Today I sat on a bench facing the sea and sobbed my heart out. I don’t know if I will ever recover. This is a note on my phone, written on 9 November 2017.
I forgot about it for a couple of years, but I remember typing it as if it were yesterday. The gulls squawked and the sun dipped into the sea. I had been sitting there so long my hands were too cold to type. I put my phone into my coat pocket, and turned the buggy to face home.
The conversation seemed unhaveable. But we had to have it. The vacuum in which my husband had been living since we had returned home with our newborn was now unbearable. Something had come loose and was unspooling irrevocably.
“I think you need to have some therapy,” I heard my voice say, a few days later.
“You keep changing things about your appearance instead of accepting who you are,” I continued. “It’s what’s inside that matters. You’re wonderful, we both love you so much.”
My husband replied slowly and reluctantly – knowing how the axis of our family was about to tilt. “Yes, I do need to see someone. But… it’s not because I can’t, but because I have finally accepted who I am.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, unsure if the news was good or bad.
“I mean I have accepted that I am not this.” A hand gestured at the body I had lain next to each night for the last five years. “I have accepted that this body doesn’t represent who I am.”
I almost heard my world crack in two.
This was not where my love story was supposed to end up. When D had appeared at my door six years earlier, confessing “I love you”, I felt my world expand. We had been close friends for some time, and now we were a couple. I always resisted the idea of a romance making me feel “complete”, but life simply felt right. As we moved from couple to engaged couple, I never doubted that it would continue for ever.
As the pain of miscarriage and fertility issues made their way into our home, we remained close, communicative, attentive. Our first round of IVF failed, but we tried a second, this time creating several embryos. The first resulted in an early failed pregnancy, and as the winter of 2015 turned to spring and then summer, we tried embryo after embryo, only to have my body fail to hold on to any of them. Where to draw the line? We had one embryo left, but I was not sure if we’d ever have the courage to use it.
We had never been an entirely conventional couple. We both bristled at the borders of gender stereotypes. I wanted women to be liberated enough to be as strong and powerful as they wanted, untethered from ragged old notions of femininity. Anatomy is not destiny, I would tell anyone who listened. Meanwhile, D bucked against equally tatty old suppositions about masculinity, had a largely androgynous wardrobe, and was far better at housework than me. Sure, I did all the cooking (it was a passion), but perhaps this was finally the sort of gender equality I had longed for.
But first, that final embryo. After much discussion, we concluded that we simply could not leave one embryo, frozen, in the fertility clinic, and expect to move on. So we took a couple of months off and then gave it a final go. Soon I was pregnant, but the NHS did not have space for a 12-week scan until I would be nearly 15 weeks. Every doctor’s appointment included a reminder of my age, now 40. I was constantly reminded that this was a “geriatric” pregnancy, which left me terrified both of carrying a baby with a chromosomal disorder that meant it might not survive beyond birth; and of having an amniocentesis, because of its not insignificant risk of miscarriage.
Despite having longed for this pregnancy, I struggled to make any real connection to it. So at around eight weeks, we decided to pay for a Harmony DNA blood test, which would give the results I craved. Instead, the clinic called to say there was “an additional DNA source” in my blood. Had I used a donor egg? I was asked. Was I sure?
The possibilities started to sink in. If the embryo did not share any DNA with me, then whose was it? Who was it? Was it someone else’s baby? If so, where was our last precious embryo? Was it still in storage or inside someone else? Had it already been born? Had it been discarded?
For so long I had been filled with a sense that it wasn’t worth trying to bond with this embryo. I had spent countless nights awake, tormenting myself for “making up worries”. I had been right all along, I said to myself.
What followed was a blur of conversations with lawyers, an emergency visit to the fertility clinic, and finally a trip to Harley Street for a procedure almost identical to the test I had paid to avoid: chorionic villus sampling, which carries a higher risk of miscarriage than amniocentesis. Over weeks, the results began to trickle back. The baby was mine, the baby was D’s, the baby was well. In the end, there was no explanation other than an error in the Harmony test.
D had been a peerless support throughout. But D’s body had gone untouched. The baby and I had felt that slosh of adrenaline as we were told we might not belong together, felt the jolt of that huge needle together, lain together at night, awake at the same times. It was this shared experience that at last let me exhale, and trust that this pregnancy might be something more than just tomorrow’s grief. Finally, we were able to imagine the baby actually existing outside me. But this, in turn, left me feeling as if my body was not my own, and instead a mere theatre for the drama we had just endured.
A few weeks before the baby was due, I headed to London for lunch with my siblings, to celebrate my sister’s birthday. I checked what time Crystal Palace would be playing, so I could avoid boarding a train with emotional football fans. I was carrying my medical notes with me at all times, as my blood pressure was creeping up and consultants were starting to mutter quietly about induction.
I left in good time, but to little avail. Halfway through my journey, a group of men, fresh from a Millwall match, lurched on to my train. One sat uncomfortably close to me, visibly drunk, swaying unnervingly over my bump. I got up to leave. As I walked past, his hand grabbed my behind. I flinched. “What’s your fucking problem?” he muttered as I recoiled. I bristled, aware that the rest of the carriage was listening. “My fucking problem is your hand on my arse,” I said, at what I hoped was a volume audible to others but not likely to increase the level of threat. I moved to the front of the train, next to the driver’s cab – only for three of his friends to follow me, blocking my exit, telling me the entire carriage was discussing my lies. They were evidently wrong, as a fellow passenger came to help. I was met at Brighton station by the British Transport Police, the man was arrested, and an independent witness came forward to say they had seen everything. Their kindness meant so much, but I have never shaken off the heat of that angry paw on my arse, the sense that my body was up for debate once again.
“You have a beautiful son, Alexandra, we’re just giving him a bit of help to get breathing before we cut that cord.”
A son. And not yet mine. More than two days after being induced, during which my blood pressure had continued to rise, the decision was made for me to have a caesarean. Once again, it felt as if I were handing my body over to someone else. For five agonising minutes, the nurses had him while I lay there – naked, numbed, immobile – waiting to begin the mothering.
When the baby was finally put in my arms, I felt as if it were me who had come home, not him.
It was you all along, I thought as I stared at his swollen scowl, D hugging us both. All of those other attempts – now it seemed obvious that they would never have worked. Because it was him who was our baby, and we had just had to wait.
We struggled to breastfeed, but I found pumping milk incredibly easy. I had always looked forward to breastfeeding, having spent at least two decades feeling encumbered by my out-of-proportion boobs. How could I not be a natural breastfeeder? But I wasn’t. Still, my son seized the bottles of milk I produced, his urgent mouth latching on to them as if he were made to do it.
Just as that sense of having known the baby all along was developing, the opposite seemed to be happening between me and D. I had never felt less than completely supported, but I had also felt noticed. Since we had returned from the hospital, I felt close to invisible. It was not that I was being ignored, because on so many levels my every need was being met. But there was something about D’s behaviour which, while always tender, was never quite meeting my gaze. An essential connection was fraying, and each time D offered to take over the minutiae of looking after L (the baby), I felt a few more threads stretch and snap. Where was my soulmate going?
Sure, I wanted the bottles sterilised. But I would have happily done it myself if only I could be pressed against the kitchen countertop, irresistible, and told I was a wonder. It would have been worth a thousand neatly stacked teats. Why was kindness starting to feel so cruel?
In what seemed like a final bodily act of betrayal, when L hit four months I had a vicious bout of shingles. Weakened by IVF, pregnancy and the silent battle I seemed to be fighting with both body and heart, my immune system rolled over, a fizzing sharpness attacking one side of my neck and head.
When I went to the GP, I was told the excruciating pain was muscle strain, common in new mothers who tend to carry and nurse on one side more than the other. A few days later, when the blisters started to loop around my head, deep in my hair and blowing one ear up like a rugby player’s, I was reluctantly given a diagnosis of shingles.
Why was I consistently being deemed the least reliable witness of my own reality? Being told I was not carrying my own baby, being told there was no hand on my behind, being told those electric prickles were muscle strain. I swung between fury and self-doubt.
One morning I stood at the sitting room door, freshly awake, my hair sticking up, semi-crusted with shingles blisters.
“Is that foundation you’re wearing?” I asked, as D kissed my cheek and turned to leave.
“Sunblock!” came the reply, over a shoulder, followed by the slam of the front door. Fair enough, I thought. It was a heatwave and D has very fair skin. Anyway, what if it was foundation? It was hardly unheard of. Perhaps this scrutiny was just another manifestation of my growing jealousy about who was coping best with the baby.
And yet. A small voice whispered. A couple of years ago, D wearing foundation might have meant a fun trip to the Mac store, feeling conspiratorial as we tested samples. Now, as I wiped the orangey brown smear of… sunblock from L’s cheek, it felt a lot less like a shared confidence.
I later realised D was wearing tinted moisturiser. But why was I so upset? This was who I had chosen, and willingly, adoringly married: an unconventional man. But since the baby, I was increasingly sure that D’s unconventionality had begun to seem more furtive, where once it had been celebratory.
How did I have time to fret about the curve of my husband’s eyebrows, the smoothness of their legs, the precise consistency of their suncream? What was wrong with me that these things were causing concern, when we had spent so long discussing – and agreeing! – that the definition of what a man could be needed to be broadened just as much as that of what made a woman?
I did have time for this fretting, though. I found time at 3am as I lay listening to the baby breathe in his cot, at 10am while I waited for the kettle to boil, and at 6pm when D came home from work and ran straight to the baby, unable to make eye contact with me. What had I done to deserve this? I see now what lay behind that evasion: months, years, decades of shame, rushing up and out of someone who had done so well at compressing it for so long. But what I saw then was a husband who was choosing not to see me at all.
D seemed largely unfussed by the physical changes that two years of IVF, a horrible pregnancy and a bout of shingles had left on me. Perhaps they weren’t that noticeable, I told myself. Or was it because D wasn’t looking? It couldn’t possibly be that D was the one who had changed. Could it?
I understand if you want me to produce a list of mounting clues. Something that would fit nicely into a TV drama about marital secrets. But there was no pair of lace panties I didn’t recognise, no dress I suspected had been worn in my absence. In the lives of flesh-and-blood humans, I doubt there ever is. Instead, there was a growing distance. Unsayable, but all-consuming. When we hugged – the only physical contact we now had – D’s head was not buried in my shoulder, but staring over it, mind elsewhere.
We had our beautiful baby. To be parents at all was beyond what we had let ourselves hope for, but to be this besotted was bordering on outrageous. That D still seemed unhappy was the glaring red flag I could not ignore.
From time to time, I would come home and see the damp evidence of half an hour ago’s tears. Glistening eyelashes, the darkness of a wet sleeve. But any inquiry was batted away. Slowly, the pressure of being normal for me and L was creating huge fissures in D, and the cracks – manifesting in mood swings, despair and a powerful sense of absence – were getting deeper. Was it drink? Was it depression? We had had therapy to combat the strain of the IVF, and I never felt we had been anything less than honest. Now, I wasn’t so sure.
That autumn, L and I snuggled together watching the sunsets on Brighton’s West Pier. He cooed, while I sobbed, still not quite brave enough to confront the truth now roaring towards us: I could see I wasn’t the only one in the household wondering where the body I felt represented me actually was.
It wasn’t just D’s increasingly complicated gender identity that was a preoccupation, but my response to it. I am straight. I couldn’t just become gay any more than anyone gay can simply will themselves to be straight. It mattered to me that I was married to a man. That had been my choice. But it had started to feel as though that choice was being taken away.
The sense of an incoming storm overwhelmed me. By early November, I finally found myself able to suggest to D that perhaps we needed help, which led to the conversation that left me sobbing on the bench by the sea. The storm was finally breaking.
Within a few days – interspersed with visits to a therapist to reassure me that I was hearing what I thought I was hearing, that I wasn’t making an uncharacteristic fuss in the haze of early motherhood – the truth unravelled before me with breathtaking speed. My husband was a woman. My husband needed to transition. My marriage was unsustainable.
Quickly, so much about the past five years began slipping and refocusing. Panic, grief, despair, all crashing over me. But somewhere in there, already, a glistening shard of hope.
None of this was my fault.
The distance between us had never been to do with my not having lost weight fast enough, breastfed well enough, tried hard enough at any of it. All those spurned attempts at intimacy had been an attempt to conceal feelings that D knew would spell the end of our marriage. The truth was out.
It had never been anything to do with me. I was free, but I was also, while still on maternity leave, having to accept that my marriage was over. Just as the discussions around trans bodies, feminist politics and government policy concerning the Gender Recognition Act were reaching their most febrile, these issues were clawing at my precious, hard-won family.
Was I going to be a single mother? Would L have two mothers? Where would that leave me? Could I still be the main mother, or did D’s change in status mean a reduction in mine? Who would help me with night-times? When did children learn pronouns? Where would we live, and what would life even mean from now on?
The next morning I felt foggy, unsure if I was even remembering our conversation correctly. As dawn broke, I heard the familiar shuffle of movement outside the bedroom, and realised the two of them were up. I stared at the ceiling and rested my hand on the spongy flesh of my belly, pondering the sheer distaste I had felt for my body as it had let me down time and again. The fistfuls of hair falling out in my hands, the pyjama bottoms that no longer reached over me, the tops that strained over my enormous, now defunct breasts.
This? I thought. You want to change yourself for access to this? How dare you assume this is better than how you live? The IVF, with its endless needles and confidence-crushing uncertainties, the doctors referring to my “geriatric pregnancy”, the hot, vengeful hand on my backside in the train carriage. You want to throw everything away for access to this life?
I heard the baby cry. Life was going to carry on happening to me regardless of this change. The outside world wasn’t going to care that I was seeing everything through an entirely new prism. Where I had been nervous about rebuilding my body, now I was presented with rebuilding my entire life.
And before that, I had a court case to attend.
Having my experiences debated in court felt like an act of brutality I was far from prepared for. Even more so when the magistrate summed up how he had reached his not guilty verdict: to be found guilty would have a huge impact on the defendant’s life. And while he was sure I intended to be a reliable witness, as I was pregnant, I must have been in a heightened emotional state. Something about the ludicrousness of that judgment freed up a little space in my mind; I felt a kinship with D, at being told your undeniable reality is simply not the truth.
More importantly, I realised others were beginning to understand that the marriage was over, and perhaps assuming that this was a result of IVF or even parenthood. I could sense a lie calcifying around us. I could have hidden, denied the truth, tried to make that crust of silence work as protection. But I knew it could never work.
From now on, I was in an LGBTQ+ family. We would always be different, and there would always be challenges. But for every person I avoided eye contact with, or told a sanitised version of the truth to, I would be doing a disservice to us all. To live truthfully was the only path I could take.
For the first time, I felt a glimmer of hope that what we had done was the right thing. After all, my openness, my concern for D, and my lack of judgment about the multitude of ways a person can identify had created the space in which D had finally been able to speak the truth about herself. Sure, it had come at the expense of my marriage; but it was becoming clear that this spirit of openness was the only viable means of survival for the long-term health of this little family. I certainly found it easier to build a new relationship with D from that point onwards. Not a romantic one, but something that runs deeper than friendship and is as engaged as any other family.
The corrosion of trust, and what had felt like furtive behaviour, had taken hold of our marriage so suddenly that undoing it took time and effort, but D has surpassed all my expectations. We never had enough money to argue about it, and my horror at the thought of stopping D seeing our son was met by her horror at becoming a stranger to him. She has been consistent, week in, week out, in a way that is more egalitarian than the marriages of the friends who now confide in me. The family ties we promised we would try to maintain grew around us into a network I never dreamed the three of us would ever have, let alone cherish.
I look forward to seeing her when she comes over – several times a week – for bath and bedtime. Neither of us hesitated over the decision that she should move back in for lockdown. I enjoy our chats once L has fallen asleep. We text each other as many silly photos and videos of L as we ever did. The steel frame of friendship upon which our romance was built has remained, revealing its solidity as the rubble of our marriage crumbled around it. D still makes me laugh as much as anyone. And more than that, she has re-earned my trust. There has never been a second lie.
All I ever wanted in life was to be average. I never wanted to win marathons, to run the farthest, to be the slimmest. Now, life had presented me with a turn of events that sat so far beyond “average” that I often felt completely adrift. And it showed me that when I used to speak about “the average woman”, it was a lazy, self-reflective assumption: we bled, we fed, we bred. I would sit happily discussing the books I had written, all the while perpetuating the idea of “woman” as white, fertile, able-bodied, straight, cis. So I found myself not only recovering from heartache, but also reassessing essential truths about myself, and about what it is to be a woman and to live in a woman’s body.
I can never change what happened to my marriage. I can never change the anti-trans sentiment that some cling to. I used to think it was “not my place to get involved”, but now I know what hearing an ally say they believe you, believe in you, can mean. I feel a responsibility to admit how limited my assumptions used to be, and to be open and honest about what our life now is. By accepting my body for what it is, and all women’s bodies for what they are. I am average, we are average. Perhaps together we can shift the mean.
• Some Body To Love: A Family Story by Alexandra Heminsley is published by Vintage at £14.99. To order a copy for £13.04, go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.