10 April 2018

Parenting apart ten years on

It has been ten years since I separated from my children’s father. It has been a bumpy ride but it eventually levelled out. Both of us are remarried and he has another child with his second wife and we all get along in a Modern Family kind of way. But sometimes I still get blindsided by parenting apart.

My eldest had to have heart surgery recently and it was a big deal. On the day of the operation, I brought her to the Evelina Children’s Hospital in a cab and we met her dad there for the vigil until she could go down to theatre. It struck me that it was a bit of a strange situation, sitting with her dad, bound by our child whom we both love so much and had so many worries for, but not there as a support of each other. Of course I knew that it wasn’t about us, but being there in the hospital waiting for something significant like heart surgery, it’s nice to have support, hold a hand etc. But it isn’t like that when you parent apart, not for me, anyway.

I don’t catastrophize big stuff, just the small insignificant crap. But I allowed a mini sneak of some scenarios to try them on for size. What if the operation screwed up, what if she reacted badly to the anaesthetic, what if something scary happened? What would it be like because her dad is the only person in the world who will ever love her in that visceral way a parent can? My husband is a wonderful stepfather (as is their step-mum) and he loves all the kids, but he didn’t create them with me and he wasn’t there when they took their first breath. It honestly feels like he was because he is so present in every way, but that isn’t the point of this blog post. I am not writing a competition piece on who loves the kids the most, it’s more of an observation about what was racing through my head in the hospital trying to avoid thinking about heart surgery.

When you parent apart, I sometimes feel you miss out on having the person who was there while you gave birth being there in an equivalent position during a subsequent crisis. There’s no shorthand of easy communication, no tender kiss on the top of the head, no impression of you being together for your child going through something stressful because an invisible Berlin wall was erected overnight when they left. And it made me think about future things. Like if any of the children get married or have kids, again, it will be a separate experience. And that was what I grieved for the most when I initially became a single parent – the loss of shared parenting together for these little people that you love and find frustrating in equal measure.

So watching our teenage daughter have her cannula fitted, apprehension etched round her eyes, her face pale and stoic, was a solitary experience, one that I smothered in my usual banter of Chandler-esque dire jokes, even as the anaesthetist inserted the drugs. Watching her eyes close the veneer cracked unexpectedly round my heart. I was completely unaware I was silently crying until the nurse told me Lilla would be OK and handed me a tissue. Then I felt an arm silently slip round my shoulders, cradling me as I wept, a nurse handing her dad a tissue too.  We stood united in the ante-chamber watching her being wheeled into surgery, both of us sobbing, the unfamiliar closeness much needed, a brief family unit once more. After we pulled ourselves together, we went for lunch and chatted for ages about stuff neither of us knew we had going on in our lives, anything other than what if something went wrong, awaiting news. Finally, we got the call, the operation had been a success and she was awake.

Later that evening, when Lilla and I were alone in the hospital room, her father and visiting stepfather all returned home, I looked at her asleep on her bed surrounded by wires and beeping machines and I took time to reflect. Yes, it was peculiar having to go through something as intense as that with a man I am no longer married to. But he was there and he did support me. I have to thank him for that because I don’t think I could have crossed No Man’s Land to offer solace, no matter how many tides had washed under the bridge. The spectre of rejection lives on even when you think it has vanished. Maybe now I can let down the defences and we can parent together on those big events even though we are apart.

Janet Hoggarth

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