From the minute I saw the second red line on the pregnancy test that meant there were two of us now, not one, I threw myself into motherhood like the girly swot I’d always been. I read every book I could find on the subject and could tell anyone who wanted to listen the exact developmental stage of my foetus on a minute-by-minute basis. Nobody wanted to listen, but still, I pressed on. I made sure I knew exactly What To Expect When Expecting. I attended all the ante-natal classes, notebook and pen in hand and hand in the air like the Hermione Granger of pregnancy. I revised the new language – zygote, amnion, lanugo, oxytocin, vernix – like I’d revised French, German, Spanish in school. I was excited. I was determined to get an A in motherhood.
I learned what I should eat, wear, do and buy. I learned that our baby would definitely be needing the French rubber giraffe teether (‘Sophie,’ £12) or he might indeed never get teeth. And that we absolutely had to have a Bugaboo Bee because not only was this the most stylish pram, it was also one in which the bassinet could be turned to face the parent, so the baby could learn by watching how to speak and react to the world. If we did not manage to get the Bugaboo Bee (£700), well, I shuddered to think.
The blogs I read presented an irresistible, adorably-filtered image of pregnancy and yummy mummyhood and I followed them as assiduously as I had previously committed myself to being a carefree 30-something with nobody to look after but myself and my playmate and partner of many years, my husband. I was done with the weighty literature, the Marlboro Lights and the red wine – what was that all about?! My brave new world was all about pressed linens and perfect tiny cardigans, hand-knitted in Debbie Bliss Baby Cashmerino. It was porn for the pregnantly pure. I bought a sewing machine and fabric. I learned to knit.
Towards the end of my pregnancy, I was glowing with health and absolutely massive. Just huge. Even so, each week, I shuffled from one side of a sports hall to the other on my bottom on the advice of ‘Yoga Ted,’ a wiry, weathered man in his 60s who weekly simulated the birth, from his own bottom, of a small baby doll before the rapt eyes of 30 adoring women. At the start of every session, Yoga Ted would go around the room and ask us all how many weeks we were. The one who was closest to the end of her term was pronounced ‘The Queen.’ He assured us that if we followed his advice and did the exercises – including daily rounds of alternate nostril-breathing – we were all practically guaranteed pain-free labours in the comfort of our own homes with minimal medical intervention. Yoga Ted was, as it turned out, full of shit. But it was what we needed to hear. It’s what we’d heard throughout our whole lives and we understood the message: if we were good girls and worked hard, everything would be fine. Everything would be just perfect.
I was Yoga Ted’s Queen twice before my son was born. He was not one, but two weeks overdue. Sixteen days, to be exact, rather than what I had read was the maximum of fourteen. He arrived only after I had visited the hospital several times to be induced and then sent home, after I had been given the maximum dose of every drug available, and only then with the assistance of twelve (I counted) medical professionals in the delivery room.
It was not the way I had planned it. It was messy and it was painful and it was brutal and it was, in the end, absolutely beautiful. When I first saw my son’s face and he looked back at me, I was struck by two things: how he seemed to have travelled a long, long way, from a whole other time and place, and how we recognised each other – instantly, completely – as though we’d known each other forever. Then he pooed in my hand, bless him.
I had felt alone and afraid in the hospital bed as I’d waited for the birth, but I’d talked to my baby and he’d talked back to me, moving around in the tiny space he had left in response to my voice. I was sure that once I even held the whole of his outstretched foot in my hand as he kicked from inside.
I wondered later if the birth had taken so long to come because my reticent body had known on some level what I had not known and would not know yet for months:
That my feelings of loneliness and fear were not unfounded.
That since the 7th month of my pregnancy, my husband had been in a relationship with someone else and had effectively checked out of our little family before it had even begun.
That none of this, not one little bit of it, was going to work out as planned.
When my son was 9 months old, my statutory maternity pay came to an end and I got ready to start working again. I’d been freelancing when I got pregnant, delivering workshops around the UK where I helped people in ‘hard-to-reach’ communities to tell their stories. I loved my job – and the people I met and the stories they told – but I had no job to go back to, as such. I had lined up a couple of workshops, but they were at a distance and we were figuring out how, between my husband and the nursery, we could make it work. I was still breastfeeding and I thought my biggest problem at that time was somehow working out the logistics of that. But that was not my biggest problem.
I discovered what my biggest problem was early one morning, after a night broken, as they all were at that time, by feeds and changes. The whole thing – the discovery, the decision, the leaving – happened over the space of less than an hour, and all before the baby woke.
I’d had no idea.
I remember the exact words that caused my heart to topple off its silly little branch in my chest before falling faster than a beat to shatter on the floor at my feet.
I remember exactly where I stood.
I felt like I had been hit in the face by something very, very hard.
After he left, I stood at the door and looked down the street and everything was strange. The trees and houses and cars looked fake, like plastic toys in hyper-real colours: in Glorious Technicolour. I was definitely not in Kansas anymore.
When I opened the door again, it was to my mum and my sister, who had made the 50-minute journey from where they live in the 20-minutes since my call. In northern-women emergency-mode, they had Bach’s Rescue Remedy under my tongue before they’d even crossed the threshold. I saw flashing red lights. I saw angel-wing feathers.
Later, they told me how I’d been that morning. I had babbled. I had been unable to sit still. I would jump up and race to another room as though I’d forgotten something important, then come back and sit down before jumping up and doing the same again. And again.
I’d wanted to call the police.
If the initial rupture was short and sharp as a stab – my whole world, like a birthday balloon: pop! ‘Oh, love, the police don’t come out for that’ – it was followed by a long, slow fall through space.
She fell from a star… She fell very far.
As I fell, all I had ever been, all I was ever going to be, all I had dreamt of for my son, cracked and splintered. I hit everything on the way down.
The trips to the solicitors, where my child crawled, sticky-fingered, all over his monstrous, super-sized desk as we negotiated the divorce deal and access agreement: ‘By court order, your son will see his father one day a week.’
The calls to the benefits office: the forms, the paperwork. Unemployed Single Parent. Tick the box that applies.
The job interviews I showed up for, grey and lumpen in my baggy maternity clothes, a 500-page doctoral thesis under my arm, a clutch of certificates and awards. ‘We regret to inform you that on this occasion…’
The visit to the STD clinic: ‘When was the last time you had sex with someone other than your husband?’ ‘Fifteen years ago.’
The day I made the decision to take the bassinet off the base of the Bugaboo Bee pram my mum had bought us and turn it so it faced the other way – away from me – so my baby wouldn’t have to see what was on my face: the distress, the pain, the disappointment.
My burning rage.
I fell for days, weeks, months. I felt like I had been mugged, beaten and left for dead.
But of course I hadn’t. There are far worse things that can happen to a person. There are far worse things that have happened to people I love. And I was not alone. There were all those who held my hand and cushioned the blows.
There was my GP, who I went to see when I felt like I couldn’t breathe.
‘Does it feel as though someone is standing on your chest?’
‘Yes. Yes, that’s exactly how it feels.’
She gave me medication for anxiety, assuring me it wouldn’t affect my breastmilk. (Crack.) She had twins the same age as my son and she sat him on her lap, commenting on how glorious and smiling and thankfully oblivious he was. Before I left, she looked at me long and hard. My eyes were tiny, sad and sore in my face. She shook her head and gave me something you can’t get on prescription: ‘What a fucking bastard,’ she said.
There was the friend who called me every day.
The friends who came to cry with me or make me laugh.
The friend who brought me soup when I was struggling to eat.
The friend who sang my baby to sleep.
The friend who brought me a Christmas tree.
The friend who sent me a cheque, with the instruction that I had to buy myself something nice.
The friend who paid for me and my son to visit her in the States, and who told me, as she held me at the airport, that she would do anything – anything – for me, and meant it.
The neighbour who knocked on with wine and chocolates, telling me that the same thing had happened to her 20 years ago.
There was my sister, with me whenever she could, noticing what we needed and giving it, not asking for anything in return. Helping, loving, caring for us both.
There was, the whole time and ever since, my mum – my hero – who carried my pain as her own and who each time I saw her, took my son in her arms and gave me the thing I wanted most of all: rest, sleep, oblivion.
I’m not sure when or where I landed. Although there were hands to hold me as I fell, it felt like there was nowhere to land. And with the ground gone from beneath my feet, my roots were left exposed.
When I was very little, my dad was a scrap dealer. He had a van and a yard and he would bring scrap home to our little back-to-back house in the evenings to strip it down and clean it up ready to sell. Did you know that in the back of many, if not all, TV sets there is a tiny piece of gold? He did. He would come home – whistling, if it had been a good day – with a couple of bags of toffees and all these old TV backs. He’d put them down on the rug in front of the electric fire and he, my mum and my sister would spend the evening stripping them for gold. Too young to help, I’d sit on the couch in my rik rak nightie, eating toffees and watching.
The things we learn.
We didn’t make much money from the scrap, but we are a family of workers and over the years, my parents tried their hands at everything. Eventually, they struck a kind of gold by learning how to make suede moccasin slippers at a time when they were all the rage (remember that?), ending up with their own small factory and earning enough, by then, to pay for me, the first in the family, to go off to university.
I got myself three degrees, a bit of a posh voice, a bit of a posh husband, and moved far, far away from the place I grew up, looking back, probably, with a touch of disdain.
The things we learn.
My healing started with a knife. A very small, wooden-handled knife with a sharp steel claw on the end: a seam-ripper. I’d been to a craft-fair and it was awash with those pretty fabrics and pressed linens and Baby Cashmerino knits I’d once – a hundred years ago, when I was a whole other woman and thought I had the power to make everything perfect – built my image of ideal motherhood around. Now my son had a broken family, a broken home where, for me at least, everything that should have been happy hurt. The first Christmas, the first birthday, the first steps: all were beautiful; all were broken. There was a great big hole in the middle of it all. Nothing was sweet but it was bittersweet: my son’s beaming face in the bath and every morning when he woke and only me to see it; his dad coming to collect him once a week; the man I’d bought this house, built this life with, saying he’d cover the bills and mortgage until I got back on my feet.
Back on my feet.
The expectation of gratitude.
I’d spend most of my evenings alone, looking at the wall of books in my living room and feeling certain I was no longer the woman who had read them. I knew nothing, had nothing to offer.
Coming home from the craft fair, I’d stood outside Manchester Town Hall in the dark and felt a hole right through the middle of me. The wind blew through it as though it didn’t even know or care that I was there.
I came home and emptied out the big black bin bag of clothes my husband had not bothered to collect – cords and jeans and woollen trousers and jackets – and I went at them with the seam-ripper that came with the sewing machine I bought when I was pregnant. I took each piece of clothing and found every seam and I used the tiny knife to slice through every stitch. Pockets, waistbands and collars came off, zips came out, buttons were snipped. It was a deliberate act of violence. Not a frenzied attack, but a long, slow, careful undoing of everything that had ever been and would never now be, stitch by painful stitch.
By morning I had a pile of useable fabric. I followed patterns I found online and made bags, purses, and pencil cases from the pieces of cord, denim and tweed I’d cut up. I reused buttons and zips and pockets. I got creative. I scrapped the patterns and made my own: patched denim nappy bags with corduroy pockets and linings of shirt-cotton; toy giraffes and tweedy owls with hand-stitched eyes and noses. I drew on my resources.
I gave the gifts I made away to friends, who loved them, and then got commissions for more. I ordered fabric labels printed with the name of my business. I had a business. I called it I made this for you.
When I could afford more fabric, I ordered fat-quarters of pretty cotton and made hearts filled with lavender that hung from thick ribbon secured with a button. I made hundreds of them, each one taking the best part of an hour to craft, gave a lot away to the people I loved, and took the rest around the gift shops of south Manchester and the Northern Quarter: £5 a piece, sale or return.
By the end of my first tax year, everyone I knew had an I made this for you lavender heart hanging from a door handle in their house or a bag made from the ruins of my marriage swinging happily around their hips. I added up all the receipts I’d kept and counted everything that had come in. I’d made £600. And I’d have to pay the tax bill in instalments across the next. But I had become a kind of alchemist, transforming one thing into another: scrap into gold, pain into something … else. Something a bit like art.
I learned recently of the Greek word metanoia that means a ‘change of mind’ or ‘change of heart’. It’s used in psychology to describe a spontaneous process of self-reparation whereby an individual – usually through a breakdown or crisis – casts off what we might think of as a ‘scripted self’ or a persona to become a truer version of themselves.
I used to think that what I was doing in my back bedroom at the sewing machine, seven years ago, stitching heart-shaped patterns soothed by the scent of lavender, was mending my broken heart. But I wasn’t. I was changing it. I was learning to see things differently. I was learning that all those things I had thought were broken – my heart, my self, my family, my home, that first birthday, that first Christmas – were not. They were just different from what I had imagined and expected they would be. They just didn’t match the script I had thought I was expected to follow.
Something happened to me that I could have never have imagined and would never have planned. There was no map, no pattern to follow, no script: how terrifying.
Something happened to me that I could have never have imagined and would never have planned. There was no map, no pattern to follow, no script: how thrilling.
My healing was not about mending something that was broken, or about finding a missing piece of a puzzle or about restoring order. It was not even about finding little pieces of gold amongst the ruins. It was about taking all of it – the gold and the scrap, the moccasin slippers, and the fabric and the buttons, and the fall from a star, and the birthday balloon, and the ‘Crack’, and the flashing red lights and the angel-wing feathers and the books, and the books and the words in the books, and the Bugaboo Bee and the Sophie giraffe and ‘I’ll do anything for you’ and the baby in the bath and the ‘What a fucking bastard,’ and the love – all of it.
And making something new.
Something wilder and more unique than my former, more innocent heart could ever have imagined or planned.
Something that would be more than the sum of its parts.
Something I could make and remake, day after day, and offer to myself, to my child, to the world, like the gift that it was.