Janet Hoggarth talks about writing a fictionalised account of her single parenthood commune.
After a particularly mad night out, or some crazy incident (usually involving a completely unsuitable man), Vicki, Nicola and I would roar loudly, cackling like witches and jokingly ask each other who would play us in the film version of our lives. We didn’t live conventionally and that’s why one of our favourite sayings was, ‘You could not make this up!’. All three of us were simultaneously going through traumatic splits from the fathers of our children and somehow the universe had pushed us together.
Vicki was a friend of my husband’s while Nicola and I met at the same baby music group but never exchanged names or numbers. After my husband left me with three kids under five floundering in self-pity and in inordinate amount of grief, I felt I was the only woman who had ever experienced this searing pain. Every other person I walked past seemed to be loved up, holding hands with a visible partner ready to share family life. It just served to highlight how much I had lost.
Enter Vicki stage left, five months after my own marriage breakdown, her partner having absconded four days after she gave birth to her daughter. To say she was in shock was a huge understatement! To top it all, her house was being sold from under her feet; she and Daisy were going to be homeless. I did the most sensible thing I could think of at the time and offered her my attic room to live in for a few months while she reassessed her life.
Around that time, I had bumped into Nicola on the school run and we were astounded to discover that we had been catapulted into single parenthood at exactly the same time. Once Vicki moved in, we all began meeting regularly to let off steam about what bastards our exes were, how hideous the divorce process was, guiding each other through the endless paperwork and supporting each other when one of us was having a terrible day trapped under the wet blanket of grief that accompanies situations like this.
Slowly we moved forward, finding strength in each other. No one else knew what this felt like so having someone continually tuned in to your unique situation was the best therapy we could have asked for. We partied hard when we didn’t have the kids (many a bawdy night spent dancing in the Adventure Bar downing shots), and made the best of a rubbish situation. The Christmases we celebrated as a mixed-bag modern family, six kids and three mums, were some of my happiest memories ever, not just during that two-year period. Even today, my children still talk about The Santa Mummies and how much they loved those fun times!
I wrote an anonymous blog during my divorce, verbalising my inner-most thoughts, forcing them out of my head in a desperate kind of purge. I enjoyed writing in a completely different manner than my usual style as a children’s author. So when I found myself at a career crossroads four years after Vicki moved out, my agent persuaded me adult fiction might be my next avenue. He was spurred on by my blog and suggested I turn it into a book. I had so much material that editing it down and sticking to tight structure was tricky. I also found that I needed to fictionalise quite a lot of it otherwise it would have just been a series of drunken encounters with toy boys and inappropriate men strung together with some ex-husband bashing and small children dramas. There are only so many toy boys you can mention before it gets boring!
So in reality, the plot of The Single Mums’ Mansion is massively condensed to make for a more cohesive read. But that doesn’t mean that the true essence of single-parenthood isn’t pressed between the words, shining a light on what it felt like to live in a female commune, to share everything from childcare to going out clothes, chores and meal plans, the laughter, the tears and a possible happy ever after. All that’s still there. So when it’s published in June, we will raise a glass (or two!) to us three survivors, and ask again, who will play us in the movie of our life?
Amanda Wilkie unexpectedly finds herself alone with three children under five in a rambling Victorian house in London, after her husband walks leaves them claiming he’s just ‘lost the love’, like one might carelessly lose a glove.
A few months later, Amanda’s heavily pregnant friend, Ali, crashes into her kitchen announcing her partner is also about to abscond. Once Ali’s baby Grace is born, Amanda encourages them to move in. When Jacqui, a long-lost friend and fellow single mum, starts dropping by daily, the household is complete.
Getting divorced is no walk in the park, but the three friends refuse to be defined by it. And, as they slowly emerge out of the wreckage like a trio of sequin-clad Gloria Gaynors singing ‘I Will Survive’, they realise that anything is possible. Even loving again…
Janet Hoggarth has worked on a chicken farm, as a bookseller, children’s book editor and DJ with her best friend (under the name of Whitney and Britney). She has published several children’s books, the most recent ones written under the pseudonym of Jess Bright. Her first adult novel, The Single Mums’ Mansion is based on her experiences of living communally as a single parent.