7 December 2012

'Unsung Heroes' - Single Mums' Story 12.

I am very pleased to introduce Chrissie Lewandowski for today's Single Mums' Story, the next in our series.  She is co-founder of www.SingleWithKids.co.uk, who provide classy holidays and events for single parents, plus on-line and off-line support, trying to spread the word that life doesn’t end with divorce. 

As we become increasingly further away from the feckless teenager persona of the single parent, Chrissie shares with us how she sees things - that their median age is 36, more work than don't and that most have had their children within a steady relationship, rather than just as a currency for a council house and how, unfortunately, this doesn't make headlines, just unsung heroes.

 She's 45, mum to two girls, 11 and 12, and says she is rapidly learning the Joys of the Pre-Teen.  Her career has been spent in Marketing.  She has a host of degrees and post graduate certificates in subjects long since forgotten and had a passionate and rather odd affair with All Things German which provided no help whatsoever when giving up her career to pursue her dream of self employment: 

Chrissie Lewandowski, 45.


The raised eyebrows said it all. I’d just proudly mentioned to a fellow conference delegate that the very entertaining speaker had actually holidayed  with ‘Single With Kids’ and his disbelief was hard to hide. Yes, the speaker is a single parent, and yes, single parents can be intelligent, funny, professional and extremely talented.  Unfortunately the UK media has been extremely successful in building a stereotype from which we struggle to escape – ask anyone to personify the words ‘single parent’ and I’d bet my daughter’s JLS poster collection that Vicky Pollard would be top of the list. Our after dinner  speaker ticked none of these boxes – a middle aged, successful journalist & film director just doesn’t tie into the gutter press’s image of those parents who are single-handedly responsible for all of society’s ills.

Single parent stigma is something we come up against constantly, I've lost count of the number of times we've had to explain our club before we could secure a booking with suppliers. One campsite claimed they "don't take groups like yours", another told us they'd be checking the parents' ID at the bar.  Given the fact our parents are predominantly middle aged, they'd be delighted to be asked for ID!  A lady at Center Parcs snottily claimed "Single parents? Ooh, we are probably too expensive for you"   Really? Given the fact our members include doctors, lawyers, an OBE actress, nurses and teachers, I thought that was a rather sweeping statement, as well as being totally off the mark as we have families who have decided against Center Parcs in favour of all inclusive 5 star Med resorts.   Strangely enough, we find single parents themselves are influenced by the stigma too, we have a number of emails asking "what kind of people?" come on our breaks!

The first year I split with my husband, I would find myself almost whispering the words ‘single parent’ as if I was admitting to being a Chesney Hawkes’ fan.  It couldn’t have been much worse if the divorce courts had given me sackcloth to wear and a bell to ring – the words signalled my (apparent) abject failure in life, and the fact I was  to tar my children to a life of dysfunction and accordingly to the latest single-parent-bashing report, roly-poly waistlines too. Like most, single parentdom wasn’t on my list of “Things-to-do-before-you’re-40”.  In fact I’d never really given it a second thought until it hit me like a slow moving steam train, when after a 10 year relationship we both had to admit our marriage was making us all downright miserable.  For increased dramatic effect this happened to be the very same month I walked out of a job, slamming the door behind me just a little too vigorously for my bank manager’s liking – I was out on a limb in all senses of the word.  May as well be hung for sheep as for a lamb so the saying goes and here I was aiming for a full flock of them.   I never did shy away from a challenge. Fortunately another job was waiting in the wings, and the ex was replaced by a Spaniel – a good swap on all sides. Bo Peep could sleep soundly.

The first year of separation was an emotional  smorgasbord , topped  by the fact many of our former married friends didn’t quite know to handle our new circumstances….so didn’t. Neither of us saw them for the dust cloud they left behind. My ex moved out of the family home, the Spaniel pup moved in (and ate an awful lot less), I painted the place bright pink in post-divorce defiance and life continued unabated. Dysfunction never quite caught us up although the challenges of shared parenting did stick its huge foot out to trip us up from time to time. Relations with my ex would have tested Kofi Annan’s diplomacy, warfare broke out on an almost hourly basis, frustrated by the fact it was predominantly by text when really a grenade would have been our preferred choice.  As much as possible we kept our bickering away from the kids, to such an extent that the superficial courtesy we exercised in front of them actually became the norm and quite genuine, and ex relations are now bordering very dangerously on being amicable. I like to retain a sense of very healthy scepticism on this front.

It’s now an amazing 7 years since I gained my sackcloth and I’ve got to say I’m wearing it well. The intervening years have seen me pursue dreams that I’d never have attempted otherwise. They’ve seen a whole new career path as well as the creation of a fun, new social circle of friends who share / endure and indeed enjoy the single parent challenges. They’ve seen a rediscovery of who I actually am.  Best of all, they’ve seen my children blossom and grow in a household devoid of animosity and arguments (conveniently skipping past the sibling rivalry).  I can honestly say I love our life and can’t actually imagine it any other way, despite the occasional attempts from well meaning friends to try and stop it in its tracks by introducing me to potential but totally unsuitable Mr Rights.  Through my work with single parents I’ve met families of whom I’m in awe at the challenges they’ve faced, and yet who’ve taken it all in their stride, providing the happy home they sought for their children. Vicky Pollard has up to date eluded me, if indeed she really does exist.

Single parenting is rarely short of a challenge, but then no parenting comes with an ‘Easy-as-1-2-3” guide. For me it’s a world away from tiptoeing around an unhappy home, wondering what mood’s coming next, with children using the situation to play off one parent against another.  I have nothing but sympathy for people trapped in those circumstances who mistakenly believe it’s better to limp along in marital unhappiness as long as they’re together for the children – the children are likely to be as unhappy with the situation as they are.   7 years on the words ‘single parent’ are no longer whispered in these parts, but shouted loud and proud from the roof tops….

Read other unsung heroes' Single Mums' Stories HERE.