On day two of lockdown, bone tired after an anxiety-induced sleepless night, I sliced into my forefinger trying to cut through a frozen bagel. I cleaned the wound, dressed it as best I could, and prayed it would heal. It seemed to symbolise my deepest worries: I was going to have to get through this one alone.
Like everyone, my concerns about Covid-19 were many – not least that I had a lingering chest infection – but as a solo parent, they were amplified. Who would look after my daughter if I got ill? How was I going to shop for groceries with a child in tow? How would I work as well as look after a child? Friends who suspected they’d had the virus spoke of exhaustion so deep they needed four-hour naps – and these were people with supportive partners. How would I cope alone?
The knot in my stomach tightened every time I turned the radio on. To calm myself, I turned off the government’s daily briefing, chopping vegetables instead to the comforting blandness of Bob Harris’s Country Show on Radio 2. I took each long day as it came.
When, seven years ago, I made the life-changing decision to have a child on my own, and was lucky enough to get pregnant, I knew I would have to build a support network. We have hands-on grandparents nearby, cousins a 10-minute walk away, a supportive childminder, and her teenagers who babysit regularly. But when Covid-19 struck, that safety net was pulled from under us: it was just me and my five-year-old daughter, with weeks of intense, one-on-one time stretching out before us.
I usually filled our spare time with meet-ups, cultural outings, weekends away and sleepovers. It was my way of expanding and peopling our small unit, and staving off the occasional loneliness of solo parenting. The thought of a single day without someone to see or somewhere to be would fill me with a sort of low-level claustrophobia.
Single parents, along with many others – from key workers to those from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities; from people in care homes to those on precarious incomes – have been hit hard by coronavirus. A group of solo mothers recently submitted evidence to the women and equalities committee on the unequal impact of Covid-19. Talk on my solo mother WhatsApp and Facebook groups pointed to depressing common ground: people reported mental health issues, financial concerns, anger and impatience with their children, and resentment at coupled-up parent friends.
Christelle Chamouton is mother to nine-year-old Etienne, and working full time from home as head of contracts for a publishing company. “I snap every time he comes to the room and asks me something, even if it’s just the time,” she says. “Although I am physically present, I don’t have the energy to spend quality time with him.”
She is making herself take 30 minutes off a day. “I close the computer to chat to him or hug him or go for a walk, even if it means working in the evening. I try to read in bed, and we have a movie night on Friday – and that’s the extent of my me time.”
Sally McIntyre, who works for the NHS and has a four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son, has suffered from the lack of outside stimuli. “There have been no cafes or play dates to lighten any loads, no playgrounds to allow a bit more distracted parenting,” she says. “And all the while, I’ve been shouldering worries I can’t share, and don’t have anyone to hold me while I have a good cry.”
Slowly, my daughter and I figured out our new living arrangements. At first, all but the essentials (washing, cooking, laundry, work and sleep) fell away. I worked out what I was good at: engaging her in an hour or two of schooling after breakfast; snatching work while she was occupied and, later, while she slept; baking together; inventing games in the park. And I accepted there were some things I had neither the time nor the energy for, such as endless Zoom dates with my friends or her classmates, yoga, and creative writing. I was consoled by the fact that our day-to-day circumstances were not too different from that of many friends juggling childcare and work.
As the first weeks of isolation passed, I began to relax. We whiled away rainy hours doing a 1,000-piece jigsaw, playing cards and board games. She turned six, and we had a socially distanced party with a few neighbours, friends and family.
One day, I suggested we take her bike to the park. She had shown no interest, but I was determined she should learn to ride. After an afternoon or two of sulks and frustration, she nailed it. It had simply required the momentum of a few consecutive days’ trying, which our previous lifestyle hadn’t allowed. As she freewheeled round an empty car park she shouted: “I feel so free!” I hadn’t felt so happy in weeks.
I’m grateful for a salaried job I can do from home, a roof over our heads, and food on the table. Others have it harder. Lucy Walker is a paramedic working shifts, and a solo mother to two children who have been going to school a few days a week. She has witnessed several colleagues die of Covid-19, and on one day dealt with five patient deaths. When she gets home, she’s shattered.
“I feel overwhelmed,” she says. “I no longer have my usual backups, or meals provided by school, so I’m prepping nine meals a day. My children are old enough to be aware that healthcare workers have been dying. I’ve been asking myself, have I been irresponsible, going to work?” She has taken annual leave to avoid having to work nights, and misses the few hours a week she used to get to herself. “I sometimes feel other families don’t really understand: their ‘difficult’ is our ‘normal’.”
For Sam Perry, solo mother to a four-year-old boy, dealing with the death of two people she was close to – a friend’s mother and her uncle, both from Covid-19 – has been very hard. “There were two moments when I found myself wailing over the fence, as I just needed a real person, not a screen, to support me. Not being able to be hugged by an adult, and not having another parent who was perhaps less emotionally connected to both losses to explain them to my son, was difficult.”
For the children of single parents who have other adults they are close to, it’s been hard when they have disappeared during lockdown. Nav Mirza, a former barrister who set up men’s mental health charity Dads Unlimited in 2017, is full-time father to 12-year-old Eisa. His son is missing the close relationship he has with his grandmother, who lives around the corner. “Eisa would often spend the evening, or overnight, with her and his grandfather. [The relationship] gives him a real sense of family. I am trying to be more understanding of his temporary loss.”
While some friends have reported loving home schooling, I am not one of them (though as a mathematically challenged person, teaching my daughter the basics of division has been rewarding). I have noticed that I am being more educational with her in our day-to-day lives, asking even more questions, being more curious.
She, in turn, has enjoyed being part of my working day, a silent presence in our daily Zoom meetings. She has favourites among my colleagues, and loves seeing other people’s kids pop into shot.
But perhaps the biggest change is that we’ve become a more democratic unit. I have never been good at putting myself first. But with two of us at home, jostling to accommodate each other, that thinking has shifted. So my writing group continues to meet once a week, and she has to keep herself busy for an hour; a live-stream talk I want to watch at 7.30pm falls in the middle of storytime, so we do stories first and extend bedtime by half an hour.
I have learned that there are ways of telling a six-year-old that you need some space that don’t involve shouting. I summon up a firm but friendly tone, one I’ve noticed my childminder use, and suggest a few things she could do by herself. It doesn’t always work, but she can amuse herself far better than I ever gave her credit for.
Life got a lot easier on 13 June when single-parent families were allowed to form bubbles with another household, and my daughter went back to school. But although my mum is spending more time with us, I don’t want to overexpose her. We’ve survived three months and counting, my finger has healed, and although I can’t wait for our world to open up, I intend to hang on to our new, improved way of being.
• Some names have been changed.
Flying solo: five ways to share the load
Find your tribe Join a friendship group through single-parent family charity, Gingerbread , or start your own. For solo mothers by choice, try dcnetwork.org; for single fathers, there is dadsunltd.org.uk.
Get informed Gingerbread has specialist advice on everything from child maintenance to financial help. Find out what benefits you’re entitled to at citizensadvice.org.uk.
Make money go further moneysavingexpert.com has useful advice on household budgeting.
Give yourself a break Do a childcare swap with another family; get a babysitter; and say yes to help when it’s offered.