Lessons in lone parenting

Part of preparing to becoming an expat trailing spouse (and oh, how I detest that term) can be a prolonged period between your partner leaving to your new country and the rest of the family, ahem, trailing in behind them.

I’m a parent to three relatively young children: two girls, aged 7 and 5, and a toddler monkey, I mean boy, aged 2.5.

For me, it’s been relatively short but super intense time since Simon left last Halloween. A crash course in the trials and tribulations of lone parenthood. (Although noting that my partner was only ever a phone call away in an emergency or for a discussion!)

I believe that the only way to truly appreciate someone else’s perspective or life is to try and walk in their shoes, so this is my reflection on the challenges of lone parenthood and my admiration for all who walk this road by choice or necessity.

Life juggling

All parents know that children and working life requires compromise, flexibility and the diary management skills of a ninja event planner, but that’s before you have to do it alone.

When one partner is away or overseas, the usual backup partner who can stay at home while others are dropped to activities is no longer there. More kids need to eat faster, be packed into car seats and dragged around to various parties/activities, etc. Negotiation skills, coordination, fast driving and sprinting are all key attributes of a proficient life juggler!

Personal life also takes a back seat unless you really can try to make it happen. Again, I’ve been blessed with great family support for sleepovers, babysitting, etc. I’ve also had some regular babysitting to “force” me out running, or at least I did until Christmas pushed me back on my sedentary behind!

Often the biggest treat becomes a moment over a quiet coffee or silence for 10 minutes in you car between work, creche pickups or a journey home.

Working outside the home

I managed to somehow get through 3 months of full-time professional work while lone parenting. I say somehow knowing it was a large combination of a great childcare set up (Creche) that we were lucky enough to afford with two salaries and wonderful family support. I also had an incredibly understanding company who supported me through those final stressful months. 

Many (most?) lone parents have only one salary coming in and so restricted childcare options. Many don’t have family support nearby. Most also don’t work just 15 minutes from home. 

I know some inspirational parents who manage to do this long-term; for me, these people are jaw-droppingly brilliant and I am in awe of their commitment to this and the daily struggle they must face to make it happen. 

Equally, if I ever hear someone criticising a parent for not working, I will personally be first in the queue to point out that our society structure, childcare provision and expectations of working parents are such that it is virtually impossible to consider combining work and lone parenthood, especially for more than one child. As I said, try walking in these shoes for a while. 

Bad cop, bad cop

Fairly self-explanatory, but when there is only one cop in town they inevitably fall into the Bad category! 

It is emotionally draining and tiring constantly being the corrector, guide and mediator, especially without a balance in the household who can provide the wriggle room that children sometimes thrive on. 

In saying all of that, there’s no danger of mixed messages and it certainly frustrates a young lady’s ability to manipulate parents by playing them off against each other!

Loneliness

The loneliness of being a lone parent preparing to follow overseas is an odd one. It’s not the usual desire for adult conversation, experienced during those long days of maternity leave. It’s more the missing of a presence in your life – a hole where the other part of you should be. Modern technology helps with this – Skype, WhatsApp and the multitude of other messaging apps allow you to see each other face to face every day – but they can’t reduce the distance and tiredness.

On the other hand, it’s worse for your partner who is living a bizarre hotel-based existence overseas. I joke that Simon has the easier deal, without pneumonia, tummy bugs, temper tantrums and general mayhem to deal with, but actually I’m lying. True loneliness is being separated from your children, and that’s one that I thankfully haven’t had to live with. 

Parenthood, especially lone parenthood, is tough, but it’s full of love and moments of magic and is never thankless.


So, next time you meet someone who is parenting alone, tell them what a great job they’re doing, ask them whether they could use a night off or even an hour to go out for a coffee. And remember, they’re trying their best!

So, I don’t hear so well.

This is part of a self-indulgent background series into who I am and what shaped me. I don’t think I can fully discuss preparations for expat life without dealing with these topics!

One of the biggest revelations of my 20s was my own personal discovery of the extent of my hearing loss. I’ve spent well over a decade since trying to figure out what it means for me, my career and my personal life. My question: does my hearing loss define me, and if it does, is this a bad thing?

“A little hard of hearing on one side”

Before I went to an audiologist to get a new hearing aid for my round the world adventures, I would have described myself with 8 simple words: A little hard of hearing on one side.

This was easily understood by people (including me). It meant shout a little louder, like we all did with my beloved granny, and make sure you walk on my right hand side since that was my good ear. It also meant I was a little louder myself – “Decibels, Sinéad,” as my English grandmother used to caution when it got slightly too much for her!

People, especially taxi drivers, would query my accent: “Where are you from?” or, more rudely, “Why do you talk like that?”. And I would explain, rather than go into long winded stories about speech therapy and hearing loss, that my father was English and so I had a mixed accent. In fact, like all alternative facts, I happily believed this. He has a loud voice, so I must have picked up more of his sounds.

So, where had this story come from?

My diagnosis with a hearing loss happened relatively late. I was just about to start school and my speech was slower to start, so I was assessed and fitted with a single hearing aid and attended speech therapy. At no stage do I remember receiving any advice re communicating in school, or living with hearing loss, but I know there was an excellent occupational health specialist who visited my Mum so I suppose it must have been offered at some stage. I attended a mainstream school, was sufficiently nerdy and bright to do well, did OK in speech therapy, socialised relatively well and so life just went on.

I was a book worm and so learned a lot of words from reading versus hearing, which is why you’ll still catch me struggling to pronounce some words. I can see them and know them, but haven’t heard them properly in conversation!

Knowing my limits

I got through my primary schools relatively unscathed, but know that secondary school challenged me. I struggled to fit in with the cliques in an all-girls school, and know now that it was largely because group conversation flew straight over my head. I buried myself in books at lunchtime and it took the pressure off socialising. Equally, activities like Scouts were a roaring disaster – more group work and high volume. I never thought to associate this with hearing, just felt different and it fit the teenage stereotype we all cling to during those years.

I also jettisoned my little hearing aid friend around this time. Sure I had a good side; just needed people to talk to me from it!

However, my awareness took enough shape that I realised just before my Leaving Cert mocks that it was time to raise my hand and ask for help with the aural exams in my Honours Irish and French exams. (For those who don’t know what these are, these are the tapes that were played of conversations and train station announcements, with accompanying comprehension questions.) These tapes never sounded anything less than gobbledygook for me, and the fact that I finally got the cop-on to flag this 4.5 years into second level school was a moment of relative maturity!

Aside: This led to a special combination of oral/aural exams with a Michael D Higgins impersonator of an examiner, who accompanied a conversation about “an eitleán“with arm motions that would leave even a primate in no doubt as to the answer to “what mode of transport is being discussed?”

One of 200 in a lecture theatre

Some of you may have heard about University College Dublin (UCD) 1st year Science lectures, where seats were at such a premium (at least in the first weeks of bouncy enthusiasm) that people were crammed in at every possible seating surface. This was the environment I floundered in for my college education. Foolishly sitting at the back, sans hearing aid, scribbling notes from acetates on a faraway screen and not the foggiest notion of actually trying to follow what the lecturers were saying.

I didn’t engage with disability services. Sure why would I? I was just a little hard of hearing. It wasn’t a real problem.

Socialising was also difficult. Pubs are not a great place when you can’t hear, and add drink to that mix and your ability to concentrate just gets worse, not better. So you either dance (on a good night) or drink (on a messy night) and there are few nights in between.

From a barely passed degree to mature office jobs and relationships. All continuing as normal as can be. Roll on travel plans and a growing sense of trepidation of wading into a world that was going to be real life encounters of those aural tapes from school. How would I manage bus stations? Ordering food? (And to be clear, my now beloved husband and then it’ll-make-or-break-us travel partner, had the linguistic capacity of a rock.)

So I figured, maybe it’s time to get a new hearing aid. You know, it might just help.

Incredulity

This was the print out.

So I get what you’re thinking. What the blazes does this all mean? I felt that too the evening I saw this chart for the first time.

It meant, however, a lot to the audiologist standing across from me. His exact words stick with me to this day: “You’re seriously telling me you got through school and college without wearing your hearing aid? And you definitely only ever had one hearing aid?”

His incredulity gave me a little indication that “a little hard of hearing” might just have been wide of the mark.

The first thing you need to understand about that small chart is that it contains a lot of information. During the test they play sounds to each ear at different frequencies and record your reaction to this. The numbers across the top are the frequency of sounds. Frequency is best understood as ranging from low frequency (noises like the bass notes on a piano) to high frequency (like a bird cheeping). Across the left it shows the decibels required to hear that sound during the test. That record then is mapped like above in a chart called an audiogram. Hearing Link explain this better than I can!

Let’s interpret this from my perspective:

  • Those little Os and Xs on that chart indicate the right ear and left ear. Yup, both ears are exactly the same, equally poor at doing basic ear-functions like hearing. I had no “good side”. Simon, to this day, still walks on my right!
  • A person with “normal” hearing will hear their softest sounds between -10 and 20 Db. Mine is therefore normal up to 500 Hz frequency, but then you’ll see it starts to drop, fast.
  • I had severe high frequency hearing loss, not a “slightly hard of hearing, sure-shout-a-little type hearing loss”. This is better known as ski slope hearing loss, given that it’s basically an uncontrolled downhill slide from which there’s no recovery. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come with après-ski!

My speech banana

All of the above is theoretical, but it can be hard to see how this relates to “real” hearing. This is where a speech banana comes in. Now, don’t laugh at the name, but look at this graph and you’ll see how it relates to the audiogram above. It basically shows where common sounds would fall on the audiogram.

For me, this speech banana helps to explain my everyday struggles. It becomes easier to see when I map my results on it.

This is my speech banana:

sinead-speech-banana

I can’t hear high frequency sounds, like the consonant sounds “t, c, s, p”. It’s which I can never distinguish between f and when people spell their names. It’s why birds singing are silent to me. It explains why I sometimes speak strangely. It also explains why I was (excuse my french!) buggered when I did reception cover in a busy Chicago bank during my J1 summer. Names I’d never heard of being spelled out over the phone! Quite a few people got “cut off” that summer or their messages never passed on!

So what?

So, I didn’t quite get all of the information above in the first visit to the audiologist but I did hear something that would become a mantra for my life. Basically, my hearing loss is hard to treat with hearing aids. Think about how a hearing aid works: it amplifies volume. Old aids, such as the helpful single 1980s aid I had during my youth, would simply make everything louder. Great in theory, but when the challenge is distinguishing high frequency sounds, having louder background noise doesn’t help.

Modern technology has improved, but it’s still a challenge. It’s also why I largely get away without wearing my hearing aids. I find them hard in a busy office environment, as even with the latest technology embedded in them, I still can’t handle the extra amplification of background noise. I end up shutting it all out, leading me to embarrassing moments where colleagues are practically jumping up and down beside me to get my attention!

Hear like I hear

This handy video from Phonak might help you hear as I hear:

So what?

I guess I’m self-consciously sharing this story and my experience in the hope that people might understand my hearing loss a little better.

I asked earlier whether it defines me, and I suspect there’s another blog post (or several) needed to answer that.

However, I definitely learned plenty about myself after my initial anger at being misinformed about the extent of my hearing loss for so many years. Knowing the extent of my hearing loss allowed me to discover, and embrace, subtitles on page 888 on Teletext and fueled an interest in accessibility and the need to ensure subtitling of video/TV content. It allowed me to accept my lack of ability in noisy group settings and to forgive myself for being the person engaging in 1:1 chat at parties versus the centre of group talk.

There is much more to say, especially regarding my fears regarding living in a country with a multitude of accents and strange names, but that’s best saved for another day in which I can share my love of Amy Cuddy and faking it until you make it!

Image source: Ear, by Hana Tichá

Airports – places of feeling

cityJet plane 

I love airports. Always have and always will. 

There’s something about the bustling and activity that makes you acutely aware of the different lives intersecting yours for brief moments of shared experience. Maybe you’re travelling for fun – a weekend away like my trip today, perhaps – or for work, lugging your laptop with determination to make sure that this time, for once, you’ll do some work on the plane. Every single person checking in alongside you or queuing at the gate has a story and a reason for being there.

I’ve had moments of many feelings in airports: scared shitless anticipation as we set off backpacking around the world, pure joy as we boarded our plane to Italy for our wedding, sadness coming home from honeymoon knowing I had missed my grandfather’s funeral or heading to the UK for my other grandparents’ funeral services, sickness as we flew home with only one hour’s sleep from a night on the beaches of Copacabana. All stories, moments in my life. Memorialised in boarding passes that I used to feverishly hoard in the days pre-Passbook.

I don’t remember the terminals, the luggage, the waiting, but I acutely remember the feelings. 

Today’s feelings are excitement, anticipation, glee as I travel to join Simon in London for a last adult weekend away before our big reunion in Qatar this day next month. I feel slightly like a four year old who’s had too many mince pies on Christmas Eve night!

Did I mention I love airports? 

Tell me some of your airport stories!

I do! Saying Yes to the new overseas address.

Makes it sound so simple right? Uttering a quick yes to a romantic proposal for #expatlife, following years of planning filled with shared imagery for the future and dreams of sun soaked days and toenail selfies by the exotic pool.

Not quite the reality that met me in early 2016. Let me rewind and perhaps offer some notes of learning for anyone who stumbles across this looking for help to make a similar decision.

Forward planning

Ok, confession time: forward planning is not my strong suit. Those who know me know that my head is full of dreams and meandering thoughts but these rarely involve long-term practical planning. I’m also loathe to change. Sure, I’m an INFP (more on that another day) and adore big beautiful ideas and exciting plans, but I like these to be happening to others, not me.

So it was that in early 2016, despite a great job in a global organisation that offered lots of opportunities to move overseas, the thought had never entered my head. The furthest I saw us moving was within a 20km radius into a lovely new house, surrounded by fields and where the biggest issue for the children was whether they could access an Educate Together school.

On the other hand, hubby was talking. A lot. Again. To overseas companies. Well, one in particular.

I say again because this often happened. We’d considered moving to Haiti (never happened) and he’d done an interview or two for a –stan country somewhere up toward the Urals. I now ignored this and blissfully house-hunted as he had interview after interview, uttering these now infamous words of warning: “You’ll probably be offered a job the day we put an offer in on a house.”

And that’s exactly what happened. House offer made; no Educate Together, but I was overlooking it. Job offer made; still no Educate Together, and where on Earth is Qatar?

Having the talk

It would be unfair to make it seem like the decision-making was all one way, but clearly some serious conversations were needed and quickly. It is almost (and I mean almost) hilarious how little time you seem to have to make these very big decisions when everything else afterward about setting up expat life seems to take an eternity.

So, these are the things to consider:

  • Family – your kids will always be fine, even if you first think you’re ruining their lives. Trust me on this. Don’t make the children the focus of your decision; they’ll be happy once they’re with their parents.
  • Family – your parents/siblings are another matter. There’s no way to gloss this over, as this is the tough bit. We were blessed as our family are all in good health, which does make this type of decision easier.
  • Schooling – so I said don’t worry about the kids, but actually, do worry about their schooling! Qatar, for instance, has a shortage of places in schools. Have a look and see whether there are any schools that match your ethos and expectations for your children’s education. See if you can chat to any other parents there already.
  • Contract details – look at the finer details, the whole package. How much is the school allowance? Does it cover fees in your preferred schools? How much of an allowance do you get to go home during the year? What about health insurance? How much annual leave do you get and will it allow you both a holiday and a trip home? How much is your housing allowance, if you have one, and does it cover the type of housing you’ll require?
  • Jobs – do you both need/want to work while overseas? I’m still in two minds on this one personally (my lack of proper planning obvious on this), but I suspect that might be more down to the toenail selfie opportunity issue.
  • Your relationship – this sounds obvious but it’s likely that someone will leave first. How will this affect your relationship? How will you deal with communicating at a distance? Also, let’s face it, moving house is already one of life’s biggest stresses. Doing this across continents just multiplies this. Make sure you’re both strong and committed or you’re setting yourselves up to fail.

Taking the step into the unknown

I won’t lie and say any of the above was easy, or that I took a logical approach to any of the questions above. I think I cried every time it was mentioned for the first week or so.

And then, having digested and started to think “possibility” instead of “change”, the conversations became less about whether and more about how we would move. Less about the fear and more about the practicality.

I’m honestly not sure, even now, whether we had a “Yes, this is it. We’re doing it” moment, and that was ok, especially for me. It allowed me to digest each change at a time and focus on each of the implications at a time. That moment when I got an email to say the contracts had been signed and sent wasn’t long in arriving.

We were about to embark on a new adventure and I was now ready and excited about what the future would bring.

I’m packing my toenail polish alongside my laptop and the nappy bag! Qatar calls and next month, after rather a lot of preparation and treading water, we’ll be calling it home.

Say Yes flickr photo by 4rilla shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

On a big day, a new chapter starts

Today was my big day. My day of adieu, au revoir, see you soon and slán go fóil. 

I departed my company of eight years with heavy boxes, a sad heart and what seemed like a veritable botanic gardens of flowers. 

If you could measure kind thoughts in cupcakes, videos and petals, I’m feeling the love!

Today was also the day I realised that the long months waiting to close this chapter of my life had finally reached an end, moving my focus from daily life to packing and preparing, and that our family was closer to being united again. 

So much of the preparation for expat life as a family seems to involve separation, snatched WhatsApp video calls and a bizarre sense of two parallel universes waiting to combine.

I believe in balance; goodbyes have a counterpart in hello.

Simon, my husband of nearly 10 years who is patiently awaiting our arrival in Qatar, added to the floral collection but his note was not one of goodbye and good luck, but of welcome and hope:

On a big day, a new chapter starts.

Welcome to my new chapter as Simon says. This blog will be my book along the way.