Posted 1 August 2019
Alexis is a mum, actor and writer who blogs over at her site, The Time I Almost. As the summer holidays begin, she discusses her experiences of taking the brave step of booking a trip...
Posted 4 October 2017
When Jo became a single parent, she had to adapt quickly to a situation she never imagined she’d have to face. Coping with financial difficulties and balancing work and her children’s needs hasn’t been easy, but Jo found the strength she needed to keep going – and to fulfil her dream to write a novel.
Without a compass
For me, becoming a single parent was like being dropped in the middle of vast moorland without a map or a compass. It was something I had never considered as a possibility, certainly something I had never allowed myself to plan for. And yet there I was, with a six year old daughter, a two year old son and a black hole where my marriage used to be.
It was scary how quickly things went wrong. We hardly argued, we had the children’s best interests at heart, we seemed happy. But niggling doubts began to creep in. I had been studying with the Open University and had managed to find a job at the local pre-school, it was ideal with my son being so young; but suddenly my husband became controlling, his insecurities about losing me went into overdrive and he started telling me what I could and couldn’t do, where I could and couldn’t go. He wouldn’t let me learn to drive and wouldn’t give me the money to catch a bus out of the small Devon village we lived in. I became depressed and he grew angrier. We were both responsible and didn’t talk enough. I think neither of us thought it would go so far, yet within six months we had separated.
Hitting the bottom and climbing back up
Within a week he had frozen the bank account I used to buy food and due to an error at the local benefits agency I was left with £25 a week to pay for food, bills and everything else. In desperation I took out a loan so that I could feed my children – a loan that, nine years later, I am still trying to pay off. I really hit rock bottom then and had it not been for the incredible support of some of my friends and the online forums I found full of people going through similar experiences, things would have been truly awful. But with lots of help I found a smaller house to rent in the same village so that my daughter’s schooling wasn’t disrupted.
Two years later my son started primary school and I returned to work, having kept my hand in with voluntary work while my son attended pre-school. This voluntary work had also enabled me to access some vocational courses such as mentoring and coaching and thanks to that I found a job working in a school for teenagers with challenging behaviour disorders.
In those early years my ex and I argued a lot. He went into another relationship very soon after we separated which made me feel worthless. He saw the children every other weekend but due to his negative mind frame, they hated going to see him and would cry whenever they had to leave. It broke my heart because I knew the importance of them maintaining positive relationships with their dad, but it was a struggle to make it a reality. He was always good at paying maintenance though and has always tried to provide for the children.
He had set up his own software company while we were still together which was becoming increasingly successful. I on the other hand still had the debts from when we first separated as well as a very low paid job. Life was becoming an enormous struggle financially and I was becoming more and more stressed. I was told that I wasn’t entitled to housing benefit, even though my rent was £595 per month and my take home wages were £600. I got further and further into debt and more and more desperate.
If the children were ill I had to have time off which I was made to feel terrible because at work and even now, several years later, if I have one day off for illness, my own or the children’s, I have to have an absence meeting with my boss. Juggling single parenting with work has been incredibly difficult at times and there is very little support in the workplace.
The right advice
I became determined that I would change my circumstances somehow. A single parent friend of mine advised me to get some information about Gingerbread, which I did. I followed some advice given to me by the Gingerbread helpline who advised me to go back to the benefits agency to ask them to review my claim, which ultimately proved successful and reduced my rent payments by half. I worked out a month by month budget and recorded every single penny coming in and out, if I spent a bit extra on school uniforms or some other essential, then I made sure the same amount came off the food budget so that I wouldn’t go overdrawn. I did a home-study Life Coaching course so that I could help other people in my situation and in the little spare time I had left over I began writing a book.
Writing had always been a love of mine, something I would do for fun whenever I could, but this time I thought I would take my hobby and try to turn it into a potential career. For two years I existed on 4 hours sleep a night; at the weekends when the children were with their dad I would work 16 hour days trying to get the book finished. I was determined that I wouldn’t sit doing nothing and waiting for life to change around me.
Sacrifice and determination
My novel, Lacey’s House, was published earlier this year through Amazon and I am so proud of it. To anyone who buys it, it is just a book (though one they will enjoy, I hope), but for me it represents years of dreaming and hope, it represents sacrifice and the determination to forge a better life for myself and my children. I have been a single parent now for nine years and while life has been incredibly challenging at times, the rewards are equal to those challenges.
It took years for the situation between my ex-husband and me to improve but it did in the end because, for the children’s sake, we kept on working at it. In the end he went to psychotherapy and became much more positive, now the children love spending time with him and it has made a world of difference to us all. He is married again with two more children and I am lucky that we all get on well. When the children are with their dad for Christmas, I am always invited to dinner too so that we can all spend the day together. It is small things like that that make solitary parenting a little easier.
Falling into place
The best advice I can give to anyone who, like me, finds themselves where they never expected to be is simply this: do not doubt yourself, do not give yourself a hard time, seek as much help as you can, both emotionally and financially, use sites like Gingerbread for invaluable advice and above all remember that you are a worthwhile and wonderful person and that the difficulties will pass. The most valuable thing that you can give to yourself and to your children is love and when you do that, other positive things will fall into place around you.
For detailed step-by-step advice on everything from benefits and tax credits to childcare and your wellbeing, read our guide to separation.