For five years,Suzie Jay worked as a documentary event photographer before taking a break in 2016 to embark on her biggest job yet, Motherhood. She then went on to set up My Little Muse Photography, capturing the beautiful and subtle moments of family life.
In 2015, Suzie and her partner experienced the devastating loss of their son Charlie. This letter is written to Charlie, in support of Baby Loss Awareness week.
Two years ago today I was getting ready to meet you for the first and last time. 21st October 2015, a date made famous by Marty Mcfly in Back to the Future. Growing up, I’d always wondered where I’d be on that day. I never could’ve imagined something so awful, that I’d be giving birth to a beautiful baby boy whose cry I’d never hear.
Though you were born sleeping that day, you were still the most precious thing to us. We couldn’t wait to meet you, to hold you, even though we knew we’d have to give you back. The hospital agreed that you deserved the very best and everyone was so kind and compassionate. When you arrived, our wonderful midwife, Joanne, handed you to me for the first time. She looked me straight in the eye, smiled her big smile and told me you were beautiful. She never faltered for a second. My heart swelled with a mother’s pride. The most bittersweet moment of my life.
That night in the hospital was a drug-fuelled haze of devastation. Surreal and desperately sad. We weren’t ready to say goodbye and thankfully we weren’t rushed. You lay in a cold cot by our sides while we tried to snatch moments of broken sleep. My dreams were cruel, wandering down a maze of hospital corridors looking for you and calling your name. Of course I couldn’t find you. Waking up to the banshee-like screams of other women in the labour ward felt like the cruelest reminder of what we had lost.
During that terrible time, your Dad & I talked and talked. We cried and clung to each other. We planned your funeral. We became closer than ever. Eventually we laughed again. We reached out to anyone who’d listen. We experienced some of the most extraordinary kindnesses, all because of you my boy. We feel proud and privileged to have known you, if only for the briefest of times. You taught us to be open and honest with our feelings, that talking would save us. Through you we learned that life is as messy as it is beautiful, painful as it is incredible.
And to my darling daughter, our rainbow after the storm, we are so eternally grateful for you. Every laugh, every cry, every sleepless night, every cuddle. There are no bad times. Just a rich melting pot of all the feels. And it’s glorious. Did you know that during a pregnancy, cells from a growing baby cross over into the mother? They become part of her. So even after that baby is born she carries them with her wherever she goes. I love that idea, that we’re always connected, even when one of us can’t be here.
Love you forever my babies x
October is pregnancy & infant loss awareness month and there are so many wonderful charities who do incredible work in supporting bereaved parents. Shortly after we lost Charlie, we set up a memorial page to raise money for ARC (Antenatal Results & Choices), a charity who gave us amazing support. If you’re able to make any contribution at all to Charlie’s page we’d be so grateful. All money raised will be donated to ARC. Thank you so much x
It’s been one year since The Muse launched and almost everyone I have mentioned the blog to has given the same reply… “You’ve got to feature your mum! Mother to seven women, SEVEN!”.
So, Mum, here goes…
A Letter to my mum
There’s nothing quite like treading your own path as a mother to make you reflect on your own dear mum. As you lay your head on your pillow only to hear the baby start up again, as you breastfeed whilst enjoying the spoils of norovirus, as you wipe another bum, another tear, another yoghurt splattered floor and think, my mum did all this – and she did it in days before dishwashers, iPhones, Ella’s Kitchen, disposable nappies and wipes (and yes, I know many people manage fine without these things, but I am not one). So first off, let me say thank you. When I think of all I do for my babes and think of what you did for us, THANK YOU! Lord knows it’s a largely thankless experience, but let it be known that I am SO thankful – for the birthing, the feeding, the clean clothes, the nursing, the teaching, the encouragement, the love.
In so many ways you set the bar high; you made our school dresses, you won every mothers’ race on sports day, you read to us every night even though you nodded off mid-story, you returned to work after raising us all and caring for your mum and you can turn out a mean roast for 20 people at the drop of a hat.
But do you know one of the things I am most thankful for? It’s that you let us see you lose it, that you got cross, and told us to shut up when we were bickering and later apologised for it. That you got stressed driving us around when we were scrapping furiously in the back! Every day there are moments when I regret the way I handled something with the kids and I am so glad you kept it real. I know that it is fine not to love every minute, to lose it, and to believe that when things get bad, it’ll get good again.
I can’t talk about my thanks to you without mentioning the birth of my sweet firstborn. What a long old night that was. That shock of your first. You gave me the confidence to believe I could have my baby at home and you were the one by my side as the seemingly endless night became day, telling me I could do it, and I did. And as we went off to the hospital to check on our poor meconium ingested babe, who stayed home to restore order? You, dear mum. Leaving a clean tidy home to return to and a note I will always treasure thanking us for letting you share in that experience. From that day your greatest gift to me has been to trust my instinct and make my own way.
But I feel it is selfish to keep all the wisdom of Mama G to myself, so I have a few things I’d love to ask if you’re game:
Going back to work – back at my desk after my third maternity leave, trying to find my feet and my voice again, I am even more in awe that you returned to work after a 15 year break. Was that hard? Did you struggle to find the confidence? If you did, I never knew.
I always had in my mind the idea that, at some point, I would like to return to teaching in some capacity. I remember walking as a new first time mum past a noisy school playground and thinking that I missed that environment. I didn’t think then that it would be seven children and so many years later before I took that step back to work!
To build my confidence I initially worked as a teaching assistant, gradually building my experience by working in three different schools, with pupils with a range of needs. So it was a gradual process back to teacher status and finally to coordinating the special needs provision in one of the schools.
Then it was the juggling act with which so many women are familiar, trying to run a home, meet the needs of family (including my elderly mother) and go to work!
2017 vs 1977 – I feel like there’s a lot of pressure on my generation of parents, so many books to read, so many labels to give yourself and rods to make for your own back depending on whether you choose to sleep train, baby led wean, bottle feed or cloth bum, work or not work. I love Instagram, but as a parent you have a much wider circle of women to compare yourself to and we are not always the kindest on ourselves. Are we all overthinking it? Did people just get on and raise their kids back in the 70s?
I think your last comment is quite accurate and there was really no option but to ‘just get on and raise your kids’ back in the 70s’. You are also right that there is a lot of pressure on parents now for the reasons you give. It was such a different world then. When we brought our eldest home from hospital in 1972 there were no car seats. I sat in the back of our tiny Austin A35 with her on my lap! We had no phone or television in the house. There were no disposable nappies and most babies started off wearing terry towelling nappies and soft cotton nighties, as babygros were only just starting to appear.
There were a few child care books to which people referred. Probably the most well known was ‘The Book of Child Care’ by Hugh Jolly. (So very dated now!) There were clinics that babies were taken to where there were health visitors, but I didn’t find them very helpful. Unlike you, I was not bombarded with a confusing array of ‘methods’ on how to raise your baby and decided very quickly that no one knew my baby like I did and rightly or wrongly, followed my instincts. I didn’t have use of a car at home in the day time, so just got together with friends in a similar situation, or visited my parents who lived nearby in the early years. There were no baby classes to attend.
I’m sure that there are good things about the vast array of baby activities that are available now and indeed the choice of equipment. You are right, however, that there is the danger of feeling inadequate if you don’t join in all these things, or can’t afford to. Similarly the range of baby equipment is overwhelming. I certainly did not have the pressure to be seen with the ‘right’ pram of an acceptable make.
When does it get easier? – With a 5 year old, 4 year old and 1 year old, I’ve never felt more in the thick of it. This stage of motherhood is so physically demanding and exhausting, but is this the hardest bit? How do different stages of motherhood compare? My fear is that it is harder when they leave home and you’re just left worrying about them.
A dear friend said to me in my early days as a mother that ‘every age has it’s compensations’ and I have found that to be true.
There are many advantages of having a large family one of them being that you learn that challenging phases actually pass very quickly. The demands of a new born or the challenges of a toddler are gone in a flash and that recognition can change the way you approach things. You can even learn to appreciate and enjoy these aspects of a child’s development!
I certainly remember having four children aged five and under as being the most demanding time! Getting a five year old to the school bus stop at the right time every morning with three others in tow was very challenging!
In some respects with young children, it does get easier when they are old enough to play cooperatively. When subsequent children arrived there was more choice of playmates, which may be easier than having two who can’t stand each other! I felt that falling out with others within the security of a family was a good preparation for the harsher elements awaiting at school and beyond.
I never did find the teenage years to be the ‘terrible teens’ (although the ‘A’ level years had their challenges!). Perhaps there was safety in numbers and I watched with pride as you all became the wonderful women that you are today. Does it get easier? No it does not! Being in control of things when you were little was probably the easiest bit. Then you have to let your adult children go with love. Once you are a mother you are a mother for life and their pain is your pain whatever their age.
Your village – One thing I observe in our generation is that there’s a well-trodden path for a lot of parents on leave – NCT to make friends, playgroups, baby sensory, baby swimming, baby signing, baby yoga. How did you meet other mums? I guess we are making our own urban village now, whereas maybe you had an actual real village of support!
In the absence of all the baby classes and groups, my ‘village’ consisted of family, friends and good neighbours. Sunday lunch was often a way we got together with our friends who had young families like us. After lunch we would all visit a local playground or park or walk in the woods.
No one really had a large network of mum friends and I was content to be in touch with our friends who were in a similar situation to us at that time. There were no mobile phones of course and not everyone had a phone in their house. It could be quite an effort to be in touch with people if you had to walk to the local phone box!
Raising women – Being a mother to seven women, did it feel like a big responsibility at the time to be our role model as a woman? Did you have a sense of how you wanted us to grow up?
I don’t think that I actually focussed on the fact that I was being your role model. Had I thought of it like that it would probably have been rather overwhelming! I was always aware of the times when I fell short of my own standards of parenting and I hope I always apologised at the end of a bad day for being a grumpy old cross patch! Fortunately children are very forgiving and always seemed to forget about these things long before I did.
In answer to your question, yes I did have a sense of how I wanted you to grow up. I am sure you would all have a different take on how successful I was with this!
As you became adults I did try to dissuade you (not always successfully!) from making permanent changes that you may regret.( e.g. hair dying fine, but tattoos to be avoided!) Also, to be blunt, I really hated the idea of one of my daughters being someone’s one night stand. I decided that you have to have faith in the effort you have put in when raising your children and I would tell them that I trusted them to do the right thing. I was told years later that that approach had been more effective than threats!
I wanted you all to feel good about the amazing women that you are, although sadly there were inevitable wobbles along the way. Self worth is so important. I knew that if you believed in yourselves you could achieve your ambitions, do a job that you wanted to do and you would also know that you deserved lovely friends and a kind respectful partner.
I am so proud that the sisterhood is strong and that you will always support each other.
I also wanted you to grow up secure in the knowledge that the love your dad and I feel for you all is totally unconditional. While we are able, we will always be there for you all and our beautiful grand children.
I will always consider my seven amazing daughters as my greatest achievement in life. I love you all.
Georgina Atwell is the founder of www.toppsta.com the children’s books website where children review books and share their recommendations. After a career in publishing and running the ebook store for iTunes, she now mostly works from her home office and tries to forget about the snacks calling her from the kitchen. She lives in Oxford with her husband and two children and loves jumping on the train to come into London to meet publishers and discuss children’s books.
How did you end up doing the job you do? I came up with the idea for Toppsta back in 2009 but just as I was setting it up I got a call from Apple, offering me my dream job of running their ebook store. I just thought, I’m never going to get this opportunity again, I need to do it. But after 4 brilliant years and with two young children, it just didn’t offer me the flexibility I needed and I knew that one day I wanted to run my own business. So I quit. Lots of people thought I was crazy but I’ve not regretted it for a second. I love what I do – the publishers I work with, the books we promote, the parents and children we help and all of it around my personal commitments as a Mum. I’m still working 7 days a week and all hours but it just doesn’t feel like a job anymore.
What are you working on right now? We’ve produced this amazing reading list of children’s book reviews written by our reviewers. I’m incredibly proud of it, it took a long time to put together and we’ve had brilliant feedback from parents, grandparents, teachers and publishers. I’m looking at how we can get it out to schools and parents and whether this is something we can put together on a regular basis.
Describe your first job
My first job was working in a deli near where my parents live in Oxford. I’m a complete foodie so I loved every minute. Particularly when my parents came in and I’d be suggesting all the yummy food they should buy.
My first work in publishing was very different. I was doing work experience for a publisher who had just published a book on pornography to accompany a tv series. They needed to return some of the images to picture libraries but they didn’t know which pictures belonged to which galleries. So I had the very dubious task to phone up various picture libraries, describe the pictures over the phone and see if they recognized the description. I was about 18 and absolutely mortified. I swear the other people in the office must have thought it was hilarious. Anyway, it toughened me up and is certainly unforgettable. I think that anyone coming to Toppsta for work experience has it pretty easy in comparison!
What was your B plan if this career didn’t work out? There was never ever a plan B. But to be honest there wasn’t much of a plan A either!
Where do you feel most inspired? After two years I finally have my own office, with a desk. Somewhere permanent for my computer and my books, as well as a door to shut if I need a bit of peace and quiet. It’s pure bliss after working at the kitchen table and having to shift everything back and forth.
But for inspiration, I’m a walker. If I’m stuck on something I’ll grab my coat and just go for a walk and have a think. I honestly believe that we think better when we’re on the move. Sadly I don’t live in a particularly rural area but even a few minutes walking around the block seems to clear my head.
What did you want to be when you were little? It’s funny, I was a huge reader when I was young, I remember hiding under the covers reading the Famous Five with a torch and I studied English Literature at University but I never had any ambition to work with books. I’ve always enjoyed the business side of jobs; the sales, marketing and products and I think I thought that publishing was all about editing. I went for the graduate scheme at The Financial Times but was encouraged to apply for the graduate scheme at Penguin instead, as they thought I was better suited to publishing.
What was the best piece of advice you ever received? Never assume. They were my grandfather’s words of advice and I think it’s good advice for life. Never assume it’s a bad idea, just because it didn’t work out first time. Never assume you’re going to close the deal until you’ve actually signed on the dotted line. Never assume a friend doesn’t want to see you just because they haven’t replied to your text. Never assume the kids can’t do something just because they haven’t done it before. Never assume.
What are you most proud of? I love and I mean really love the emails and messages I get each day from parents via our website or social media. Some of them have really brought a tear to my eye. The mums and dads who have been struggling to get their kids to read but through our giveaways, they’ve been getting excited about receiving books in the post in a parcel addressed to them. The teachers who say that a child in their class has gone up a reading level, encouraged by seeing their reviews published on our website. It’s amazing to think that this idea of mine, run from home is actually making a difference. 90% of our Facebook audience are based outside of London, so we’re genuinely nationwide.
Which one thing would you like to change about your industry/working life? Publishing is a predominantly female industry but I feel that since the financial crisis it’s become more conservative in the way that it works. I hear an increasing number of stories of requests for flexibility being turned down; people made redundant whilst on maternity leave; and there are sadly precious few women at the top of the publishing houses. That just seems crazy for our industry. Other, more traditionally ‘male’ industries like finance and law are trying really hard to get more women through the door and are offering more flexibility and initiatives, but in the meantime I feel publishing has gone backwards.
What’s the biggest challenge you face in your day to day? Not working round the clock. I have a tendency to work 24/7, I genuinely just enjoy the job but I’m trying really hard to fit it all in during the day and then read or watch a film in the evening. It’s a struggle, there’s just so much to do but I think for my own sanity (as well as my family life!) it will really help if I can manage it.
Right Now I’m….
Watching: The Crown (yes I know, I’m always late to the good series…)
Reading: Outline by Rachel Cusk for my bookgroup
Listening to: All the Single Ladies by Beyonce. My daughter (4) is obsessed with playing it and singing along.
Sophy Henn lives and works in Sussex, England. She studied Fashion at Central Saint Martins, accidentally had a London-based career as an Art Director in advertising, then completed an MA at University of Brighton in Illustration. Now she writes and illustrates children’s books in her studio, with a large cup of tea by her side, and can’t quite believe her luck. Where Bear?, her first book, was shortlisted for the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize in 2015. She is also the World Book Day Illustrator for 2015 and 2016. Her latest book, Edie, published 2nd February 2017.
What are you working on right now? I am working on a book about a little white rabbit who is struggling with his self belief. I wanted to write a book about this as I have seen so many children adamantly refuse to try things or play games with others as they are so worried they are going to get it ‘wrong’. They stop before they have started. But the joy in all of these things is often in the doing and not the result, and we never know what we are capable of unless we give it a go. I can still relate to this as I get such huge nerves before books come out, these feelings never leave us. But we just have to remember to enjoy the doing, be a little braver and have a little more faith in ourselves.
Describe your first job I grew up in a smallish town and my first job was a Saturday job in a shop called Robertsons. It was the most amazing shop and was rightly proud of having been described as a miniature Fortnum & Masons.
It had the classic Victorian double fronted shop front and inside carved wooden shelves went right up to the ceiling with gold hand lettering on the surrounds. There were two old fashioned glass shop counters on either side and a big central display. In one of the shop windows there was a coffee roasting machine, where Mrs Roberts the elderly (though marvellously fierce) owner would roast sacks of coffee beans (there must have been at least 10 different varieties), filling the shop and pavement with the smell of coffee.
Now this was very nearly 30 years ago and fresh coffee was something of a rarity, so it was quite the novelty. We had two coffee grinding machines and would grind the beans to the customers requirements (finer for filter, etc) and there was a rather perilous bag clipping/vacuum system for catching the ground beans which would occasionally result in a fine coffee mist! I had to put in about 6 months on the chocolate counter before I was allowed near the coffee!!!
Oh, and there were no tills, just wooden drawers, with notepads and pencils for adding up. I think my maths peaked at this point as come Christmas people would pop in to buy their Christmas hampers. With so many items to add up and Mrs Roberts’ love of specific prices (£2.73 or £9.56 for example) it was quite the challenge. But there was a constant supply of coffee, chocolates and delicious biscuits and for all her fierceness, Mrs Roberts remains one of my favourite ever bosses.
Who or what has been your biggest source of inspiration to date? My daughter. I know, I know that sounds utterly cheesy, but it is true. If it hadn’t been for her and her love of stories I would never have ended up doing this, my dream job. It was reading picture books to her that planted the seed of the idea that I could have a go myself. Combined with the fact I have used situations she and her friends have found themselves in for the basis of some of my stories, I really couldn’t have done it without her! She is also super supportive and I really try to be better and braver (specifically when doing the surprising amount of public speaking I find I am asked to do) so she can be proud of me!
What did you want to be when you were little? Firstly a ballerina, obviously, then a detective. That ambition stuck with me for quite some time, fuelled by The Secret Seven, The Famous Five and Nancy Drew. I still LOVE a murder mystery and haven’t ruled out a Miss Marple style retirement!
What advice would you give your children (or nieces/nephews/young people)?
Well, it’s not exactly original, but ‘do what you love’ is advice I have come to appreciate more and more. So much time is spent working, that to enjoy what you do and get satisfaction from it is surely something to aspire to.
Also…don’t always assume that those older than you know more than you. I spent so much time thinking this, and now I am that older person I realise that’s not the case at all!!!
What was the best piece of advice you ever received? “Don’t listen to any advice” from my wonderful friend Lisette. I was pregnant at the time and this gem specifically related to the avalanche of advice you get as soon as someone finds out you are with child! I have passed it on to every expectant mother I have come across, probably moments before giving them loads of advice!
What are you most proud of? Being a mum. It’s the most stressful, wonderful, hilarious, upsetting, fraught and satisfying thing I have ever done. I have never tried my best this consistently at anything. The second is having a book published, and for all the same reasons!
What has been your career highlight to date? I am not sure how you can ever beat the thrill of seeing your first book on the shelf in an actual book shop! But another huge highlight was walking through Brighton and being stopped by a Dad and his little girl, they recognised me from an event I had done at a book shop in Hove and wanted to tell me how much the little girl had taken to Pom Pom. I think she was a bit confused as it was very much Pom Pom she loved ( I know my place in these things!), but to hear her HARRUMPHING away happily made me a smidge emotional! AND she went to school as Pom Pom on World Book Day last year! I am pretty sure I cried again, happy tears!
What’s the biggest challenge you face in your day to day?
Time management. Isn’t that everyone’s challenge though? And if it isn’t, who has got it sussed and please can you tell me how? I think it’s specifically the hours between 2-5pm, where do they go?
Who is your favourite fictional female character?
Probably Clarice Bean! Though I love many fictional females… Aunt Mame, Milly Molly Mandy, Tank Girl, Mrs Pettigrew, Miss Marple, both Sophie and her Grandmother in The Summer Book, and any number of Nancy Mitford’s creations (special mention goes to Linda Radlett). Quite a mix.
Right Now I’m…. Watching: Modern Family – box set heaven and sit-com perfection. Reading: Patti Smith – The M Train – I read Just Kids last year and loved it. Listening to: The Beastie Boys – always! Oh and Amerie – Gotta Work, after Caitlin Moran reminded me of it on Desert Island discs, it’s great for motivating you through a tricky work patch. And yes, there is a dance routine to go with!
Pass it on:
Lucy of @LaLaandPom who is an utter joy and creates such gorgeous pompomed wonders. Nadia Shireen for being a total wit, much cooler than I will ever be and brave enough to admit to not liking cheese (I know???).
Stay up to date with Sophy’s wonderful work by joining her over on Twitter and Instagram.
Jo Olney is one of seven sisters, mother to 3 children and works as a digital marketer in the world of children’s publishing. She is also co-founder of The Muse.
As the fifth of seven children, I’m a natural born diplomat. Happier to maintain the order and keep all parties happy, than speak out at the risk of upsetting others. The last time I think I was actively engaged in a movement, was after watching Free Willy and finding myself enraged at the plight of the orca. I may have done a sponsored silence in their honour. So, it came as something of a surprise to find myself at the women’s march on London with tears pricking my eyes, seeing thousands of people united in love trumping hate, in upholding dignity and equality for all, and determined to safeguard our freedoms and our rights.
When I became a mother 5 and a half years ago, I looked my tiny girl in the eye and promised her, as I’m sure all parents do, that I would love her, care for her, give her the best I could in every way. The world was her oyster. Her gender never even crossed my mind to be a barrier to be overcome, that she’d ever grow up in a world where she had more to prove than her male counterparts to achieve the same – maybe I was naïve.
Being one of seven sisters I had a ready-made sisterhood. I don’t ever recall being aware of my gender in any way other than it being a fact – yes I am a woman, and? With so many kids, my parents were equally hands on, quite literally as I recall hair washing night! And beyond that early sisterhood, my career in publishing has been so female-dominated that 14 years in and I’m yet to report into a man. That gives a certain false sense of security perhaps. Until of course you attempt to work flexibly, and depressingly my sector was no more flexible than many others, at which point you see the talent haemorrhage out of the building at around the age of 35.
So it was with some embarrassment that I tried to explain to my 5 year old why I thought we needed to go and march in London on Saturday. To explain that a man who was publicly mean to women (massive understatement, clearly), to the disabled, to pretty much anyone not exactly like himself, so much so he wanted to build a wall to stop others coming in, was now President of the United States. To explain that some people think that women are not as good as men, that they shouldn’t earn the same money for doing the same job, that some girls don’t get to go to school and learn like she does and that we needed to march and say this is not ok. I was thinking she kind of got it, that all people are human and all humans are equal, until she countered, “No they’re not, statues are not human”. So yep, we still have some work to do.
So off we set, my husband and I, with a 5 year old, 3 year old and 1 year old, and not without trepidation. Kids walking in the cold rarely ends happily for us, but they were amazing because the whole damn vibe was amazing. That feeling of the power of unity, of standing together, of not just being a witness, but taking part and being counted. And as we stood in the sunshine in Trafalgar Square and she sounded out, as 5 year olds do, the placard resting on the lion “I. Am. Woman. Hear me ROAR!” To which she and her sister of course both ROARED, I felt those tears pricking again. I felt hope that their future would be good, that their generation would keep pushing on and making this world one of fairness and tolerance and kindness, celebrating our differences and not letting them divide us. I hope that as they sat on our shoulders looking out over the crowds, somewhere in their hearts and minds we planted something of an understanding that we are all citizens in this society and it is our responsibility to change it. But I also very much hope that 30 years from now, they’re not getting their placards out for this shit because I did not think in 2017 a pussy grabbing president could even be a reality and I sure as hell hope in 2047 it isn’t.
Right Now I’m… Reading: The Goldfish Boy by Lisa Thompson
Watching: I’ve just been to see La La Land
Listening to: Kisstory
Pass it On: (Please nominate up to three people that you’d like to see featured on The Muse) Sophy Henn: @sophyhenn – Whose latest character Edie would definitely have been marching on Saturday!
Sarah Topping: @sarahtopping3 – An ex colleague and good friend, Sarah is an exceptional copy writer
Ann Eve is currently working with two of her favourite things: food and people helping each other out. Communicating the good work that food charities do. She also enjoys mags, laughing too loudly, kitchen dancing, greyhounds and her two lovely kids. www.annmeve.com
A mixed ability martial arts class in Kent was not where I expected to experience a mental health epiphany.
I’d started going to martial arts to get fit, get strong and learn how to hit things.
I can barely tell my left from my right. I have no co-ordination. I don’t like touching people.
First lesson: stare an unfamiliar man in the eye whilst running my hand along his sweaty inner arm, from wrist to bicep, then mock hitting him in the temple. I would cringe, flail, apologise, get it wrong, pretend laugh at myself, make a joke. “It’s okay, you’re learning”, I heard again, and again, and again. I loved learning how to hit, kick, defend myself. I loved the beauty of the practice sequences and the crack when you accurately landed a punch in a mitt.
Our teacher, John, isn’t quite sure of my name (I go with a friend. We look and sound similar). When he’s tired, he expostulates. I want to hit things. In this hierarchical system, I have to listen actively and with intention. I sigh about that.
Back in February 2015, I left a comfy job of 11 years. The field was academic psychology. We’d tease each other with mock diagnoses of addiction to hot sauce or booze, of obsessive desk-tidying or propensity to collect small change. Gallows humour to help us deal with some of the sad, sad stories we’d read every day.
I’d read a lot of psychological questionnaires, designed to probe people to (unwittingly) divulge symptoms of depression, psychosis, addiction, anxiety. Definitions of anxiety would come just that little too close for comfort. My inability to stop worrying was only because of our awful, angry, noisy downstairs neighbours; becoming easily irritable – well, two small children. Feeling nervous for more than two weeks? Money. Inability to sit still? Just a fidget, always a fidget! And who’d blame me for being irritable and anxious at home? Our building of twenty-eight flats managed one double murder, one unfortunately successful suicide and an electrical fire by our front door that left us without electricity and water for five days.
One year later, 25 miles and a world away from that fucking building, and then away from academia and my colleagues, my friends. My desk was now the kitchen table and my only colleague a retired greyhound called Robbie. I had the job I’d longed for, events and PR for a company that I’d admired for years. Working in food, being around the kids more, no commuting! No more office politics and sad stories! Now in a house! No drunk and incoherent neighbours! No crime scene tape!
Despite being away from all this, I still couldn’t relax. Every infraction would be given a catastrophic end point; leaving out the milk meant wasting money and environmental disaster; my kids back chatting me meant they’d walk all over us in the future. I’d shriek and shout, boiling into rages, swearing and slamming doors.
John the Martial Arts instructor is flexing his considerable bicep. “This is not strength, this is tension”. Releasing the crunch in his arm, he swings his body back over his left hip, leaning his weight back. His eyes seem to shut, but they are focussed on the boxing mitt ahead. His left arm now sailing through the air, feet, legs, hips, core, chest, neck, head, all spiralling towards the mitt. As his gloved hand meets the crash pad, the black belt holding it is spun 180 degrees to his left. “That is strength. To be strong you need to be calm, be in control, and flexible. Tension is not strength”.
Working in psychology didn’t help me to see what was plainly in front of me. Putting myself in the position of novice & least able was what I needed. Add to the mix a husband who supports me and is my champion.
Familiarity with the science of anxiety and mental health issues was the foundation. We’ve all got out issues. John’s martial arts advice was my epiphany. Now I meditate, I’ve tried to get to what I wasn’t dealing with (work! money! ambition!), I make exercise as important as feeding my family or changing the sheets.
Now when we practice hooks my arm curves through the air, my gaze is on the pad and my body is learning to turn with my arm to increase power. This term I’m learning to coil it back, hold it, then release and let my arm move with its own momentum. If you set it up right, the punch will land.
I’ve learnt how to land a sound right hook. I like to hit things and hear the crack of my fist.
Right Now I’m….
Watching: RuPaul’s Drag Race, Schitt’s Creek, Transparent, Parks & Recreation. Wish I could get ‘Atlanta’
‘Down in the City’ by Elizabeth Harrower. Domestic violence in mid-century Sydney. ‘A Manual for Cleaning Women’ by Lucia Berlin. A collection of short stories, writing about motherhood, caring, alcoholism. Sparse and provoking.
‘A Book for Her’ by Bridget Christie. Saw Bridget at ‘End of the Road’ – funny, perceptive and smart.
Emma Gibbs is 36 and lives in south west London with her husband and son. She works in the Press Office at London Fire Brigade. Emma was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) in 2013 and is keen to raise awareness of the condition, which 100,000 people suffer from in the UK.
MS: My Story
2013 was a memorable year for me in several ways – a life-changing year of incredible highs and devastating lows. The headlines were: getting engaged, getting married, getting MS and falling pregnant.
Before 2013 I’d never really paid much attention to Multiple Sclerosis (MS), didn’t even really know what it was. So when I was told, two weeks after my honeymoon and six weeks before falling pregnant with my first baby, that I had it, I felt like I’d been hit by a bus.
My husband, Phil, proposed to me in February 2013 and once I had that ring on my finger the wedding planning began in earnest, with the big day booked for just six months later. Amidst the frantic planning, I decided to get fit and lose some weight. I took up running, but something weird started happening to my left leg: it became numb and dead, making running really difficult. That coupled with persistent pins and needles, and a slight tremor in my left hand was enough to send me off to the doctors, who duly told me that there was nothing wrong and it would go away. After a near-miss at a tube station, where my legs gave way and I nearly fell down some stairs, I went back and was finally taken seriously and referred to a neurologist for further tests.
A week or so after returning from an amazing honeymoon in Madagascar, where I remember lying on a tropical island, wondering why my feet felt like they’d been left in the deep-freeze, I was sent for an MRI scan of my brain. I was very swiftly called back to see the neurologist who delivered the devastating news that I had MS. I was told I had the ‘relapsing-remitting’ form of the disease, which means that you can be hit by some symptoms, which can then improve and recede, and then you can be ‘fine’ again for a few months, until the next attack strikes.
I wasn’t sure how to deal with the diagnosis of an illness that I knew nothing about. I knew it was bad, would be life-changing, and could mean I’d end up disabled, and that was about it. I felt like I’d been dropped down a well and was unable to get out. And I think one of the hardest parts of my diagnosis was telling those close to me – it was so hard dealing with other peoples’ reactions before I’d even worked out how I felt about it myself.
Before I began to understand a bit more about MS, and that stress can trigger symptoms, I was hit by a series of relapses in a very short space of time: I had blurred vision for a few weeks, suffered from poor balance and problems walking, but the worst symptom was excruciating pains down my left arm and down the left side of my face. I’d been fortunate to reach the age of 33 without ever really experiencing pain, but this was something else – breathtaking and exquisite in its absolute intensity. The pain came and went up to 20 times or more during an hour and when it struck, it rendered me unable to think, move or speak.
And then suddenly, in the midst of dealing with the physical and emotional fall-out of MS, I fell pregnant. We were both beyond happy, and thank goodness had something positive to focus on, but unfortunately my relapse and pain continued for six months of my pregnancy, which made life difficult as I couldn’t take any medication. Although, on the plus side – by the time it came to giving birth I was pretty experienced at dealing with pain, and delivered my 9lb son without drugs or any problems!
It was around this time I ‘found’ mindfulness, which has proven to be the most helpful thing in helping me to deal with things. I learnt the benefits of staying in the moment, rather than worrying about the past or the future – a vital coping mechanism when living with a condition as uncertain as MS.
Another positive thing to come out of my diagnosis was the opportunity to meet some lovely people: others living with MS, and those who volunteer to help people with the condition. With an almost-two-year-old I’m strapped for time, but when time allows I volunteer for my local branch of the MS Society in Lambeth and Southwark, partly motivated by selfish reasons – to meet others with MS, and also to try and help those being newly diagnosed with the condition as I know just what a devastating experience this can be.
So what next? MS has left me with some weakness down my left arm and leg and quite numb feet – these residual symptoms, caused by nerve damage, are unlikely to go away, as well as bouts of fatigue which can leave me exhausted. I can’t possibly know what my future holds, but after an initial period of grieving and dealing with the diagnosis, I am now feeling much stronger and more positive. Living with a long-term condition has certainly given me a new-found appreciation for all the good things I have going for me – my family, friends, home and job and something as simple as a walk in the park on a sunny day is something I no longer take for granted. I can’t possibly know how I will be in in five, ten or twenty years time, which is why I’m even more certain of the need to enjoy every day as much as I possibly can right now.
What is MS?
MS is a neurological condition which affects around 100,000 people in the UK and most people are diagnosed between the ages of 20-40. A condition of the central nervous system (brain and spine), the symptoms of MS are caused by the body’s immune system attacking the protective coating around nerves. As the central nervous system links everything the body does, many different symptoms can appear in MS. The specific symptoms depend upon which part of the central nervous system is affected and the job of the damaged nerve. There is no known cause and currently no cure.