By Mid-March I had begun to realise that as far as the kids were concerned, I was it. There wasn’t anyone else anymore. Whilst I’m sure he’d help if he could, E had moved over forty miles away. Neither his family nor mine were local. I had lots of amazing, incredibly supportive, friends who would always help with lifts etc (E still had the car). But I was the kids’ only point of stability – the lone port in the storm that they were living through. If I was feeling devastated, the emotional chaos that they were going through must have been even more unsettling and confusing. They were utterly blameless and innocent, and yet their whole lives had just been turned upside down – and I was the only person there to take care of them all. I’ve never felt so inadequate in my life.
As a parent, I’ve always born the responsibility of my children gladly and felt blessed to be the one that they turned to when they needed help or advice. All of a sudden though, this responsibility weighed very heavily. It’s funny, because I’d pretty much always done everything vis-a-vis the kids, not because E wasn’t interested, but because his working hours meant that he just wasn’t ever there to take those day-to-day decisions. I applied for nursery then school places. I assembled the uniforms, made the packed lunches, signed the letters, agreed on the school trips, and attended the parents’ evenings (to be fair, he did occasionally make these). I woke them up, made their breakfasts, took them to school, helped with their homework, arranged their extra-curricular stuff, listened to them when they came back from school, made their tea and took them to bed every night (or, latterly, in the case of Oldest Daughter – knocked on her door and said good night, before I went to bed). I was used to doing everything. In fact I used to joke that I might as well be a single parent, E was around so little, but that was the point – he was around. He would be home every other weekend, and even if he didn’t do much, he was there. Psychologically, if not physically, I wasn’t alone. Now I was completely and utterly solo, with four kids who needed more care than ever before.
For a start, E had left in what was Oldest Daughter’s A Level year. I suppose if you’re going to walk out on your family, there is never a good time to do it, but this seemed particularly unfair to her and very badly timed. Oldest Daughter has suffered for five years with a chronic pain condition which primarily affects her back and legs and so she had to miss a lot of school (and be taken to a lot of medical appointments). She was already struggling to balance work and pain relief in the run up to her exams – she was having to choose between whether to take pain relief which would knock her out or get an essay written, and working out how much pain relief she could take before an exam so that she could concentrate and be alert, but not be too distracted by the pain. This condition, and the medication she had to take to help her with it, already meant that she could be tearful and frustrated. Her Dad leaving just added to the emotional pressure she was feeling.
Youngest Daughter was probably my biggest challenge. She was still very, very, angry. Her feelings towards her Dad were much more complex and conflicted than the others. She’d always felt like he didn’t love her. Of course he does love her, but his behaviour towards her didn’t help. Whilst most of us were bemused by her random conversations about which YouTubers she was watching, he used to visibly show his irritation at what he saw as something trivial. Youngest Daughter is also ‘blessed’ with the loudest voice of the four of them and whenever there was an argument it was always her voice that would stand out – and it was always her E would shout at (usually to ‘shut up’), not the other party to the fight.
Whilst Youngest Daughter tended to struggle a bit at school, E would always make much of his academic excellence (he frequently used Oldest Daughter’s interview at Cambridge University in conversation as a way to bring up his interview there – generally without mentioning that he didn’t actually get in). His intelligence, and the value he placed upon it, was something of which we were all very aware. This had a massive impact upon Youngest Daughter. I knew how she felt – it had had an effect on me over the years – he was very competitive and without really doing anything (other than pointing out how good he was at something) he made me feel like I was stupid compared to him. If he made me feel that way (and bear in mind I had higher level academic qualifications than him, so I really shouldn’t have let myself be put down), I can only imagine how belittled Youngest Daughter was feeling.
Youngest Daughter also really struggled with maths, which happened to be a subject at which E excelled (something he frequently let anyone and everyone know whether they asked or not). His emphasis on the fact that he excelled at something which was particularly difficult for her made Youngest Daughter feel inadequate and insecure. This wasn’t helped by his insensitivity. For example, when she and Oldest Son started back at school, they were both assessed and placed in maths sets. Oldest Son was placed in the top set – which was brilliant – but Youngest Daughter had been moved up from the bottom set for the first time in two years. She was over the moon – this was massive for her. They each told me their news and I hugged them and told them how proud I was of them. When E came in from work that night he saw Oldest Son first, then Youngest Daughter came down to tell him her news. He responded by saying ‘and Oldest Son is in the top set you know…”. Now, I’m no fan of E, but in his defence, I genuinely think he was trying to say ‘what a great day for both of you, you’ve done well, so has Oldest Son’. But when he said it, it literally silenced the room – Oldest Daughter gasped, Oldest Son looked embarrassed and Youngest Daughter ran out of the room in years. Instead of apologising for upsetting her, E was angry with us all for ‘overreacting’ to his ‘harmless’ comment. Again, with hindsight, I can see that this was yet another example of him using the way his family reacted to him to justify his ‘my family don’t want/need me’ comments to P (or O, or whoever he was seeing at the time). Whilst I don’t think he meant to hurt her, it’s pretty easy to see how Youngest Daughter began to feel that her Dad just didn’t value her.
If Youngest Daughter seemed to be struggling, Oldest Son was just quietly getting on with things. The only indication that he was affected by what was going on was the fact that he was less tolerant of, and more inclined to wind-up, Youngest Son and Youngest Daughter. He did what he’d always done and quietly watch what was happening, thought it through, and when he was ready just came to me with his questions. He’d wait until the others were in their rooms and then come and sit with me in the stillness of the living room (where I’d usually be doing a Sudoku, with Dr Who playing on the tv – we’ve all seen every episode of Dr Who countless times and it was comforting to have it in the background). Sometimes he wouldn’t say anything, but other times he’d tell me about what he’d been reading or thinking about, or what had happened at school. Sometimes this would lead to questions about E and I and what would happen to all of us, other times we’d just sit in companionable silence. I still really treasure these quiet moments with Oldest Son.
Youngest Son was the one who had hero-worshipped his Dad and was probably the least impressed by what he’d done. He seemed to be dealing with what had happened in the way he dealt with most things – with humour. Unlike the older three (and me) he seemed comfortable with holding two contrasting images of his Dad – the man he loved and the man who’d hurt someone he loved – at once and was quite comfortable with calling his Dad a ‘ginger dickhead’, whilst also looking forward to seeing him on Saturdays. However, there were lots of tell-tale signs that Youngest Son was still upset and worried. He was quicker to anger – particularly at Youngest Daughter. He also got very tearful about things that wouldn’t usually bother him (for example Oldest Daughter being sarcastic, something he’d usually ignore or bite back at). In the end he took refuge in the world of Harry Potter. He read every book and watched every film, he even listened to the audiobooks every night as he went to sleep.
We still listen to those audiobooks every night. As a result, whilst I will always associate Harry Potter with a difficult time, I will be forever grateful to J K Rowling, and Stephen Fry, for getting Youngest Son (and me) through it.