And when you have your own blog on grief, bereavement, children, pregnancy, and all the things, it can sometimes feel like you need to hit targets, or anniversaries, or significant days, with profound content that makes people sniff and tell their significant other that they’re fine, they just have something in their eye.
Yesterday was Mark’s birthday. He would have been 39; staring down the barrel of the big 4-0, feeling old and wondering if he had acheived all of the things he was aiming for in life.
Instead he only made it to 32. Which, frankly, is ridiculous.
But I didn’t write a blog post.
Because when you’re the one left alive, you don’t get to opt out of child-related responsiblities like school pick-up, cooking tea, ensuring that there is clean uniform and games kit for the next day, helping with homework, changing nappies, picking up engine parts for lawnmowers (not child-related so much as family-business-related!), and then you know, your actual job.
I sat down at 8.30pm, when both children were (supposedly) settled in bed, and sipped on my Moscow Mule (Mark’s favourite drink when we went out anywhere that wasn’t intent on just serving “beer”), quietly thinking about how my life would have been completely different if the bastard cancer hadn’t decided to eat away at his insides.
But I didn’t write.
Because grief can’t be scheduled.
It is more likely to jump up and smother you while you’re standing in a tent listening to a band play a completly random song than it is to saunter along a few days after sending you a note to say it will be popping round.
Grief is weird, and perverse, and not performative.
I’ve written before about how, as a species (because I can’t put down my wannabee-librarian hat), we search for markers. We want rituals, anniversaries and days that help us mark the marching of the years, the changing of the seasons, and the development of our lives. And all of this is true. Significant days (such as Mark’s birthday, the day he died, Ethan’s birthday, our wedding anniversary, and the day we sat in the doctor’s office and were blindsided by the cancer diagnosis) give me checkpoints to think about how much my gorgeous Welshman has missed, how much he gave me in our time together, how far I’ve come, and how much Ethan is like him in a million different small ways.
But putting my thoughts, hopes, dreams, neuroses, and general craziness out into the world via this blog has it’s downsides. I’m a people pleaser (mostly, until my impatience kicks in!). So I feel like people expect me to hit these milestones with insightful words that will make them think, and help them with their own grief. And, I’m not going to lie, there is also a part of me that feels like I need to tick the boxes of the good little widow, and spend time on anniversaries wearing black and delicately wiping my eyes with a monogrammed handkerchief.
Well, Jane Austen may roll in her grave, but this isn’t me.
This is me:
I bought this plant and its white pot around 4 months after Mark died.
It was something of a “fuck you” statement. To life and cancer and all the things that I felt had been thrown at me.
It was a way of announcing to the world that this wasn’t going to break me. That it was shit, but I wouldn’t drown.
And it was also a way of convincing myself of this on a daily basis – a fake-it-till-you-make-it attempt.
This plant has been overwatered, underwatered, forgotten, knocked off of shelves by flying nerf gun bullets, and moved around the house constantly. But it has survived.
In fact, it’s more than survived. Last week I noticed that this unkempt piece of vegetation had managed to cope with all of it, and sprout two new baby plants. More than survival, there has been growth and thriving.
Which feels like a bit of a metaphor for my last 7 years really. There has been grief, confusion, depression, joy, confusion, sheer bloodymindedness, love, counselling, stupid decisions, but there has been growth. In a literal sense I have managed (with help) to keep a boy alive for 9 years, and I’ve grown another actual mini human being. I have my own two little baby plants.
But I have grown as a person too. I have done what I always promised myself I would do. Mark’s death changed me, but I have not let it make me smaller…less. I have learnt about myself (even the unflattering bits) and about what is important to me. I have become more selfish, not as accommodating, and more prone to snap decisions. But I have also become more spontaneous, more willing to find joy, and more aware that, no matter what you see from the outside, everyone has their own shit going on and we’re all just trying to make it through the day.
So I sit here with my two incredible children, my amazingly patient and kind husband, my little house that is all ours, and a new and exciting business that I have built from scratch. And I know that Mark would be proud.
Welcome to part 2 of Peta’s “Things to sort out before you die” series. Which I’ve been meaning to write for about a month. But, you know, life happened.
I promise it will be funnier than you’d expect (mainly because I’m incapable of talking about anything serious without adding a sarcastic aside or 5). So, strap in and have a think about housework (yes, seriously).
I’m a sucker for an Instagram “tap to tidy”.
If you’ve not discovered these deceptive beauties yet, they’re an Insta story where a messy counter full of ingredients becomes a cake decorated with delicate icing flowers, or a playroom covered in the remains of a day’s playtime is instantly tidy when you click to the next frame. Unfinished jigsaws are swept back into their boxes, half-dressed barbies are back in the dream house, relaxing after a day of shopping (or being an astronaut), Grimm’s rainbows are returned to the correct order on the top of the cabinet.
It’s basically the modern-day equivalent of Snow White flouncing around singing while the forest creatures clean her house. And it’s about as realistic.
I have a stormy relationship with housework. There are some days when I like nothing better than blitzing the whole house in some sort of frenzy whilst listening to retro music (this seemed to happen more when I only had one child, go figure). But mostly, I am eternally frustrated that housework is a never-ending, never-finished list that swirls around in my head from dawn until dusk, occasionally returning at 2.15 am when I remember I didn’t turn the washing machine on before I went to bed.
Being ever-so-optimistic I follow an unhealthy amount of “organizers” on social media, and so scrolling through my feed I’ll gaze wistfully at cleaning checklists and wardrobes where all the coathangers point in the same direction. I’ve tried The Organized Mum Method, devoured Marie Kondo (it turns out I actually need some of the things in my house that don’t spark joy…nappies, for example, are particularly useful) and I am one of Mrs Hinch’s 4.1million followers, for all the good it’s done me.
But I have decided that this is a special form of torture that I seem to have brought upon myself. I have two children, a husband who runs his own business, and a busy job myself. I am also not actually that organized. Every time I print off a “change sheets on Monday, run the hoover round on Tuesday…” checklist I am giving myself one more thing to fail at. I will look at the missed ticks that start to appear by Wednesday and convince myself that this means I am slovenly and incapable of this adulting business. The reality is, there are not enough hours in the day for all the things that we need to do. And women fall foul of this more than men (with the usual disclaimer that some men fall into this category too, but not enough to break the stereotype). Take a look at this 2019 YouGov survey on the housework split between couples:
As women, we constantly underestimate our unpaid workload: when it comes to childcare, organization, cleaning, cooking, and the mental load attached. (For a succinct explanation (with pictures) of the mental load and how this affects women on a daily basis, check out this comic by French artist Emma.)
So, what has this got to do with preparing for our possible futures?
Well, if you’ve read my blog on Life Admin then you’ll hopefully already be thinking about necessities such as a will, expression of wishes, and life insurance.
But, when staring at screen-full of different levels of life cover, women tend to have a blind spot. We focus on making sure that the mortgage would be dealt with. But all this extra work that we do doesn’t go away if we die.
Take childcare, for example. In 2017 Scottish Widows estimated that mums spend 23 hours per week on childcare – on top of their own career commitments. This includes things like taking the children to school, preparing family meals, helping the children with homework, doing the housework, getting the children ready for school, picking the children up from school and watching them play sport.
Women consistently undervalue their contribution to the family when they think about life insurance levels. Without you running around dealing with these jobs, your partner would either have to pay someone else to do them, or take a pay cut in order to have time to fit them in around work.
Factoring these responsibilities into your life insurance and critical illness cover isn’t decadent (your husband is unlikely to be sipping martinis on his new yacht while the recently employed nanny and housekeeper take care of everything back home). It is acknowledging that our responsibility toward our family doesn’t stop if we get ill, or if we die.
If you’re anything like me, putting a monetary value on the things you do (for nothing) every day can feel a bit weird, boastful even. The best way to manage the slightly icky process is to sit down with an objective (but sympathetic) expert. My friend Annika, who I mentioned in my last instalment of Life Admin Skills for the Pathologically Avoidant, specialises in helping women work out things like this. She can sit down with you and work out how much it would cost you to manage your household if you were sick, or for your partner to manage it if you died. And then she can find you the perfect cover so that no balls are dropped and you can focus on the important things, like hugging your children and buying a puppy (maybe don’t buy a puppy…).
Seriously, give her a call (or an email, we are in the 21st century after all). Scary things don’t go away, they just blindside us on a Tuesday afternoon. Do me a favour and get it sorted at least by Monday.
It was our 3rd wedding anniversary yesterday, and we finished the day under Heaven’s Gate in Newbury, eating sushi and looking down on the world (in an ever-so humble way, obvs!).
So, this seems like a good opportunity to repost what I wrote last year about how to plan a 2nd wedding (with all the fun, complications, and verbal gymnastics that it brings). If you’ve already read it then thanks! Maybe you could forward it on to someone else who’s having a quiet evening. And if you haven’t, then enjoy and let me know what you think!
It also gives me a chance to post one of my favourite wedding photos (for reasons which will become clear if you read the post!).
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?!”
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.
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.
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!).
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.