As a single mother, I thought I was programmed to relish time to myself. It was a hangover from the intensity of the baby and toddler years. Given the opportunity, I’d very happily spend a solo Saturday lying in, watching TV, getting dressed whenever the hell I liked. But lately, being home alone has led to feelings of emptiness and dread.
My son is suddenly 16, and days spent by myself are no longer happy opportunities to write in peace or unwind; they’re a reminder of how life might feel when my child has flown the nest.
It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and this year’s theme is loneliness. Much is (rightly) written about the loneliness of early motherhood, but what about the part when our children (naturally) drift away? Where are the mums’ groups, the chat forums, the sense of community and kinship?
I know, I know – newsflash: children grow up. But nothing could have prepared me for the breakneck speed with which my son’s childhood would disappear.
Children leaving home is something all parents have to face, but for the one in four UK parents who are single, it can be especially tough. As Victoria Benson, CEO of single parent charity Gingerbread, says: “A couple can face it together, provide each other with support and plan their future. A single parent doesn’t have a partner to provide them with support.”
Recently, my loneliness and fear morphed into depression. My friends all have younger children and partners, or no children. I didn’t know how to articulate my feelings without sounding like I was whingeing about a perfectly normal and obvious thing.
I began to turn down social invitations, making the excuse that I was settling into the home into which I’d recently moved. At least I was saving money, given the cost of living crisis and my new higher rent.
A bout of Covid was a convenient reason to spend the Easter holidays in bed. But the new house is tiny, my room a box affectionately known as “the bed cupboard”; a claustrophobic place to lie worrying about the future.
When my son was around, I was fine: cooking him tea, discussing his impending GCSEs, watching comedy together. It was when he wasn’t there that the loneliness would seep in, rapidly changing my mood. Things felt so bleak one day that I contacted the Samaritans.
I was lucky to get through to their pilot online chat service and a wonderful volunteer. Writing everything down helped me see that I needed to yank myself out of the glue trap I’d fallen into and start planning for a future by myself.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t begrudge my son his independence. He’s a talented musician and actor, busy with revision, friends and a Saturday job. I’m so excited for and proud of him as he leaves school and embarks on the next stage of his life. There’s no way I’d expect him not to follow his dreams, to stay living at home with his old mum for ever.
But the relationship between a single parent and their child, especially an only child, is symbiotic. Hannah, 60, shared with me how she felt when her son (and only child) first left home. “My flat felt empty. I didn’t go into [my son’s] room for ages… I didn’t really talk to anyone about how I felt.”
An appeal on Twitter brought me dozens more wise and soothing emails from single parents in a similar boat. If there are so many of us, how can we find each other?
I was aware of Frolo, an app and online hub that connects single parents but admittedly thought it was for those with younger children, people battling sleepless nights and seeking playdates.
In fact, Frolo’s CEO, Zoë Desmond, tells me that 30 per cent of its members are parents of teens.
Aside from apps and social media cries for help, what can we do to fill the chasm our kids leave behind?
Faye, who has three teenage children, one of whom has already left home, suggests: “Exercise. It passes the time, gives you a sense of accomplishment, releases endorphins.
“I’ll often take myself off on a walk or to an art gallery.”
Young children are great for making you appreciate good old days out, but I can’t remember the last time I went to a farm to gawp at baby animals, or caught the train to the countryside. Of course, these are all things I can do by myself, with a shift in thinking.
“What helped was taking a step back and trying to work out what I wanted to do now I had the freedom,” says Hannah, “without having to stop to make tea or struggle to find a babysitter.”
Victoria Benson spoke to me about her personal experience of her three older children leaving home. “There’s so much I want to do and I’m excited about that. And my children will be part of it, as adults – they don’t need to be living in your house to be a big part of your life.”
Jenny, single mum to a 12-year-old and a 16-year-old, put a beautifully positive spin on things. “Life isn’t stopping, it’s changing. For all three of us. And I want to embrace that.”
The future is beginning to feel intriguing again, filled with possibilities. Maybe I’ll make a living from writing, move closer to nature, even live abroad.
For now, I’ve started to drag myself out of the bed cupboard and say yes to things again. Friends have told me I should have said I was struggling. It’s a cheesy phrase ruined by corporate emails, but if all this has taught me anything, it’s to “reach out”.
When you connect with others loneliness eases off. I’ll be sad when my son leaves home, but I also can’t wait to see what’s in store for us.
Call Samaritans free on 116 123 or visit samaritans.org For more information on single-parent families, visit Gingerbread.org.uk