Happy birth… oh, never mind

Guess what? It’s my birthday again. And this year I’m overwhelmed by a feeling of … indifference.

In years gone by, my day of birth was a cause for excitement and celebration – or at least a couple of good nights out with my mates.

In more recent times, it’s been an uncomfortable reminder of the passing years, and the ever-diminishing possibility of becoming a mum again.

But this year … this year I just feel largely … disinterested.

If truth be told, I’m more excited that I’m having a night out. It’s been nearly THREE MONTHS since I had a night out on the town with my mates – or what’s left of them.

(I did manage to sneak in one or two cocktails with a dear old friend when I went to visit my mum, mind. And thank goodness I did, or my sanity would have been completely out of the window by now.)

I know I bark on about it all the time, but the single hardest thing about being a lone parent is the isolation: you’re either in full-on mummy mode or sitting by yourself on the sofa, whiling away the hours until bedtime.
So the opportunity to leave the house AND hang out with grown-ups seems like a miracle of bounteous good fortune.

Truly, I am blessed.

The weird thing is, I’ve kind of forgotten how to snazz myself up for a night out. As I realised when I was trying to envisage some kind of outfit that would be suitable for a celebratory soirée, my work wardrobe is far more daring and sexy than my civvies. Scary, right?

Obviously, I’ll be going with mates who won’t care if I turn up in a bin bag, but since this is a rare opportunity to get my gladrags on, it’d be nice if my imagination could stretch to something more than jeans and a Primark tshirt. But I seem to have become the antithesis of glamour.

For example, a friend recently bought me a voucher for a photo shoot, complete with makeover. Now, I admit that I’ve never been much of a glamour puss – para boots and dreadlocks were more the order of the day for me – but I think this experience underlined how very little primping and preening happens on my watch.

Although I’d stated my preference for minimal make-up right from the start, the young lady still trowelled on what I considered obscene amount of gunk and goo … resulting in a less-than-ecstatic response from yours truly.

In fact, I looked so continually horrified at every stage of the makeover that the young lady eventually threw her hands in the air and, with good-natured exasperation, capitulated to my desire for, “less eyeshadow, please”, “not that much blusher!” and, “my own lipstick might be a bit less … red”.

I think the defining moment was when her query about whether I did my own eyebrows was met with a blank stare. Do…? Eyebrows…? She knew then that she was dealing with a rank amateur.

(The photos turned out great, by the way. And I looked like myself. Or rather, a very smooth version of myself.)
Anyway, this all goes to show that maybe I should up my game. Women of my age surely need all the help we can get with our je ne sais quoi … not to mention our dwindling appeal for the opposite sex. (Ha! As if any of them are looking.)

So tonight I’m going to push the boat out: I’ve already painted my nails (whoo!) and I may even apply some foundation. (Steady on…)

So if you spot a gussied up dame, caked in panstick and swanning about like Zsa Zsa Gabor with a cocktail in her hand, that’ll be me. Pop over and buy me another, why don’t you?

Cheers!

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The storm before the calm

Sometimes, being a single parent is hard.

Sure, you have to watch the pennies, so any luxuries tend to be on a smallish scale; there’s no one to take a turn when your kid is waking every hour because they’re too hot/too cold/in desperate need of a tissue cos snot is bubbling out of their nose; and there’s no one to help you wrestle your pram, luggage and wailing, overtired infant down the stairs at those end-of-the-world airport gates that Ryanair seems to favour. But, hey, plenty of people in ‘traditional’ families have those kinds of problems too.

No, the thing that I really miss in my one-parent wonderland is someone to share a glance of understanding, or a roll of the eyes, when things get tough.

And when I say, “get tough”, I’m referring specifically to the Age of Infinite Tantrums.

I feel bold enough to talk about it now that it has – dare I say it – passed (for this week, at least), but … my goodness! … the AIT has pushed my mummy powers to the absolute limit. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s been my toughest mummy challenge to date.

Now, I know that tantrums are pretty testing for any parent. But imagine that, on certain days, the only person you speak to outside of work is a grumpy three-year-old.

Next, imagine that, on other days, the only person you speak to AT ALL is a grumpy three-year-old.

Challenging, right?

Enter the Age of Infinite Tantrums.

Suddenly, everything you say or do has the potential to provoke a full-on, face-down, snot-streaming tantrum. You cut the toast the wrong way … despite the extensive survey you undertook, knife poised in mid-air. You took a shower. (Yes, I know. You do that every morning but .. how could you?) You cleaned you teeth first. Waaaaaahhh!

It’s like stepping on snails in the dark.

Yup, tantrums always suck and I’ve done my bit of standing by, trying to look nonchalant while my small human lies petulantly spread-eagled on any number of shop floors, but I thought we were doing pretty well; we were getting through the terrible twos and the subsequent ‘threenager’ years relatively unscathed.

And then the AIT struck: two solid weeks of tantrums, every morning and every night.

“Two weeks?!” I hear you sneer, “Two measly weeks? Big deal!”

I know. I know. Two weeks. It’s not long, right? But, dear friend, kindly reserve judgement until you’ve walked a mile in the moccasins. And once you’ve experienced it, try doing it on your own.

Truly, despite my overwhelming and unerring love for the little fella, I thought I may boot him up to the moon through sheer rage, frustration and puzzlement.

Furious internet research furnished me with gems such as, “stay calm; your child needs reassurance that these big feelings are OK – that he is OK”.

Now, this works fine for the first forty minutes (yup, forty) but by the time the little guy reached his zenith – an impressive one hour twenty of full-on, eye-popping screams and snot-smeared rage – I was feeling, let’s say, a little ragged.

Even bundling him onto the bike for some cool, soothing air had little to no effect; he was thrashing like a freshly caught salmon. In fact, he was thrashing so hard I thought we were going to crash the bike.

So, dear lady who stopped to talk to me despite my hysterical son and my tear-filled eyes, I know I said thank you at the time, but what I really meant was THANK YOU. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU.

Because not only did your presence distract my beloved infant, finally stemming the near-eternal tide of tears, but it made me feel that I wasn’t alone. And that made it a whole lot easier.

But the tantrums kept coming.

And then, ten days after The Great Tantrum, we had an evening of my calm – an evening devoid of purple-faced rage and pencil throwing.

The next morning, as soon as I went to wake the little guy, I knew I had my boy back. There was no grumpy face, set in pre-whine mode, just a cheeky little phizog beaming up at me.

“Mummy,” he said, “I’m not going to have a tantrum today.”

And he didn’t.

Of course, it would be lovely to say that that was the end of it … but, naturally, it wasn’t: this is real life. The next day, the mere thought that I might be brushing my teeth first enough to set the little guy off. (For the record, I wasn’t; I was getting some trousers from the little guy’s wardrobe.)

Truly, these are testing times.

Still, as they say, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, so I now have a whole new raft of infant-tackling tactics in place, and my fingers firmly crossed.

But if you see me wrangling with an apoplectic infant, please be brave enough to look over and smile, or give me a sympathetic roll of the eyes.

In the absence of a stiff G&T, it might just be what I need to get me through the day.

From Russia with love

So here we are in Lithuania – me, the little guy and Nanna, on a three-generational holiday. And in the great tradition of our three-generational holidays, we’re staying in a hostel.

We’ve spent the morning traipsing round Vilnius’s finest kid-friendly attractions, so we’re taking a well-earned rest in the common room with a beer, a glass of milk and a cup of tea, respectively.

The little guy is – naturally – showing off his finest Spiderman moves, attracting the attention of our fellow hostellers, so we take time to say hello and introduce ourselves. We meet a young girl from Oregon, USA, who’s worked as a nanny and has clearly got the measure of my overly bouncy infant; a young guy from Korea who’s just graduated and is taking time out to travel round Europe; and an older guy who tells us that he’s from a place on the Russian border with China, and his town is half Russian and half Chinese.

“Interesting,” I say. “I’d never really thought of the two populations living side by side…”

But I don’t get to ponder this further, because the Korean guy starts talking about his plans to go to Warsaw and it turns out that’s where the American girl is headed, too, so they start talking about that, the conversation ends and the little guy and I head off to hang out on the beanbags with Nanna.

Cut to three days later.

I’ve just realised that I’ve miscounted the nappies and we’re two short, so I’m on a late-night mercy mission to the local supermarket. (I’ve become a bit casual since the little guys switched to teeny tiny pants during the day; I somehow forget that he still needs them at night.)

While I’m perusing the aisles in search of Baltic bum wraps, Nanna is putting the little guy to bed in our four-bed dorm – which, since there are three of us, has effectively become a private room. She’s just changed into her nightie and is about to read the first of three bedtime stories.

Suddenly, without as much as a cursory knock on the door, Russian Guy bursts into the room, burbling about how he’s leaving this evening and asking, “Where is your daughter?”

My mum – quite politely, given the rather startling circumstances – explains that I’m out and will surely be back soon.

Exit Russian Guy.

Ten minutes later, Nanna is just snuggling down under the covers when Russian Guy bounds in again, explaining that he’s leaving now and he’d like to leave his contact details for me.

My poor mum, from her supine position, is forced to extend a hand to receive the scratty bit of paper with Vladimir’s email, WhatsApp and Viber contacts, popping it under her pillow whilst meekly promising to pass it on to me.

Which she duly does … and seems vaguely surprised when I immediately ‘file’ the details in the nearest waste paper bin.

Now, I’m sure that Vladimir was a nice bloke, but our interaction was so brief, I don’t think I’d pick him out of a crowd.

Admittedly, from one point of view, I could be passing up the chance to meet a rare and intriguing character who could just be the man of my dreams. But from another point of view, he’s an odd kind of dude who’s barely exchanged ten words with me yet expects me to leap at the chance to stay in touch.

Later that evening, I’m out with one of the girls who works on reception, having a beer and telling her about Vladimir and his granny-bothering.

“I have a habit of attracting oddballs,” I say, as we grab our coats and start walking back to the hostel.

Barely have the words left my lips when a large, bearded guy – all hair and eccentricity – dances up to me, yelling, “WELCOME to Lithuania!” before blowing me a kiss and wafting away.

The girl and I look at each other, and burst into incredulous laughter.

“You’re not wrong,” she says. “All the weirdos come your way.”

And all I can do is nod in agreement.

Getting it wrong … AGAIN

For a good while there, I had a dilemma. A dilemma that was fully occupying the angel and the devil that sit on my shoulder, and it concerned the Phantom Texter.

We had become close. Perhaps closer than is advisable with someone who is, on paper at the very least, married.

Of course, he never quite managed to explain the doubtless complicated nature of his marriage. (Of course.) But we’d been corresponding for more than six months – with the occasional, 100% platonic get-together for coffee – and, as a consequence, we had become close.

Which is fine and not fine, because it’s hard to know at what point a friendship crosses the line and becomes an inappropriate friendship, even without physical contact.

When the angel was in charge, the simple answer was: when the conversation includes something your partner wouldn’t be happy with. But the devil reckoned that all’s fair in love and war and besides, since when was it my job to be someone else’s Thought Police?

Now, it’s true that since we’re both grown adults, he should be responsible for his own actions. But it’s also true that 50% of the conversation was mine – so 50% of the culpability surely rested at my feet, too?

I can’t help feeling that things would be far more cut and dried had I not been single for so bloody long and he were not the first man in many, many moons who was so appealing. Which I know is no excuse, but the little devil was leaning in and wheedling, “This is your time! Here – finally – is a dashing man who’s into you! You deserve him. Take him! Go on – reach out and grab him!”

Then, of course, the angel would push a hand into the devil’s face, shove him out of the way and says, “But he’s not YOURS!” … and round we’d go again … and again … until I had no idea which way was up and which was down and what the heck was right or wrong.

After a while, these shenanigans made me realise that my so-called morals were rather more elastic that I thought; they were being gradually eroded by familiarity and conversations that were once the very definition of chaste became markedly less so.

Of course, I knew it was morally wrong, but I can’t deny it – my day was brighter when I heard from him and gloomier when I didn’t. And somewhere in my head an alarm bell began to sound: that way danger lies.

But you know what? There were always innumerable obstacles to our get-togethers: extensive work trips, meetings here and there and recurrent bouts of debilitating illness … all genuine events, to be sure, but this guy was so rarely available he made Halley’s Comet look like a regular visitor.

Then, one day, something changed. The dashing gentleman was, as usual, beset by “issues” that required sympathy from me … but, this time, I had an issue of my own.

Was he concerned? Worried for me? Keen to help? Ummm. Not really. He seemed rather keen to get back to talking about his problems. And, actually, he seemed to have very little time for corresponding with me in general.

At first, I wondered if he was OK. I gave him space; tried not to care when he ignored my news or didn’t reply for three days because he really did have a lot on his plate. (He truly did – and still does.)
But suddenly it occurred to me that if he really cared about me, I wouldn’t have to be wondering about his state of mind; he’d let me know for himself. And he wouldn’t feel the need to push me out when things got hectic because I’d be central to his wellbeing.

And then a powerful – but admittedly quite belated – bolt of lightning flashed in my mind: he’s just not that into you. And I realised that it’s a lesson I’ve learned before, but obviously not that well.

You can’t care about someone who doesn’t care about you: it’s not that he can’t call because he’s really busy, it’s that you’re not an important enough part of his day. And if he hasn’t got ten seconds free to send you a text, well … you can work that one out for yourself.

And then all at once, the angel and the devil stopped their clamour; everything fell silent and I realised that there was no dilemma to speak of; no dilemma at all.

A time for lovers

So here we are again: Valentine’s Day is nearly upon us and, once more, Cupid has left me to fend for myself.

In fact, the chubby cherub d’amour has abandoned me for so long, I’m almost embarrassed by how many of these lovey dovey days I’ve spent alone. I’ve literally been single for years.

Of course, there was the brief interlude that eventually saw the arrival of the little guy – and what a joy he is – but essentially, it’s been just me. For ages and ages and ages.

In truth, I’ve been single for so long, I actually wonder how I’d cope in if the unthinkable happened and I finally found myself in a relationship. It’s awfully easy to get set in your ways when it’s you (and only you) who decides every aspect of your routine, from how the bed is made to what brand of coffee to buy.

Since I’m the kind of person who tends towards rigidity in their habits – no matter how hard I try to fight it – I wonder whether I’d be able to cede control to any newcomer and let them take the driving seat now and again.

Lord knows, I’ve even got the little guy trained to tidy up after himself so I’d probably have an apoplectic fit if I paired up with someone who left dirty socks lying around on the floor.

However, given the circumstances, it’s unlikely to happen any time soon: last week I went for a night out for the first time since Christmas. This is not the way that beautiful new friendships are made.

Cupid has scant chances for success when my day is basically split between work, the nursery run and that housebound, post-infant-bedtime period. Weekends tend to be spent between chores and visits to the park, with the occasional excursion to more exotic locations when the sun shines.

In short, my life is not a hotbed of romantic activity or, indeed, any circumstance that’s likely to invite it.

On the other hand, the Phantom Texter continues his textual charm assault, which brightens my day, but until his circumstances change – something that doesn’t look remotely imminent – it’s a friendship that’s on a hiding to nowhere.

Thank heavens for the little guy, who thrills and delights in equal measure … when he’s not engaged in the ferocious tantrums typical of his age. Truly, there is no patience like that of a parent.

Who knew that simply tearing off and proffering a piece of sandwich could provoke such ire? (“It’s broken!!! Waaaaaaahhhhh!”) Or that choosing the “wrong” pair of socks for his tiny majesty could result in a mini-meltdown of 20 minutes’ duration?

Still, these outbreaks of unbridled rage are balanced with sticky hugs and sloppy kisses; declarations like, “I love you, mummy. You’re my favourite mummy ever!” and inexplicably random comments, such as, “I look like a Judy. Judies have balloons.”

So even though Cupid may have given up on me and I can’t have hearts and flowers, I can at least have grubby little paws wrapped round my neck, sneezes sneezed directly in my face and boogers wiped lovingly onto my arm.

And honestly, if you’ve got that, who needs a fat little fella with a wonky bow and arrow?

Who am I?

I’ve been pondering my single status again lately – just for a change – and it occurs to me that I’m a completely different person to the one I was when I last had a relationship.

I mean, I’ve had a child since then. And it’s amazing how radically that changes things.

In the pre-infant years, I would have listed my main interests as travelling, going to the gym and socialising. Nowadays, the latter two activities are almost off my radar and the former – although still something I do whenever possible – has taken on a completely different form.

Now, my holiday destinations are not so much chosen for their cultural richness as for the number of parks and infant entertainment options I’m likely to find in the vicinity.

But it’s not just the practical things that have changed: my character has changed too. I have, in some ways, become more patient – not that you’d know it if you saw me chivvying the little man on the nursery run.

Perhaps patient isn’t exactly what I mean, but … tiny tantrums definitely teach you the value of a poker face, and no one knows the meaning of the phrase, ‘pick your battles’ like the mother of a toddler.

As a matter of fact, patience isn’t exactly a family virtue and I admit that I may not have always been the most mellow of partners in the past. So … would I be an easier person to be with, now that I’m a mum? Or would the poker face that I so ably display with the little guy be completely redundant in interaction with grown-ups?

Not that I’m likely to find out anytime soon. The Forester and I have exchanged one measly text, which doesn’t suggest super-high levels of engagement from either side. And, of course, I discovered that the Phantom Texter is married.

It almost went without saying, didn’t it?

He finally declared his intent, and I told him how flattered I was (and I was; he’s a highly attractive gentleman) … but didn’t he have a wife? To give him his due, he didn’t deny it or answer obliquely – just expressed regret that he was now no longer a contender for my attentions.

On the one hand, I’m truly disappointed; on the other … do I look like the kind of woman who’d be happy as a mistress??!

It never ceases to amaze me just how many men – men who are otherwise kind, intelligent and reasonable – think it’s OK to play around behind their partner’s back. I honestly don’t get it. If you love her, why would you cheat on her? And if you don’t love her, why would you stay with her?

I suppose the phrase, “having your cake and eating it” applies, and the answer to the question is simply because you can. Unless I have a peculiar ability to attract that sort of ‘gentleman’, I’d keep a very close eye on any man I got involved with.

Or maybe women are just as bad. I wouldn’t know.

Anyway, it’s just my luck that the first gentleman in months (if not years) to pay me any kind of attention turns out to be ineligible. It was fun to look forward to his messages and, if I’m honest, have someone care about how my day was, how I’m feeling and whether I’m alive or dead.

(Apart from my mum. My mum cares. Obviously.)

Because let’s not beat about the bush here: it gets awfully lonely being a single mum in a world of coupled-up parents. I’m sick and tired of being the ‘strong woman’; I just want someone to give me a cuddle, make me dinner (toast is OK) … or even just talk to me.

I mean, I love the little guy to bits but there’s only so much you can say about Peppa-bloody-Pig before you want to climb the walls. Weekends of undiluted toddler talk are pretty tough.

But I don’t want to be ‘the other woman’ and I never will. Alone is the last place I want to be, but alone with someone else’s man? No thanks.

Here I go again, on my own

Ah, speed dating. What a quirky evening it was. And, perhaps surprisingly, a lot of fun.

Let loose on the unsuspecting world on a rare night out I was, perhaps, a tad … ebullient. In fact, I’m pretty sure I was like an over-enthusiastic puppy dog straining at the leash, but it’s been quite a while since I’ve been out beyond 7pm, let alone had the pleasure of meeting so many new people all at once.

And what an eclectic bunch it was…

There was number seven, the Ukrainian physicist, who spoke with an accent as thick as treacle but unfortunately left no impression on me beyond that. I met rough diamond number five, who bought a garden furniture business almost by accident and had a surprising penchant for writing and literature.

Number nine was a keen bean who came to mingle before the event started, and wasted no time in telling me how he spent all his spare time and cash on formula car racing. (He seemed almost proud that his company had registered just £4K profit last year, since he’d frittered the rest on his one true passion.) He also talked about mortgages far more than I’d consider standard at a speed dating event.

I discovered that number 12 had five – yes, five – children: he was a single parent to two girls and saw one of his sons regularly, but the other two were not in his life. In fact, one of them was as a result of a one-night stand and he only found out the child existed when the mother popped round to show it off.

It’s surprising what you can find out in four minutes.

Thank goodness for number eight – a friendly American squaddy who, at the ripe old age of 38, was due to retire in two years’ time – and number 10, who’d caught my eye the minute he walked in: he worked in forest management and apparently regularly had a freezer full of deer – just one of the perks of the job.

I wasn’t sure that either of them were boyfriend material but they both seemed like nice, interesting guys, so I skipped the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ columns on my crib sheet, and put a decisive tick for each of them under ‘friend’.

After them, there were a couple of friendly gentlemen who fell straight into the ‘no’ category, then all too soon, the night was over. Everyone was unusually swift to skedaddle thereafter, so I was back on the bike and on my way home by 10pm.

Of course, it wasn’t long before I had a message from the Phantom Texter, asking how the evening had gone – and I couldn’t help asking myself what his interest in that might be.

Although many texts have been exchanged in the last week or so, I’m no closer to understanding his intentions … or his marital status … and it seems a bit blunt to just up and ask him, apropos of nothing. However, I’ve been in this situation before and sooner or later, truth will out. I’d just prefer it to be sooner, rather than later.

Anyway, while I’m waiting for things to make themselves clear, there seems no harm in going for a friendly coffee with The Forester. He’s an attractive gentleman, after all – if a little quieter than I’d like.

(So many people have been at pains to point out my … umm … irrepressible nature lately, that I’m scared I’m going to smother anyone who doesn’t bound into the room in an eye-screeching outfit, waving their arms about and rah-rah-rah-ing.)

Anyhow, the coffee was a very low-key affair, very pleasant … but as always in these cases, I can’t say I noticed much of a spark. I mean, I had a very pleasant time and it would be nice to meet up again but … I can’t say I’d be gutted if we didn’t. Still, most of the significant relationships in my life have not begun with an immediate attraction, so I’m happy to play it cool and see what develops. Maybe he’s a grower.

But recently I’ve been wondering if I even want to find a man at all. When I think of the impact an interloper would have on our lives (and when I say ‘our’ lives, I mean me and the little guy), I get to thinking that maybe the game’s not worth the candle.

So many of our rhythms and routines would have to change – in fact, the whole dynamic of my relationship with the little guy would have to change – that I wonder if it’s even worth trying to embark on such an ambitious scheme.

Maybe I’m just being defeatist. Or maybe I’m already halfway to an old age surrounded by cats. Or maybe, just maybe, single isn’t such a bad state after all.