Today, my daughter and I were meant to be embarking on a once in a lifetime adventure, an 8-week roadtrip across Europe, in an effort to connect with each other and take a break from ‘normal life’. I needed time to reflect on the past two and a half years, space to feel the grief I all too often push aside, and courage to find some appreciation for my new life. I suppose I hoped a physical journey could somehow pull me along emotionally too.
Having had my intended future erased, I needed a focus, something to aim for, and a new path to travel down. So many of my previous aspirations have been made impossible by my present situation, and this decision to travel with Ava offered excitement, and the opportunity to carve out my destiny with my own hands. As spring approached, I was feeling energised and optimistic, fuelled by the promise of exploration (both external and internal).
I have spent the past nine months planning Project Vanlife, daydreaming about the perfect van, the freedom, the precious time together #makingmemories. My friends and family have invested in the journey too – supporting my blog, helping me choose a van, and buying countless campervan-related Christmas presents. But, as for many people, my plans have been scuppered by Covid-19. Far from spreading our wings, we’ve been forced to nest at home for the foreseeable future.
For a while, I hoped that when it was “all over” we’d still be able to go travelling. In March I reassured an editor who had asked me to write about our trip that I had every intention of fulfilling that commission – June was ages away!! But, two weeks later, when the lockdown was announced, it became all too apparent that another of my dreams had been evaporated – like a puddle, ready to splash in, dried up by the scorching sun. Even if we were allowed to travel, I’d have just spent several months at home with Ava – would I even be capable of spending another eight weeks solo parenting without a break? And besides, after all this time at home, it wouldn’t seem fair to disappear from work when business was just picking up again.
I tried to make peace with the situation early on. It was a first world problem, and paled into insignificance compared to what others were going through. Although isolating as a working single mum with a three-year-old hasn’t been as relaxing or productive as some people’s lockdown, we are extremely fortunate. We and our loved ones are healthy, we have outdoor space, and live in an enviably green locale.
After an initial ten days of self-isolation (initiated by Ava’s coughing), when this forced spell at home threatened to continue for considerably longer than 14 days, it seemed prudent to pre-empt any difficulties and loneliness that may compound my already challenging situation. When we got wind that the Prime Minister was going to address the nation, I began packing up our belongings.
Half an hour after Boris’s announcement, I flung a plethora of toys, books, pasta and loo roll into my car. Then, I plucked Ava from her bed (still sleeping), deposited her in the car seat and stealthily drove down to the sleepy village of Mere, Wiltshire, to wait out the lockdown with my Mum and her partner Gerry. Driving in the dead of night after fleeing home in such a dramatic fashion felt like something out of a movie. Throughout the two-hour journey I recalled scenes from disaster films in which denizens try to escape towns threatened by some malignant force. I half expected to be met with roadblocks and honking lines of traffic.
Three weeks turned into seven, but they flew by. Where many of my fellow widows (or ‘wids’ as we call ourselves) had to manage full time jobs and homeschooling multiple children singlehandedly, I had adult company, help with the laundry and housework, and a hell of a good diet (thanks Mum!!). For those seven weeks, rather than practising a romantic, early retirement, my Mum and Gerry welcomed us with open arms – tantrums, fussiness, sullied carpets and all (and that was just me!). They counselled me as I struggled with Ava’s wayward behaviour, potty accidents and terrible sleep, comforted me when I fell apart on Omid’s birthday, and allowed me space to breathe when I needed to step away from everything and take a walk alone. And they never complained (although I did once find them hiding in their campervan doing a crossword when it all got a bit too much in the house!!).
At times, it felt as though we were on a long holiday – and I had explained it as such to Ava. We had slow, lazy mornings, al fresco lunches, and enjoyed the sun beating down on us. One of the benefits of staying in Mere was the opportunity to explore. Being unfamiliar with the area, our daily walks became mini ecscursions as Ava and I sought out new routes not available on our doorstep. We made up songs about sleepy lions while walking through meadows of wildflowers. We paddled in streams and played poo sticks. We paid regular visits to a paddock of curious goats and suspicious alpacas. And it was just these types of idle, balmy afternoons that I had been longing for, for all those months, while planning our trip.
After those seven weeks, once the lockdown restrictions were loosened a little, I decided to come home. I was feeling restless and hopeful that I would soon be able to socialise again (albeit from a distance!) to stave off the loneliness once back. In a way, I had found so much free time at my mum’s slightly daunting. I couldn’t decide how best to use it, and was so overwhelmed by the choice of creative activities, online theatre, yoga videos and Netflix releases that I agonised, night after night, over which to give priority to, and ended up doing none. Added to that was a frustration over all the useful things I could be doing at home – deep cleaning the oven, making new curtains for Bertie, my tax return…
I was craving my own space. I assumed living with my mum would be a dream, but I found it surprisingly hard to adjust. I hadn’t realised until now just how accustomed I have become to living on my own. It’s not something I ever thought I would be comfortable with, but it turns out that I am. It was a strange revelation about myself that not only am I used to living alone, I actually enjoy it.
I love the freedom of being able to do whatever I like in the few hours post-bedtime. I can choose what to watch on TV without deciding by committee. I can cook whatever I fancy for dinner, at a time when I am hungry, or choose not to eat anything at all without feeling the concerned gaze of another party. I’m sure my mum would never judge me for opting for a glass of wine and packet of Maltesers for dinner, but I think there is some deep rooted instinct in all mothers to ensure their children eat three square meals a day, and I’d hate to invoke her anxiety by not fulfilling that under her roof. I even craved housework – the satisfaction of wiping the kitchen surfaces to a sparkling shine. Who knew that was even possible?!
One of the things I was worried about in advance of our trip, was whether or not I would be lonely. But now I think I would have been OK.
Another strange realisation was that, since losing Omid, I have been parenting in a vacuum. There is no one to bounce ideas off or help make decisions. There are some things that are best decided by committee, like how to discipline, when to discipline, and how to approach a completely irrational threenager. I had subconsciously assumed that while living with my Mum I wouldn’t have to do these things by myself anymore. I’d have a seasoned pro by my side to guide and advise. But, she never interjected. Although I was frustrated by this at first, I realise now that this lack of interference is to her credit – I am still Ava’s only parent, and all of those choices thus ultimately fall to me, regardless of who we are with. It’s my responsibility to ensure she grows into a happy, rational and emotionally intelligent human being, and no-one else’s. And it will always be that way.
But, what it did mean for those seven weeks, was that in addition to feeling all that pressure of moulding a person’s life single-handedly, I now had an audience!! My mistakes and blow ups were on public show, which I was uneasy about in spite of having the most supportive mother I could ask for. My own insecurity had me judging and tutting myself on her behalf. On the flip side of that, I had someone to console me when it all got too much. A witness to my suffering, which also usually takes place in a vacuum. Someone to validate that, yes, that was a hard day.
When we left to stay with my Mum, I had already spent ten days at home alone with Ava, and I had actually thoroughly enjoyed it. All that unexpected time together to create, explore, play. I had viewed it as a challenge to fill her days with educational and stimulating experiences, and I relished it. I spent Mother’s Day home alone with the one person who was supposed to be appreciating me completely oblivious of the occasion (there is no breakfast in bed for single mothers), but I didn’t mind. I wasn’t ready to up sticks and stay with Mum and Gerry. I wasn’t in need of the help (yet) and it felt like giving up too soon. But I was worried about restrictions preventing us from travelling down there in the event that things did get too much, or I became sick. Heaven forbid I’d have to pull a Cummings.
For the first few weeks, perhaps fuelled by updates from other widows on social media who were still going it alone, I had a sense that I was somehow betraying my ‘Single Motherhood’. Other people in my situation were struggling and making sacrifices, and I was being let off lightly. It made me deeply uncomfortable – I felt as though I should be toughing it out with them in solidarity, not being pampered by my mother.
What I realised is that far from being tarnished by the label of being a ‘single mother’, it is a badge that I now wear with pride. I belong to a tribe of strong, empowered an inspiring women, achieving incredible things under impossible circumstances, and that is an absolute privilege. The decisions and the troubles may be mine alone, but so are the rewards. When I saw my novice attempts at teaching Ava her letters and numbers pay off, I felt myself grow two feet taller. When she sang, day after day, that “Mummy is my best friend, I want to keep her forever” it was an elixir of joy that could be tasted by no-one else.
Today marks the start of week 11 of lockdown, and as I stare at the entry in my calendar – “Begin vanlife!!” – I’m starting to realise that many of the experiences I hoped to have on our trip I have already begun during lockdown. I had planned to spend our eight weeks abroad entirely outside, immersed in nature, and (thanks partly to the unseasonably good weather) we have managed to do this. I haven’t had such a good tan in years! And now that the restrictions are easing a little I am exploring our little corner of the world with a fine toothed comb, and realising with a new appreciation just how lucky we are to live here. Far reaching views permeated by the primary hues of spring and intimate encounters with wildlife have exceeded all my expectations,
I have been blessed with an unprecedented opportunity to connect more deeply with my daughter. I’ve watched with wonder (and occasional despair) as her quirky personality and fierce independence bloom, and had the time to invest in my parenting skills when I felt as though I was failing her.
Perhaps it’s not the journey I hoped for, but this period of time is changing me nonetheless in many of the ways I had anticipated. While we’re forced to stay close to home, Ava and I will continue to learn more about each other and our neighbourhood on our daytrips in Bertie. I have one more summer before Ava starts school. With any luck, we’ll get to go on our trip next year and be all the more ready for it as a result.