Me after all
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Me After All
It's Pride month, during which tens of thousands of people all over the country will attend events celebrating LGBTQ+ people and lives, and calling for equality and equal rights. And my awesome colleagues at Becoming Mums asked me to write something for our blog. I thought long and hard about what to write. I don't and cannot speak for the entire LGBTQ+ community, just as I don't and cannot speak for all cis women or all mums or all people who dye their hair.
I can only speak for myself and what's on my mind at the moment, and so this blog post is all about 'me'.
I knew for a long time that I wanted to have a family. I had visions of a big happy family laughing around the dinner table. Idealistic perhaps, especially if you've ever eaten with or near a toddler, there's not all that much to laugh about there!
And so, before I ever met someone to consider having a child with, I researched what might be my options. The more I read, the more I felt a kind of grief, a sadness that I couldn't express and at that time, I didn't know anyone else who was feeling it. The sadness was that my journey began at option B, second best, it started not with me and the person I loved trying to make a baby, but instead it started with IVF, despite being, as far as I knew, perfectly fertile. (And did you know, same sex couples don't qualify for any free treatment on the NHS, so it also started with a minimum of £6000 debt.) It started with questions and picking the least bad option and trying to mitigate later harm or questions or difficulties, before I'd even begun. That feeling took me by surprise and I remember crying suddenly and unexpectedly with a group of close friends, all heterosexual, whilst we chatted about parenthood. It was never a feeling that my child would be second best, but a sadness that I would never be able to say ‘he has her eyes’.
I've since met many same sex couples with children, using a variety of routes. I've spoken in depth to people who've undergone fertility treatment and who understand that initial sadness not to be able to make a baby with their partner, to people who have adopted, to people who have never been able to have children, and people who've never wanted them. And what I've learnt is that that picture, the couple making a baby that's a bit of each of them is a false ideal, a patriarchal and heteronormative picture of what family is and should be. And when a child is there, needing the same nappies, the same cuddles, the same input, none of that matters in the same way anymore. And now that my child is here, funny and kind and creative, I know deeply that he is far from second best (I never thought he was, of course!) and therefore neither is his journey. In fact, the journey that brought him to the world has turned out to be one of the most beautiful and special things I have ever experienced.
This is not to devalue the immense grief and loss that so many feel for so many reasons on their fertility journeys, or to diminish the discrimination, enshrined in law that we face in this country.
Many Queer people, certainly of my generation and before, were brought up believing they'd never have children by any means; believing that just wasn't an option for us. That was my mum's reaction when I told her I was gay, that she was sad I'd never get to experience that. That was a grief my best friend had when she came out to me at age 15, that she'd never have children. No one had told her that, she'd just explicitly believed it. And I've spent a long time listening and learning how to throw off those societal expectations and values, because they're not true and they're not mine. They are not me.
My partner and I separated in 2020 and, at the age of 42, it felt like the very end of that dream of a family that I had in my head. I mourned deeply, and still do, the loss of the big, happy family with lots of children that I had dreamed of. I mourned the loss of a house full of laughter, fighting and watching siblings find each other at different stages of their life. I also mourned the loss of the partnership, the shared vision, the team work that I had craved and now realise I had never had. I had to let go of everything I had wanted for my life and I can't help but wonder if my desire to have that one simple thing (not at all simple, I know!) clouded my ability to see that immense harm that was befalling me in that relationship. The picture I had, that dream, was lovely. But it wasn't mine, it was something I had adopted from society, from tv ads, from films. It wasn't me.
So who am I? Instead I look at what I have held on to, the parts of me that have been consistent throughout life, throughout relationships, throughout motherhood, the parts of me that are the real me, the core of who I am, my values, my essence, the 'me' part.
Some of you will have heard me prattle on about how much I hate the concept of 'me time' when it is marketed to mums*, and all it seems to be is a bath and a cupcake. Feeling burnt out? Exhausted by the relentless battering of the patriarchy? Don't worry, just have a bath. Washing is not a luxury. Washing is not 'time for yourself'. It's a basic human right that we shouldn't be super grateful about, or even worse, feel guilty about.
I prefer to think of 'me time' as time when you get to be you, the you that you've always been. Not the mother you, or the daughter you, or the wife you, or the employee you, but just you. What is this magical, mythical place I hear you cry, where I get to be me again? Good question. Maybe it's a pottery class, or a long walk in the woods. Maybe it's exercise, or a book club, or yoga. Maybe it's time with friends, maybe it's getting involved in a campaign or movement.
I'm still finding mine, but I have a hunch it's submerged in a large body of water, all alone, or eating and laughing with friends. Whatever it is, we need to find it and protect it at all costs.
As I sat down to write this in the Costa Coffee in Tescos on the Oxford Rd, two young people sat down near me, one wearing a pride flag t-shirt, and the other clearly their partner, open, confident, beautiful Queer young people. And I thought about how 'me time' applies to LGBTQ+ people, when do we get to be just us, really just us? It's so much harder when you're a parent, of course. But in our every day lives the freedom to be the you you've always been, is restricted. It comes with fear, judgement, legal discrimination and violence and abuse. Pride is a kind of 'me time' for Queer people. A space where we are supposed to be free of the shackles of a society that still doesn't allow us to be ourselves.
We built Becoming Mums because we wanted it to be a space where everyone could be themselves, exactly as they are. Where people could be honest about finding things hard without the fear that someone would use that against them, tell them they're a bad parent. Where people could find their kin, their village, their community. And at our very first meeting, I held it together, but I walked the 30 minutes home sobbing, because of the relief of finally feeling heard, understood, feeling like I could be me. It has continued to hold me ever since, despite being one of the very few Queer parents in the group.
Because what it comes down to is community. We shared a set of fundamental experiences, and values. We understood each others' experiences. We carried no judgement, just innate understanding. It was a very powerful and transformative experience.
That's what Pride is all about, community. The way in which we are all connected and share values, ideas, dreams, struggles, experiences, stories. We belong to many communities. We might belong to the 'mum' community, and the football fans community, and the knitters and crafters community, and to our own local town community, all at the same time. What matters is that we have places where we can be ourselves.
So here's my incredibly long winded bit of unsolicited advice this Pride month (don't we all love some unsolicited advice?). Find your communities, make them many if you can. Find places where you belong and where you can be yourself, just you, the core part of you. Build in 'me time', the real kind, not the bubble bath kind, and protect it, honour it, don't let it slip to the bottom of the list. Ensure that the other people in your life protect it too, and don't encroach on it.
When you look at yourself, look at yourself with kindness, look at the parts of yourself that persist through difficult times, through life changes, through and beyond the presence and identity of others. Don't judge yourself based on the messy hair, or the day of too much screen time, or the missed deadline at work. Look at who you really are.
For me, my core values of justice, fairness, feeling passionately about equality and speaking out against oppression, discrimination and abuse have been part of me for as long as I can remember. Just ask my mum about the teenage door slamming at the very hint of something that wasn't fair and adequately talked through.
What's the core of you? When did you last feel that core seen and heard and held safely? Where can you go to find even just one person who will hear you speak a handful of words and just innately understands?
Where can you get some 'me time'? Maybe we should all learn from the LGBTQ+ community, from Pride, and be proud of the fundamental bits of ourselves, the core us, wave your flag, celebrate who you are, and find freedom and solidarity in a community that is waving exactly the same flag as you.