Around the fourth week of the national quarantine, I came up against a brick wall. It was too much. All of it. Distance learning (86 maths exercises given to my younger daughter who needs educational support). The severe depression of my older daughter, which has intensified due to the pandemic’s isolation despite medication and therapy. Gruelling work to make a living – and a fear of losing my job due to the crisis and rising unemployment. Fear for my elderly parents and dropping groceries at their door so they don’t leave the house (even though they are stubborn and go out anyway). Back pain and no way to go to rehabilitation.
The last straw was the fact that I was the only person in our family of three that could legally leave the house to walk the dog. So, apart from work, teaching, organising supplies, making sure that no one hurts themselves irreversibly, taking care of the kids’ emotional well-being and all my other every-day duties, I had to find the time to walk the dog four times a day (when I was on my last legs myself). The government has forbidden people under the age of 18 to leave their homes under penalty of a high fine. I wouldn’t be able to pay a few thousand for a fine when, as a single mum, I’m barely making ends meet.
During the quarantine, for the first time in years, I really felt I was a lone mum, not a self-dependent mum.
Of course, I was tempted to ignore the restrictions and send my teenage child – with a mask and gloves on – with the dog outside, but when I saw a police car with its lights on through the window, chasing a neighbour who went out for a walk with a three-year-old on a bicycle, I got a bit scared. Seriously, with odd jobs and a slim alimony, I can’t scrape together the money for a big fine.
I was raised to think that people should deal with adversity in the best way they can. “If you want to keep your honour, do not ask for a drop of water; count on yourself and believe in yourself, if you want to keep your honour” – this Chinese verse, often quoted by my mother, has become imprinted on my memory. Now, as an adult, I sort of know it doesn’t make sense. I read about the role of social support, I myself engage in aid activities and I am moved to see that there are more people of good will than anyone would have thought. And I believe that this world only exists because of them. And yet, I have great difficulty asking for help. So great that I decided to look into it and, as part of an experiment, for the first time in I don’t know how long, I complain on Facebook.
I wrote that it’s been hard for me, as it has been for other single parents. See what I did there? It was hard for me to admit to myself that it was hard for ME, so to alleviate the discomfort, I added those other single parents. Is this how I wanted to show empathy to others and shed light on the problems of the whole social group? Or did I hide myself in a crowd of people who (for various reasons) have to keep fighting an uphill battle in their lives?
What’s with this insistence on showing the world that I’m on top of everything all the time? For almost a year now, since my book entitled “Sama mama. Jak przejść przez rozwód i żyć dalej?” (“A single mum. How to go through a divorce and move on?”) has been published, I have been asked about the distinction between loneliness and independence. And I usually say this: “I don’t feel lonely because I have friends and family. I feel more independent, although I don’t think there’s any obligation to be self-reliant in every situation”.
After the divorce, I was left alone with my daughters: a two- and a six-year-old. I have learned a thousand things that were difficult for me: doing repairs, talking to car mechanics, taking care of two sick children at the same time, etc. I’m very proud of myself. I enjoy my strength. But I’d like to be able to admit to myself that I have the right to weaknesses. That it’s okay not to manage in life. That I don’t have to demand so much from myself. Especially now that the ways of doing things that we’re accustomed to don’t work and the world’s turned upside down.
So, I wrote a post to my friends and acquaintances saying that it’s been hard and that I’m starting to struggle.
As you can guess (it’s easy for you – you can look at my situation with distance; I was honestly surprised), I received loads of offers of help. To be more precise, several dozen very specific proposals – from neighbours, acquaintances and even strangers. The post had a lot of shares and it was discussed on a certain parenting portal. Only one reader (yes, a woman) wrote that I was exaggerating and that I was to blame. All the other responses were full of supportive words and, importantly, statements of the following sort: “I’m struggling too. I feel the same way. I can’t take it any more either”.
In Astrid Lindgren’s book entitled “Seacrow Island” there’s a passage about a group of children going by boat from Seacrow Island to the nearby skerries. The weather changes dangerously and they delay the return too long, as a result of which they find themselves surrounded by thick fog at sea. They don’t know where to go, how to return to port, where to look for help. They stop rowing. After many hours, hungry and freezing, they accidentally sense the shallows underneath the boat. The fog clears and they realise they ran aground a long time ago and they’ve been stuck right next to their own school building all this time.
Admitting my loneliness allowed me to feel the ground beneath my feet. It cleared the fog. It gave me a sense of security.
I’m talking about my personal experience, but I dare say I’m not the only one who finds it difficult to show weakness. When I talk to single/self-dependent mums, many of them feel the need to emphasise how well they are doing. I understand that very well. The social pressure to live in a “family that is complete”, to “settle down with someone” and to “provide children with a real home” is still going strong. That’s why we show that our families after divorce are still complete, as they are full of love, peace and respect. That a real home is one that provides support, not just the physical presence of both parents. We prove that you can live a full and happy life regardless of what’s written under “marital status”.
Is there room for weakness in such a self-presentation? I always thought there was, it was just hard for me to put it into practice. I was forced to do it by the pandemic which has changed the way I function in many areas of my life. For me, this is an advantage – I’m learning to see myself in a more complete way. I’m learning to see the people around me and, more specifically, their willingness to help. I’m learning to dedicate my energy to what’s the most important and to protect its resources.
I’m learning to think there’s no hidden complaint in admitting to loneliness. And self-dependence can be a burden sometimes.
For now, I’m catching my breath, like when I take the mask off my face. Breathe in, breathe out. Then I get going. If you come up against a brick wall, show me you need help. Scream in the fog. So that we don’t lose sight of each other.
“Tenderness and freedom. Let's build balanced relationships” is a campaign run by Kulczyk Foundation along with “Wysokie Obcasy” and “Gazeta Wyborcza Foundation”.
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