real life

My life as a solo parent after my husband's death: Don't mistake it for single parenting.

Last week was the 4th time my husband was not at our daughter’s annual ballet concert.

Two days before the 2013 concert Matt had ended up in hospital complaining of shortness of breath. He stayed in hospital the whole of that following week.

I remember the night of that first concert my sister in law stepped into the breach at the last minute, taking Matts seat (if not his place) to watch Cara dance.

That night was really my first solo parenting experience and I distinctly remember how weird it felt to go backstage alone to get Cara after the show that night, and to be unable to share that moment of pride in her at least until the following morning when I showed him the video at the hospital.

Cara at her dance concert. Image: Supplied.

Eight weeks after that concert, Matt died suddenly at work. He was 39. The virus that had put him in hospital but which we thought had been cleared had somehow invaded his heart. In the space of a single unanswered text message, I became a solo parent.

Telling my then six-year-old twins what had happened was unquestionably the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Cara understood immediately, or at least in as much as any six-year-old can understand the finality of death. She took herself off to write a goodbye card for daddy. Noah was reasonably quiet but otherwise gave no indication that he knew anything was wrong. He seemed pleasantly surprised that I put them to sleep in my bed that night. It was a first for them. He didn’t realise what the novelty of a bed with space for two extra little bodies really meant.

I’m not sure that at that point I did either, but now when I put the kids to bed in their own rooms and wish them goodnight, the fact that there’s no “goodnight dad” to follow the “goodnight mum” brings home to me that it’s just the three of us now.

Robin Bailey emotionally reflects what it was like watching her kids deal with grief on The Well.

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Please don’t mistake solo parenting for single parenting when there is still another partner in the picture at least part time. Solo parenting – whether by choice or by design or by just damn bad luck - is something altogether different. I don’t get every second weekend “off” and I can't get the other partner to manage this disciplinary issue or that school project or the fact my son brings home his lunch uneaten every single day. It's just me. Some days I actually find myself wishing I had someone to fight with over a particularly difficult decision, rather than having to contemplate all angles on my own. I get lots of help from the people around me; but the intense worry for my kids physical and emotional safety is all mine because as much as other people can love, adore and support them, it feels like nobody else will ever “get” them in the way that sharing DNA seems to make you do.

Solo parenting after widowhood is particularly hard not just because of the physical and emotional demands, but also because you know that you have failed at your main job as a parent – to protect your kids from the “bad stuff” in life. My kids now know there is dark in the world so much earlier than they should have had to. The loss of their father will be with my kids forever now, no matter what comes next. It will colour everything, from birthdays to family holidays to their weddings, the conversations on their first dates, and, of course, the annual ballet concert. It will colour both the big stuff and the little stuff of life for my kids. It will never be the same.

And as I struggled before the concert the other night to neatly put lipstick onto Cara's lips which are as ill-defined as Matt's were, I couldn't help but think of him and what he is missing.

solo-parenting-is-nothing-like-single-parenting
Fiona Grinwald. Image: Supplied.

But I'm also thinking that Cara has more of her father in her than just ill defined lips. Like he was, she is kind and caring and always willing to help others. I'm grateful for that. I’m also thinking that Matt got to see Cara dance in a concert all the way back when she was five. I'm grateful for that.

And I'm also thinking that, as on the night of that first concert that Matt missed, Cara had her cheer squad with her watching the concert the other day. All four of her grandparents, cousins, aunties, her brother and I. Yes, Matt wasn't there but the rest of us were. She is blessed and I am blessed to be surrounded by so much support, and I'm grateful for that too. Most days, looking up and being grateful for what I still have is what gets me through. I make conscious choices to live as full and as meaningful a life as I possibly can, and pack my days with new people and new experiences to help me take a second perspective on this new life my kids and I are living together.

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I look up to remember to teach them that though their fathers death will colour everything in their lives, the palette can include bright colours as much as dark. I look up not to try and find silver linings on grey clouds, rather to look for the limitless blue sky above. I look up and see possibilities for the future instead of just the pure pain of the past.

Most days I am able to look up.

But even on the days that I find myself needing to look back, I do so with a grateful heart. Because I believe that how you look at things, changes what you see.

Fiona is a writer, public speaker and mother to 9-year-old twins. A long time government policy hack, Fiona changed from a cynic to a yogi after the sudden death of her husband in 2014. Two years on, Fiona founded 2lookup, a space where people can share positive connection and optimism in the face of adversity. You can follow Fiona on Facebook and on Instagram.

Listen to the full episode of The Well.


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