As May and June headed towards July, I began to feel that life was calming down and brightening up a bit – albeit with the odd cloud darkening our days every now and then.
At the end of May, after I’d spent the best part of five months asking E to tell his parents what had happened, I finally got a text from him saying that he had “called his parents”. I assumed that this meant he had told them what had happened. However, I later discovered that, whilst he had indeed called them (there was always a teeny kernel of truth in his lies), he actually hadn’t told them a thing. On the contrary, what he’d done was, as he was saying goodbye and telling them how terribly busy and important he was, he told them to speak to his sister and that she’d fill them in on some ‘news’. His poor sister was then landed with telling her parents what had happened. This was the last thing she needed. bear in mind she was on maternity leave, with a very young baby, she was upset about the fact that we’d split up as it was and she didn’t really know a lot about what had happened (I’d kept the details brief when I’d told her).
I’d been so worried about how E’s parents would react, but as soon as they heard, they texted me to ask if I was ok and they came to see us a couple of weeks later. They’re not the kind of people who are openly emotional, but from that first visit it was very clear that the kids and I still had their love and support. I didn’t expect them to take sides – after all E is their son and they love him – but I was just relieved that they were happy to carry on as normal.
All in all, things were beginning to feel like they were on a more even keel. We were getting used to our new normal. Youngest Son didn’t get upset when he saw that the front door was bolted before he went to bed (we’d always left it unbolted because E got in so late) anymore. Oldest Daughter was immersed in her A level revision. Youngest Daughter was still struggling emotionally, but at least she was talking to me not screaming at me and Oldest Son was getting on with things in his usual, quiet, way. The house felt calm and happy, and was frequently full of the kids’ friends. A friend of mine called round to pick up her son and commented on what a lovely, relaxed home it was.
However, I was struggling with the anxiety that had begun to creep up on me after E had left. I was just about able to control it (or at least not let it take over totally), but it frustrated and exhausted me. It was like a dark, slippery, tentacled creature, wriggling in the pit of my stomach, that could reach to the tips of my toes and into the deepest recesses of my mind. Nobody could see it, or tell it was there, but for me its presence was all-encompassing. My days were ruled by it – I was either in control of it, or I was engulfed by it, but I was always aware of it. The smallest thing – a phrase, a memory, a text – could swing me violently from feeling relatively calm to feeling a cold, creeping, irrational panic for hours, sometimes a whole day, at a time. I dreaded the Dark Hours, they were worse than the days, those endless sleepless nights, when, like swarms of ants running through my veins, fear and panic would run through my whole body until I was gripped with fear.
On the plus side, the house was immaculate and everything was incredibly organised. I’m not sure I’d recommend it as a way to be a Domestic Goddess, but you never know – I know of people who have taken their kids’ ritalin to get more done – so I guess it could catch on. I used to say “people who have kids and immaculate houses have no life”, at the time I thought I was funny, but I’ve realised I was very wrong – sometimes people with kids and immaculate houses have no choice. I dealt with my anxiety, and mitigated some of those Dark Hours worries, by controlling what I could and minute-managing our lives. I got school uniforms and work clothes ready days in advance, I’d always ensure I had at least a week’s worth of packed lunches frozen and ready to put in lunch boxes, I cooked and froze homemade meals. I bought loads of freezer food and stacked the cupboards with tins, so I knew there was always food for the kids. I cleaned the house from top to bottom every weekend. I made sure the house was clean and tidy every night before I went to bed and did the same thing again every morning before I went to work. I had a written ‘to do’ list that I took everywhere with me, so that, when I started panicking about what I had to do, I could check what needed doing and reassure myself that the important stuff had been done.
I admit that this sounds ever-so-slightly scary (ok, it probably sounds bloody weird too). However, I knew if I didn’t do all this, then worrying over everything that I had to do the next day would be added into my Dark Hours panic, and fretting over what needed to be done when I got home would dominate my day at work. This way, I removed some of the things that my mind was throwing at me at 3am. It created shed-loads of work for me, but it helped alleviate what would otherwise be intolerable levels of anxiety.
What the kids made of this, I don’t know. I’m pretty sure that they didn’t even notice the extra clean/tidy house and I’m certain they didn’t appreciate the jobs I asked them to do every day. I tried to keep it away from them and I think my behaviour towards them was largely the same. However, if my anxiety hit around an issue that affected them, I would occasionally get disproportionately upset or angry. On the rare occasions I got cross with them I would apologise almost immediately, there would be hugs and Youngest Son would usually try to capitalise on the fact that I felt guilty by asking for a packet of crisps.
The thing that would get to me the most would be E arranging (or not arranging/cancelling) his days with the boys. I found it incredibly difficult that he didn’t have the manners to at least inform me what time he was picking the boys up/dropping them off on a Saturday. I was also increasingly angered by the fact that even though he’d left and had made it crystal clear that our partnership was over, he was still treating me like he did when we were together by expecting me to be home for the kids on the days that he couldn’t see them. I knew his working hours meant he had to work weekends, and obviously, that hasn’t changed – but everything else had – the day he walked out should have been the day he lost the free babysitting and childcare service I was providing. However, whilst he didn’t want me in his life, it seemed he was quite happy to keep using me when it suited him. This just added to my sense of hurt and humiliation.
To this day, I have to ask the boys for details of what they’re doing and if they’re seeing their Dad on Saturday. I also frequently have to wait until Friday evening before I know what my sons are doing on Saturday. I know that I don’t do much at weekends, and that, even if I had plans, Youngest Daughter and Oldest Son are old enough to be left and can look after Youngest Son if necessary, but the lack of manners, E’s lack of consideration, the downright bloody rudeness of not informing me about his plans, still takes my breath away a little bit. These days I can cope with it a little better, but last year, I found it deeply upsetting. The problem was, I refused to use the kids to score points with E. I could have insisted he only see them when he’d cleared it with me and, if he didn’t check with me, refuse him access. I could have made a massive fuss about him expecting me to look after the boys on ‘his’ Saturdays and asked him for help with childcare (I was working most Saturdays after all). I could have played him at his own game and just arranged to go out or away on days when he thought he was seeing the kids. But all of those things would have upset the kids and made them feel like pawns in a struggle between their Dad and me, and I wasn’t prepared to put them through that. I’m happy to admit that many a sarcastic phrase has escaped me when the boys have told me about a last-minute plan, or lack thereof, but they know me well enough to know that my bark is far worse than my bite and it doesn’t seem to worry them. In fact, Youngest Son quite not only enjoys some of the phrases I’ve come out with but he has expanded on them and applies them to his Dad regularly.
However, anxiety and E issues aside, I was beginning to feel I was a little more in control of things. Work was going well – they had now given me a permanent, term-time only, contract, so I felt I had a little bit more stability there. Oldest Daughter had finally finished her A levels and was embarking upon a summer of fun and friendship (and vodka, and beer) and all of us were looking forward to the school holidays – not least because I had booked us all a trip to Singapore. For a little while, whilst E was still causing us hurt, we were better able to deal with it. For a little while, rather than grenades being thrown which disrupted everyone emotionally, his tactlesnesses were more like clouds passing briefly over us. I began to feel like I might be ok.
Unfortunately, there was to be more heartbreak to come – at that point though, we just couldn’t see the huge storm cloud that was just below the horizon.