When we moved to Singapore the first proper storm we experienced – at 3am – resulted in a Sound of Music-esque scene, where, with each fresh crash of thunder, a different child ran barefoot into my room and threw themselves under my duvet. For those first few months my bed became a place of sanctuary and safety during the storms and I think it was here, to distract them from the noise, that I began making up stories for the kids. I told them stories about themselves, except here they were Princesses and Princes living in a castle with Queen Mummy and Queen Consort Daddy (I wasn’t about to be outranked). Before you start thinking I’d gone all Julie Andrews on them, rest assured that that there were no raindrops on roses or whiskers on kittens for us. Our story world had swearing goblins, irritable pixies, battles over food (Queen Mummy insisted on cooking vegetables and Queen Consort Daddy usually burned the pizza), squabbling siblings (Princess Oldest Daughter was busy being Grown Up and Princess Youngest Daughter never stopped singing which really annoyed Prince Youngest Son) and Prince Oldest Son’s incredible Magic Pants, which got them out of all sorts of unfortunate situations. Youngest Son’s favourite story to date is about the royal siblings’ arch enemy – swearing Goblins called Duckboff and Duckyou and their rather deaf teacher.
The thing is, we all tell ourselves stories about ourselves; sometimes for comfort, sometimes as motivation, sometimes for survival. We all have narratives that we use to make sense of our lives and the events within them. I was texting my Dad the other night about something that E had done, and he texted back asking how I’d ever put up with his behaviour. That stopped me in my tracks. Had he always been like that? The short answer was ‘yes’. So, why now was his behaviour now so clearly unacceptable, when for at least ten years I had barely noticed it? As I thought about it, I saw that, in some ways, it was because it was just normal to me, but it was also because, when I did notice it, I had blamed myself for it. I’ve realised more and more that the reason I stayed with E, the reason I didn’t see what, with hindsight, was so blindingly obvious, was because of the story I was telling myself about him and me.
From the moment he came back from Singapore in 2013, I knew that things weren’t brilliant with E and I. Obviously, we all know now that by this time he was testicles deep in an affair with O and had no interest in me, the kids, our family or making him and me ‘work’. But at the time, all I knew was that he was unhappy, but I didn’t know why. I knew that when the kids and I had come back to the UK the previous year, we’d had to go through a period of adjustment to UK life, we’d been ‘homesick’ for Singapore and missed our friends and the way of life we’d enjoyed there. I assumed the same was happening to him – only that it was harder for him because he’d lived there for three years not two. He’d also had various problems with the company he was working for – although, I must admit, I am now doubting that he told me the truth about this, or indeed anything, it’s like the ground I thought I was standing on has crumbled away and I can’t find any landmarks to point me back to the truth.
In my story, E was unhappy because of me. I was the Wicked Queen, I was too critical, too harsh, my jokes were too acidic, I expected too much, and I wasn’t affectionate enough towards him. In my story, if I’d been better, nicer, more loving, he would have been happier. Now, I know how that looks. In fact, if Oldest Daughter is reading this I’d like to apologise to her for setting such a bad example. Nobody should ever be so manipulated that they feel the way that I did. The thing is – the story I told myself was so strong, that I still can’t quite bring myself to blame E for how I felt. In the same way he has imposed silence upon me since he left, when he came back from Singapore (and in the years before Singapore when he was having his earlier affairs), he kind of ‘cut me off’. Mad as it now sounds, I felt like it was my fault we weren’t talking and my fault that he was so unhappy. I also felt like I couldn’t say anything, and on the rare occasions I did, E made me feel like I was being overcritical of and harsh with him. All of this meant that I never really articulated how I felt and I therefore never gave him the chance to tell me how he felt (or didn’t feel). Obviously, with hindsight, I can see that he should have had the decency to tell me what was going on and not kept me hanging on like an idiot. But at the time, the story I was telling myself was so powerful that I trapped myself within it.
I told myself a story where, if I was just better somehow, if we could just get over the latest hurdle life had thrown at us, everything would be ok and we would have the family life I so wanted. I was no longer ‘in love’ with E, I certainly didn’t think he was anywhere near perfect, but I loved and cared deeply for him. I loved my kids and was (and still am) so proud of the compassionate, questioning, interesting people they were becoming. I felt like, if I could just be better everything would be ok.
But, behind the narrative I’d created I could sense there was another story – not just the stereotypical fantasy that E was parroting to the women he was seeing (‘my wife doesn’t understand me’, ‘my family don’t need me’, ‘we’re only together for the sake of the kids’ etc), but something more important, more fundamental, more truthful.
I think when I finally discovered the truth about E’s affairs, I began to glimpse my real story – the one behind the one I’d been telling myself about our relationship and how and why it went wrong. There’s a slightly overused saying: ‘the truth will set you free’ and in a funny way, seeing E’s betrayal in black and white was the first step in severing my ties to the story I’d created. Of course, I’m not entirely there yet, the old story still clings and I feel that I must somehow be to blame for what happened – I took responsibility for things not being right for so long, that its difficult to accept someone else shares that responsibility (although, having said that, I don’t think there is any situation where multiple affairs are the way to deal with problems, and don’t think there are any circumstances what E did would ever be ok). I know I need to begin a new narrative – I need to tell myself a story where I’m not the one to blame and I deserve to be treated with respect and decency. It sounds basic – but I think it was what was missing from the story I was in before. Everyone deserves a story like that.
So now, I’m embarking upon a new story. It’s not an easy one, blame and responsibility are more complex than in my previous one, and there’s a hard path ahead, but it is a much freer one – and it’s one where I’m excited about where it will lead. I’m also sort of hoping that Prince Oldest Son’s Magic Pants might come to the rescue – they really could brighten up any story.