Sunday, 1 April 2012
At the weekends, I like to start the day off with a vat of tea and a peruse of the papers. I have certain sections of the Saturday Guardian I particularly enjoy as I wake up and come to life. I start with the Weekend and after checking in to giggle at the seriousness of the commenters on the John Lanchester restaurant review and boggling at the complete inability of the Blind Date section to find two people who can tolerate each other temporarily, I like to read the Family section and wallow in other people's dysfunction. And this week with this article by Bibi Lynch, the dysfunction was overflowing and threatening to take us all down in a tidal wave...
I'm single and childless so this article should have been right up my alley in many ways. Instead I read it in wide eyed horror with a feeling of queasy discomfort gnawing at the pit of my stomach. It was like reading a 17 year old girl's diary as Bibi described her emotions around realising at the age of 46 that she would never have a biological child. Motherhood, or the lack of it, is an emotive subject and one that everyone woman has some thoughts on, albeit in very different ways. This piece came across to me as a mill race of 'I want', 'it's not fair' and 'it's all your fault' rather than much else more substantive. I came away wondering why the hell the Family section had morphed in the Mail for a day and disliking everything about the piece, especially its trick of further dividing women in those who have reproduced and those who haven't by suggesting women who have children cannot understand grief like those who wanted children and don't have them. Not only is a classic Mean Girls tactic that achieves nothing, it's also utter bollocks and tapped into the notion that when it comes to anything involving wombs, women are simply hysterical and can't debate nicely. In fact it also suggested that all women do ultimately comes to down to their uterus rather than anything else, which is infuriating as one of the things feminism seeks to do is make women the sum of all the parts of their body and soul, not just incubators.
But aside from the societal issues the article raised, my strong reaction came from a more personal level (and like Bibi herself, perhaps not an especially nice one) and I fould myself saying 'aw diddums' to the lady who hasn't had everything she wanted in life handed to her on a plate and feeling personally defensive and angry after reading it. She doesn't like it when the world doesn't stop turning for her personal feelings and although I felt snippily judgemental of her for that selfishness, I felt strangely the same in many ways, with my first reaction being 'give me a fucking break. You think you've got it bad? Try being me' following it up with the helpful suggestion of ' just grow up.' Then I drank more tea, read a few other articles and looked at more calmly and realised that it's not the events that define your life, but the way you deal with them instead.
Not being able to have the thing you thought would turn you into an adult and complete your life is tough. But it's no excuse to be dismissive and cruel and judgemental of others and blame them for how you feel. Everyone experiences grief as they grow up. The difference is how people deal with it and whether they let grief be the only emotion they have again..
I have a serious chronic illness. For the past 15 years I have been unable to hold down full time work or education for more than a few months at a time. I wanted to do my A levels, go to uni, do a degree and then work, earning enough to be comfortable and hopefully meeting someone who would love me and I would enjoy being with. Maybe there would be children depending on who and what came along.
I haven't had any of that. I didn't get to do the A Levels I so loved studying for. Instead I became very very ill and spent the next four years lying on the sofa, watching a different set of friends each year complete their exams, leave home and embark on their adult lives while I was left behind. Even when I finally got to university I didn't complete my degree. Things became harder to deal with when I was raped twice and developed some spectacular mental health issues to boot. I had to give up job after job and abandon a career I adored. I've lived on minimum wage or benefits the whole time with absolutely no financial freedom. I've been homeless, in part because my health was so poor I couldn't get a job to earn my way out of a tight spot. I get portrayed as a benefits scrounger, a liar, a malingerer. No one wants to date me once they know about my health and I've been rejected by my father over these things as well. I will never have children because I will never be well enough to carry a pregnancy to term or cope with raising children. It would be miserable for me and them and the father of any child would be under unbearable pressure, raising a kid essentially single handed and caring for an ill partner. So there's no point wanting a baby. It's not possible.
My world has shrunk to a tiny sphere with none of the things in it that I wished for and wanted, especially work and the self esteem that comes from supporting yourself. When friends bitched about their boss, their job, their overtime, their life choices, it at times pained me to my very soul. It was like they were pouring salt into open wounds. I lost count of how many times I felt shellshocked with grief while a seemingly normal conversation was going on. It's been hard. But I've always tried (and not entirely succeeded) not to blame other people for their lives. I'm not sick and struggling because they are fit and well and have a shit boss. It's not their fault I feel terrible about myself and that my life isn't going to plan. And their lives aren't always perfect or better than mine really. Competition helps no one.
I mainly took my misery out on myself, but sometimes on others and I ended up lonely and pushing away the only nice thing in my life as people couldn't be around me. So before I backed myself completely into a corner of self pity and resentment, I had to do something about it and try to drop the martyr act. I couldn't expect people to be nice to me if I was awful to them and to myself, so even though it was agonising at times to listen to talk about jobs and studying and relationships, I started expanding my horizons by sepnding more time with other people and caring about their lives. I got a therapist (or five) and I worked on it with them rather than continue to burden individuals with my baggage as a punishment for their issues being different to mine. Now I have wonderful friends who bring pleasure and purpose to my life and we're important to each other and it helps soothe the pain of the other losses, because even though I can't work, I have a purpose in my life that I previously lacked. My family tree might stop with me, and I'm most likely to going to be single for the rest of my future, but I'm important to other people and I will live on in the memories of people I loved and their families and children. It's not what I planned for and I still often wish I hadn't had to work harder to still end up with less than many, but I'm glad I did and my grief no longer dictates my life. I can also now appreciate that while my life isn't exactly what I chose, it's pretty bloody great in many places and yes, there really is always someone worse off than me, and that I'm lucky in many ways, including people overlooking the demands I put on them.
All of which is lovely and makes me sound smug as hell with a side helping of massive sanctimony doesn't it? Like I'm one step away from uttering the words 'if I can do it, anyone can.' Which would be equally annoying and missing-the-point as Bibi's original article. I'm not fixed (in fact many of you know just how fucked up I am) and I'm not suggesting that other people can be fixed either. Grief doesn't go. There's no magic cure. You don't wake up one day and it's completely vanished. It changes things. It needs acknowledged and accepted rather than railed against endlessly fruitlessly. It needs the sting taken out of it by allowing other people to understand it and know it is there. Those suffering from it need support, but not indulgence. All the well meaning in the world won't undo the cause of the grief after all. What the grieving don't need is a constant drip drip of competition and insularity where people's misery is used to minimise and belittle other people's feelings. Yet another article about a well educated middle class woman (ahem) suggesting her turmoil is the most tumultous of all serves only to fray people's last nerve and create seething resentment on top. We could all stand to hear more about how to understand and work through grief, because there is no one who won't experience it, often in varied ways at different times in our lives.
I wish I could be the person to write that article, but I'm not sure I'm quite far enough out the side of my grieving for the life I was going to have and the person I wanted to be, to avoid falling into the path of self absorption that loss tends to create. But if anyone else is further down their five stages and would like to write it or know where it is, I'd very much like to read it. Not only would some tips be useful, I'm getting quite bored of myself by now. I hope Bibi Lynch can come back in time and say the same....