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Don't advertise your loneliness: A single mother recalls her experiences after placing the sort of personal ad that attracts unhappy people

Conscientious, cheerful lady, 35 (daughter eight, son six, all healthy), seeks residential position UK/abroad. Housekeeping, caretaking, gardening, secretarial, child care. Driver/swimmer/non-smoker.

AN AD like this can change your life, whether you are placing it or responding to it. It is meant to. Ask any one of the other domestic desperadoes who lay themselves on the line in the small ads of the Lady every week.

A few years back I was one of these walking wounded looking for care in the community. After losing my marrige, home and job within a few weeks, followed by a year of trying to juggle a part-time job with parenting, I was on my knees financially and emotionally.

The patient, the cautious will use a box number for their ad; the brave, the foolhardy give their phone number. People who can't or don't write letters, home in on the phone numbers. So do the weird and the wacky. I had 14 callers, of which seven were capable of a normal conversation. There were a lot of promises involving ponies, swimming pools and foreign holidays, but few clear offers of cash. One offered to send his chauffeur to collect me. Independence - mine, that is - was not part of any of the deals.

One man wanted a surrogate family to replace the one that had left home. Another, running a bed-and-breakfast in Cardiff, said he would 'be good to my children', in a tone that made me wonder how he treated his own. The rest were into dress sizes, terminal self-pity and heavy breathing.

One 'headmaster' had my hopes up until the conversation turned to his corporal punishment of boys and how did I feel about watching him? A transvestite in Marbella came across as almost cosy by comparison. One chap blew his cover immediately by stating, 'That's a very sexy voice . . .', which was a pity because so was his. I am ashamed to say the ones who confessed to being lonely never got past first base.

I also had calls from three other single mothers, seeking advice on ads. A phone number, I said, would bring them straight to the nub of the matter, but keep a stiff drink handy and take the phone off the hook when you go to bed. 'I want to look after a big family,' said one girl. 'It's what I need, it's what I'm best at.' I gave her the name of a single-father hotelier going spare in Spain.

Of the 14 respondents, I only met two. Tim sent us the train fare to visit him and his 14-year-old daughter in North Wales. He was friendly and scatty; his daughter, friendly, intelligent, bored and in danger of going off the rails. I liked them both, but did not relish the idea of being stuck on top of a mountain while he went to work on a Scottish oil rig. The last I heard, his wife had taken their daughter back to the city.

For some reason I had several responses from south Devon, which is where my children and I ended up. Richard was persistent, polite, chatty and tedious. He rang every evening for weeks, until I agreed to take the children to his home on the coast for a trial holiday. He was charm personified, nothing was too much trouble, and he was kind to my children. By this time, I was on my fourth after-school child-minder and the summer holidays stretched before me like quicksand. A month later he drove 300 miles with a hired van and carried us off to his comfortable lair.

Within the first week it became clear that what he really wanted was what most of my male respondents really wanted. No, not sex - though that would probably have been the icing on the cake - but a catch-all female prepared to fill the big practical, and even bigger emotional, void in his life. Lovely if she did the cooking and cleaning, but even better if she acted like the wife/mother he had lost, never had, could not keep; if she took him seriously, did not contradict, did not force him to cope.

When he became jealous of my children's bedtime stories and begrudged me evenings out without him, I knew I had to leave, even though bringing up the children by the sea was offsetting some of my crippling guilt at not being a 'normal' (ie, two-parent) family. In retrospect, this guilt seems daft.

Some time later, at a children's party, I spotted Simon through a haze of party poppers, and bells rang. That they were alarm bells I didn't realise then; I was too busy congratulating myself. Simon was newly widowed with two young, adorable daughters and was desperate for help. We were both in need.

The next week, my children and I moved in. It was Christmas, the children were in bouyant mood, his friends came to support him and suss me, and we all got merry together. I was knee-knockingly in love, and he responded.

Then, on New Year's Eve, he told me he would soon start bringing his girlfriend to the house - the girlfriend he had neglected to tell me about. For the next six months, until I could sell up back home and buy a place locally, I slept with earplugs, cried into the soup, yearned over the ironing.

His silent fury at his wife for dying and leaving him with small children knew no bounds. His resulting dependence - and on women at that - was insupportable for a man who believed himself to be in control of every sphere of his life. Like an injured animal, he was out for revenge on anyone who got in his way - in this case me and Flossie. (It helped, somehow, to give her a silly name. But looking back, I realise I was the lucky one; after all, I got out.)

I bought a Victorian mausoleum and filled it with other desperadoes, courtesy of the DSS. Things got worse before they got better. But get better they did. I have lived on my own for some years now. My children are about to fledge. I am in a loving relationship, though we do not yet live together. He has had problems, too. Independence that costs nothing is like gold on a slagheap.

I would not want anyone to make the same mistakes I did. What I learnt was how much pain there is out there, most of it hidden but on tap. That no one can cause pain like the pained. That we all have a hidden agenda, quite often hidden from ourselves. And that if you reach out your hand for help, the person most likely to take it is someone else in need.

All names have been changed.