There weren’t many dry eyes amongst those of us who watched Rio Ferdinand: Being Mum and Dad. I haven’t experienced the death of a close relative, even the prospect of it scares the hell out of me. Rio Ferdinand: Being Mum and Dad isn’t a documentary only about grief though, it shows many of the universal truths about unchosen single parenting – a journey I’ve learnt a lot about over the past three years. Here’s what Rio Ferdinand’s taught me on the subject.
Becoming a single parent sucks. This is not about being a single parent by choice; that does NOT suck. But when single parenting wasn’t part of the plan, be that an unexpected pregnancy or a painful divorce, it’s hard. Transitioning to parenthood is hard. Transitioning to singledom is hard. Merging those together can be excruciating. Grief from the death of a partner is surely the most extreme example of such pain but there are so many stories of parents who have found themselves in similar shock and chaos without their being any funeral to attend. The stresses and strains of parenting are all the more acute when you’re doing it alone, let alone if you have an added dimension of trauma or grief to deal with, as Rio put it, “When I wake up I’m knackered” it’s an emotional and physical toll that you rarely, if ever, get a break from and that’s even with the emotional, practical and financial support Rio has behind him.
Time makes things easier. It’s a bloody cliche isn’t it. But I guess that’s how cliches arise, from being true, over and over again. I stop short of saying time heals everything and when you hear from some of the children and parents in Rio Ferdinand: Being Mum and Dad, you wouldn’t utter those words either. Rio Ferdinand may only be at the very start of his grief journey – but it’s clear from the other dads who’ve lost their partners that, in time, you can be happy again. I remember people telling me that when I first divorced. A few breakdowns later and whilst I can’t say I’m truly happy I do now get glimpses of the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s annoying for people to tell you it gets easier when you’re in the throes of extreme pain but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. It’s just that you never know how long it will take you to get there. Hearing it from happily coupled up friends can feel like a slight to the pain you’re feeling; hearing it from these men who’ve experienced such extreme loss and grief gives me a sense of hope.
It’s important to talk about absent parents. I was really struck by this. I mean, it makes sense if a parent dies it’s important to talk about them so the children don’t forget. But what if they haven’t died? What if they have just walked out? What if they have forgotten about the child? What if they are in and out and you’d don’t really know what’s going about? When my ex first left I avoided the word dad. I skipped over it in books, changed it to mummy, uncle, grandpa – anything but the dreaded D word. I thought if I didn’t build up this image in his head of what a dad should be then he wouldn’t miss him. Only it’s not me who builds up the image of a dad, it’s society. Even without me talking about him he still knows there’s an absence there. At the moment that doesn’t worry him much, but listening to the stories in Rio Ferdinand: Being Mum and Dad, I realised how important it is for me to talk to my son more about his father and let him know it’s OK to ask questions. I’ve been trying this for a while with limited success but after watching this documentary I know I need to try harder.
A single parent community is essential. I loved the scene where the single dads are all stood around together. Ben Brooks-Dutton set up a blog to share his experience of being a young widow and from that a group formed. One of the dad’s in the group joked, “it’s like the shittest version of top trumps” as he describes his wife’s death and I instantly knew exactly what he meant. Within moments of a single parent meet up you know intimate details of someones life – about their ex, how their baby came into this world, some of the very personal struggles they’ve faced; yet you don’t even know their second name – hell, sometimes you can’t quite remember their first one. It’s not only about sharing the challenges though. A single parenting community is also about making memories, memories where the kids don’t feel like the odd one out. My son is only three but he already knows that, “some people live with mummies and daddies, and some people live with just mummies” (he’s yet to learn that some people live with just daddies and some with mummies and mummies and so on, but he’ll get there). My son taught himself this fact (see point above) and I’m sure he worked it out because he sees so many single parent families. My son loves “gingerbread meet ups” because he knows he’s going to get to run riot with his pals while the grownups chat. Without the single parenting community I’m not sure where I’d be. Meeting other single parents for me enabled me to talk about some of the harder parts of my journey to single motherhood with a level of understanding that is hard to reach elsewhere.
Even at 11 years old it’s still impossible to get kids to clean their teeth. Seriously, I keep expecting this crap to get easier and sure to some extent it does but why they hell won’t they just clean their teeth when you first ask? But you know what, it made me smile. Seeing Rio ask his sons the same question over and over again had a sense of familiarity. I’m glad my son won’t be giving up on needing me for a while yet. After all the biggest benefit of single parenting is the kids and Rio’s family shots showed just how much joy kids can bring.
If you liked this post, you might like my post on the realities of being a single mum.