As a single mum at Christmas, I've been so lonely that I've spent hours in supermarkets hoping the staff will talk to me

This time of year, though, I do all of my shopping online, as I just can’t bear all the wall-to-wall images of what Christmas is like for most people

Lucy Dixon
Friday 08 December 2017 11:36 GMT
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Wandering round the supermarket aisles for the third time that week, trying to take as long as possible, I randomly chucked things I didn’t actually need into my basket. Because what I was desperately in need of wasn’t to be found on any of the shelves. What I needed was interaction with another person.

My brief chat with the checkout staff would be the highlight of my day, although, inexplicably, I would lie to them about my plans to see friends that day, as I was ashamed to admit, even to a stranger, that I didn’t have any.

This might sound like the story of one of the thousands of lonely elderly people in this country, the subject of many a media campaign, particularly as Christmas approaches. But I’m not an old woman: I’m a 38-year-old single mum with a five-year-old son, and for most of the last five years, a daily trip to the shop really did become my most meaningful social activity.

This time of year, though, I do all of my shopping online, as I just can’t bear all the wall-to-wall images of what Christmas is like for most people. It adds fuel to the fire of my loneliness.

Loneliness has been by far the hardest part of being a single mum, and the feelings are particularly acute at Christmas, an annual reminder that I am not living the life I expected. I’ve been a single mum since my son was just a few months old and, overnight, I changed from being part of a couple, with friends and a social life, to spending pretty much 24 hours a day on my own – aside from my baby, of course.

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Mental health charity Mind suggests comparing loneliness to hunger: “Just as your body uses hunger to tell your body you need food, loneliness is a way of your body telling you that you need more social contact.” Sounds so simple. But if you’re a single mum, then the analogy should be that there is loads of food in a huge pile in front of you, but you can’t get to it because you’re locked inside an empty room, so you just have to ignore the pangs. That might sound overly dramatic, but if your child is asleep upstairs and you’re the only adult around, you might as well be under house arrest, hunger or no hunger.

New mums often lose touch with their old friends and the situation for single mums is often made worse by the need to move house, sometimes to an area where they don’t have many social connections. In my case, my newly single status meant I moved back to my hometown – somewhere I hadn’t lived since I was 18 – to be near to my own mum.

I know I’m luckier than many as I have an incredible relationship with my mum, and she helps so much both practically and emotionally. But she can’t play every role in my life. I can’t expect her to be my mum, co-parent, best friend and complete social circle.

Loneliness can be like a black hole that sucks you in and it is incredibly difficult to claw your way out. It completely changed how I saw myself. I started to feel I was somehow not deserving of the friendships that other, “normal” people had.

I got so used to being on my own all the time that when I did venture out and saw groups of friends, I would watch them like a wildlife documentary featuring some unknown species, trying to remember how it felt to be part of something like that.

Feeling lonely is tricky to explain to people who have never experienced it. They see that I take my son to, say, soft play, at the weekends, and don’t understand how I can be lonely when I am surrounded by other parents and children, somehow missing the point that I speak to nobody aside from my own child. Or they say things like, “Oh, I love my own company” or “I’d love more time to myself”, not realising that spending a little time alone, by choice, is a completely different thing.

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And of course I’m not alone – most of the time, I’m with my son. Meaning that my loneliness comes with a side order of enormous guilt. How can I be lucky enough to be the mum of such an amazing little boy and still feel sad, still feel like I need more? I don’t know how to answer this, as he is the centre of my world and it appalls me that I can’t be happy. But in the same way that my mum can’t be all things for me, neither can my son.

It is getting easier as George gets older. For a start, I can talk to him now, which means the weekends devoid of all speech are a distant memory.

I still gabble when supermarket staff chat to me; I think part of me fears it will be my only opportunity to talk that day and I find it hard to stop. But after five long years of loneliness, I am beginning to form new friendships of my own, meaning I don’t spend every weekend alone, longing for Monday when I can lose myself in work again.

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