At 7 months pregnant, I completed my degree and qualified as a Nurse. I had just moved in with my son’s father and we were excited about our unplanned but incredibly wanted baby. Being a full time student for the previous three years, I had no money and became financially dependent on the man I was living with. The relationship ended by the time Rory was 10 weeks old. I had no where to go and a tiny baby to care for.
Applying for state benefits was a massive blow to me. I had always worked, paid my way. But at this point I couldn’t even provide a home for my own child. I was frantic beyond words. Every day I would phone agencies trying to explain my situation but was always met with “sorry, we don’t accept housing benefit” or “No DSS“. I felt a total outcast and a complete failure. The unhealthy situation where we were living had escalated and we needed to move out very quickly.
I eventually found an unfurnished house, got the keys, packed a bag and the baby’s travel cot and left in the middle of the night. I curled up on my coat that was my make shift bed on the carpet, watched my baby sleep and cried. I was scared.
As always my wonderful parents came to our rescue, got our belongings and furnished our new house. This was a new start for my baby and I.
It soon became apparent why I was able to rent this particular house so quickly. After a few weeks the newly decorated wall papered walls began to peel away. The whole house was a damp, mouldy mess. But to top it off, in the middle of the night, part of the ceiling collapsed onto my little baby’s play mats. Thank goodness it was the middle of the night. From that moment on, my days revolved around conflict with the letting agency and corresponding with a Solicitor. I was a breast feeding single mum and I just wanted a peaceful life to bond and enjoy being with my baby. The stress was enormous.
We had to move house again. And once again I was a desperate mess. This time, someone must have been watching over me as a very compassionate private landlady agreed to me renting her house in a lovely quiet, residential area of the city. The relief was immense. We moved in and settled just in time to celebrate my son’s first birthday. What a 1st year it had been!
I will never forget those feelings of helplessness and despair. I vowed that I would never be in a position where I couldn’t provide a home for my son again and the only way I could do that was if I worked. Who was going to look after my baby? How could I possibly work 12 hour shifts, night shifts etc. and do the work/training required of me as a newly qualified nurse. The thought of leaving my baby terrified me. Not being there for him when he needed me. I was worrying myself sick.
The stigma around single parents is horrendous. I have felt so ashamed that I haven’t been able to care for my son independently of the State’s financial assistance. Many people call single parents “benefit scroungers”. Living on the poverty line is far from scrounging. The struggle is real. Not just financially but also emotionally. I am fortunate that my parents have helped me financially and I would not have been able to manage without them. I used to find money hidden in my car because they knew I would just not accept it from them in person!
I will never ever forget what my oldest childhood friend sent me whilst I was financially dependent on my son’s father. A parcel arrived at the house with an assortment of shopping vouchers. There was one for a coffee shop so that I could treat myself to coffee and cake with a friend. There was one for a clothes shop to treat myself to something new. There was one so that I could buy toiletries! And magazines! Magazines were such a luxury! She was telling me that I was important! That kindness and generosity will never be forgotten.
As soon as my son turned 1 years old I had the humiliation of having to attend a “work focused interview” through the job centre. I was made to feel so inadequate for not leaving my baby to go to work. I stressed and worried about it constantly. Stress after stress after more stress. So I made the decision that I would be the mum I wanted to be until he was two, a mum who was watching her son grow, spending quality time together. A stay at home mum no matter what anyone else said.
After he turned two, I knew i had done the best job i could to prepare him for nursery life and ultimately our periods of separation, so I started the plan to return to Nursing. Our life was back on track.
Then boom! I didn’t think anything worse could ever happen to us but in April 2014, when Rory was just 2 years and 4 months old I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer. Needless to say, our world was shot to pieces.
After the initial shock wore off, a whirlwind of planning occurred and my feet didn’t touch the ground. I had appointments here, there and everywhere and Rory came with me. Initially, I was only going to need one surgery due to the confinement of the cancer cells. I had never had surgery before and was petrified. I made Rory video clips telling him how much I loved him in case I didn’t make it. We hadn’t been separated for a night before so he came with me on the evening of my hospital admittance so he would be able to visualise where I was. He was in his element chatting away to the nurses and playing with the hospital bed remote control! Fear was the only emotion I had.
Unfortunately two weeks later, when I was hoping for the all clear from my surgeon, she told me that the cancer cells had become invasive and that I would need another surgery, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, 18 months of 3 weekly target therapy injections plus ongoing hormone treatment. My head was shouting out “for fuck’s sake, I don’t have time for this”.
Now I was frantic. Panic set in. Who was going to look after my son. The thought of not being able to care for my own little boy was excruciatingly painful. He would have his beloved Grandparents come to stay but my toddler needed respite from the traumatic cancer world we were trawling through. We were in the wrong geographic area for the 2 year old nursery funding. We were in the wrong area for any charitable home help! After weeks of searching and begging for childcare respite, I was informed that the only way I could get a nursery place for my son would be through Social Services. I would have to volunteer my little boy as a “Child In Need”. I was absolutely heartbroken. What the fuck had happened to my life? Why me??? Why my beautiful little Rory???
The decision made, I found the most outstanding private nursery funded by Social Services. My son thrived from day one and we never looked back. It would be the highlight of my bed ridden days (following chemo) hearing him bundle up the stairs, climbing into bed with me to tell me all about his nursery adventures!
My little boy is truly amazing. I haven’t hidden anything from him. We have got though everything side by side. The day my hair starting falling out in big clumps and I had to shave it, he told me I was beautiful! Needless to say, I cried buckets! He would come with me to the mobile chemo unit to have my injections and was as good as gold. He charmed everyone!
My son’s father and I had tried to maintain an amicable relationship since we split but after my second chemotherapy the relationship took a horrible turn and there were enormous child contact issues. Constant conflict, confrontation, and Solicitor interventions made my recovery time after each treatment longer. I was fraught with worry, stress and anxiety whilst trying to stay alive! My son didn’t deserve any of this. Getting through the days was a struggle. I was so low. I had hit rock bottom. I wasn’t able to put all of my efforts into fighting my cancer and getting well for my son, to ensure he had a mummy to grow up with. I was fighting the very people that should have been supporting us during our extreme time of need.
What should have been an exciting time at the end of my Radiotherapy and the rebuilding of our lives, was met with a court summons through my door! I was fatigued from 6 gruelling months of treatment and surgeries. I was at my physically weakest and emotionally vulnerable. I had no hair, eyelashes or eyebrows, my nose watered constantly and that following week I had to go and sit in a courtroom in front of a judge to go through child arrangements that had already been addressed via solicitors. I cannot believe that a “loving” father would put his “beloved son” and his mother through that. Of course it had an impact on this little boy! But as many single parents will know, to have that legal document that states your son lives with you is worth every bit of delayed recovery.
To think that after court, that would be the end of any conflict. Unfortunately not. I was fortunate that a single parent friend of mine asked it I would like to go on a ‘Self Management’ course that she was facilitating through Gingerbread, Creating Connections and The Mental Health Foundation. At that point, I didn’t know which way to turn. I was experiencing so much fear, panic, stress, worry, guilt, anxiety, even loss of my identity. The constant parental battles had taken its toll and I knew I needed support. I felt a burden to my parents because I had just put them through 6 months of hell.
To say the course saved me is an understatement. Over 6 weeks we shared our stories with each other. Built trusted friendships with people who just new! Used tools to develop achievable life goals. Felt valued as a person by organising a community event which later developed into the creation of a single parent choir! Since then I have tried everything to maintain a positive mental health: clinical counselling, mindfulness, living with cancer retreat, moving forward and leadership courses, volunteering for a mental health charity, joining the single parent rambles, exercise, peer support but most importantly, being kind to myself. Acknowledging and accepting the bad days, knowing that my track record of getting through them is pretty good! Conflict of any sort is one of my biggest triggers for a rapid decline in my mental health. Knowing this and removing myself from it very quickly has positive results.
There is no doubt in my mind that I have some level of post traumatic stress. I had a life changing illness. I thought I was going to die but I had to deal with something much bigger at the time. 3 years ago this month was when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Sometimes I think to myself was it real? I keep reminders around the house so that it doesn’t come and smack me completely in the face when I least expect it. One of those reminders is a picture of me in my underwear so when people come to visit they might find it a bit odd! After my second mastectomy (without reconstruction) I entered a mastectomy lingerie competition. I didn’t have the money for expensive underwear but desperately wanted some. I got through to the final five contestants and was invited to London for a photo shoot. I didn’t anticipate my lingerie clad body being broadcasted over social media, and was very apologetic to my parents in case I offended them! I had no breasts. I was wearing my wig and I was saying a big “fuck you” to the world. I won the competition!
So in preparation for ‘The Mental Health Awareness Week’ in May I have been assisting a Mental Health charity with their appeal. By no means should we be ashamed to talk about our mental health. Writing is my therapy, as is camping! My mental health has been affected greatly by life events. Bad things can happen to anyone. Mental health can affect anyone. Only by sharing can we break the stigma associated with mental health.
As for my goals, a return to Nursing is on the horizon. Unfortunately another court battle is imminent, but this time I am much more physically prepared and emotionally able to fight for what is right for my son. I cant get much more broken than I have been before. The fear remains but there is nothing I wouldn’t do for my little boy. And we will get through everything as always, together.
But before that, we have a summer of camping adventures to plan!