When death comes knocking at your door on some idle Tuesday afternoon.
In my years when grief was intense , I shed a lot of tears. The tears still come from time to time but a lot less often and more privately. The first 7 years after Harry’s death were the hardest. It’s now 19 years since Harry passed. It’s never gone but it’s gotten much easier to live with because I’ve developed strategies to cope. I understand the triggers that bring back memories, and I understand that having emotions stirred up will pass. I remember staying at a bed and breakfast accomodation and a man was nursing a curly blonde child on his lap. She was fussing around and his wife was there. This little girl reminded me so much of Jane at that age. Jane would of been about 12 or 13 at this stage, 7 years after Harrys death. I remember sitting on a sofa watching this family and unexpectedly being overcome with grief again, watching this little girl transported me back to life with Harry and what had been taken from us. I looked and thought, we were that family sitting in the same room as I, that was us but for us it was all gone. I was overwhelmed and I found myself in tears. I couldnt stop them. I had no control over them. They just kept coming. Streaming down my face. I had to wait until I was all cried out because that’s just how it was. I didn’t want to be crying, I was away for a nice weekend but out of the blue I had been taken back to ground zero. It sometimes grabs you when you least expect it to but I have become aware that moments can remind you of something with Harry, or a song or just something. Now I can control those moments more. I’m more familiar with them and I can internaize the saddness. I can hide it now a lot better when Im taken by surprise. I’ve learnt ways to compartmentalize my life and feelings. I’ve learnt how to survive this ordeal.
It wasn’t that I was crying every day for 7 years but the emotional pain, and void was a regular presence in my day. As the days months and years passed I got more and more used to my new normal but it was there, the wondering where my life would end up. Was I going to have some relief from the gnawing feeling of loss I felt. It was gruelling being a sole parent in the early years. The responsibility immense, The emotional labour was exhausting. Gemma Hartley’s book discusses this topic. I recently listened to an interview with Gemma by Mia Freedman on the Mummamia No filter podcast. This is an excerpt from the podcast description.
Whether she’s at home or in the office, there’s a whole layer of labour done predominantly by women that most men can’t even see. Emotional labour is being the person who notices problems, delegates solutions and makes sure life goes smoothly for everyone around her. It’s noticing there’s barely any milk left and then doing something about it – and changing the toilet paper roll when it’s run out.
This work is invisible and exhausting at the same time. And it’s not just something experienced by mothers or women in relationships.
Gemma had a husband and felt like this, my husband was dead. I couldn’t even try to get him to understand how I felt. I was surviving a life of widower and sole parent. Thrown into this at 32 with a 2,5 and 10-year-old. Literally it is surviving. Working out how to maintain sanity and continuing to find purpose in my life.
My children were always at the forefront of my mind because they needed me.
I knew no matter how much family or friends would love them, that I was the only person left on this earth that would absolutely love them unconditionally. Their dad was the only other person I could trust to do this. He was now not able to, so it had to be me. I had to find a way to keep life a happy place for us all. I had to work it out. The cancer had killed Harry. It wasn’t going to kill me physically or mentally, it had already taken one life. I had to keep fighting and working through whatever life was throwing at me.
There were times I felt so alone, so sad, so exhausted, so misunderstood and so isolated, and after a couple of years so lonely that after the kids went to bed, I would sometimes go out and sit in the car under our carport to cry and sob, sometimes for a couple of hours. The car was a place where I could let it all out without the kids hearing me or seeing me upset, but there must have been still plenty of times I cried in my bedroom laying in bed, and the kids could hear me from their bedroom. Jane has since said it was hard hearing me cry from her room.
I didn’t feel I had to be stoic in front of the children, I believe it’s good to show that to an extent it was sad and it was ok to be sad and not feel a brave face was always needed. But I did try to protect the kids from those times I felt broken. When it felt it all to hard to bear. The immense responsibility of raising children alone, keeping them safe, ensuring our bills were paid. The absolute basic stuff that kept us out of trouble with utility companies ensuring we had gas, water, electricity and land rates paid on time and food in our stomachs as the basic of responsibility. That kids got to school everyday, out of bed and dressed, lunches made, clean clothes organised, homework done and money for the bus in small cash available for each day or making sure the 10 trip bus pass ticket was still valid and hadn’t been lost. Permission slips signed, party invitation acceptance done, presents bought and clothes that made the children feel they fitted in with their peers purchased or washed and ironed. On top of that is house maintenance, parent teacher interviews, weekend sports memberships fees paid on time, uniforms purchased and laundered, after school piano, singing dancing lessons and sporting activities attended, reading time at the library attended for Archie’s stimulation and toys returned to the toy library on time, nappies changed, or toilet training encouraged. Over that 7 years a 2-year-old grew and developed physically and mentally into a 9-year-old, a 5 and 10-year-old became adolescents. Their formative years which are so important. Still I feel saddened to think my three gorgeous children not only had to endure the illness and death of their dad at such a young age but the aftermath and all that involves. Going from happy carefree parents in love, to a grieving mother, stressed with responsibility and even some resentment of the situation of now being a sole parent and envy towards couples untouched by tragedy or divorce.
I remember picking the children up, coming home, organising a change of clothes into the necessary activity that was about to be attended, peeling vegetables and getting them to simmer, putting all three kids back in the car, dropping one to singing lessons, one to football training, coming home unbuckling Archie out of his car seat, and checking on tea, putting Archie back in the car seat Going back to collect Jane from singing, Rupert from football training, getting Archie back out of his car seat. Going inside finishing off tea, serving it up, we’d eat, cleaning up Archie and tea dishes, do homework with Jane and Rupert, bathe Archie, organising showers for Jane and Rupert, organising lunches for school the next day, uniforms, putting all three to bed, reading a story to Jane for 30 mins then going to Rupert’s room and reading a story to him for 30 minutes.
Harry when alive he would read to Jane and I to Rupert for 30 minutes before turning off their lights. After sometime of me trying to carry the load of two, something had to give. I stopped reading to the kids.
At 5 years old Archie went to school. At the 6 month mid year parent teacher interviews there were concerns voiced by the teacher that Archie was not coping with the workload in prep and some suggestion that if this continued he may need to repeat prep. By end of third term I was asked to meet with the teacher again and she relayed he wasn’t ready to advance to year one despite me having enlisted a private tutor. That his reading and other skills weren’t at the required level and he would need to repeat prep. This shattered me. Jane and Rupert has never had any issues with schooling. I started to cry, the guilt pouring out of my soul because I hadn’t read to Archie as a baby like Harry and I had with Rupert and Jane, as a result I felt I had failed him. I had let Archie down and because of me he needed to stay down a year level.
The teacher reassured me that some kids are read to every night and still struggle with reading, and some who aren’t read to at all can pick it up no problem, that I shouldn’t blame myself. But when Archie and I were lining up the following February with the preppies again and his friends were lining up outside the grade one rooms I felt for Archie. His friends were saying why are you with the preps? I was saying Archie’s one of the students whose going to be helping the Preps this year. He said mum, I want to be with my friends in year 1. It broke my heart that morning, that first day back at school, watching Archie as all the new grade 1 kids walked past him. For years that affected Archie. I know because he always felt he had to say to people when asked what grade he was in. He’d say, ‘I’m in grade 5 but I should be in grade 6’. Eventually I told him he didn’t need to say that and that they didn’t need to know and that it didn’t matter. He stopped saying it after that. Archie is a smart kid who has great determination and capable of doing what he puts his mind to and I wonder if all the trauma that he faced affected him in those early schooling years. He saw a behavioural optometrist who looked at reading, letter and word recognition and memory. He did a series of tests and we did exercises which I’m not sure really did anything, partly due to Archie not being very enthusiastic with the exercise and partly because there probably was no functional problem. But you feel helpless and just following advice trying to work out what the issue may be. He was put into one on one reading recovery and went from a level 3 to level 16 reader in three months. He thrived one-on-one with a teacher. Yet when I tried to read with him he would be standing on his head on the couch and trying to read upside down. Or he would not look at the pages and he’d make the story up in his head. I spoke to the teachers who reassured me not to worry because he clearly had a creative mind and that was impressive. I was advised at one stage by a teacher to see a speech therapist. He spoke fine so I wasn’t sure why we were doing this but once again we followed the advice. The speech therapist assessed him and reported he had no learning difficulties in fact his memory was amazing more than average and she felt because he’d missed the foundations of the first year of school learning’s he was relying on memory. This took such a weight off my shoulders. Once he was helped with these foundations it all got easier. When he was in middle school his teacher relayed he could remember names of politicians that other kids couldn’t and facts he could recall when asked yet he never did homework so that was an issue in succeeding in the education system. Every sign and test and examination was telling me that Archie was an intelligent boy. I stopped worrying and started telling him he’s a smart boy and to this day I believe it. The issue with Archie is whether he’s interested in a topic or not. He is a self learner. He watched documentaries on topics he’s interested in as a teenager and could tell me in detail why things happened. I stopped worrying and knew Archie had the ability and determination to succeed if he wanted to.
Jane I always stressed to never rely on a man for income or lifestyle because you never know when that may be taken from you due to separation or death. I always worked and always had my own income and never allowed myself to be suppressed by a male. I always insisted on being treated as an equal contributor in a relationship and have role modelled that to Jane. Jane is in her final year of her Masters of Law and I’m so proud of the strong, determined woman she is and her perseverance and grit to succeed in her own right. It’s weird because you hope she doesn’t have to always be strong and determined but she said to me one day, but that’s how you raised me to be.
Rupert tells a story when at the wake at our house someone asked him where we kept the jugs. He remembers thinking, I don’t know that’s something mum and dad know and feeling like at 10 he had to step up now as the man of the house and learn such things and took on a load way to much for a young boy. He was mowing the lawn at 12 years old and taking on responsibilities non of his friends had to. He worried if we would have enough money, he worried about me. He has grown into a kind and thoughtful person and a good husband to Sofia.
I would have friends with partners/husbands that worked long hours or travelled with their jobs saying how hard it was that they had to look after the kids for a week or two, how hard it was that their husbands were away or working late. I bit my tongue so many times. I wanted to scream and say, ‘at least you don’t have to buckle 3 young children in the car to drive to a milk bar and get a bottle of milk, your husband can get it on his way home, or your husband is away for 2 weeks for goodness sake, imagine if he just never came home at all and for the rest of your life it’s just you, JUST YOU!’ . I wanted to scream so loud, they had no idea. Looking after kids on your own for two weeks, what a walk in the park. What I’d do to swap. To know it was only two weeks and that my husband, my lover and companion would be home in two weeks. Oh what a luxury it would be to be able to ring my husband up and say hey honey could you grab some milk on the way home please. Or even what a relief it must feel for many divorced mothers knowing they get a break every second weekend when their children have visitation rights with their dad. Me it was a 24 hour 7 day a week relentless emotional labour and responsibility.
I recently wrote It’s fascinating what we perceive as a happy family .
It started me thinking did I do ok as a mum. Did I give my kids a good home. A happy feeling home or did I mess it all up. Was I a sad mum that made them sad. Was home not a good place to be. Did my stress and sadness impact on them. Did they have unhappy childhoods as a result!
It isn’t just about their intellectual achievements it’s also their emotional confidence and well-being. I haven’t been afraid to enlist the help of a professional when I needed another ear. Someone to bounce off to help guide and reassure me we were on the right track. I didn’t have my husband who I trusted to help me and I found most people’s opinions weren’t coming from a place of full understanding as they didn’t really know the inner workings of our private life.
Did I do ok? That I don’t know, only kids can really answer that. What I do know is at the time I was doing my best. There were times mum would ring me and the kids tea time to say hello. I’d have to quickly get off the phone and would abruptly say, ‘I can’t talk, I’m cooking tea’. I said it abruptly because there were nights I didn’t feel I was coping and I was wanting help. But mum was to far away, my sister had her own family and Rupert’s parents had done enough to help. I didn’t want to say, I needed help, so I was short with people at times or retreated. In my abruptness I was saying help me!
Rupert’s parents were amazing. His stepdad Bobby would pick the kids up from the bus stop on the 3 days I worked and take them back to their place. Maude would cook tea for us all. I will forever be appreciative of this. After getting home from their house, there was still homework to be done and the nightly routine.
Janes bedroom was next to the laundry. Most nights at bedtime I would be washing clothes in the washing machine or the dryer would be going. When Jane was 18 we moved out of that home. Jane said that it would be weird not hearing the washing machine anymore because it had become a sound of comfort going off to sleep, and hearing me walking in and out of the laundry.
When there’s one parent living in a house this is how life is. I care for women at work who are choosing to be single parents. Who are making a conscious choice to have donar sperm because their desire to be a mother is so strong yet they have not found themselves in their late 30’s with a partner let alone one who wants to be the father of their children. I have no judgment on them. I love being a mum. My children mean so much to me. I couldn’t imagine life without them. And despite the challenges I have always felt blessed to have been a mother. For all the hard work the love you feel for someone else is incredible. It’s such a special feeling. This unconditional love and the positives they themselves as individuals give back to you is unmeasurable. The love they give and just being with people you love a lot can never be underestimated.
No relationships are smooth sailing but the ones you fight hard for and work at nurturing and strengthening are the most invaluable and rewarding. Addictions like drugs, alcoholism or gambling or violence that sometimes no matter how hard you fight you sometimes have to walk away. Those evils of our modern world are soul-destroying. Addiction is something that affects even the happiest families and there is no place in any relationship for violence.
As a parent I have done my best to steer my children away from the influences of drugs and those who may be influential in a negative way. I have discouraged friendships from children that I have felt were not good associations.
Despite parenting the best I can and with the morals and beliefs I think Harry and I both had, on my own it’s been a tough gig. Even though Ted came into my life 10 years ago I still feel the ‘parenting’ of my children has been my responsibility. I can only hope whilst wading through the mud of grief and then in the process of a blended family situation I didn’t mess it up to much. That my kids have come out with strengths as a result of what they’ve endured and not to many negatives.
I watched some videos I had converted to DVD of Christmas videos. Looking on now I saw how Christmas’s after Harry’s death has a seriousness about them. How in the 3 years following Harry’s death that the seriousness had impacted on Archie. I see a sadness in both my boys as I watch on. And that saddens me. I think when you are struggling yourself to get on with your new life you can be in some innocent way unaware of how much it’s also affecting your children. You know they are hurting but watching the DVD’s now I can not only see it but feel it. Reflecting now I can see how it took its toll on all of us. Especially how Archie’s first important years of his development were encased in stress and sadness. How his Pa took him under his wing and was amazing with him and what a lovely bond they developed.
The teenage years felt easier in that we had reached the other side of the intense grieving period. It was more about parenting as a sole/single parent. Of course it was felt during sporting triumphs, school debutantes, valedictory dinners, graduations, significant birthdays and Rupert’s wedding. Times when I feel I’m beaming proudly during moments you see your children showing themselves as good citizens and not having Harry to turn to and say we did well, they’ve done well.
Rupert getting his license was wonderful. He was able to start to drop Jane and Archie at afterschool activities whilst I cooked tea. He sometimes picked them up from parties for me. Then Jane eventually got her license and the siblings all helped each other out. Jane recently went into the city at 10pm at night to drop Archie’s license being proof of identification of age off to him that he had left home so he could get into a night club with his friends. It’s nice to see this sibling connectedness. That they help each other out. Archie recently helped Rupert with some home renovations. Over the years Rupert has helped and been there for Archie on numerous occasions and they all have a mutual respect for each other. It’s hard at times like when Rupert sold his first car that his dad wasn’t there to help with meeting the buyer to ensure it all went smooth sailing. I asked Ted if he could help and he stood with Rupert and supported him. Ted has been a great role model for my children.
I watched a movie years ago released in 1989 the year I got married and pregnant with Rupert called Parenthood that depicts the roller coaster of parenting. It’s a great movie starring Steve Martin as the dad. It’s a comedy but portrays the complexity of parenting. Watch it you won’t be disappointed even if it’s a 1989 movie the themes are still relevant.
I know over the years did the best I could, I had incredible support from family and friends, but did I do ok? Was it enough? I kept a roof over their heads, their tummies full, they went to a good school and a pretty regular life in most ways. My children lived in a pretty much an alcohol free home and I was there for them every night. They had stability and good male and female role models around them. We spent lots of time around family and friends and we did laugh and have fun. But did I do ok I ask myself?
I think this is something most parents who love and care about their children ask themselves at some point. Most of us are trying our best.
Writing this blog I wonder if people roll their eyes and think get over yourself, you aren’t the only women that did it hard raising kids. But this is my story and that’s what I’m writing about. About how I travelled the past 19 years. My tears, my pain, my loneliness, my emotions and how I coped and got through this and came out the other side. For that I shouldn’t feel ashamed. It was real to me. Every tear I shed. Every time I sat out in that car alone to protect my children when I had nowhere to run or no one to comfort me in my hours of distress and heartache late at night. No one at that moment to tell me it would all be ok, you will get through this. These moments I lived and felt.
Love Lucy x
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