Being helpless

Being helpless

So, Erica made friends with a bee today.

She decided that the best way to make friends with a bee was to stroke it and then to grab it so she could give it a cuddle. It did not go well. She was very angry with the bee, but mostly she was angry with me.

And it was really, really hard because I knew that, besides popping some lavender oil on the sting, (or where I thought the sting was because she wouldn’t let me see properly) there was nothing that I could do. I had to wait for the pain to pass and give her cuddles while she got through her hand really hurting. It wasn’t only the pain but also the confusion of not really knowing what was going on and not really connecting it to the bee. Mostly she just looked like she was thinking: “Mummy, why did you let this happen to me?!”

As I was sitting there cuddling a grumpy baby, it got me thinking. We’ve been having problems with Ethan at the moment. Well, that’s a terrible way of putting it. We’ve not been having problems with Ethan. Ethan’s lovely, Ethan’s fabulous. Ethan is a kind and caring and empathetic and loyal and hilarious little boy who loves his friends and loves his family and feels things very deeply (and who is occasionally a 9-year-old with a teenager’s attitude). Right now we are trying to help him deal with his anxiety. We’re not entirely sure what jumped it up a notch, but for the last 6 weeks there’s been a lot of anxiety, worry, and sadness about going into school.

Now, his school is fabulous. I would give almost anything to go back in time and be able to go to his school, spend time doing the things that he does, and be in such a caring environment. My brother often gets quite jealous that he is 28 now and can’t go back to school (he’s quite tall, I thnk they might notice). We’re incredibly lucky to be able to send Ethan to a private school, and this is one of the reasons we made the decision. The staff have the time and energy to be able to support Ethan, to give him the space and encouragement he needs, and we haven’t had to wrangle with CAMHS waiting lists.

But Ethan is incredibly worried that he will have a bad day and that school will be terrible. The school counsellor has told us that he meets the clinical level for separation anxiety and is borderline for social phobia. It seems his main issue is that he’ll miss me and Erica and he’s worried about bad things happening when he’s at school. Nothing catastrophic, but things going wrong, or him getting into trouble, or falling out with friends and them not wanting to play with him. There is no logical reason for any of this because he never gets in trouble, people always want to play with him, and he always has fun, but he’s worked this all up in his head.

The separation anxiety doesn’t come as a huge shock to me. I’ve always known that the experience of losing a parent would come back and rear its head at various times in his life. I know that some people looking on might think that he’s always been clingy, but when you stop and look at it from his perspective, one of the most important people in his life completely disappeared without warning when he was 2. If you were him, wouldn’t you hold on tightly to the one that was left?

I did ask him about the whole missing me thing, and rather amusingly he said: “Well I don’t know why but I think liking you has just kicked in a little bit more”. I wasn’t quite sure how to take that. Did he not like me before? Did he think I was terrible, and now he’s suddenly realised that I’m quite lovely and a pretty good mum?

Anyway, every morning I drive him to school. Sometimes in the car he’s very quiet, sometimes he’s listening to music, and sometimes he talks to me about how he’s worried. And we try and logically go through his worries, and we try and focus on the positives, and we do all the things that I know from my training and that his counsellor has suggested. And then we get to school and we sit in the car and he says: “I can’t do it, I cant’ get out”. And we talk about why it’s something we need to do (We don’t push the legal thing because then he got worried that Nick and I would be arrested). We talk about all the things that have been put in place by the school to make him feel safe and secure. And we try breaking it down. So the first step is we take our seatbelts off, and then step 2 is I open the door, then I walk round to his side of the car, I open his door, step 3 is swinging his legs over the side of the seat, step 4 is standing up, step 5 is picking up his bags, and step 6 is walking to the gate and saying “See you later” (we don’t do goodbye). Now, that took all of 15 seconds to tell you. Generally, it will take between half an hour and an hour for it to actually happen. Sometimes he does it just with me, sometimes we need a staff member to try and intervene. 

Honestly, having to sit there every morning and pretend to be so calm and collected, and so matter of fact. Having to be that safe space. Watching him fall apart to the extent that on Monday he had a panic attack in the school corridor, and this morning he wouldn’t let go of my waist even though 2 teachers tried to reason with him. To have to watch him do that every single morning is slowly breaking me. Because I can’t make it go away. 

It’s like that bee sting. I can’t stop the pain. I don’t have a quick fix. I can’t give him medicine, I can’t give him a solution. I can’t do anything other than sit there and be with him as he’s going through it. And as someone who likes to fix things, as you’ve probably realised by now, this is not my comfort zone, this is not my area of expertise. 

Well, that’s a lie, it is my area of expertise, and that is probably the only reason that I am able to stay calm and collected and not completely burst into tears and fall apart every morning. I think that, probably, I am compartmentalising and putting my work head on. Just like I did when Mark was sick, just like I did when he died, just like I did when I had to answer those questions over and over again when Ethan was small, and help him, and explain, and be that safe space. The problem is that I don’t know whether that’s the best thing to do anymore, but it is the only thing I’ve got right now.

So I’m just going to have to continue to sit there and be with him while we all go through it together.

Life Admin Sucks

Life Admin Sucks

There have been a fair few think-pieces and magazine features about how the mental load of household admin often falls disproportionately on women. We are (generally) the ones who not only book the appointments but constantly keep a complicated calendar in our heads of when the next GP, dentist, haircut appointment needs to be. We keep an eye on when new clothes are needed, when the toothbrushes need replacing, and when the birthday present for your mother in law needs to be ordered so it can arrive, be wrapped and still get to her in time without handing over your life’s savings to Hermes in return for next day delivery.

It seems, however, that a lot of us are still putting off thinking about a rather large area of life admin, which is actually quite important, and which I have a rather unique insight into. Ok, so technically you could call it death admin. Or I could, anyway. While looking after your children’s teeth, trouser hems, and relationship with their grandparents are all very important; most of us shy away from thinking about what would happen to our family if we died.

If you’re new then, first of all, “Hi, welcome! Pull up a chair and get stuck into the archive!”. 

A quick intro: I was widowed in 2014 when my 32-year-old super-healthy husband was diagnosed with and died from stomach cancer. I spent the next couple of years bringing up our 2-year-old son and then met my current husband. We’ve been navigating the world of death, blended families, remarriage, new babies, and now a tweenager ever since. This blog is where I like to explore the intricacies, complications, and frustrations of our unique situation. 

If you know me, and you’ve been here a while, then you’ll know I don’t shy away from talking about tricky subjects. Hell, we’ve discussed things like how to introduce your new boyfriend to your late husband’s parents, getting pregnant, post-partum bodies, my sex life, my laundry pile, you name it I’ll chat about it. 

Every 22 minutes in the UK a parent of a child under 18 dies. (See, I told you we talk about the tough stuff here)

That stat was from 2015, so imagine what the last year and a half has done to the figures. 

There are many ways that children are affected by losing a parent. I’ve written quite a lot about how Mark’s death has affected Ethan. But the one thing we hardly talk about is probably the one that makes the most practical difference: money.

I’ve been chatting with a new friend of mine who is a financial advisor. Annika is passionate about helping women get a grasp on their finances and their future, as women tend to think less about pensions and life insurance and all that jazz. After our conversation, I realized that I haven’t talked about money very much in the context of becoming a widow. It’s not an area that I’m very comfortable in. In fact, it makes me want to run away and hide. But that should drive home for you how important I think it is that we all take the initiative, instead of assuming that everything is going to be fine. 

Usually, a couple will make a joint decision to have a baby. They will plan to raise that baby together and to take joint financial responsibility for the child until it is 18 (and let’s face it, probably a lot longer with rent prices these days!).

I know that the reality is not as simple as this. I am not dumping on single parents, people who have unplanned babies, or anyone with experiences that are different from the traditional route. I am just pointing out that people make life decisions, and employment decisions, and schooling decisions, based on the assumption that the adults who birthed the baby will be there for the whole ride. When things unexpectedly change you are left not only dealing with the loss of your life partner and your children’s other parent but also probably with half (or more) of your income. 

When Mark was diagnosed with stage 4 stomach cancer in the August of 2014 I definitely wasn’t thinking about mortgage payments. I was thinking about how we were going to get him through this, as well as the minutiae of how I was going to balance childcare with chemo appointments, whether I should wash the rug in the kitchen that he’d been sick on or just throw it away, how to find a safe space in the kitchen to store all the meds, who was coming to stay when and whether I had enough time to wash the sheets, and whether I was going to have to sell a kidney to pay for all-day hospital parking.

Thankfully, my super-organised and practical husband had taken out life insurance when we got our mortgage and one of the first things he did after his diagnosis was to talk to his employers about their death in service benefit. This meant that, even though I had only gone back to work part-time after Ethan was born, I didn’t have to think about whether I could meet the mortgage payments on my own. I had that bit of breathing space while I worked out what our life was going to look like now. And I didn’t have to think about uprooting Ethan from the only home he’d ever known so soon after his Daddy had disappeared. Not everyone is this lucky.

Without life insurance, I would have had to sell our home, as there was no way I would have been able to find a job that paid well enough to cover the mortgage, living costs and full-time childcare. Without life insurance, I wouldn’t have been able to take the time I needed right after Mark’s death to be the stable presence in Ethan’s life. So I’m constantly telling people that they need some. The younger you are when you take it out, the cheaper it is, and the peace of mind it can give you is invaluable. Also, although your mortgage is probably your biggest expense, life insurance can be put in place to cover all sorts of things we don’t necessarily think about: food, household bills, children’s clubs and even the endless clothes purchases that I mentioned earlier. 

But, even super-organized and practical people have blind spots. Mark and I didn’t have a will. It was one of those things that we always said we should sort out, but that we never got to. In hindsight, I don’t think this was busyness or forgetfulness, I think it was a willful (pardon the unintentional pun) refusal to consider the topic. I think we both worried that sitting down and signing such a document would be tempting fate. Well, you know what, fate doesn’t care about what you think, and neither does cancer, Covid, heart attacks, or that car coming far too fast around the corner on your commute. Death happens, and you don’t get to decide when. 

So that was how I found myself sitting on the windowsill of a hospital room watching a solicitor and her very uncomfortable intern asking all the relevant questions while my dying husband lay in bed with pain written all over his face. We signed our will 24 hours before he died, although we didn’t know it was going to be quite that soon. We waited until the doctor had told us, kindly, calmly but clearly that there was nothing else they could do other than move Mark to a hospice to make him more comfortable. We waited until there was absolutely no hope left before we phoned the solicitor and made the decisions we needed to. And do you know what? It was more unnecessary pain at a ridiculously painful time. We didn’t need to wait that long, and we should have talked about guardianship, finances, and wishes a long time ago, in a less stressful situation, probably over a glass of wine. We could have chuckled over how everyone would react if we’d decided to leave our worldly possessions to Cats Protection, and debated at length which one of our friends and family would have the skills, knowledge and patience to bring up Ethan in our absence. We could have had these conversations, and more, calmly and without pressure. And then we could have sat back in the knowledge that, although we couldn’t predict what life would throw at us, we could be assured that neither of us (and more importantly, Ethan) would have been left dealing with a financial shit storm as well as losing the love of our life. 

So, we got in under the wire, with me fighting back the tears because it was ridiculously important to me that I be strong and stoic and hold everything and everyone together. 

Since that day, I’ve had conversations with a lot of friends about how prepared they are for the worst. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve not turned into some kind of doom and gloom merchant, but I no longer have any patience for, or belief in the whole “it would never happen to someone like me” thing. Death and taxes, and we pay people to sort out how much we owe HMRC. So we should really invest some time working out the practicalities of death so that it doesn’t make our lives that much harder. 

I’ve never been a fan of homework, but I’m making an exception now. If you haven’t already got an (up-to-date) will or life insurance, then you need to stop reading this and go and sort it. Now. If you need some help then you can talk to Annika, she’s really friendly, won’t try to sell you anything, and will make the whole process as stress-free as possible. She can sit down with you (in person or via your favourite video call software) and take you through a Lifestyle Financial Health Check. It’s not scary, and it can help you work out what you want your family’s life to look like if you weren’t there. Next week I’ll talk about some other important, finance-related things that she can help you with. But for now, grab a glass of wine (or two), sit down with your partner, and work out whether you’re going to leave all your money to the Hedgehog Home. 

Get in touch with Annika here

Planning your 2nd wedding

Planning your 2nd wedding

When I met Nick, making sure Ethan was comfortable with him was key. I got a lot of stick/raised eyebrows from some quarters when I admitted that Nick had met Ethan 3 weeks into our relationship. “Far too soon!”, “What if it doesn’t work out?” But there was a reason. Ethan was, and is the most important part of my life. And the most time-consuming (although Erica is now giving him a run for his money). As far as I was concerned, there was absolutely no point in investing time and babysitting credits in getting to know someone if they weren’t going to get on with my son, or if he wasn’t going to get on with them, or if they came out in a rash at the mere sight of a 4 year old Lightning McQueen obsessive. If this turned out to be the case and I’d already fallen for the guy then how emotionally stressful would that be? Frankly, I’d rather check first.

Ethan was fairly used to lots of people staying over in our house. That sounds terrible…let me try that again… Since Mark had died, our wonderful family and friends had rallied around us, and those that didn’t live nearby often came to hang out with us/check on us and stayed for dinner/overnight. A new or vaguely familiar grown up around the place didn’t phase Ethan, he was very sociable and confident around grownups. But still, I did want to do it sensibly. Once I was sure that I’d like him to stick around, Nick and I devised a plan. Nick helps out a friend with his rally car, and he was delivering it somewhere that week. Ethan pretty much thinking that Disney’s Cars was a documentary, we decided we’d meet at a local park (neutral space) where Ethan could play, and Nick could show him around the car (make a good first impression). Fabulous plan, we thought, how clever we are!


This was planned for the Wednesday, a few days after his 4th birthday. On the Tuesday Nick came over after Ethan had gone to sleep, and was planning to leave around 5am. He overslept, and at 6am we heard little (elephant) feet plodding up the stairs to the loft room. Nick dived beneath the covers and I jumped up to usher Ethan out of the room with an overly bright “Why don’t we go downstairs and have some breakfast?!”

…4 stairs down…

Excellent, free and clear!

…6 steps down…

“Why isn’t HE coming for breakfast?!”

(faceplant emoji)

I popped back upstairs to Nick. “Ok, so you’ve got options: you can either come downstairs and go straight out the front door, or you can come for breakfast?”

Instead of our nice, well-planned, neutral space, something to talk about meeting, the 2 of them met over cornflakes and a large mug of tea, on Tuesday morning. And they’ve been fast friends ever since.

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Getting married for the 2nd time is always odd. There are things you can and can’t do, hurdles to leap, feelings to consider, endless tiny things that you wouldn’t think would be an issue but pop up during planning. There is also the constant danger of the phrase “Well, last time….” popping up far too often. When you’re a widow and not a divorcee there is an added layer of complications. Here are a few that we faced:

I was wary of implying by my new choices that any part of the 1st wedding had been inferior.

It had been a lovely day, that I will always cherish. Mark and I got married in a flint church in Worthing. I had just started my job as their youth worker and we thought this was a perfect way to introduce ourselves to the community. It was a very traditionally church, so we had the full-on robed choir (singing Bread of Heaven along with the plethora of Welsh voice in the congregation), the bells, the flowers tied to wooden pews, traditional vows and the wedding breakfast in the 13th century Bishop’s Palace down the road. Ushers in Prince Edward jackets and a 3 tiered- white wedding cake. All-in. There were the usual arguments about who made the guest list cut, whether there should be an open bar, the assumption by many that a sit-down wedding in a hotel was the only way it should be done. These things happen when you’re young and everyone feels as though they have a stake (sometimes because they do actual have a financial stake!). But we were proud of our music choices, of the food we sorted, and of the atmosphere we created.

The thing is, 10 years had passed, and I am a very different person than I was at 25. A lot has happened to that eternally optimistic fresh-faced youth worker who was ready to change the world holding hands with the equally ambitious, if slightly more realistic Welshman.

Fast forward to 2018. I am less concerned with tradition. I want relaxed and easy. I’m not prepared to stress about guest lists and who “should” be invited because we went to so-and-so’s wedding. I’m not interested in table plans – people can sit wherever they want, and move as frequently as they want! Micro-managing is not my thing.  Nick and I wanted to create one of our favourite places – a festival! The 3 of us were happiest hanging out listening to music at Carfest each year and had the opportunity to create something we really wanted – away from usual wedding expectations. We wanted live music and kids running around with no shoes on eating ice lollies and street food and late night wine drinking around the firepit. And so that is what we planned. We found the lovely Hampsley Hollow – a camping site outside of Calne – and hired it for 5 days. And in it we built our festival. A marquee, a bandstand under which to say our own vows, haybale seating, a farmer’s market full of all our food, a gin wagon, an airstream caravan serving pulled pork, and later a wood fried pizza oven, a firepit, deck chairs and picnic blankets, bunting and bell tents, free-flowing wine, a freezer full of ice lollies and a cake made entirely of cheese…oh, and even fibreglass cows we borrowed from a local hotel!

Two very different days (with quite a few similar attendees), with very different vibes, and, you know, different husbands… But both equally full of love and joy.

Ethan.

As we sat in our holiday apartment, excited at our new adventure, and planning the wedding of the century, one thing was front of my mind (apart from how we could somehow get Mumford and Sons to come and play us down the aisle!) – how we were going to make sure Ethan felt included. I was hyper-aware that he shouldn’t feel like this was something Nick and I were doing alone, we were all getting married – making our little team official. This wasn’t about me moving on and starting a new family, leaving the old one behind. This was about Nick (and his family) joining ours.

Ethan was Nick’s best man – he (and his knitted Yoshi) carried the rings. He stood with Nick watching me walk down the aisle, and with us as we exchanged our vows, and he helped us come up with ideas to make the day as fun-filled as possible. As we were planning and discussing the day we would always call it “our” wedding and he would say the same thing when talking to other people (leading to some confusion at school!). When we were looking for suppliers, he was either with us, or mentioned copiously! We wanted to make sure that we had a photographer who knew how important it was for the 3 of us to all be considered and Annamarie did all that and more. We wanted a celebrant who could deal with things sensitively and include Ethan in the ceremony, and it was oh so helpful that our wonderful friend David was a registrar! He was perfect! Ethan got to help with the guest list, and he spent a lot of time at the site with us, so that he felt totally comfortable and could host his friends when they arrived.

We had a children’s area, with games and toys and a bouncy castle. The dance floor was colonised from early evening by all the children skidding along on their knees – just as all children should do at weddings! I was flicking through photos the other day and noticed pretty much everyone, parents or not, dancing with a small child at some point! For me weddings should always be about all the generations coming together in celebration. As far as I’m concerned it’s not a proper wedding until Granny has boogied with the nearest toddler! Ensuring Ethan felt included added an extra level of importance to this.

I still felt part of Mark’s family

I will always feel like an O’Brien, just as much as I feel like a Waters-Dewhurst (my, ever-so-brief maiden name!). I have 3 wonderful Welsh brothers, and 2 wonderful parents-in-law. As well as the loveliest extended Welsh family.

To be perfectly honest, the whole concept of marrying again was difficult and weird for me. A lot of wedding imagery and tradition involves leaving one family for another: The father giving away his daughter, the changing of names, the archaic meanings behind cake cutting and wedding rings. For me, moving away from Mark was never an option, even if I had wanted to, and neither was moving on from his family. I think that a lot of the Welsh contingent were reticent about their firstborn bringing home an English girl, but I like to think that they’ve gotten used to my weird ways, and the experiences that we’ve had have bound us tight together. Being back in a context that reminded me so much of Mark and the dreams and plans we never got to reach for made aspects of this day bittersweet. There was no point in ignoring it and hoping it would go away. We had to think of this milestone differently.

They have all been so welcoming of Nick and we both wanted them to join us in our celebration. For some of them it was too hard – and this was something I completely understand. It would have been too difficult for them to watch me walk down the aisle to marry someone else.  I appreciated the love and good wishes they sent in their stead.

But I still look at the photo we have of the youngest generation of the O’Brien clan sat in our photo “booth” and smile so hard – it makes me so happy that they were there, sharing the joy with us. And looking back at how hard I have worked to build and keep our relationship with them it is one of my proudest moments.

The technical stuff

What to do about names….I remember my sister and I took Ethan on holiday about 6 months after Mark died. I’d heard horror stories of women travelling with their children but without their partner/husband and being interrogated by border officials. We were going to Turkey, a place with not the most feminist of reputations, and I was pretty anxious about it. I brought a copy of Marks death certificate with me and was actually asked to produce it as proof that I didn’t need my husband’s permission to travel with our child!

So after Nick proposed, in my typically ridiculous fashion, I started worrying about what I should do with surnames. I didn’t want to further complicate any travel plans by having a different name to my son. I didn’t feel as if I could ditch a name that represented such a huge and important part of my life. I didn’t really want to have a different name to Ethan, regardless of legal complications. It would have felt weird. But I also wanted to recognise the connection that Nick and I were making, to honour him in the process. And we were now beginning to think about another baby, so I didn’t want to have a different name to them either. My head did nearly explode.

Ethan’s answer was that Nick should change his name to O’Brien because it was 2 against 1!

In the end we decided on a compromise. As a recognition of both where we were coming from and where we were going, Ethan and I have legally changed our names to O’Brien-Day. I grew up with a double barrelled surname, so this feels in a weird way like going home. Nick and Erica are both Day (although if they wanted to join us in being more interesting then they’d be very welcome!).

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In the end, the freedom we had in being able to create our own ceremony and celebration meant we could tailor it exactly to our needs. We got “legally” married (again with our friend David as the celebrant) two days previously, ticking all the boxes. But as far as we are concerned, the real celebration and the real joining of our families was on the 18th August 2018. Standing in front of all of our friends and family in a festival that we had created making our promises to each other was the important bit. As the 3 of us walked back down the aisle towards the prosecco and cookies (hand baked by my fabulous friend Susan) I really felt that we had honoured our special circumstances, in all their complicated glory.

Weeding

Weeding

Today’s lesson: what you tend, thrives. 

this is not an aubergine plant.

We planted loads of veg at the beginning of lockdown. We plant some every year, but we were very excited about our new raised bed and more space. We planted aubergine seeds and tomato seeds and carrot seeds and cauliflower seeds, and we tended to them so they would grow into tasty vegetables that we could eat. As they grew big enough we repotted them outside and watered and weeded conscientiously, excited for our crop.

However, while the carrots and cauliflower made it to our table, the aubergine seedlings I transferred into this pot were not, it turns out, aubergine seedlings. They were weeds. I had been watering and weeding weeds for 3 months

It got me thinking about the things in the everyday that we spend out lives and time on. I tend many things: my children’s growth, the memory of Mark, relationships with family and friends, my marriage, my health. But I also tend my score on Candy Crush, my knowledge of useless celebrity trivia, the wine rack in my kitchen…
And I don’t tend to some things as much as I should: the pile of books waiting for me to read them to expand my mind or improve my parenting, the connections with those I haven’t seen in a while…

What we tend to, thrives. And perhaps I need to be careful where I spend my time and efforts on a daily basis. Where I do my weeding and watering. Otherwise I’ll end up with no vegetables, just big tall, thriving, unhelpful weeds….

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