Part 1 ‘Are you sure you’re not in denial?’
It was March 2015. I don’t remember the exact date, but say it was a Monday. I was living in Leicester with my partner. We shared directorship of a small business. I was into writing and online midwifery community building; he did some Amazon trading and helped me with web design. We had a grey corner sofa, savings, a plan to have kids, and a long history of doing international cycling adventures together. We’d been in a relationship for almost 7 years, good friends for nearer 10.
By Thursday, I was living with my parents because he was in love with someone else.
To be clear, there was very little blame on either side. It was just particularly galling to think about his new girlfriend replacing me in the tent.
What followed was a three year period where I committed to achieving my goals and getting on with my life.
My parents were in full support of this. We come from a family of health and social care professionals, teachers, business owners. We tend to just get on.
I actually remember talking to a friend a few weeks after breaking up. I explained what had happened but that it was ‘not like a tragedy. No-one died.’
And he said ‘are you sure you’re not in denial?’
To which I replied, with no hint of irony, ‘Well I don’t feel like I’m in denial’.
Cut to the counsellor three years later.
When I look back and assess this bloody, bittersweet period I did one thing right, and one thing badly.
The right thing was to finish my novel. Spending that time in thought was sometimes awful. But I think overall, it was a helpful and gentle way of reflecting on and cataloguing the experience.
The thing I did badly was trying to train for a marathon. I chose a really aggressive training plan. Even when I started to get injured, I ran through everything and I’ve ended up with an achilles injury and hip problems that will probably stop me running (at least competitively) long term.
They were completely opposite approaches. The novel was about sitting there and feeling my way, for hours at a time. At the time I thought I was experiencing ersatz emotion from my main character but I don’t think I was fooling anyone but myself.
The running was about trying to distract myself with exercise and not feel much of anything really.
There’s a study I’ve come across recently which refers to ‘emo-diversity’ which will be of amusement to anyone who grew up in the nineties (My boyfriend Jason loves emo, his favourite song is ‘The Light at the End of the Tunnel Is Turned Off’ by ‘Snowman’. You can’t beat that kind of angst.)
What the study finds is you have to invite every feeling to be with you. If you tell any of them to get lost you’ll either end up in a fight with them or when they inevitably resurface you won’t even recognise them as part of yourself, which can be very frightening.
One of the things I’m concerned about heading back to practice is how I’d handle it if I had to balance grief with midwifery. The NHS doesn’t have much slack in the system to absorb it.
When I’ve done loss before, I’ve been working 60 hours weeks (in fact I suspect that was part of my strategy) - but it was flexible. I could fall apart and go back to bed at will.
If you’re a midwife, you don’t have that luxury.
There’s a stage of grief that comes with a danger of the dam breaking at any moment. You never know when you’re going to be swept away. I worry about being hit by that in the middle of a shift.
What I learnt is that there’s a place for the two different states. You have to find ways of numbing it out for a while because no-one can grieve for 24 hours a day. Midwifery is a career where you have to put your whole attention out rather than in. Just being around the pregnant women is life-affirming. It might serve as my running equivalent, though I can equally imagine getting injured by the intensity. Something to watch out for.
And then you have to find ways of being with it. I think that looks different every time but I assume writing will be part of it for me. Some people say finding meaning is the 6th stage of grief. I can’t imagine how you’d get to that other than through art.
I guess how midwives deal with loss and grief is how everyone else does. Slowly, gently, with no expectations about how long it might take.
I was trying to find some answers on all of this by listening to an interview between psychotherapist Esther Perel and the grief specialist David Kessler. Kessler said something like:
‘If you are willing to go all the way into the pain, there is a bandwidth that you will find that not only stretches you into the worst of this life but also stretches you into the happiness of this life’.
The reassuring thought I keep coming back to that kind of pain is the price we pay for daring to love deeply. And if I was having a baby, I would hope that my midwife had that capacity.
I have quite a lot more to say on this subject, so I recorded an audio reflection where I go into more detail. You can find this here.
This project is called 'Emotional Landscapes: The Return to Practice Collection'.
The written collection is available here.
The audios, which go into much more detail in terms of the strategies I plan to use to manage my emotional wellbeing as a midwife, are available only when you buy the whole collection.
To buy the 7 PDFs and 7 MP3s which make up the whole Collection, click here.
The Collection will only be available until the end of July. After that I'll be moving on to other projects.
Thanks for reading.
Artwork by independent midwife Debs Neiger: