll too. Getting the children to bed at 7.30pm gave a few moments of sweet relief, but then the long evening would stretch out before me and I would find myself turning on every electrical appliance in the house - TV, radio, washing machine - just to numb the silence. I looked everywhere for a solution to put our life back on track: I thought about emigrating to Australia, joining the Foreign Office, marrying for money, going round in ever-decreasing circles as I realised that there wasn't a quick fix that could magic up a wonderful new life for us.

Stage 4: Acceptance

I remember the moment vividly. It was a sunny day in June, six months after the break-up. We had the beach to ourselves. The boys had found a huge hole that bigger children must have dug at the weekend and they were having the time of their lives. Running free range across the beach, playing chase with the waves, jumping in the hole, digging tunnels, giggling - a truly idyllic childhood moment. And I realised in a rush that all was not lost. I could still build them a happy childhood.

But sitting there watching them being wonderfully, beautifully happy, I understood with a grim finality that I would always be alone in these moments. I would never share this moment with someone who saw the children through the same lens of utter love as I was doing. With someone who was also their parent. That was what I had lost and what I could never get back.

There were, of course, many more ups and downs after that and, in truth, it took a little bit longer for me to give up all hope for a magic wand that would make everything better.

But having been a joint parent, a single parent, and now a married-to-a-new-partner parent has helped me see that there is no ideal set-up. There's just doing your best to find a way for everyone to thrive.

No matter what life throws at you.

A longer version of this article was originally published on my blog Thinking Parenting. For more thoughts and tips (no matter what your family set up), follow me on Twitter or Facebook.