Settled at last

Kids. They either make your heart melt or your blood boil. Last night wasn’t the first time Isaac and Toby have spent the night separated from their mother, but it was the first time they had done so with Heather in a different country. I’d be lying if I said it was an easy evening, but equally the fact that all three of us woke up this morning with a smile meant I’d passed my first test as a (temporary) single dad: negotiating a mum-less night.

Tim’s 1st law of single parenting: When in doubt, resort to bribery

I had arranged to pick both boys up earlier than usual to take them out for dinner as a treat. Their destination of choice: Pizza Hut, which ticked all the boxes of the boys’ requests for pizza, pasta and ice cream. Some might call that bribery but I prefer to think of it as a down-payment for good behaviour.

No such luck.

The calm before the storm
The calm before the storm

It all started well enough – until the food arrived. While Isaac wolfed down his pepperoni pizza, Toby flatly refused to eat the spaghetti bolognaise he had specifically requested. His food intake: half a fork of spaghetti (wiped clean of bolognaise sauce), two cherry tomatoes, a slice of cucumber and an apple juice. I wasn’t too concerned – his appetite is fickle and he usually makes up for it by eating three breakfasts the following morning – but despite several gentle reminders about the consequences of not eating anything, when it came to pudding time there was no ice cream bowl for him. Cue temper tantrum. Which brings me to …

Tim’s 2nd law of single parenting: Don’t cave in. Ever

Three-year-olds are like the Nazis marching across Western Europe pre-WWII. If you don’t make a stand, they will ruthlessly employ ‘salami tactics’, nibbling off one slice of territory at a time until eventually you have nothing left.

I’m a peacemaker at heart and I hate seeing my kids upset, which means that when they kick off my first instinct is to do whatever it takes to calm them down. So it takes a real effort for me to stand my ground and continue to say “no” to Toby when he cranks the volume up to 11 and other people start to look on disapprovingly.

But here’s one thing I’ve learned after five years of parenting: stuff that. I know my kids better than any stranger does. I know Toby’s in a phase where he’ll push every boundary he can, probing for weak spots. I also know from experience that raising my voice to him only causes him to dig his heels in more. So, hard as it is, it’s important to stay calm and never cave in.

And so it turned out. I kept talking to him calmly (while feeling anything but inside), and sure enough the loud protests soon became subdued whimpers and finally a sustained pout as he realised he wasn’t going to get his way this time. A small victory for patience.

Tim’s 0th law of single parenting: When all else fails, just be their dad

The bedtime routine was surprisingly uneventful – until I turned the light out. Then Toby launched into stout declarations of “I want my mummy!” – a kiss, a cuddle and some calm, whispered reassurances and he was soon snoring. Five minutes later, as I was just about to give myself an A+ for my performance, Isaac appeared in floods of tears at the bottom of the stairs and made me kick myself for being so complacent.

Like the thoughtful and empathetic boy that he is, he had waited until Toby was asleep before dissolving. In between heaving sobs, he told me, “I miss mummy. I wish she was here. I just want to have mummy back.”

What else can you do? We sat together on the stairs and I put my arm around him – he’s one of the tallest in his year but he suddenly seemed so small – and we had a little man-to-man chat. I told him I missed mummy too but that she would be back soon and we were going to do lots of fun stuff in the meantime to help the time pass more quickly. Then I put him back to bed.

15 minutes later he was back, still unable to settle and asking if I could lie with him to help him sleep. I agreed, moved him into our bed and lay down next to him. He insisted on lying in the middle of the bed. When I asked him why, he replied, “I’m going to imagine mummy’s next to me.” I nearly cried.

Settled at last
Settled at last

Two minutes later he was asleep – all he’d needed was a tiny bit of emotional support – and he slept there soundly all night. When I woke up at 6am he was cuddling one of Heather’s pillows, and at some point during the night Toby had snuck in between the two of us, comfortable as anything. Both boys awoke in a happy mood. No grudges held. No excessive sadness. Just two boys and their dad.