Karen Sutton, The Widow Coach, is one of the first grief coaches in the UK specialising in supporting people widowed early in life. Karen’s own husband Simon died suddenly a few years ago when her daughters were still young, and as you might imagine, it was catastrophic. Two and a half years on, still feeling lost, Karen started working with a life coach. This experience changed her life and started her on the journey to where she is now.
Here are a few of the things we talked to Karen about during her Q&A with the Frolo community.
What are the foundations for a new widow to help move forward through grief and to go from simply surviving to thriving?
The one thing you need above all else is patience.
We all want everything yesterday and when we are suffering we want it to go away, of course we do. Heartache is awful. You can’t get through something traumatic in life in months though, it’s a long process. Give grief the space that it deserves without distracting yourself too much from it, learn to sit with it, to feel comfortable with the uncomfortable.
The worry is that if we give in to it, and really feel it, that we will never stop crying, that we’ll never get back up again, but you will. We can’t cry forever.
Patience and understanding are the foundations for our healing, as well as taking responsibility for these feelings for ourselves. As much as you want someone else to rush in and save you, it’s up to you. Accepting that enables you to move forward.
This doesn’t mean not asking for help or not talking to other people about your pain, but it does mean understanding what you need from other people, what they can do to help, and asking for it.
How do I take care of myself throughout the process?
As we go through the process of grief as a single parent, it’s important that we take care of ourselves. One way of doing this is to be mindful about what you consume. This can literally mean food, nourishment, giving our body the things it needs to function well. As much as you might want to live off rubbish, eating rubbish makes you feel rubbish.
Focus not on what you’ve not done, but on the things you have achieved.
Think too about what your mind is consuming – TV, social media and news can all be a negative influence unless you’re carefully curating what you watch and read. Are these things serving you and bringing value to your life or are they just bad habits?
Being kind to ourselves is key. We set high expectations and push ourselves hard, but often we’re setting ourselves up for failure and for never feeling good enough. Lower your expectations. Be realistic about the things you really need to do versus the things we feel we ‘should’ do. Lean on other people and ask for help. Focus not on what you’ve not done, but on the things you have achieved.
What advice do you have for someone navigating the loss of a parent?
Firstly don’t put pressure on yourself to overcome it. Listen to your body, your mind and your soul. You instinctively know what you need but often we push those instincts to one side and instead listen to what we think society or other people think is best for us.
Grief is a very individual journey and there is no value in comparing your loss to someone else’s. This is about you and what you need. Give yourself the time and the space to sit with your loss, to cry, to feel sad.
This is not wallowing. This is grieving.
Find a way of releaasing your grief. Exercise for example is brilliant for grief as it brings down stress and cortisol levels and releases feel good hormones instead. Even just a power walk around the block is valuable.
This is not wallowing. This is grieving.
My sister is angry with me – she says I didn’t do enough to help before my mum died and I feel guilty, although I felt like I was doing my best. How do I deal with those feelings?
Grief can throw up all kinds of emotions, including guilt or anger.
Family situations can be complex at the best of times and the death of a loved one is often a trigger for underlying issues. If a family member has issues or concerns that they’ve not dealt with, often they project these onto the people closest to them, wanting them to feel the hurt that they are experiencing.
Remember that this isn’t about you, it’s about her. When she’s lashing out at you it’s about what she’s trying to deal with, rather than a reflection on you. She could be crying out for help in some way, but doesn’t know how to express that.
We all have choices in life and this is where we have to take responsibility for our own decisions. Some people live in a victim mindset, blaming everyone else but themselves for how their life has turned out.
In terms of guilt, just remember that you did your best with the knowledge and resources that you had at the time. We can all look back in hindsight and wish things were different, but we make choices based on what we know and how we feel in the moment. You did the best you could.
If you’re experiencing loss and would like to find out more about how Karen can help, visit her website or follow her on Instagram.
Joanna Fortune is a psychotherapist and author of the 15-Minute Parenting series. Joanna joined us for a live chat with the Frolo community to talk about how to build stronger connections through play with our children from babies through to teenagers. Here’s what we learned from Joanna about the stages of play in early childhood.
The journey really begins with us. It begins when we learn to rely on our own parenting wisdom, to look within, and to consider our ‘own stuff’. We all have stuff of course – things that push our buttons, things that trigger us. It’s a journey of going inwards in order to parent outwards. It all about how to secure and strengthen connection with your child in order to bring about a correction in their behaviour.
You can’t have correction without a connection.
So many difficult behaviours in children are simply them trying to communicate something to us. They are often trying to tell us that something isn’t right, that they feel off about something, but they don’t have the emotional fluency to explain it. While they may not have the emotional literacy to communicate difficult feelings, one thing children DO have is play.
You can’t have correction without a connection.
Play can be an invaluable communication tool for us as parents and is a very effective way for children to learn. Shifting our understanding of play from being a box of toys in the corner of the room to a state of mind and a way of being is key – parenting is about connection and play fuels connection.
At the moment many of us are finding ourselves responsible for supporting our children to learn at home, and play is a fantastic way into this. Every day, try beginning with 15 minutes of play to really engage and connect with your child before moving into more structured learning with, of course, the promise of more play to come!
How does a child understand what 15 minutes means?
For young children especially, time can be a very abstract concept, so a visual structure such as a sand timer is perfect to help them understand the amount of time they have for each task. Telling a small child ‘we are going to play until all the sand has gone and then we are going to do some maths’ gives them far more control – the time is moving WITH them rather than happening TO them.
What exactly do we mean by play?
One way to understand what we mean by play is to think about how we experienced play when we were young and how this has impacted the way we play with our own children. Again, this is about looking inwards to better understand ourselves and how we parent.
Parenting is about connection and play fuels connection.
Joanna challenges us to ask ourselves some questions and, more importantly, to take the time to think about them and answer them! (You’ve read a book before and skipped over the questions to the next part right? We’ve all done it!)
Who played with you as a child? Who sung to you? Do you recall a game you played? How did that feel at the time and how does it make you feel on reflection? Answering these questions is so valuable – from this we can consider if there are things we wish had been done differently, if a different approach might have made us feel more positive about the experience, and this can then feed into what we do with our own children.
Is play only relevant for young children?
No. As Joanna explained, play is not just valuable for small children, it’s useful for children of all ages. It’s also important as a parent to consider whether or not your child experienced the different developmental stages of play as a young child and, if not, how you might go about closing these gaps. This doesn’t mean getting out the PlayDoh for a 15 year old, it simply means finding a way of meeting those developmental needs, but in an age appropriate way.
What are the different developmental stages of play?
The first stage of play is all about the senses. The sensory play stage is from infancy up to about age four, although if your older child still enjoys sensory play then that’s okay! The stages are approximate and there is no such thing as too much play at any age.
Sensory play is messy, tactile, exploratory play. It’s sand, water and dried pasta. It’s banging pots with a wooden spoon, anything that makes a noise. There are lots of ways to enjoy sensory play with things that you have at home – it’s not about having to buy any specialist equipement.
If you are mess averse, you need to own it about yourself, but do it anyway. Sensory play is not just something that’s fun for kids – it’s essential to help them learn about themselves, the difference between the external and the internal, and about boundaries and limits. If we don’t show are children that we can contain and manage their external mess, how will they feel safe to come to us with their internal mess? How do they know that we can help them contain and make sense of that?
Sensory play is not just something that’s fun for kids – it’s essential.
There are plenty of ways to enjoy sensory play without our walls ending up covered in paint, so don’t worry, you just need to be a bit creative. For example, buy cheap rolls of lining paper and use it to completely cover your painting table, taping it into place. Let your child loose with the finger paints and then at the end simply fold up all the paper and throw it away – no mess.
What comes after sensory play?
The second developmental stage of play is more narrative play. This is the sort of play where a child takes two characters and mimics a conversation between them. This type of play is key in helping a child learn to see something from another perspective. Creating a conversation between two teddies, trains, or whatever it may be, helps your child to problem solve, and to learn about critical thinking, turn taking and empathy.
This is the stage of play where they really learn to step out of their own experiences and feel it from someone else’s perspective, and this is the foundation for empathy. Watching two characters on a TV show working something out between them is not the same as doing it themselves, and this stage of play is often the one that gets missed.
What about role play?
The third stage, which is roughly between the ages of five and seven, is role play. Stage three builds on the first two stages – in this stage the child BECOMES the character they created in stage two. It’s a dramatic stage of play where they really get to test the bounddaries and think about what might be possible within any role.
Don’t worry if some of this role play involves them lining up their toys and shouting at them in the role of parent or teacher, it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong or need to pay a visit to school! This stage is all about exploring possibilities and pushing boundaries and is all part of the learning journey.
It’s only after this third stage that children become capable of self-regulation. Don’t forget, this milestone might not correspond to a particular age – it’s about developmental age rather than a number on the calendar. Every child is an individual and develops at their own pace, just as we, as parents, are all unique too.
This is just a part of the conversation we had with Joanna. You can watch the full session, where we talk about play with teenagers and supporting children through transitions, among other things, on the Frolo YouTube channel.
Getting over a narcissist is something a lot of single parents find themselves having to do. It’s not easy for anybody, but if you have children together it’s even harder as you can never completely sever ties. So how do you co-parent with a narcissist, and what can you do to help yourself move on from narcissistic abuse?
Annie Kaszina PhD is an Abuse Recovery Coach and joined us recently for a Q&A with the Frolo community. We had such a lot of questions in advance from single parents struggling to deal with the aftermath of narcissistic abuse on a variety of topics such as co-parenting with a narcissistic ex, learning to trust again and rebuilding confidence after a narcissistic relationship.
Here we’ve pulled together some of the discussion highlights to give you a starting point if you’re wondering ‘how do you get over a narcissistic relationship?’
How do you know if your ex is a narcissist?
Whether they are on whether they aren’t a narcissist in the end probably doesn’t really matter. The fact is that you have come up against a brick wall in your relationship and it had to end. You felt rejected, betrayed, disregarded, invalidated. It was a relationship that was dead in the water because you were working at it and they weren’t.
They may be able to read your feelings really well, but they don’t actually care about your feelings and if they know something hurts you they will do it again and again.
If you are a normal loving parent you do not walk away from a relationship with your child’s other parent without a great deal of soul searching. You leave someone because they are toxic for you. You don’t have to pin the narcissist label on it to be able to say it was a relationship that wasn’t working.
There are some signs however that you can look for to help you identify a narcissist:
They have an exaggerated sense of their own importance and can be very rude to people they think don’t matter. Notice how they behave when you go out to dinner and how they interact with waiting staff.
They tend to have a good ‘hero’ story or a good ‘victim’ story – sometimes both.
They have a huge sense of entitlement and that your life is there to serve them.
They will always tell you what a wonderful and special person they are, just for doing something that everyone does.
They may be able to read your feelings really well, but they don’t actually care about your feelings and if they know something hurts you they will do it again and again.
Can a narcissist ever change and do they even know what they are?
Yes, they absolutely can change their behaviour, but only when for as long as it serves them. Is this fundamental change? Absolutely not.
A narcissist can pull it out of the bag for a while but they DO NOT CHANGE. Even if they are showing their ‘good boy’ or ‘good girl’ behaviour they do not change. Being a narcissist feels to them like a super power. They can understand and charm and manipulate people.
How do you move forward with co-parenting when your ex is a narcissist?
I’ll start by saying that you will never truly co-parent with a narcissist. Yes, they are the other parent in one sense, but they don’t parent. Narcissists will use their children to get your attention, to exercise power and control over you, and their children will really be more of a public prop. In public they will appear to be the perfect parent, but they will never properly parent. You have to let go of the belief that they will do their part effectively.
This brings you onto the next questions – how do I manage damage limitation with my children, and how I do manage my own feelings about the narcissist?
You may hate them and still be struggling with the feelings of gross injustice. You may also feel intimidated by them. In both cases you have to work on your own healing and rebuilding your sense of self, which you have lost, and stop reading the narcissist’s subtext. Shut down all communication with them that you don’t need to have, aside from the essential communication about your child.
A narcissist will use every opportunity that they can to manipulate you. Keep communication to text or email if you can rather than phone calls or face to face. Do not engage with them and give them the opportunity to make you feel bad. Focus on the fact that they are out of your life and you can start to heal.
Understand that they will play you every way they can. This might involve them seeming almost reasonable for a time, but it’s never going to be lasting. It’s part of setting you up and knocking you down again. The more you limit your communication and the less attached you can be, the better it will be for you. Keep communications factual and don’t show emotions – simply grey rock them.
What is grey rocking?
Grey rocking is a technique that’s really useful when you’re getting over a narcissist, where you give them as little emotional feedback as you can. Narcissists feed on your emotions, particularly stress, so keep essential communications as unemotional as possible.
An almost idiotic seeming response is effective. Completely shut them down and give them nothing that they can engage with. The art is to bore them so much that they don’t even bother to engage with you! Change the subject, let things bounce off you, refuse to acknowledge any feeling.
Once you get into the knack of grey rocking it can even be quite amusing for you! Understand that you have complete freedom – you don’t have to engage, you have the power over how you choose to react.
Narcissists feed on your emotions, particularly stress, so keep essential communications as unemotional as possible.
How do you emotionally deal with everything when even after leaving them they appear to have control over your life?
Firstly, consider – is this actually true or is it the narrative you are telling yourself? You may still feel that they are in control of your life and that you feel in their power but if you are separated, it’s unlikely that they actually have control over your life, it just feels that way. The work that you have to do therefore is how you challenge that belief in yourself and how you take back that power.
Of course they WANT to be controlling, but you have to make a space in your mind where they can’t do that. Redefine them – they are actually pathetic, spiteful, emotional toddlers. They are cunning in that they can use adult intellectual resources to get at you but they are still nasty little toddlers.
Here’s a technique to help you with this.
Close your eyes and visualse yourself with your narcissist. You’re behind a glass screen so you feel safe but you can see them and feel how intimidating they are. Keep your eyes closed and visualise shrinking them to about the size of a small dog. Realise that you can tower over them now. Now dress them in a different way – visualise them wearing something quite inappropriate, like an animal costume, underwear – something silly that will make them indignant. Then you visualise putting them on a shelf and changing their voice. Make them squeaky and high-pitched. Look at them ranting on the shelf and think ‘look at how pathetic you really are.’ See them for what they are – ranting, small and ridiculous.
And then let it go. They can’t harm you anymore.
My ex is favouring one child over another – how do I manage that?
Your narcissist will use your children against you because they know they are leverage. Grey rock initially to keep communication to a minimum and understand that they are not parenting. Your children will normally have to spend a certain amount of time with the other parent, which is difficult for you, but you have to do your best to manage that situation in whatever way you can.
Establish ground rules with your own children so that they don’t bring home to you the annoying aspects of your ex. You need to know they’ve been safe but you don’t need to hear anything they have talked about or things that have been said about you.
REMEMBER: You have to work on the basis that your narcissist is not parenting. You are the only competent parent. You have to trust that you are a good enough parent and that you can provide the safety and stability in your child’s life. That’s the best you can do. It may not be perfect, but children have grown up well without even one good parent. You can’t offer them two good parents but you can offer them one loving, supportive parent and that has to be enough.
You have to work on the basis that your narcissist is not parenting. You are the only competent parent.
If your child is old enough to articulate that the other parent is difficult, sometimes rejecting and problematic, you can’t deny it, because then you’re gaslighting your own child. Instead acknowledge that that is just how they are, and that you know it may not be what the child needs. You have to acknowledge the child’s truth but in a useful and compassionate way. If they have you rock solid behind them, they will come through this.
Are there any specific techniques to help with bringing down the walls, to learn to trust and love again?
The truth is that you can’t just go out and date again if you are still getting over a narcissist. If you start dating too soon, all the narcissists from miles around will smell blood and start circling like sharks.
You have to get yourself relationship ready. That doesn’t mean a makeover, losing weight, or going to the gym. It means finding out what you really want from a partner. This doesn’t just mean the baseline ‘washes every day and dresses nicely’, it means what do you want to feel when you are with this person? What values are important to you? How do you want to be treated?
In order to do this you need to rebuild your self worth.
When it comes to trust, don’t confuse building trust with needing to be more open and more vulnerable. You have been incredibly vulnerable already. Your first duty is to keep yourself safe. A partner has to earn your trust and they have to earn it incrementally. This time around you want to get it right, so rather than diving head first into falling in love, move forward slowly and make sure they are worthy of getting closer to you. Check that their actions match their words and take things slowly. Narcissist love speed – they love to fall in love quickly, knock you off kilter and commit you to a relationship before you know what’s going on.
A nice person is prepared to take the relationship at a pace to suit you if they think you’re someone special. You need to get into the headspace where you know you’re a special person.
REMEMBER: You have been completely programmed by a narcissist into thinking bad things about yourself and your value, so it takes time to unpick those toxic beliefs.
A nice person is prepared to take the relationship at a pace to suit you.
You are incredibly resourceful, otherwise you wouldn’t have got out of the relationship. You are incredibly strong, otherwise you wouldn’t still be standing. You’re a valuable, loveable person with a lot ot give. You have to do the emotional work to believe that for yourself before you can go out dating.
How can I avoid being a victim of another narcissist?
First, spot the signs. A narcissist will likely come on too strong, too fast and push you that bit further than you want to be pushed. You feel just a little bit smothered by them, they don’t quite add up. They have collections of ‘crazy’ ex partners and few long term friends.
You want someone who is gentle, sweet natured and generous hearted.
You also need to know about yourself. You need to trust yourself to abort the relationship at the very first red flag. So many of us see red flags and we choose to ignore them. Red flags do not come singly. When there is one red flag it is an outlier for hundreds of other red flags.
You also need to be able to trust that you will be able to pick yourself up again should you mess up.
Annie Kaszina PhD is an Abuse Recovery Coach. Find out more about her here.
Taking your kids on holiday solo can be a daunting prospect – especially if you’re new to the single parenting game. However, taking a trip together is also an amazing bonding opportunity for your one-parent family. These practical tips from the Frolo Community will help you feel prepared and have fun on your single parent holidays.
If you plan to take your child on holiday abroad and you don’t have a child arrangement order from court, you need to obtain permission from everyone with parental responsibility.
It’s a good idea to obtain this permission in written form – for example, in a letter – as you might be asked to prove that you have permission when trying to leave the UK or enter another country. It also helps if you can bring evidence of your relationship with the child – in the form of a birth or adoption certificate – and a divorce or marriage certificate if your surname is different from you child’s.
If you can’t get permission from the other people with parental responsibility, you can apply to court for permission.
You can find more information on this topic on gov.uk
“Take your child(ren)’s birth certificate if you’re travelling abroad and get a letter from the other parent if you can.“
Do your homework
This might not be the most exciting tip, but it’s crucial to ensuring everyone has a good time.
When you’re deciding where to stay, look for reviews from other people with kids and, ideally, from other single parents. They’ll be able to give you the low-down on how family friendly a hotel really is. Even if a resort or self-catering apartment has lots of five star reviews it might not suit your needs; if all of the reviews are from couples or single people without kids they won’t tell you what you really need to know.
Similarly, if you opt for Airbnb – which can be a brilliant, affordable option that allows you to cater for kids at home – make sure that it’s located near a shop, has convenient transport links, and has all of the amenities you need. For example, air conditioning and wifi aren’t always guaranteed and some hosts ask you to bring your own towels and linens.
“I’d recommend smaller resorts over big ones. When my daughter was little it could mean walking for a long time to go to the loo from the pool or back to the room, packing everything up several times.”
“If it’s an option for you, it might be worth paying for extras that will make your life a bit easier, eg airport transfers or full-board – kids clubs are always a bonus too!“
Plan ahead – but not too much
This advice might seem contradictory, but bear with us. When you take your kids on holiday on your own, you need to strike a balance between making your life as easy as possible and setting yourself up to fail.
Research local taxis and public transport options before you go to make getting around an unfamiliar place as easy as possible. It’s also worth booking tickets for the attractions that you know you want to visit in advance so you don’t have to queue (queueing with kids is not our idea of a holiday). But don’t overdo it – planning an overly ambitious itinerary will just add pressure when you’re supposed to be relaxing.
“Create a rough plan and book things in advance as much as possible.”
“Plan some things, but not too much so you can go with the flow.”
As the only adult on the trip, you’re going to need your hands to be free to keep track of your kids. It’s worth investing in a large backpack that you can use as a hands-free luggage alternative.
“It’s always good to be super conscious about the amount of luggage you take. Pack light and take the type of luggage that means you can be hands free to manage your child. The practicalities of not having another adult to help with luggage can be stressful, so make it as easy as possible for yourself.”
“It’s slightly easier when they are not weaned and can fit in a sling!”
Frolos also recommend investing in a waterproof bum bag to wear in the water, or fake suncream bottles that you can hide valuables in for a bit more peace of mind when you’re poolside or on the beach.
“Be prepared to spend lots of time in the water as that is the safest way to take care of them as opposed to the shoreline.”
“Wear a brightly coloured top or hat at the beach so your kids can easily spot you – and dress them in bright colours so you can spot them from a distance too.”
Rest and relaxation
It’s easy to forget that this is supposed to be a holiday for you too! If you’re travelling with little kids, frolos recommend that you factor in some time to rest every day (even if that means dragging them away from the pool). They also suggest packing a little parent self-care kit so you can unwind in the evenings after the kids are asleep.
“If you’re going with little kids, bring things to entertain them in the apartment or hotel room so you can have a bit of a rest in the afternoon before heading out again to enjoy the evening.”
‘If they go to bed before you, have some treats ready for ‘you time’. A book, magazine, some chocolate, or a glass of wine. This will stop the evening from feeling lonely and help you refill your jug for the next day.”
If you’re still a bit nervous, why not team up with another single parent? Or plan a group trip? Frolos in the community organise holidays on a regular basis – from camping trips in the UK to villas in Ibiza. Head to the Meetups section of the app to see what’s on offer.
Have a brilliant time!
There are so many positives to taking your kids on holiday as a single parent and your kids will cherish the memories that you make for years to come.
“I went to Tenerife for a package holiday with my (then) 5 year old for a week last May, having gained my confidence we then went on a 2 week cruise in October. I have a partner now so it is unlikely to happen again, but those memories are so treasured and the last holiday we had somehow marks the end of the five-year chapter my son and I spent alone.”
“I’ve been travelling solo for the last five years with my little guy and we’ve done all sorts of adventures across 37 countries – from chasing the Northern lights to living on a boat in the middle of the Barrier Reef! Honestly travel is probably what really helped us both accept and begin to love our new life. I highly recommend every adventure – big or small – even something within your city or close by. We found ourselves as we explored the world together.”
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Manolee Yadave is a psychosexual therapist who specialises in sexual health and relationship therapy. She joined us to answer questions from the Frolo Community about supporting children’s sex and relationships eduction at home.
What’s the right age to start talking to children about sex?
This is a tricky one to answer because it’s so individual! As a parent you can set the parameters here. You don’t have to tell them explicit details in these early conversations. As soon as they’re at an age where they understand what sharing is, what’s mine, what’s yours, then you can start to encourage discussions about boundaries and relationships. You can encourage them to think about what feels ok with them and vocalise if something doesn’t feel ok.
Going through puberty at an earlier age that their peers can be a very isolating experience for children, but explaining body parts and how they change, the fact that some people have heterosexual and some people have homosexual relationships, and letting them know that it’s OK to be who they are, is very empowering and can lead to some great conversations. So, I think the earlier the better.
What language should I use to talk about sex with my children?
It’s really important that you make sure you’re using the correct terminology when having these conversations with your children. It’s important that they have the right language to discuss genitals, for example. There’s often a concern among parents that, if they don’t use euphemistic language, then their child will repeat what they’ve learned at school or with friends – but this is actually why it’s so important for parents to normalise the language and just lay down some ground rules about where you have these conversations.
What can I do to ensure that channels of communication remain open with my child as we hit the teenage years?
Firstly, it’s easier to have these conversations which make you feel a little bit awkward if you feel confident about the subject matter. Do some reading, get on the internet, and make sure you’re fully clued up about sexual health before you broach the subject. It also depends on the dynamic you have with your child and their personality – some children are unfazed by a direct approach where’s others will prefer building up to the conversation more gradually. What’s really important is having relevant conversations about sex and relationships little and often so that when you get to that point, and you’re thinking they might want to have sex, it doesn’t feel so scary to raise it.
My 16yo has asked if her boyfriend can stay over. I’ve met him and he is nice but I’m not sure I’m comfortable with it. Having said that, if they’re going to have sex I’d rather it was somewhere safe. Can you give any advice? I have told her I’ll think about it.
In this situation, there’s value in honouring the fact that your daughter has come to you and been honest about what she would like to do. It’s also important to explain the reasons why if you decide to say “no.” Having an open conversation together would be really beneficial here so that you can understand the nature of their relationship – don’t assume that this is entirely about having sex – and so that your daughter understands how you reached your decision. Overall, I think it’s a sign of great trust in you from your daughter.
My son is asking questions about where babies come from. What kind of level of knowledge is appropriate for him?
Again, this is as much about what you’re comfortable with as it is what he is ready for. You don’t necessarily have to say “babies come from penetrative sex,” but you can choose your words carefully, tell him that women grow babies and give a more scientific explanation of the process. Then, when he’s a bit older, you can introduce conversations about other reasons why people might have sex.
I have read that kids whose parents are separated or divorced have an increased chance of going through the same thing. Is there a link between having divorced parents and difficulty forming lasting relationships as an adult? Is there any way to reduce the chances of my child going through this?
This is a common anxiety for single parents. While some studies do suggest there is a link between having divorced parents and going though divorce yourself, it’s absolutely not guaranteed that that is what will happen in your family. Children can have the most beautiful relationship with a single parent and draw really strong foundations from that relationship. They can also make attachments with other people as they grow through life – with grandparents, siblings, and other family members – that will help them understand what a good relationship looks like. If those relationships teach you about sharing and respect then it doesn’t matter that it’s not a parental relationship.
It’s also worth mentioning that I’ve met divorced parents who have brilliant relationships on the basis of co-parenting. They’re not lovers any more but they’re both committed to doing what is best for their child, which is really beneficial for the child to see.
Will my child be missing out on seeing a healthy relationship model if he doesn’t see one at home? His dad has never met him or been involved as a parent and if I don’t meet anyone else – which is the last thing on my mind at the moment! – I am worried it might negatively impact him.
Although I don’t know the individual situation, this child might have the most awesome relationship with his mum and have other important people in his life who will show him what it means to treat people respectfully. Not having that particular male role model in his life isn’t necessarily going to change his outlook on life. He might be curious about his dad and you might want to decide at what point you tackle that, but it’s important to create that space for alternative family set-ups. I’m not saying it’s easy, but you don’t need to create those imagined barriers to your child’s wellbeing and can instead focus on what makes your child happy.
Are there any books you recommend?
Again, I’d encourage you to introduce books at an early age, rather than waiting until they’re near puberty and then presenting a book that feels loaded with significance. There are lots of questions that arise with younger children: is kissing the same as sex? Am I going to marry Mummy or Daddy? And it’s great to have a book that you can look through together. I’d really recommend Talking To Your Kids About Sex by Lauri Berkenkamp and Steven C. Atkins. I’d also recommend you read it on your own first so you’re comfortable with everything and feel that it’s appropriate for your child.
How can I supplement what my child learns at school? I am not sure the national curriculum will give her the full picture – especially when it comes to LGBT+ relationships.
This is such an important conversation to have with kids and, as parents, when we’re confident about a subject we’ll be able to translate that really well. When in comes to LGBTQI+ relationships, it’s all about teaching kids that we don’t live in a binary world and that it is completely OK to be who you are. Read books to your kids where people have two dads, or one mum, and all sorts of other family set-ups, so that understanding is with them from a young age.
Clients regularly tell me that they knew they who they were attracted to from a really young age but they might have absorbed the idea from society that one kind of love is “the norm” and that can be very confusing. If you feel that the education they’re getting at school is only covering heterosexual relationships, then that’s a great place to start that conversation, discuss other kids of relationships, and let your child know that they can love who they want to love.
Brook is a really great charity which supports all young people to lead happy and healthy lives by providing clinical services, sex and relationships education, and professional training. Brook can provide you with all sorts of helpful information when tackling the subject of sex with your teen. It’s also a great resource that you can point your child towards if they feel a little shy to discuss things in detail with you.
Book recommendations – whether they’re empowering reads for newly single parents or beautiful picture books that help explain separation to kids – are constantly being swapped on the Frolo app, so we thought we’d gather them all together in one handy list.
Books for adults
Books written by frolos
Frolos are a pretty accomplished bunch – some of them have even written books about their experiences as single parents. Moving, relatable, and insightful – every one of these is well worth a read:
Separation and divorce can be a confusing, as well as emotionally difficult, process. If you’re not familiar with the legal terminology and the different stages involved it can seem pretty overwhelming. Frolo recommend these books to guide you through the process emotionally and practically:
Transitioning to parenting on your own – while potentially navigating some big feelings and tricky behaviour from your kids – can leave you feeling overwhelmed. Check out one of these books recommended by fellow frolos for sound advice:
Award-winning family lawyer Laura Naser joined us to share some family law advice and answer some frequently asked questions from the Frolo community. Here’s what we learned…
Laura’s area of expertise is family law in England and Wales. Lots of family law is based on common sense decisions about what is best for children, so much of Laura’s advice is still relevant to frolos living in Ireland and Scotland, but it’s definitely advisable to seek local family law advice if you don’t live in England or Wales.
Here are the questions we discussed:
How to change a child’s surname
I kept my maiden name when I married, but now that I’m divorced I’d like my children to have my surname too. How can I amend their surname without permission from my ex? He flatly refuses as we aren’t on amicable terms. I have no money for legal fees.
Changing a child’s first name or surname is what is called a “parental responsibility decision”. You should assume and act as though parental responsibility is shared as a default position, unless you know otherwise. Assuming that this is the case for you and your ex – a father acquires parental responsibility for a child if he’s married to the mother at the time of the birth – this is a decision you have to consult with one another and agree on.
You say that he won’t agree, in which case you will have to explain that to the court. You can make an application to court for this specific matter. Hyphenating a child’s name post-separation is a very common request and is something that the courts are likely to agree to. But they will have to consider the change on a welfare basis – this means asking what is in your child’s best interest. Hyphenating a surname is straightforward and probably wouldn’t raise any welfare concerns.
Not having the money to pay for legal fees isn’t a barrier to making an application to court, you can do it as a litigant in person without needing legal representation. You just need to go to the government website, you can get the forms you need to change a child’s surname from there.
Can I stop my ex from taking our child on holiday?
Do I have any legal right to stop my ex taking our child on holiday abroad in the midst of the pandemic? The holiday is to Spain from the UK. It is difficult to tell him ‘no’ when public health guidelines say the trip is ok. He has their passports.
This is a question that’s coming up a lot at the moment. Just because the government guidelines on Covid-19 say that you’re allowed to travel now, there’s a difference between what’s allowed and what a parent considers safe. No two families are the same and no two children are the same. It might be that in this specific case there’s a reason why you wouldn’t want your child to travel, even though the Foreign Office is technically allowing travel to that country.
It’s really difficult when parents don’t agree on these issues and it’s going to come down to communication. Explain to your co-parent why you don’t feel comfortable with the trip and why you think it’s not in the child’s best interest. However, no matter how well you can communicate, if it’s falling on deaf ears then there is only so much you can do.
The alternative option would be to make an application to court for what is called a Prohibited Steps Order, to prohibit that action being taken. This can be quite expensive if you do it with legal advice and it’s not a quick process – you would probably need to submit this as an urgent application if it’s a holiday taking place this summer.
There are other routes available: you can invite your ex to mediation with you, but that’s not compulsory, so if they refuse you are only left with the option of making an application to court. You’ll then have to explain to the judge why you think it’s not in the best interests of your child to make this trip, and the other parent would have to present their reasoning for wanting to take the trip and why it’s in the child’s best interest to go.
Child maintenance arrangements
My ex lives abroad and currently pays no maintenance. We had a verbal agreement but it went out of the window after one month (it’s now been 15 months). If I go to court now for maintenance payments going forward, will I be able to get a costs order against him? I feel like I have no options left regarding the Child Maintenance Service and mediation. He is on a six-figure salary.
I encounter this situation quite a lot. If the non-resident parent and, in the view of the Child Maintenance Service, the paying parent, lives in a foreign country then the route you can take depends on the circumstances.
If they work for a British company and are in employed through England even though they work, for example, in Dubai, then you might still be able to pursue maintenance through the CMS. The same would apply if they were a member of the armed forces and stationed abroad. If you’ve got a child maintenance award here, go through the CMS and see if they can enforce it.
If the CMS say that the case is out of their domain, then you need to reach some sort of enforceable agreement with the other parent that you can then take to the other country’s courts. Or you can go through something called REMO. REMO is an agreement that the UK has with more than 100 other countries around the world and it is specifically designed to allow the UK to enforce maintenance orders abroad. If your ex lives in a REMO country then, as long as you have an order or binding agreement for maintenance in place, you can go through REMO to enforce it. If REMO doesn’t apply, then you’ll have to go through that country’s local courts and hope that they enforce it, but that can be very difficult.
As your ex is on a six-figure salary, they could take specific legal advice to see what agreement can be reached and try to get a binding agreement in place for maintenance to be paid. If they still won’t pay it, then you can look at how to enforce it in that foreign country. It can be difficult, but that shouldn’t mean there’s no responsibility. It just means that, unfortunately, the onus is on you as the awaiting recipient parent to pursue payment.
If your ex is being unreasonable and forcing you to pursue maintenance through the courts, you can apply for costs. It is a risk because it’s not automatically awarded. If your ex is particularly wealthy, you can also make a claim under Schedule One of the Children Act, so you might be able to apply for some money under that to fund your legal fees. It’s very much determined on a case-by-case basis though.
I am divorced and have a court order which awards maintenance on a sliding scale, with the amount decreasing every year. However, Coronavirus has really affected me financially and I was wondering whether it was worth making an application to court as I am in financial distress? My ex is due to have a baby soon with his new wife, would that affect my application?
Coronavirus is a really common people for people to vary maintenance at the moment – both up and down. Maintenance orders are always variable, particularly if it’s part of a financial order following a divorce. The CMS will only adjust maintenance if there’s been an adjustment of 25% or more in the payer’s income. As your maintenance is determined by a financial order obtained in a divorce you can apply to court and ask them to vary it based on your needs. Coronavirus is an accepted impact on your finances. I would advise you to try and reach an agreement with your ex directly first. If he won’t discuss it with you, invite him to mediation and, if he refuses mediation, you can then consider making an application to court.
The fact that he is having another baby would be taken into account as it will impact his affordability, but it doesn’t automatically mean that he won’t have to pay you anymore if you need it and he can afford it.
Can my ex move house without my permission?
Before we split, my ex and I had made plans to move 120 miles away to be closer to her family. After the split, I was still willing to move to be near my kids, but my ex decided she’d like to stay where we are to be with her new boyfriend. I’m now worried about buying a house of my own and putting down roots in this area in case the original move goes ahead – I’m scared I’ll have to drop everything and move 120 miles away at the drop of a hat. We co-parent 50:50 – what are my options if she decides to move as I don’t feel like I’ll get any say in the matter?
This comes back to parental responsibility – you are equal parents. In this case, you are precisely equal parents as you share care 50:50 but, regardless of whether your coparenting situation is exactly 50:50, you have equal status as parents. One parent cannot just decide to move the children to a new location without consultation – particularly if that means the children will have to change school, doctor etc. This is a very significant move and is a parental responsibility decision, which parents must consult with each other over.
If there is a dispute, you could make an application to court – it’s called a Prohibited Steps Order – and you would tell the court that you don’t give permission for the move and the reasons why you object. The other parent would have to apply for a Specific Issue Order which says that, in the absence of the other parent’s agreement, they seek the court’s consent to allow them to move. You could try mediation, you could try solicitor’s correspondence, you could even try arbitration now. But, fundamentally, if there’s no agreement, you’d be asking a judge to decide on this issue.
What happens to the family home after divorce?
My lawyer said that I could stay in the house after my divorce and my ex would still have to pay his half of the mortgage. Does that mean he is still allowed to live in the house? Is there a way to make him move out? I would struggle to offer the same lifestyle for my child if I had to rent, as I went part-time to look after our child and have poor mental health. I don’t want to continue to live with my ex.
If, as a consequence of your financial separation on divorce, it is agreed that one parent would stay in the family home with the children until a set date in the future (for example, until the youngest child finishes secondary education) and that the other parent must pay an element of maintenance – in this case half of the mortgage paid every month – that would all be put into a court order.
It would not mean that the paying spouse gets to stay in the house as well. The agreement would be that she gets to stay in the house until a set date and he has to pay maintenance at a set rate (half the mortgage). The court order would also make it clear that you have sole rights of occupation.
Can my ex make me give him equity from the home and/or sell the house, when that would mean I wouldn’t be able to afford the higher mortgage and I also don’t earn enough for a mortgage on my own.
This depends whether you’re married or unmarried. If your married, you have claims against each other as well as ensuring that the children’s needs are met. If you’re unmarried, you don’t have any claims against each other based on your relationship, so it comes down to property law or any financial claims you can make on behalf of your child under Schedule One of the Children Act.
In this case, it would depend who owns the house. If you were married, it doesn’t matter. If you’re unmarried, it comes down to property law – who owns the house, whether the other party put any money in and can show that they have a financial interest in the house, or whether they have a potential claim under Schedule One of the Children Act for housing to be provided for the benefit of the child. The house would not be transferred outright, nor would it be available to you indefinitely, it would always be on a temporary basis, like a loan of a property. When the child reaches majority, or the agreed upon date, the house then reverts back to the actual owner. So there’s a real difference in those situations if you’re unmarried.
Making a will as a solo parent
I’m a single mum-to-be (I used donor sperm) and I would like to make my sister who lives in Brazil the legal guardian of my son in case anything happens to me. Can a solicitor draw up a document stating this? I live in Ireland.
This is usually something you would put in a will. Although it wouldn’t be automatically binding, as she specifies that she conceived via a donor and there isn’t another parent involved on a day-to-day basis, it’s likely that this would be upheld without any contention.
In cases with separated parents who have opposing views on who should be the guardian of the child, again, you should put your indication in your will – what you would like to happen – but it’s not binding. If there was a dispute after your death it would be up to the court’s to decide what would be in the best interest of your child.
Due to domestic violence, my child only has supervised access with her father. All my family and her godmother live abroad. If I choose her godmother as her caregiver in my will, what would happen to my child if I died? Would she be able to go and live with her godmother abroad or would she stay with foster families in the UK?
That’s a really difficult one to predict. It would come down to what is determined to be in the child’s best interests at the time of your death. Nominating someone as a legal guardian is not automatically legally binding, although it is a good indication of what you view to be in the child’s best interest. It could be that you need to embellish that with a letter attached to your will, explaining what your view is, so you know that your voice is still going to be heard.
Also, make sure that your child has a strong relationship with the person that you want to nominate, because if you were to nominate them and then drift apart they may no longer be viewed as a good candidate.
What are the implications on finances after a decree absolute (end of marriage) if financial proceedings have not been conducted and remain outstanding? How are they different from when you fulfil them between Nisi and Absolute, which is what is usually recommended?
We usually advise that you look at your financial separation when you’re going through a divorce and, when you’ve reached agreement on your financial separation, you should have those terms reflected in a court order. A court order makes that agreement legally binding and enforceable if one of you tries to renege on the terms.
Usually you do all of this at the same time because it makes sense practically. You can do it between Decree Nisi and Decree Absolute. Nisi is the middle stage of the divorce and the earliest stage at which you can submit a court order to the court showing what you’ve agreed. If you can’t agree, you have to make a court application for the finances as well as the divorce proceedings. Decree Nisi is the earliest point a final court order can be made about your finances.
If you wait until after Decree Absolute there is a very minor difference. We normally advise clients not to finalise their financial court order until after they’ve got their Decree Absolute as, if you have pensions and life insurance policies and one of you dies before you reach agreement on your finances, you’re likely to do better financially as a widow than as a divorcee. So, while you’re still trying to agree your financial situation, it’s better to hold off finalising your divorce so that, should anything happen to one of you, you’re in a better position financially. If you’ve reached financial separation or you don’t have life insurance policies or pensions that would provide you with a benefit then it doesn’t really matter – you can reach agreement on your finances before or after Decreee Absolute.
Changing contact arrangements
My children are six and four and have never lived with their dad. I’ve been their main carer since they were born and he currently has them four nights per month (we tried more and they were very unsettled). I’ve received a solicitor’s letter saying he will take me to court if I don’t give him 50:50 custody. I have offered alternate weekends, one night per week for tea and two weeks of holiday. Am I being reasonable?
This is a difficult one to answer without knowing more about the family and children involved. Why is it the children are unsettled? What could we do to help this? There’s no general rule that can be applied here and I’d have to know a bit more about your circumstances before I could decide if you were being reasonable or not.
In situations where children haven’t had much contact with one parent and they’d like to increase the time they spend together, my general advice is to take it slowly, build it up and gradually embed it into the children’s routine. This also gives you the chance to prove that you’re reliable and trustworthy to the primary caregiver. If one parent has had very little contact and suddenly asks for 50:50, that’s rushed and doesn’t feel child-focussed. That’s the best advice I can give without knowing more about the specific case!
One of the great things about Frolo is that you have access to such a spread of opinions, from frolos from all walks of life, within the community. In situations like this, your family and best friends are likely to just agree with you and think that you’re right, so having access to a group of single parents who can give you a more impartial assessment of whether you’re being reasonable is so valuable.
My ex-husband refuses to admit that there are any safeguarding issues with a member of his family. Does the family court recognise gaslighting in these kind of situations, and how does the family court advise mothers who don’t have financial security vs unreasonable characters who have access to funds?
Yes, gaslighting and all allegations of abuse are taken seriously by the court in these situations. However, it is up to the individual making these allegations to a) raise them and b) prove them. Proving it can be difficult, but it is up to you to communicate your situation to the court and give examples. Usually in children’s proceedings where there’s contested court hearings, you’re give the chance to give statements and that’s your chance to record everything you have experienced and anything you have concerns about.
Where there’s a disparity in access to legal advice, again, you can look at making an application for a Legal Services Order where, if one parent is significantly wealthier than the other and can afford top lawyers, and the other has far fewer resources at their disposal, they can apply for the other parent to give them money to access legal advice. Legal aid is also available in some circumstances, particularly where domestic violence is alleged.
Thank you so much for answering our questions, Laura!
In this guest post, Pregnant Then Screwed – a charity that promotes and protects the employment rights of pregnant women and mothers – explores the ramifications of Covid-19 for single parents in the workplace
For the last four months, we have all dreamt about life after lockdown and a return to normality. The Coronavirus pandemic has tested our emotional resilience, our finances, patience and, for those of us that are homeschooling – our belief that Pythagoras’ Theorem will ever be useful. Many of us have wished away those days and longed for the chance to pay too much money for bad coffee on the way into a job we hoped would still be there.
At the height of the pandemic, the government’s job retention scheme was a lifeline for many, preventing immediate and widespread redundancies. Eventually the scheme was expanded to allow employers to furlough those with caring responsibilities (cue a collective exhale among working parents) but for some single parents, it was too little too late. More than three weeks had passed between the closure of schools and nurseries and the expansion of the scheme. In that time, Pregnant Then Screwed heard from countless single mums struggling to hold down their jobs without any form of childcare. Some resorted to taking unpaid parental leave in order to manage; they continue to feel the effects of having weeks with zero income. Those with less than sympathetic employers were refused any degree of flexibility, and told us they had no choice but to leave their jobs when schools shut.
As the furlough fog begins to lift, and we come to terms with the economic impact of the Covid-19 virus, it’s now clear that widespread job losses will be an inevitable part of the ‘new normal’. Redundancy is a difficult experience for anyone, turning your finances and your confidence on its head, but if you’re a single parent, then losing your household’s main source of income is going to hit particularly hard.
Why did they pick me for redundancy?
How an employer selects people for redundancy is often the most scrutinised part of the process. The selection process will depend on how widespread the redundancies are; maybe the company has gone into administration and they are letting everyone go, or perhaps they are restructuring and need to downsize their workforce. It’s common to ask people to volunteer for redundancy in the first instance, but in such uncertain times, we don’t expect many hands to go up for that one. Your employer might then look at criteria such as length of service, performance and disciplinary records. What matters above all else is that the process is fair and the employer has genuine reasons for needing to make you redundant.
Am I more likely to be made redundant if I’ve been furloughed?
While the job retention scheme was undoubtedly a positive thing, it has raised concerns about whether it makes you more prone to redundancy. The cold reality is that the world of work is still full of unscrupulous employers that think ‘working mother’ is an oxymoron, and judge an employee’s performance and value on that basis. Last month, 57% of women we surveyed told us they felt that managing childcare alongside their paid job had damaged their career prospects. If you’ve been furloughed or taken unpaid leave for childcare reasons, so that you don’t completely short circuit, you may be worried that you’ve inadvertently earmarked yourself for redundancy.
It’s important to remember that no matter how long you’ve been in your job, there is a very long list of things that constitute unfair dismissal and even in these harsh times, that list is non-negotiable. Among those protected characteristics are pregnancy and maternity leave, your working pattern, paternity leave, parental leave and dependent’s leave. If you think that you’ve been unfairly selected for redundancy purely because you had to keep a small person alive during a pandemic, then you can obtain free legal advice from Pregnant Then Screwed by calling 0161 930 5300.
As a single parent, redundancy might leave you with no other income. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by what lies ahead of you financially and emotionally. That’s why Pregnant Then Screwed have launched Redundancy Rehab, a month-long programme of events designed to help you understand your legal rights, rebuild your confidence and support you in getting another job. Tickets are £10 (which just covers their costs) and are available here. But if finances are tight, they’ve got plenty of bursary tickets available too.
Starting on 8 July and running until 29th July, they’ll be releasing weekly content to support you if you’re made redundant. The content will be available for six months but tickets will go up to £20 in August.
You might not be able to stop redundancy, but with the right tools and a supportive community, you can bounce back, rebuild your career and shape what your ‘new normal’ looks like.
The Feed is where the whole Frolo Community gathers. You can use this part of the app to ask questions, seek advice, and have a chat with thousands of other single parents who can relate to what you’re going through.
All you need to do to access this community hive mind is tap the ‘+’ icon in the top right corner of the Feed and start creating your post. There are five different types of post to choose from:
Write a post
Share an image
Share a link
Post a thought, quote, or question
Create a poll
If you need to post about something sensitive, there’s also the option to post anonymously (more on that later). You can filter the Feed using tags to browse all the posts on a particular topic – just tap the filter icon in the top-left corner to get started. You can also look for specific posts by typing key words into the search bar at the top of the Feed.
Not only are you guaranteed to receive a response to your post but you’re likely to have people reach out to you directly to offer help, a kind ear and advice on your situation as well.
In this part of the app, you can browse meetups organised by other frolos, both virtual and face-to-face, or create your own meetups. Meetups come in all shapes and sizes – from our regular (virtual) movie and book clubs to park trips with kids, child-free mountain biking, and even Frolo holidays!
Virtual meetups have been a lifesaver during the Coronavirus lockdown. To create your own meetup, navigate to the Meetups section (represented by the little calendar icon) then tap the ‘+’ icon in the top right corner. Select either ‘Face-to-face’ or ‘Virtual’ depending on what you’ve got planned. Whichever option you choose, make sure you include a title, start and end time, a location (or link if it’s a virtual meetup) and plenty of information for your fellow frolos.
During a time which can be so lonely, the frolo virtual meetups have been great for the soul. Like a night out with friends direct from the sofa
If you’d like to chat to another frolo 1:1, or invite them to join a meetup or group chat, you can send them a connection request. Once your connection request is accepted, they’ll be added to your list of frolo friends so you can reach out to them whenever you like.
The Connections section of the app is where you can manage your friend requests and access private and group messaging. There are tons of group chats to choose from, covering everything from co-parenting tips to hobby chats; support groups for widowed frolos and single dads to local area groups.
Frolo is an amazing example of how online support transitions to real life friendships. It really is changing the lives of single parents!
You can browse all the other frolos living in your local are in the Discovery section of the app (represented by the binoculars icon).
If you tap the icon in the top righthand corner, you can choose whether you want to browse mums, dads or both, and filter them by their distance from your location and their kids’ ages to help you find the perfect playdate companion. You can also see how many common interests you share with another frolo before you connect with them.
You can match by age of children or location, and toggle between only wanting to meet dads, mums, or both. You also have the option to make yourself invisible should the awkward happen and your ex joins the app.
Anonymous mode. Post and comment on the Feed anonymously by navigating to your profile and tapping ‘edit’ and then ‘General Information.’ Scroll to the bottom of the page to toggle Anonymous Mode on and off.
Reporting a post. Tap into the post from the Feed, tap the three dots in the right-hand corner, then tap ‘Report post.’
Reporting a comment. Swipe the comment you would like to the left, then tap the warning triangle icon and ‘Report.’
Reporting a user. Tap on the users name to navigate to their profile. Tap the three dots in the right-hand corner and then select ‘Report user.’
Invisibility. If there’s a frolo you’d rather not interact with, you can make yourself invisible to them. This means they won’t be able to see your profile, posts, or comments and they won’t be able to see any meetups that you RSVP to. To make yourself invisible to another frolo, navigate to their profile. Tap the three dots in the right-hand corner and then select ‘Make me invisible to this user.’
Thanks for reading – all that’s left to do now is get stuck in!
Clare Seal is a personal finance guru who has learned good financial habits the hard way – she’s currently paying off £27k of debt and has written a book all about her journey towards financial wellness.
Clare’s personal finance journey
For lots of people who have debt, how they got there is a bit of a mystery. It’s like when you go to work and you’re really tired and you realise you don’t really remember the journey.
I had a fundamentally broken relationship with money. I didn’t understand what it meant to live within my means and I always felt that things would be ok when I earned more money – rather than finding a way to fix things as they were.
I had my first child when my husband was 24 and I was 25. We didn’t plan for that – then we got married and had a second baby. These are all things that take a toll on your finances. We also rent privately and have had to move (and pay letting fees) regularly. That said, I think all of that would have been ok if we had a handle on our finances.
It all culminated in a conversation with my bank last March where I’d been juggling small amounts of money from one account to another to try and plug all the gaps – then I realised it was the end of the rope. There was nothing left to move around; there was no more give. The person I was speaking to at the bank kindly refunded some account charges which took me back into an arranged overdraft and stopped me from incurring more fees. When I got off the phone I realised that this was as far as I could let the situation go. It was taking such a toll on my mental health, my relationship, and my work life. This is one of the biggest misconceptions about money – that it’s something separate from our everyday lives – and it’s not. It’s something that has its tendrils everywhere. But I also realised that if you are open and honest about your situation, people are willing to help you.
It can be a very emotional experience to lay all your cards on the table – it was for me because I’d had my head in the sand for so long. When I found out the extent of my debt, the scale of the situation felt like too much to deal with by myself – that’s why I started the (then) anonymous Instagram account @myfrugalyear.
Instagram, especially during my second maternity leave, had been a real source of emotional spending and comparing myself unfavourably with other people online. So it felt like poetic justice to use that same platform to change things. I thought I’d have maybe a couple of dozen followers, but it turned out that lots of other people felt the same way about Instagram and emotional spending so it gained a lot of traction. Quite quickly I had a few publishers get in touch about turning the experience into a book. The whole experience has been a testament to what can happen if you’re open and allow yourself to be vulnerable.
Clare’s top tips for taking control of your personal finances:
A budget is not a diet
A budget is not a diet. No matter what your financial situation is, whether you’ve got debt, savings, or you’re somewhere in the middle. A budget isn’t like a diet, it’s not there to say no to you, be punitive, or restrict you. A budget should be something you live with and all it really means is you know what’s coming in, what your fixed expenses are, and it helps you decide what to do with what’s left over. This has been key for us and helped us feel in control, even though we’ve still got some debt. We use a spreadsheet with income on one side and outgoings on the other. If you’re not a fan of spreadsheets, there are lots of different apps you can use for this.
Create a digital toolkit
I use Money Dashboard which gives you an overview of all of your accounts so you can see your net balance. It also lets you set budgets for things like food shopping and treats so you can see where you’re overspending. You can also look back – one of the things that’s really handy when you’re just starting this journey is looking back over six months worth of spending and seeing where you could afford to cut back. We felt that we were doing all that we could but there were definitely things where, when we looked back, we could see we hadn’t got value. For some people, that’s not possible and, if your outgoings are more than your income and there’s debt involved, you should speak to an organisation like StepChange. Youneedabudget is also great – it’s a paid app, but people swear by it and the net benefit is really good. Emma and Yolt are both also great apps for keeping on top of your budget. I’d recommend downloading them all, seeing which interface works for you, and then sticking with that. Often if you feel out of control it’s tempting to flit from one solution to another – but it’s better to pick one and stick to it.
Another part of your digital toolkit should be saving. I’ve always been someone who struggles to save. Often, when you start working on a low salary, you think “I’ll save when I can afford to” – but for me this turned into “I’ll save when I can afford to buy absolutely everything I want.” If you struggle to save and want to save for something big like a deposit, having a standing order that goes into savings as soon as you get paid is much more effective than saving what’s left at the end of the month (as often there’s nothing left). If you just want to put away little bits here and there for Christmas and holidays, incremental savings apps like Chip and Plum are really good. They work by siphoning a little bit off every few days – I’ve been using Plum for a few months and haven’t noticed the money being tucked away. With any app, always check that they’re FCA-approved (as Chip and Plum are) as then you have the same level of security and encryption as you do with your bank.
As well as saving, it’s important to talk about investing. Women – and especially women under 30 – don’t tend to invest their money. With both Chip and Plum you can choose to invest a percentage of your savings and it’s very straightforward. Moneybox is another great, accessible app to learn about investing.
Should I save if I have debt that’s incurring interest?
For me, the value of building something positive, even while you’re getting rid of something negative has immeasurable psychological benefits. Building something, even if it’s something small, while I’m still tackling debt and filling in the foundations of my financial situation has really shifted my relationship with money. As well as the psychological benefits of saving while paying off debt, there are a few practical benefits. If you’re putting all of your disposable income into paying off your debt, you’ll need to put any emergency expenses on a credit card which can be very demotivating. Your creditors can also slash your limit with no notice, which could leave you in a pretty tricky position if your boiler breaks, for example. I’d recommend you build up a small, easily accessible emergency fund.
Stop saying “I’m in debt.”
This phrase conjures up the image that you’re in this deep dark hole with no way out. It’s definitive because you’re saying “I AM in debt.” It makes it sound like it’s a part of who you are. You don’t say “I’m in a mortgage”, you say “I have a mortgage”. For me, that tiny shift in language has been transformative.
Create a realistic meal plan
It can be really easy to set yourself up to fail with a meal plan. If your meal plan says you’re going to make every meal from scratch every day, but you know in your heart that you don’t have the time, energy, or resources to do that, you’re going to buy food that you end up wasting. Since switching to a more realistic meal plan that reflects our actual life, our food waste has gone down massively. It’s natural to be optimistic when making changes in our life, but always remember that you’re the one who’ll have to implement these changes!
Can you give any advice on getting a mortgage as a single parent with two children and childcare costs? Are there any lenders sympathetic to single parents? Should I get a broker?
I would definitely recommend you use a specialist broker if you’ve got special circumstances. Vestpod is a fantastic community on Instagram for this kind of question. Halifax are also consistently flagged as one of the more sympathetic lenders.
Can I get a mortgage if I have credit card debt?
I know lots of people who have got mortgages with a reasonable amount of credit card debt. However, I think lenders are going to be more cautious following the pandemic, so there could be a lower chance of getting a mortgage with credit card debt. It really depends how much debt you have and depends on your salary and affordability in general. It’s worth speaking to an advisor to see whether they think it’s worth using some of your deposit savings to pay off a certain amount or all of the debt and waiting a bit longer to buy.
How can I reduce credit card debt more quickly?
If your credit score is ok, you might be able to get a 0% balance transfer. However, not everyone will be eligible for this (I wasn’t!). Usually there’s a small fee but it’s massively outweighed by the benefit of not paying interest. It involves taking out a new card, transferring the balance, and closing the old card. If you’re not feeling in control of your spending and you haven’t done the groundwork of setting a budget and assessing why you’re in the situation you’re in, you can end up maxing out the 0% card and continuing to spend as before.
Another thing you can do is call your provider and ask if there’s a lower interest rate available to you, or if they’d be willing to freeze your interest for a few months as a goodwill gesture. If you’re paying a high rate of interest and only paying the minimum repayment, you’re probably just paying off the interest and chipping away a tiny amount off your capital balance every month. If you can reduce the interest or get a reprieve from that it can be a nice bounce in the right direction.
When I recommended people do this on Instagram, lots of people fed back that they had their interest rates reduced – some from 25% to 6%! If they can’t reduce your interest, it’s worth pushing a bit more and asking what they can do to help you pay off more of your capital balance. Barclaycard have done things like freezing interest for two months or refunding a month of interest.
Are there any especially sympathetic banks you’d recommend?
At one point, I had six different credit cards with different providers, who were all helpful in varying degrees. In my experience, Barclaycard’s customer service has always been top-notch and they always tried to do what they could to help. American Express and Virgin weren’t very helpful. Halifax were quite reasonable – I have my current account with them which sometimes makes banks more willing to help you. It can also depend on the advisor you get. If you feel like the person you’re speaking to doesn’t get your situation or is being a bit judgemental, don’t hesitate to ask to speak to someone else. Going into these conversations, it’s a good idea to write down what you want to say and what you want to get out of the conversation. These conversations can be very emotional so having a plan can be really helpful.
How should I speak to my children about money and ensure they develop good financial habits?
This is something I’m just starting to do with my five year old. It’s really important to me that my children grow up to have a better relationship with money than I did. My parents are fantastic but there was a definite gap in my upbringing in relation to financial education. Pocket money is a great way to teach children about money – it encourages them to save for the things they want and teaches them that they can’t have everything they want immediately.
How do I stop emotional spending?
This is a huge thing for lots of people and it’s a big section of the book. Spending on credit – whether it’s a credit card or something like Klarna – you separate the pleasure of buying from the pain of spending money. You can end up in dangerous financial territory that way.
Before you start scrolling online or before you go into a shop, ask yourself “Am I shopping to try and quell a feeling?” Lots of my emotional spending came from a place of anxiety – I was anxious about something I couldn’t fix, so I would look to buy something to fix that problem, or another problem, or a totally made-up problem. Be mindful about money. Ask yourself how you’re feeling and, if you are trying to solve a feeling, step away and try to solve that feeling first. The next question is: “Is the thing I’m buying now going to solve the problem?” If the answer is no – step away. If the answer is yes, the next question is: “Can i Afford it?” If the answer is no – step away. It’s a cycle – you feel awful so you spend to feel better, you feel momentarily better and then experience the negative effects of that – more debt, less savings, and then you feel terrible again. These questions are circuit-breakers and you can use them to stop you from progressing to the next stage.
I’m worried about getting into debt on my furloughed income. Money was tight before and now I’m really struggling to meet monthly costs.
Lots of people are feeling bad about themselves for not being prepared for this situation financially. No one knew this was coming so try to move past those feelings of guilt and shame over not having the funds to ride this out – because loads of people don’t. The concern about accruing debt is definitely legitimate, but banks have brought in 0% overdrafts up to £500 for people who need a temporary reprieve, also, if you have to take on a little bit of debt to get through this global pandemic, it’s not the end of the world. You will be able to pay it back when things return to normal. 11 million people have taken on extra debt since the start of this pandemic – you’re not alone.