parent opinion

"How did I get here?" The day Jacinta Tynan became a single mum.

The day I became a single mother felt like a regular Tuesday. 

Except, after I dropped my two young boys to school and preschool, I went back home and started a new life.

I had pledged to both of my sons at their births, six and four years earlier – a loving whisper in their tiny shell ears – to do the right thing by them, to always have their backs. 

Staying the course, keeping our family together, was no longer fulfilling that promise. Implementing the change took months – years, really. 

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There was no precise moment when the reordering began. 

Those days when your life changes course are not always easy to track. They’re rarely definitive but rather are an incremental build-up of days, the correlation – the joining of the dots – only becoming apparent in retrospect. 

It’s only when we find ourselves already well entrenched in the change that we are forced to stop and ask the hard question: How did I get here?

For the sake of an easy narrative, I can pinpoint becoming a single mother to the day that my sons and I left home. That was when ambiguity fell away.

We moved into our new home on a steamy summer Tuesday, ten days before Christmas. 

It was a small rental apartment at the other end of the same suburb as the home we had shared as an ‘intact family’ (a term used to describe the inferred more-appealing antithesis of ‘single parent’, even though it might be intact by appearance only). 

I deliberately booked the Airtasker removal van for a Tuesday because it was the one day of the week when my youngest, Otis, was at preschool and his brother, Jasper, was at school and I wasn’t working. 

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That gave me five hours to pack our belongings, ready for a smooth progression to our reconfigured life. 

I was under pressure to get the job done before the 3.05 p.m. school bell so the boys wouldn’t be a party to the disentanglement.

I had broken the news at dinnertime the night before, pulling up a toddler chair at the boys’ miniature orange table as they shovelled spaghetti into – and beside – their mouths with their plastic bulldozer- and excavator-shaped cutlery.

It was a significant announcement heralding an irredeemable turning point in their young lives. 

I was nervous about how they’d react, conscious that this moment could form lasting scars for years to come. And sad, too, that it had come to this.

To my great relief, my young sons seemed to take the news in their stride. Jasper just wanted to know if the new place had a pool. (It didn’t.) Otis wanted to know if he could bring ‘Brown Bear’. (Of course!)

I had been promising my kids – reassuring them – for a while that the tension we’d been living with wouldn’t be forever. (Although they didn’t have the vocabulary to call it that; they called it ‘yelling’, which was just as accurate.) 

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I’d dragged them with me to countless ‘open for inspections’ most Saturdays and some Wednesdays for months, to apartments all over our locality, but I hadn’t divulged that the search mission was actually for us. 

The prospect of change before a change actually happens is far too disconcerting for young minds lodged firmly in the present. I told them I was ‘looking for a friend’. 

Blessedly, at that age, they didn’t ask too many questions, delighted to explore the bare rooms and cupboards in all those vacant units.

No doubt the boys knew on some level that something was afoot, although I hid the removal boxes in the basement. 

Concepts are far more palatable to kids than reality. I didn’t want them to have a glaring visual of this move – of furniture being shifted from one home to another – lest it sear into their memories and become a symbol of the upheaval they were subjected to, not yet even close to realising I was doing it for their own good.

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That eventful Tuesday morning, one of the ‘school mums’ (the mums of Jasper’s kindy friends and the only women I really knew in the area) turned up to help. 

Leaving her six-week-old twins at home with a babysitter, Lisa was at my door with pastries and sleeves rolled up. 

I cried when I opened the door, overwhelmed by her kindness and with the dawning enormity of what I was executing. Not just the change of address, but the irreversible changing of our lives.

Starting Over.

I brought the boys home to our new apartment after school. 

They tore through the empty rooms, staking out their territory like newborn puppies, squabbling over who would sleep where, whose corner was whose. 

They assumed it was a hotel, not a permanent offering – a welcome naïveté protecting them from the stark reality of the monumental shift in their orbit that had just transpired.

Our first night as a freshly minted family of three, we stayed with my brother's family because our electricity wasn’t yet connected. 

I was quite happy about that. It was like a brief transition point, one night with a ‘real family’ with the comfort of weekday commotion and care – the excuse to linger in denial a little longer – before our life began anew.

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It wasn’t until the next night that we really began the business of starting over.

The boys’ regular babysitter, Lizzie, brought dinner. 

She greeted me at our rental with a teetering pile of ready-to-go pasta meals to get us through the next few days. ‘I didn’t think you’d feel like cooking,’ Lizzie said brightly. She was right about that. 

And I cried again, sobbing shamelessly in her arms on the street outside our apartment block. This young girl who’d minded my children most Saturdays since their infancy – while I worked – was in this moment taking care of me.

I was swept up by the full circle-ness and big-heartedness of the exchange.

Lizzie lent us a TV, too. 

Thank goodness for that because we didn’t have one. We didn’t have a couch, either. Or a bed for the boys. 

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I’d brought a couple of camp mattresses from home; they could sleep on them until I could get the money together for bunk beds for their empty bedroom. 

But we did have a fridge – I’d raced out to buy one the day before, on sale at Harvey Norman, on my way back from signing the lease, and had it delivered straight away. 

A fridge, I reasoned, was more important than a bed because my boys might be able to sleep anywhere at their ages, but they needed cold milk for breakfast.

We ate one of Lizzie’s pasta dishes for dinner, heated up on the stove (we didn’t have a microwave). 

The three of us sat on the floor among all the removal boxes, pretending everything was normal. 

After I read the boys a story (keeping at least one thread of consistency with this nightly ritual) and got them to sleep (one in my bed, one on the mattress beside my bed), I sat on the lounge-room floor where a couch might eventually go and instinctively wrapped my arms around my knees, holding myself in – containment.

Tears came quickly. I tried to gauge my emotional state, the first chance I’d had to do this in days – years, really. 

Am I okay? I asked myself. Yes, I believe I am. So, what was it then? Why was I crying? Why the deep sighs? Why was I making myself small in the expanse of a vacant room when I would’ve been quite warranted in the circumstances to be leaping around in exaltation to any music of my choosing without anyone around to judge? Or watching whatever I fancied on our borrowed TV? Why was I not celebrating my freedom?

I was, but I felt more inclined to sit still. To be still. Being still is a luxury when you’ve been on edge.

I soon realised that what I was feeling was relief – relief that I had made it here with my boys, that we got to start again. Not everyone gets to start again.

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On that first night of our new beginning, I stayed propped up against the wall in the unfurnished lounge room, knees bundled close to my chest, for some time, getting used to my new surrounds. My new way. 

From that night forward, I only needed to answer to me. I was adjusting. Recalibrating. Decompressing. I was also panicking. 

I’m a single mother now. God! Am I up for this? My mind was racing and I had to yank it back, arresting my wayward thoughts. You’ve got this. You’ve done harder things, I reminded myself. But had I really?

The momentousness of what I’d just orchestrated was suddenly unavoidably real. 

It was staring me in the face. That’s why I was making myself small in contrast to the potential overwhelm of my current reality. 

In taking this action – fronting up with my Airtasker van of household chattels to a twelve-month lease apartment – I had unleashed a divergent course for myself and two young people who had no say in it. 

From this day our three lives would head in an alternate trajectory.

I am a single mum. 

My boys are being raised by a single mum. This is all my doing. It’s not good or bad. It just is. 

For now, I had suspended judgement, along with my life — the life I hadn’t anticipated for me or my children.

This is an edited extract from The Single Mother’s Social Club by Jacinta Tynan. Murdoch Books RRP $32.99.

Image: Supplied.

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Feature Image: Instagram/jacintatynan

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