How do you picture a mother bringing her children up on her own? Harried young woman surrounded by demanding toddlers? Overladen pushchair? Running from work to school gate? Maybe, but our view of single mothers is too limited. We forget one simple thing. Children grow up; they leave home. When they do, their single mothers face feelings that can differ radically in intensity from those of the mother who has a husband or partner. Four women speak honestly to Naseem Khan.
FIRST WIDOWED, THEN OUSTED AS NUMBER ONE WOMAN
Dana Niarchos is a mature student in her forties with two sons in their final years at school. They live in Suffolk. Her husband died 10 years ago.
IT WAS so very, very sudden. I was planning a family holiday for the three of us, knowing it would probably be our last. Then Alex came home from school and said: 'Clare and I are going to Majorca tomorrow. Is that all right?' I was incredibly upset. I told Alex I had psyched myself up to let him go when he went off to university. That's the stage - a sort of symbolic departure - when it feels right. I felt completely displaced in his feelings as the number one woman. It was very hurtful. That's probably the case, though, even when you're not a single mother.
I've brought the boys up on my own since my husband, Stefan, died of leukaemia: Alex was 10 and Jake seven. I've done odd jobs and bits of studying, but basically I've tried to be a double parent. I've probably put the kids higher up in the priority list than I otherwise would have done, though I worry at times that I smother them - I could be a frightful burden. I give them a lot of time. Living in a rural area you have to do things with them: I've spent endless hours hanging around on touchlines. As they get older, you have to solve all manner of problems and make snap decisions, which is extremely exhausting. I often wish I could say: 'Oh, go and ask your father', just for the respite.
I tried Gingerbread some time back, but it was hopeless - so awful as to be funny. It was a very small group. They met at the Conservative Association and played darts. One of the guys said: 'You do realise this is a dating agency, don't you?' The women to the last were bitching about how little money they got from their husbands. Everyone was so miserable.
Logically I know, yes, they should be gone. But the illogical thought is you can't believe they've grown up so fast. It's some sort of hormonal blip that makes you go on feeling you're a mother. We never really stop. And this is also the stage of your life when you're menopausal and not nearly so logical. Six or eight months ago I'd be falling over and bursting into tears all over the place. Again, it ties in with ageing. I'm moving into a new phase, into something unknown. It's really quite alarming.
When Stefan died, the first things Alex asked were: 'Does that mean I have to go to work?' and: 'Will I have a new stepfather?' Children are very selfish - why would I want to get married again? What would I need? They've always been very, very protective. Both of them have always buttoned up my shirt if they thought I had too much bosom showing, and they've both questioned me closely about where I was going, which I find fairly offensive. Even now if I go out with someone from university, there are lots of questions.
I know I really shouldn't grumble. Alex is a very responsible chap. He does phone up and tell me where he is, for instance. Neither of them smokes or drinks to excess or does anything I should be seriously worried about. But what I say to my friends is that nobody warns you, nobody tells you what happens when they reach the semi- adult stage. You do need to know how difficult it's going to be.
When you are widowed you get to various stages of dealing with it, of coping with it. But I feel loneliness more often now because I'm not so busy looking after them. In the last year I've felt more lonely than when Stefan first died because there's an emotional outlet lacking. It's a matter of rechannelling that emotional energy, because all these years I've been sending it to my children. I have every intention of enjoying my freedom. I don't think I'll sit around moping or knit them things or suggest they bring their washing home. But I can't become an island. And I don't want a dog.
THE DOCTOR TOLD ME: 'YOU'RE MOURNING'
Ellen Marshall, from London, is a music teacher in her forties. She has a son, 25, and daughter, 27, who left home when they finished school at 18.
I ALWAYS thought it was really pathetic to worry about one's children leaving home, because that's what children should do. One's job is to bring them up to fly the nest.
So off they went. My son went to America when he was 20 for six months, just to grow up a bit, and my daughter went to Cambridge. I was almost boasting to my friends: 'Oh, it's marvellous. That's what they should be doing.' But for some reason I found I was getting very depressed. I didn't know what was the matter with me. I didn't feel well, I felt low and miserable. And I didn't put two and two together until I went to a doctor. She just said: 'You're mourning for your children' - I recognised immediately it was true.
I separated from the children's father when they were six and four, and had a year or so before I met Colin. I didn't marry him, but we've been living together for nearly 20 years and we more or less brought the children up together. But, in a way, I've always felt that I am their single parent, which I know hurts Colin. There has always been this problem, even though his relationship with them has been very, very good.
When the time came for the children to leave, Colin was absolutely delighted - too keen, I thought. Part of him understood my feelings, on the level of 'Mothers are like that'. On the other hand, my grieving did irritate him because he wanted a life with me, without the children. He hadn't got together with me because of the kids. He wanted to be with me. So once there was a sign of them growing up and leaving, that was very nice for him - it was what he was looking forward to. It was a sort of psychological thing: 'Now I can have her back to myself', but I don't want to be 'had back'. As far as I am concerned I am part of my children, not this separate being he sees me as.
I do feel as if he's pushing them out and that if he had been their father, things would have been different. Even so, mothers do go through terrible feelings of bereavement, whether they're with the father or not, some more than others. Part of it is to do with safety. There's something wonderful about hearing one's grown-up children's footsteps coming in at night. You hear the door close and the footsteps, and they may be in bed or in the kitchen, but they're home and they're safe. That's a very parental thing. It's huge. Hard to let them go and not be affected.
Having said that, my children keep coming back for one reason or another. Once you've got over the wrench, which with me lasted about six months, then it's good. You get on to a different level with them, which is wonderful. We talk a lot. They're always ringing up and popping round and they seem to enjoy me being involved in their lives.
The other evening I got incredibly drunk on my own and smoked cigarettes, which I normally don't do. Well . . . I'd had a row with Colin - a great excuse for hitting the bottle. I went down the road and bought some Silk Cuts, put on some pop music and smoked. It was sort of 'Fuck it, I don't have to be a good, responsible mother who doesn't smoke.' So there I was lolling around when my son dropped by. Well, he sort of beamed, sat down and joined me. He said: 'Such a relief]' If they'd been living here and been younger, I'd never have done that. You suddenly feel freer to be the sort of person you were before you had them.
Names in this interview have been changed.
I MUST ASSIMILATE THE EXPERIENCE THROUGH MY ART:
Carlyle Reedy is an American poet and performance artist in her fifties, living in west London. Her son, a mature student, left home in 1992, when he was 23.
YOU constantly hear phrases such as 'the struggle of the single parent' and 'the plight of the single parent'.
There's a lot that is negative on the social level - the great difficulties caused by lack of forethought and provision by the state. But there have been times when I've thought of putting the initials 'SP' for Single Parent after my name, like a degree] Being a single parent was a privilege - is a privilege.
I'm an American. I came to this country in 1964 because I fell in love with the man I married. It turned out that I raised my son alone, from the time he was three years old, and it was not always easy. When I found myself alone with my child, I had also lost my flat. I do think I did very badly meeting his needs, but love has its strengths. In all those years, my work as an artist was compressed into about a quarter of my time.
When my son started taking care of himself and there was only my work, I began to feel, 'What was that all about?' I find I have 21 short stories and an enormous body of collage and collage paintings. I'd performed numerous live events but had no documentation of them. I was looking at all this and realised that much of what I did I could have taken a stage further, if I had been in a different situation. Your whole mind is occupied, your whole physiology, until your child is adult. It is only now that I can collect my thoughts and go back to my early work. I find, to my pleasure, that it has pretty much stood the test of time.
My son and I found that we were very supportive of each other. It wasn't an us-against-the world situation. I've seen many single parents with 35-year- old sons still coming back to mum and single-parent sons who don't leave home. They don't really find the form for separation. I wanted him to be able to make his own life. When he was getting older I thought I should set a time limit, and so I told him, 'I'll keep your things till you're 26.' Of course that can change. Life can bring vicissitudes to one's child. And if that happens then I'm going to be there for him.
When a child leaves, it becomes necessary for the mother to shift the emphasis and decide what she is about. It is the awakening to the fact that you are yourself, not only a mother. So you do look back on your youth and your own childhood, and forward to the last third of your life. I think maybe people find it a shock to bring to a conclusion such a fulfilling role.
The adjustment was a very strange blank. Who do I serve, I wondered. Where are they? All that focus, that attention, has to go somewhere. For a while there was a sense of absence - longing pangs. Opening a drawer and seeing things that had belonged to this person. All that was pretty difficult.
Perhaps some people like to shuffle into granny or grandad-hood. But if your situation is neither, there's nothing to shuffle into, except yourself. As an older woman, I have to make something out of the empowerment. My preoccupation is now to assimilate that whole experience. How will it come about? It'll only be through my own way and my own art. Life is change. One cannot make one's way back.
Carlyle Reedy's early poems 'Obituaries and Celebrations 1961-1974' will be published in June by Wordsworth Press.
THEY GIVE ME THEIR LISTS, AND I SHOP WITH THREE BASKETS
Marcia Morgan, 39, is a development worker for a black voluntary project in south London. Her two daughters and granddaughter live nearby. She is also a foster parent.
I'VE GOT two daughters - Michelle and Melissa. About five years ago, when they were around 17, they got caught up in the whole thing, the romance, of being independent: 'Everyone's got flats,' they said, 'we want flats.' We have a good relationship in that we always discuss things. I say, 'I'm going to give you five reasons why you shouldn't do that. If you can give me six valid reasons why you should, it can happen.' So their leaving was argued through and planned. Initially, when they went, I did feel sad.
I always had a husband - technically - when they were growing up, but he wasn't very supportive: one of those husbands who, if he felt like it, brought home the money and then got dressed up and went out. Had a string of girlfriends, and he's married to one now. He's a very nice man, but not husband- father material. It was always me who did things with the children, who went to their open days and made all the decisions about which school they went to, that sort of stuff. He would just say, 'You do it. You do it so well.'
I actually became part of a one- parent family group, the first in Greenwich - we set it up in the Seventies. I had a husband and yet I used to be chair of that group] I didn't feel married. I didn't feel it was the two of us working towards the children. We got divorced in 1988 and I always say, 'I'm happily divorced.' I wasted so many years in this marriage; because I came from a one-parent family, I felt I owed it to the children to stay in the marriage. It wasn't till I asked him to leave that I thought, 'What a sham. I'm so happy he's gone.'
At first I didn't see much of my daughters when they went, because they were having friends round, and I certainly noticed that they weren't in the house. But they live five minutes down the road and we are constantly in touch. We might not see each other every day because I do have a busy working life, and there are always young people from the days when I was a youth worker popping round to see me at home.
One of the first things I did was to put phones in. I phone every morning to make sure everyone has got up to go to college and to have a little chat with my granddaughter, Sharni, Michelle's daughter.
Because both Michelle and Melissa are studying, and obviously on low incomes, I go to Sainsbury's and shop with three baskets. They ring up and give me lists and I go shopping. It's obviously quite a big pressure supporting these young women who want to be independent. I had to decorate and furnish two flats.
Basically, we're good mates, we have a supportive network. We go on holiday together, or if I want to go on holiday, they move in and look after the foster kids.
The fostering started through pressure from my children. It's not to replace them, because they've not really gone, they just live in different houses. We were sitting here one day, going through the local paper, and they said, 'Oh look, they need foster- carers. You must be lonely without us.' I told them, 'How can I be lonely when you're always here? I come in from work and I find you here. I don't think you visit me, I think you visit the house]' But then I got talking to a friend and we both went along to the meeting about foster-caring. That was three years ago in October. I'm a short-term carer, and I've cared for eight young people.
Why do I do it? It's not the money - pounds 48 a week. A lot of it is to do with my own childhood, and it would probably take me all day to explain. I came to this country from Jamaica at the age of 10, then was sexually abused by my stepfather for three years. My mother blamed me and threw me out when I was 13. I was pregnant at 16 and had no support at all. So I think that's why. I know this sounds really corny, but I just want to be here for people.
Maybe the fact that I didn't receive makes it so easy for me to give. And it doesn't take a lot.
I'm not saying all the children I foster are wonderful creatures. They come with a lot of pain and anger that they throw at you. But one of the things I feel good about is that they all come back. They are always in the place, and I'm godmother to three of their babies.
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