What do you do when the the life you planned to live slips through your fingers? When the ground beneath your feet shakes and shudders until your brain is rattling in your head? How do you reclaim yourself when you have completely lost sight of who you are? In my case, I literally wrote myself back onto the page.
When I was a little girl I worked hard to make my voice heard. I had big ambitions to be an actor, spending all of my spare time in rehearsals for plays and musicals, sinking into despair every time the curtain fell until rehearsals started for the next show. After school I followed my dream and worked as an actor for several years, touring the country, spending weeks away from home in random B&Bs and strangers’ homes.
Throughout my twenties, alongside the performing and the endless nights out, I also craved a family. More specifically, a baby. At this stage I naively thought I could keep all the balls in the air but it didn’t quite work out that way. I retrained as a teacher, got married, had a baby, left London and moved back to the North-East where I had grown up, assuming the grass would be greener and not scuffed with city grime.
Losing my voice….and my way
Three more babies followed and I loved being a mother, having a career, but my voice seemed to be getting quieter, more like a whisper. I hadn’t factored in the curveballs that life inevitably throws at you. I hadn’t planned for my child not to fit into the school system; I hadn’t planned for my marriage not to last forever; I hadn’t planned for my daughter to be so unwell that we would struggle to leave the house; I hadn’t planned for the balls to fall to the ground in such dramatic fashion, but the only thing to do was wade through them and see what was waiting for me on the other side.
During the pandemic, alone other than the constant presence of my four whirling daughters: The Mermaid, The Whirlwind, The Caulbearer and The Littlest One, I started to think about the concept of claustrophobia in the middle of nowhere. We were shut in the house for 23 hours each day, but lived only moments from the empty beaches and wild hills in Northumberland.
The first lockdown was intense, surreal. I was running on some kind of warped adrenaline that burned as hard as the endless sunny days of that weird summer. As restrictions eased we drove to a deserted beach each day, and as I unfurled on the rocks I started to consider who this new single me really was.
Being on the edge
Whilst it was true that as a single mother of many daughters I was almost never alone, but I hardly saw other adults and I no longer had a partner by my side. Somehow I was rarely lonely. There was something valuable about really listening to my thoughts and feelings for the first time. I began to consider what it meant to be a woman on her own, outside the constructs of marriage, on the edge both literally and socially, with a family that didn’t easily conform.
There is the vulnerability, of course, that comes with not being part of a socially accepted package. People ask me what my husband does and I watch their faces drop when I tell them I am divorced, and then drop further when they realise I have four children. I don’t get invited to the same sort of parties any more – it’s possible people think that divorce is contagious. I can only conclude that there is something a little threatening about single women heading into midlife, and that threat is linked to the fact that we are finally beginning to discover our power. We have learned that we can be enough for ourselves.
Starting to remember
As one lockdown merged into another and the days grew short and shrouded in darkness, I began to rise early every morning and light candles. I typed this emerging power into my laptop as the skies burned red, and somehow through this act of revealing myself in words I started to remember who I am.
When I wasn’t writing I was mothering, but I had to find a way of mothering that meant I didn’t lose myself once more, a wild kind of mothering. As the world opened up again I would run in laps around my house until my heart banged in my head and reminded me I was alive. My children would dance on the sand, or thrash around in the waves with me, feeling the pull of the moon in the tides.
Re-birthed by the wilderness
This immersion in the wilderness I had ended up in, alone but surrounded, became a kind of re-birth. Despite feeling isolated and missing the feel of my feet on a busy street, I began to find solace in the Northumbrian landscape. The act of feeling insignificant under wide skies helped me to feel bigger, take up more space in the world.
In Twelve Moons, the book I wrote by candlelight, just after my world crumbled, I explore what it means to
be a woman on her own. I write about the challenges facing unpaid carers, who are disproportionately more likely be women, and I fall in love with the wilderness all around me. I discover how to reimagine a life far removed from the one I dreamed of, and I write myself back onto the page.
Twelve Moons: A Year Under a Shared Sky by Caro Giles is published by Harper North, £14.99.