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Estelle Simmons had to quickly find a job and change all her expectations after her husband walked out on her. Now she says it is the best thing that happened to her.
Estelle Simmons* [not her real name] planned to be a stay at home mum for most of the time her children were growing up. Before her son, now 10, was born, she had worked in recruitment and says the hours were not family friendly. However, she hadn’t reckoned on getting divorced. The need for a volte face on the work front was sudden and brutal. When she separated from her ex-husband, he told her that he would contribute to joint bills for one month and then she was on her own.
“I had some help from my parents, but I don’t like to be dependent on other people and I realised I urgently needed to find a job,” she says. It needed to be something that fitted around the children, who were then aged one and three. She found a job analysing questionnaires which she did mostly at night when the children were asleep.
Then her mum sent her a link to a job as a teaching assistant. “It looked quite a good idea,” she says. “I had been accepted to do a PGCE when I got pregnant with my second child and postponed it,” she says. While she was deciding she was rushing to and fro to the benefits office, trying to find other jobs and having to rely on a network of friends and family to look after the children.
“I remember being in tears with the kids screaming around me and the benefits office lady saying ‘what do you want the Government to do. Keep you in the lap of luxury?” she says.
Eventually, she got a job as a teaching assistant at a local school and decided to do that to see if she really wanted to be a teacher. She says she would not have been able to do it without tax credits to pay for childcare for her children.
Then she applied to do a PGCE. Her youngest child needed to go to the childminders full time and was very clingy. “She wanted me all the time and was unsettled from the whole divorce thing which was becoming increasingly unpleasant,” says Estelle.
At the same time Estelle was struggling with all the emotional and practical fall-out from her divorce. In addition to dealing with spending every other weekend without the children, trying to shield them from how difficult things have been and having to deal with them sometimes painting her as the villain due to her ex-husband’s comments, she had to learn, for instance, how to do things like cutting the grass and putting furniture together. “I remember making my daughter’s first flat-pack bed. I was dead impressed with myself,” she says.
When she started her PGCE course she had to do long days, dropping off the kids with a friend at 7.30am to get to the university for 9am. “God forbid if anyone was ever sick,” she says. “I was never sick.”
Her ex-husband never helped out if the children were sick, she says, even though he lived nearby. In fact, he still won’t have the children around at the weekends when any of them are sick. “It does not occur to him to help out. Just as when I told him about looking for jobs and being on benefits there was no understanding of how difficult it could be. He never offered to help with childcare,” she says.
She got a student loan to cover her PGCE course and by midway through the course she had started a relationship with the man she now lives with. He helped out a lot if she had to stay late in the evenings, but she felt that she was missing out on time with her children.
She says she has had a number of low points during the last few years. For instance, she injured her knee and had to be in hospital for four days. Her ex-husband was due to have the children, but cancelled a few days beforehand. Luckily, a friend had already pencilled it in her diary as she knew what he was like.
One Mother’s Day, she recalls locking herself in the toilet after everything got too much. She was stressed out with the ongoing wrangling with her ex-husband, the children were playing up, she was getting no sleep and had no time when she wasn’t working or looking after the children. “I was sobbing away and luckily my brother rang and told me to come around,” she says.
She says she did try mediation with her ex-husband, but it didn’t work because neither of them stuck to what was agreed. She also had trouble getting her ex-husband to pay for the children – he currently pays around £400 a month, but she says this doesn’t cover a lot of extra such as school uniforms. She says it took her a while to find the kind of support she needed to help her through the divorce. “There’s a lot out there for parents who are divorcing, but you need to know where to find it,” she says, adding that it would be good if there was a divorce pack like the pregnancy pack you get when you find out you are having a baby.
Now a teacher in a primary school, she says she doesn’t talk about her ongoing problems with her ex-husband at work as she feels it would be seen as a weakness and unprofessional. However, the school is very good about childcare. For instance, she is allowed to bring them into the school in the morning and they then walk to their own school just minutes away.
She would like eventually to work part time.
She says that divorce has “undoubtedly been the hardest thing I have had to deal with”. However, she adds, that it is also “the best thing to happen to me”. “I was pretty much divorced before my husband left. I was doing everything on my own and I always had the children. Where I am now is so much better than where I was. Divorce is a nightmare, but I feel very proud of myself for coming through it. It makes you draw on all your resources and it deepens your friendships. You have to accept every offer of help and your friendships and bonds with your family emerge stronger as a result.”