Mothering with a broken heart
So, I could start by going in with the default response of you’re going to be alright. I might follow that up with a soothing things will get better. Or how about time is a healer? You’re going to have to get used to that one, I’m afraid. People love dishing that out alongside a cup of tea and a chocolate Hob-Nob. Incidentally, it’s also true, but I get it. Of course, I do. And I can see you right now at this very moment if I close my eyes.
Yep, there you are. 27 years-old, hair in that bastard bob you couldn’t do a thing with (bloody Dannii Minogue and her impossibly-perfect X Factor barnet) and your stomach, still a soft, crepey mound of post-partum flesh. It’s the 5th of February 2011, you’re standing in your parents’ kitchen barefoot and wearing your ‘big’ jeans, and your marriage has just ended.
I need to work quickly here because you’re sinking fast (rock bottom, sadly, is yet to come), and you’ll want answers. Luckily for you, I have them. Well…some of them. I’m not sure you need the answer to every question your mind throws up and especially not the ones that will keep niggling away at you in the middle of the night. They’re just going to cut you in two all over again, so definitely keep away from those ones. But I can tell you about the big ones. The important ones. The ones that will help you get through this and have faith that, actually, time really is a healer.
See. Told you.
Does anyone envisage their marriage ending? Perhaps some watch theirs unravel slowly over time like a loose thread. They pick a bit. They pull a little more until one day, poof! They don’t recognise what’s left. Maybe it’s like the tide slowly coming into shore, washing away the impressive sandcastle you constructed, which everyone admired from afar. It all seemed so perfect upon-a-time. But bit by bit, it faded away. Slowly, gently, almost rhythmically – but the result just as devastating. Or perhaps it’s a crack in the wall that gets bigger and deeper, and nothing could fill it. A void too enormous. An empty black hole. But that’s not your story. Your marriage has just been smashed into pieces like the shattering of a glass. Only fragments remain.
Here’s the shitter: Your broken marriage can’t be repaired. It’s done. It’s over. Right now, you might not even believe you’d want to salvage it but you will. Trust me. There will be periods you’ll think it could work. Some people make it work, don’t they? Your friend told you about that couple that went to Relate and things were okay afterwards. Even better, they said! They were glad they hit that bump in the road because it made them re-evaluate their marriage and what they meant to each other and how they took each other for granted and now they have a date night every month and…and…
The what-ifs will hang in the air when you sit in Starbucks with your mum, your three-month-old son on your lap, and see the man and woman next to you laugh and coo over their baby. You’ll swallow the lump in your throat, ignore the twisting of your gut, blink back the tears pricking your eyes. You’ll become a master at all of those. One day, your body won’t betray you. You’ll dutifully like the cosy family photos on Facebook. You’ll congratulate the newly engaged and send presents for the beautiful babies being born.
You’ll also wake most mornings with a face painted with your dried tears. You’ll stand in the shower, hot water gushing down your back, its torrent drowning the sound of your heaving sobs. You’ll ask your mum to get in bed next to you that first night because you can’t stand being alone in the darkness. You want to be her little girl again.
All the while, two words – so tiny yet so crushingly heavy – will play over and over in your mind: WHY ME?
You’ll feel bitter. No surprise there. But bitterness doesn’t suit you – or anyone, for that matter. It eats away at people. It leaves shadows and hard shells and a world of monotone. It steals life. Don’t waste your time on bitterness.
You’ve got more important matters at hand, like developing your own bullshit filter, for starters. Because here’s the thing. At the heart of all the what-ifs, is the long-held belief of some of the people whose opinions you’ve always valued. They will think that– get ready - it’s better for a child to be brought up by Mummy AND a Daddy. If common sense were working now, you’d know these people might mean well – but they’re wrong. They’re so spectacularly, maddeningly, infuriatingly wrong. What you’ll realise is what a child truly needs is love. It’s that simple. There is no perfect family. Only your idea of it. LET IT GO. Because you’re going to prove that separated parents can be just as good as those that share a bed every night. You and your ex-husband will go to school parents’ evenings and Christmas plays together. You’ll respect one another. You’ll always be in each other’s lives. You may not love each other anymore, but you love the same person. That’s enough.
So…the next few years. Your son is a ball of relentless energy. I suspect he always will be. He is a stubborn little so-and-so most of the time. Others will call him ‘a character’; you quickly work out this is polite code for ‘a bit of a shit’. His tantrums will be off the scale (one involving Natasha Kaplinsky on a rope bridge is a particular highlight, as is the Krispy Crème incident at Center Parcs but I won’t ruin the fun for you now). He’s bright as a button (apt, as he knows how to push yours), funny and unique. And how much you love him. Passionately, fiercely – like nothing you’ve ever experienced. In fact, being a single mother is the making of you. You might not have dreamt this for yourself and I’m pretty certain Mr Hicks, your careers advisor at school didn’t suggest it either, but you’re good at it. Like it says on the Anthony Burrill print your friends buy you for your 30th birthday, you know more than you think you do. And you’re so much stronger than you give yourself credit for, too. You and your boy are going to be fine in your bubble built for two. He’ll be the one that gets you out of bed every morning (literally – he’s always going to be a really early riser). He’ll be the one that gives your day – not to mention, your life – routine. Structure. Purpose. He’ll be your very reason to keep on keeping on.
Which leads me nicely onto the practical stuff: You move out of your parents’ house. You’ll wonder if you’re doing the right thing but you are. DO IT. Your flat - with its pink kettle and flamingo-print cushions – will be the first step on your path to independence, and your first home with your boy. You’ll look back on those days with a warm glow.
You’ll also retrain as a teaching assistant and quickly learn that helping a group of four-year-olds get dressed after swimming is harder than teaching a blindfolded chimpanzee how to ride a unicycle.
Oh – and this is a corker. Are you sitting down now? YOU’RE GOING TO LEARN TO DRIVE. I’m not going to sugar-coat this – you’re crap at it. I mean, REALLY CRAP. Still crap, as it turns out. It’s going to take you forever, cost you a fortune, you’ll want to give up every single week and you’ll never get the hang of that pissing gyratory roundabout - but you’ll pass. Second time round, two minors. I know, I know. I can hardly believe it as I’m typing it. (Side note: It’s not okay for a male driving instructor to tell you, ‘What happens in the car, stays in the car’ or to suggest a three-hour lesson where you get out of the car together to look at the view, and it’s definitely not normal to ask what you’re doing on your birthday as ‘it’d be nice to see you’. He’s a creep. Speak to your best mate and she’ll talk some sense into you sharpish.)
There’ll be low points, obviously. You’ll have too much to drink at the wedding reception of a good friend – the first nuptials you’ve attended since the break-up - and forget to listen to any of the speeches. You have a great laugh, but later you’ll feel like a selfish cow. Don’t be too hard on yourself though – your feelings are still so raw, it was really just you – albeit, subconsciously -protecting your fragile heart.
November 2011 is also tricky. It coincides with your wedding anniversary and your son’s first birthday, and you become a weepy mess. Again, go with it. You’re effectively still grieving for the loss of your life as you knew it, not to mention your future. It’s fine to cry and listen to Adele. No judgement here.
Speaking of judgement, it’ll feel pretty rotten walking into the Job Centre to find out the benefits you’re entitled to as a single parent but remember – only you are judging yourself. And why? That money will support you at a time in your life when you need it the most. It’ll help to keep that roof over your boy’s head and food on his plate. Think of it like a mate putting their arm around you to steady yourself after one too many G&Ts. You’ll get back on your feet soon enough.
Okay. I saved the best until last.
You’ll fall in love again. He’ll have a smile so warm and eyes so kind, it’ll make your stomach flip. When he hugs you, it feels like home. He’ll read your son bedtime stories, laugh at your corny jokes, tolerate you berating him for not knowing the difference between you’re and your, and tell you – with some conviction – that the burnt dinner you just served up is delicious. Better than delicious. He likes it chargrilled, he says. Your body is beautiful. You don’t need to wear make-up. You can do ANYTHING. He’ll be full of nerves when, one Saturday evening in a B&B in Brighton, he produces a bloody good engagement ring.
And it’ll be his voice you’ll hear on the 14th May 2017, as you lay on a hospital bed in a delivery room, consumed by that familiar, unforgettable mixture of exhaustion and elation, saying three magical words:
‘It’s a girl’.
PS Go and see a counsellor. It’ll save you.