In which I ponder…being normal

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I was recently having a conversation with my ex-husband in which he suggested that the ‘normal’ thing to do in my situation would have been to partner up with someone again by now.

This took place in the context of a discussion about our (as yet undecided) financial settlement, and as a contribution to that discourse especially I think it has little merit. The answer to my concerns about my financial security going forwards is never going to lie in becoming dependent, or even partially dependent, on the income of someone else. I’ve done that once, and to be honest it hasn’t worked out terribly well. If I had one piece of advice for any women embarking on a new romantic partnership, it would be to behave from a financial point of view always as though your loved one might be gone at any time, in the blink of an eye – along with his income, his pension and his superior economic power. No matter how confident you are that it will last, or that even if it didn’t, he would look after your interests financially. I hope that the generation my daughter is growing up in will learn this lesson from their mothers, who are nearly always left financially disadvantaged by having prioritized parenthood over earning and career.

However, I digress…

This talk of ‘normal’ got me thinking. And anyone who knows me, knows that thinking is something I do rather a lot of.

What is ‘normal’ anyway? Being single is becoming more and more common. Does that make it normal? The Australian Bureau of Statistics predicts that the number of single person households in Australia will increase by 4.3m in the next 25 years – an increase of 65% – and that 54% of those households will be single women. Not that abnormal then am I, statistically speaking?

But more than that, I don’t subscribe to the idea that my normality is based upon my relationships with other people, particularly since that can create a veneer of said ‘normality’ which, when you scratch just beneath the surface, reveals something not quite so normal at all. My own marriage was a good example of that.

The thing is that I suspect my ex husband – along with many other people – takes some of his personal validation from the fact that he looks so normal, with an apparently healthy relationship, good job, nice home. Other-esteeming, they call that. Some people are unbalanced by people who refuse to conform to these social norms, or won’t let them define them. To be fair, men haven’t exactly been beating down my door offering to relieve me of my financial burdens, but I’ve not been in any rush to settle down, and these days I wonder if I will. I have a level of freedom that I’ve previously never experienced, and I am defined by no one except myself. I like that. Anyone who joins my life is going to have to deal with that.

My sister once said to me

“The thing about you is that you’ve never needed anyone”

I think I’ve mentioned this before here – but I was quite offended at the time. Now I think I understand better what she meant and I realize that to a certain extent it’s true, and not necessarily a bad thing (although I’m pretty certain her intention was not to flatter).

I don’t need anyone. It’s true. But not needing people means that those I have in my life have been chosen – for themselves and not just because they are able to meet a need in me. In doing so, I give them the freedom to choose me, or not. I think that’s healthy. My people are there because I have an authentic, real connection with them, they know who I am without the veneer of ‘normality’ and we chose one another. And we continue to choose one another every day.

If that’s being abnormal, then so be it. Seriously – who cares?

 

 

Stop all the clocks…

When I was seven years old, my best friend was a little girl called Jodie. She was more adventurous, outspoken and courageous than me, and I loved her for it. We rode our bikes together across the Lincolnshire countryside – so far from home that later, when we both had children of our own, we were appalled – had sleepovers in the garden, and wrote our names and the date on the wall of a cottage in her dad’s timber yard.*

In 2002, Jodie was diagnosed with breast cancer, but treatment put her into remission, so she and her husband Jim and their two small boys forged forwards in life, embarking on the renovation of a beautiful but virtually uninhabitable Grade II listed property. The return of her cancer and a terminal diagnosis was a devastating blow to everyone who loved her but especially to her young family. Jodie had always been stubborn and tenacious, and she used the same bloody minded approach that had ensured her business success to confront her illness. We used to joke that she was too stubborn to die, but really she was just determined to see both her children start school.

Jodie died in 2005 when her boys were 5 and 6 years old. She had fought a brave, hard fight but in the end the big C got the better of her.

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So it was with devastating and heartbreaking irony that today we laid her eldest child to rest, having taken his own life. A beautiful, intelligent boy of just 16 years, much loved, with so much to offer the world.

There are some things for which nothing can be said. There are no words of comfort available, nothing which will make it better, nothing which will make it go away. There are some things which can only be borne, not gotten over.

At Jodie’s funeral we had known what was coming. Jodie had asked me to deliver the eulogy, and my writings had been vetted in advance. She had organized the ceremony with Jim. But it was still hard. It was still heartbreaking. In the church today there was little that I recognized, and I can only think that I got through that day in a blur.

But there is no possible preparation for what we had to do today.

His dad said that George had not been able to see the point of life. But if he had asked me I would have told him that the point was in the hundreds of people in the church today, at his grave, and at his wake. It was in the gatherings of the last two weeks, as his family supported one another to get through all the arrangements necessary after the (always untimely) death of a child. It was in his close group of school friends, as they let off balloons in his memory and put together slideshows of photographs of his life. It was in the eulogies bravely delivered by his devoted father and by his best friend.

Because the point of this life is quite simply love.

Hold your children close tonight – and every night.

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*it’s still there

In which I ponder…being me

 

new-day

I am in a counselling room with a new therapist. We’re doing that getting to know you thing – the part before you start telling them about your fucked up life.

‘So…tell me a bit about yourself’, he says.

I tell him all about me. I tell him about my job with the NHS, my children, my involvement with the local parent/teacher association. I tell him I am a wife, a mother, a daughter. I feel a little bit proud. I’m not bad really.

When I’m done, he sits in silence for a moment or two, his hands folded in his lap. Then he looks at me and says:

“Ok. You’ve told me quite a lot about what you do. Now tell me about who you are.”

And I realised I did not know. I had become the things I did, the roles I played in relation to everyone else. I didn’t know where I had gone.

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A couple of days ago, a private message from a friend in the UK popped up on Facebook. She told me she had been thinking about the title of my blog and how it resonated with her.

My friend met her husband when she was 16. Like so many women, particularly of my generation, she was a daughter, segued seamlessly into being a wife then a mother and soon will be a grandmother.

‘It’s got me thinking’, she typed. ‘What would I be like if I ever got to be me?’

Good question.

And one I could well have been asking myself, if I hadn’t found myself compelled to be me in all its questionable glory.

The thing is though, that being on your own doesn’t necessarily mean you get to find out. You don’t just suddenly start being you – you have to learn how. And it turns out it’s hard. Much to my dismay, the real me wasn’t just hiding beneath the person I had become – the person who was too much of a reflection of other people, and not enough of a reflection of me.

The real me was properly lost, and in order to get to her, I first needed to circumnavigate the temporary version of me that developed post separation.

Unfortunately, this person wasn’t much fun.

This person fluctuated between being angry and determined and being helpless and hopeless. She was difficult to be around some of the time, but for all anyone who had to endure her wished I would just snap out of it, they could not have wished it more than me. I felt out of control and I wanted it to be over. Not life. Just the bit where I was sad and angry and hurt and….well – a bit boring.

When you start boring yourself, you know you are in trouble.

These days, I would say I’m closer to being me than I’ve ever been. And I am grateful that I’ve had the opportunity to find out who that is on my own, even if it hasn’t always been a comfortable journey for me – or the people around me.

So who am I?

Well – I’ve realised that who I am is mainly an issue for me. I need to know who I am, at my core, but I don’t need to describe it for others – so I’m not going to do that here. Other people decide for themselves who you are, because they see you and interpret you through the lens of their own experiences. People take you as they find you. What’s important is that I know who I am and am steadfast in that.

Besides I’m in my writing – you can find me there. And some people will judge me and others won’t.

As a wise man once said:

What other people think of you is none of your business…

 

 

 

In which I ponder…validation and embarrassment

embarrassment

My previous blog, which had had over 20,000 visitors by the time I stopped posting, was specifically about the experience of emigrating and full of chatty stuff about family life in a new country.

When I started this one, I didn’t have a clear idea of what it would be, except that I wanted to write. It’s simply evolved over time.

I’ve ended up banging on about my marriage and my divorce and indulging in a level of navel gazing that I thought I’d left behind. And although I enjoy writing it and I don’t find it troubling to do so, there is something I’m finding kind of challenging.

It’s a bit awkward really.

Because what I’m struggling with are the comments, particularly those on my Facebook page where I share it.

I’m absolutely fine with the lovely things people have said about the quality of the writing, and how much they enjoy reading it. It’s fabulous to know that people are connecting with it, and – in some cases – looking forward to each instalment. And it’s also great to know that it’s being quite widely read – so far in 31 countries.

However, I do find all the lovely things people say about me personally a bit mortifying. Now, you will have to bear with me on this – because I do tend to over think things a bit. But I’m a bit worried that people might believe that the purpose of the blog is to seek validation about myself and what happened. And it quite emphatically isn’t.

You may or may not know that I did post grad study in psychotherapy, eventually qualifying to practice. As part of my training, I had to take part in group therapy for two years, and through this process I learnt something interesting about myself. Well, actually I learnt a number of interesting (to me anyway!) things about myself, but I’m only going to bore you with one of them.

In group, members had the opportunity to say difficult things to one another in a controlled and safe environment.* And although I didn’t particularly enjoy hearing that sort of thing, I wasn’t massively disturbed by it either. It almost felt comfortable. Conversely, if someone said something really nice to me, I literally wanted the earth to open up and swallow me whole. I never entirely resolved what that was about, but I get the same sort of feelings when I read some of the comments. And today there were so many of them I had to remove the post from my wall.

I know enough to know that this is related to a lack of self worth.

But I’m also a realist.

And the reality is this. I’m really not inspirational or amazing or an especially good single parent, or an especially forgiving person.

In the last few years, there have been days – many of them – when I have definitely won no prizes for my parenting. I am no better at being a single parent than 99.9% of all the rest of them. I do what parents do whether they are single or not – I do the best I can for my children, and some days the best I can do is not that special.

And over this period of rebuilding my life I have been far from inspirational or amazing a great deal of the time. I have said vile things. I have railed against the world. I have been self pitying. I have bored my friends (and myself) with my tale of woe, my ‘why-me’s?’ and my obsessive picking over certain events. I have lost friends and rejected others.

As far as forgiveness is concerned – well that’s a journey I’m still on. I have forgiving moments and they are becoming more and more frequent. But there is still a way to go I think.

I’ve come out the other side of it a more cautious, more independent and more confident person. I’ve gained a level of self knowledge and ability to self reflect that I didn’t have before. And I try hard to understand human behaviour rather than judge it.

But I still don’t really like it when people are nice to me.

I’m a work in progress. I’ll let you know when I’m done…

*in the first week of group, we were invited to say if we thought we were going to have a problem with anyone. One of the members immediately said they thought they were going to have a problem with me – which is funny because I’d also sensed that I would have a problem with her, although, despite having permission to do so, I would never have said. I’m English you see. And here we are 6 years on and she’s one of my closest friends…

In which I ponder…inconvenient truths

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So I moved again. Anyone who has known me for a while knows I move often. I am starting to think I may be some sort of weird nomadic vagrant, since this is the 10th house since 2007, and the 25th home overall. I doubt I’m done just yet either, although I love where we are right now. That’s it there – in the picture. What’s not to love?

The more you do something, the less stressful it is – and this is certainly true of my moving habit. It’s hard to relate to the idea that moving is the 3rd most stressful thing you’ll ever do, when you’ve done it so many times. I find the constant presence of wet towels on the floor in the bathroom significantly more stressful to be honest.

But something I’ve learnt from moving is that it sorts the men out from the boys – figuratively speaking – when it comes to friendships. They say that some friends are for a reason and others for a season, and if you equate season in this context with the period during which I might inhabit a particular house, then you will understand when I say that some friends disappear when you are no longer conveniently around the corner.

I’ve had friends for whom a 20 minute drive has proven too far for them, and others who can identify certain geographical points as being the limit to their friendship – the cattle grids, the Spit Bridge, the ‘other side’ (of the harbour). And I have now done the unthinkable, and not just gone to the Dark Side (so not the same side of the harbour as the Northern Beaches) but actually moved away from the Eastern Suburbs, into an area and a suburb that generally none of my friends have heard of.

Personally, I’ve never minded travelling to see people. Even as a child, moving from place to place with my parents (it’s genetic thing you see), I maintained friendships into adulthood with people I’d moved away from geographically – but not emotionally – decades beforehand. My mum would put me on a train at weekends and school holidays to travel back to wherever we had lived before so I could stay with my friends, before returning in the same manner in time for school on Monday. And this was many years before mobile phones and social media kept us connected. The thing is that if someone is important enough to you, the distance won’t matter. And most of the time, you are not talking about enormous distances, but more about convenience.

So when you move, you get to discover which of your friendships were those of convenience. It can be disappointing to discover that for some people you’ve fallen into the ‘too hard’ basket, but it does mean that you get your real, quality friendships reaffirmed.

My closest friends in the UK stood by me when my marriage ended, and continue to provide me with love and support across the water. Some of them visit, and I’m a welcome guest in their homes whenever I’m home. My closest childhood friend and I maintained our friendship from opposite ends of the country until her death when we were both in our mid thirties – with children the ages we had been when we first met. And her husband and I have remained very close friends ever since, speaking at least weekly – latterly from different hemispheres – and this year we will celebrate Christmas together in the sun, overlooking my rather lovely jetty.

And with this move, I’ve been really touched by the enthusiasm with which my closest friends have greeted my latest venture into the unknown, some of them even inspired to purchase boats to make good use of my waterfront from time to time.

I know that for me, the people I love and care about are always within reach, no matter where I go. And seriously – it’s 26 mins from Central on the train, and I’m happy to pick you up from the station.

In which I wonder about the courage required for authenticity…

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We are sitting in a local cafe having a late breakfast. Julie is staring at my face intently, in a way that suggests something beyond mere interest in what I’m saying. She suddenly interrupts.

“You shouldn’t wear that eyeshadow you know. You’re too old”

She pauses for a moment then says with conviction

“Yep. Nah. Doesn’t look good”

She should know. In a former life, she was a successful make up artist, working on Hollywood movies.

I laugh.

“Ok. What should I be wearing?”

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I am at the hairdressers. I am trying to persuade my hairdresser, who has been cutting my hair for so many years that we’ve become friends, that he should give me a fringe. He’s being a bit evasive but is pretty much saying no.

“I’m not doing that”, he says. “You’ll regret it.”

“I won’t”, I say. “Why won’t you do it?”

He sighs.

“Because you’ll look ugly”

“That’s a bit harsh!’ I say, then we both laugh. And I don’t have the fringe.

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We are on the phone. I am relating the latest drama with my boyfriend. I can hear that she is getting frustrated with me.

“I don’t know why you put up with this shit. While you put up with this sort of shit, you’re just inviting it in, and it’s why you have the same relationship over and over. Fuck Wendy. You need to get in your power. You’ve only got yourself to blame!”

She is nearly shouting.

A week or so later we are in the car on the way back from somewhere or other.

“I want to talk to you about the conversation we had the other day. I get where you’re coming from, but I’m not you, you know. I know I’m doing some of this stuff, but I’m on a journey, and I can only be as far along it as I am at each moment. And when I tell you about it, it’s not necessarily because I want advice or for you to solve it, but I’m kind of working through it in my own mind as I’m telling you…And you were shouting”

“Oh” she says. We are both laughing.

“Was I shouting? I won’t shout”

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Over the last few years, there have been some tough times. People who I thought would be in my life forever, have come and gone, and I’ve whittled down my group to a small core of people that I trust absolutely, after experiences that could have led me to distrust everyone, especially friends.

I was wondering what it is was that these people have in common – given that they are so very different, and that some live in the Northern and others in the Southern hemisphere, so few of them have met.

And I think it is authenticity.

I think I’m blessed to have friends who are courageous enough, and love me enough, to tell me the really hard stuff. And they’ve told me some really hard stuff – way harder than the shocking revelation that your eyeshadow is for youngsters, and you are no longer a youngster. This sort of honesty means that when they tell you the good stuff – you know it’s actually true.

I think women are particularly bad at this (and this is perhaps why I’ve always had lots of male friends). Friendships that are based on only saying what you think the other person wants to hear (‘no – you look great in that dress’, ‘of course it’s not you – it’s him, the bastard’ etc etc), lead to relationships that are not based in trust. And of course trust is the basis of everything.

But I also think I am fortunate to have gone far enough in my own journey to be able to hear the hard stuff, to extract out of it what is meaningful for me, what I think is my stuff to deal with and what is theirs, and then to move on forever learning. This also means that when paid a compliment by the same friends, the negative self talk that so often interrupts the pleasure of being told something nice about myself is quietened – because I know these friends don’t bother saying it if it’s not what they truly feel. And when people are speaking to you from a place of authenticity, you just know.

And it makes me wonder – what would life be like if we all told the truth a little more? Both to each other, to ourselves and about ourselves? Scary but a little bit wonderful I think.

In which I wonder about ‘being friends’

My friends, I am single again. For those of you who never knew I had temporarily eschewed my single state, worry not – because I am again an ‘I’ rather than a ‘we’.

This relationship ended with what I like to call the classic ‘constructive dismissal’. This is where your boyfriend behaves in a way that indicates, quite clearly, that he is no longer that into you (doesn’t return your calls, takes a day to reply to polite text enquiries about his health or his weekend, when asked when he’s available to catch up for dinner/drinks/a quiet night in tells you only about all the busy busy stuff he has got on, and nothing about when he might be able to squeeze you in – you get the picture…) but because he lacks the balls to actually end it himself, waits until you can no longer take it and you end it for him.

I’ve been in this situation before – the most extreme version of which was my marriage, in which my husband’s persistent affairs demonstrated a pretty obvious ‘not that into you’ scenario which he was not brave enough to confront himself, and it was left to me to tell him to leave. In some senses, I suppose, this did give me a certain sense of empowerment (although it didn’t feel like it at the time), and I’m sure he was surprised that I let it all go on for so long before I gave him his marching orders (I know I am, looking back with the benefit of hindsight).

After the end of our marriage, it was my ex-husband’s fervent wish that we would be friends. At first I tried very hard at this, until I realised a couple of things. The first was that he had not been a very good friend to me over the years. A friend would not have treated me the way he had done, and there was really no evidence to suggest that he had anything to offer me in terms of friendship. Friendship with him seemed to be very one-sided, and mainly about me overlooking how badly he had hurt me, and continuing to care about his wellbeing and happiness.

The second thing I realised was that my being friends with my ex meant that I continued to provide him with the bit of our marriage that he had most valued – possibly the only bit that he had valued – someone in the background who provided stability, and made him look functional. So he would come to my house and hang out, get a meal cooked for him, have me check he was all ok, spend an hour or so with his children, and then bugger off to his latest girlfriend’s house – which was pretty much what he had done throughout our marriage.

And so I put a stop to it. I told him that we were not friends and we would not be – because he had no idea how to be someone’s friend.

But now I find myself having ended a relationship again and the man in question wanting us to be friends. It’s given rise to a lot of old feelings that are not his fault, but have left me pondering why this makes me so sad.

I think the thing is that what I want from a man – first and foremost – is someone who will treat me at the very least as well as they would treat a friend. When I’m in a relationship, they are getting something deeper, more valuable, more precious than just my friendship. Why then treat me with more respect and care when I am not a girlfriend than when I am?

I think often these friendships serve mainly to help people feel better about the way they have behaved in a relationship, and I’m not sure what is in that for me. In addition to that, I’ve been (unsuccessfully) dating for nearly 5 years. I’m not sure I want to repopulate my friendship group with men with whom I’ve had a relationship. Although – to be fair – I have made a few friends out of men I dated. But those men were good friends to me during the relationship, and the transition into that new status was painless for both of us.

Then, of course, the ‘friend’ thing tends to get complicated when new people appear on the scene. A friendship is not meaningful if you are dropped when they find a new woman, and many women don’t react well to ex girlfriends pursuing even platonic relationships with their new beau. In my age group, we are all, after all, often already dealing with the ex wife. I have a dear friend, who used to be a boyfriend, whose girlfriend ended her relationship with him when I appeared (invited, obviously…) at his birthday party. When I spoke to him about it, he said that any girlfriends would need to accept his friends, whoever they are.

That is, of course, how real friendship plays out over time, no matter how it started. So if your boyfriend has failed to be a good friend to you whilst you were his girlfriend, what evidence is there to suggest that he would be any better at it when you are not?

Only time will tell, I suppose…