After the baby is born, you use days to tell other people your baby’s age, then you say the weeks, then the months, and then your baby has accumulated a whole year, and this becomes the most useful unit for measuring a human’s existence.
As a childless person, I don't go in much for the genre of parental writing. But a few weeks ago I was deeply affected by a piece Thomasin Sleigh wrote for The Spinoff, about how the experience of becoming a parent alters your relationship to time.
At the same time that many of my peers were becoming mothers, I became a widow. My husband killed himself. It wasn't a surprise, but it was a shock: perhaps childbirth, and then motherhood, is like that? A nearly indescribable event, and then a permanently altered state.
After reading Thomasin's essay several times, I wrote to her:
I've often thought that death is my closest connection to motherhood. Like giving birth, being a widow is a new category of being that descends you between one moment and the next. You count the passage of time in days, then weeks, then months, then years and parts thereof. All other dates take their position in the calendar from that date. Plus, you're sleep deprived, to the point where the walls start to shimmer, but that's all part of your elevation out of normal day life.
It's a transcendent experience that is both utterly unique and also shared by almost everyone.
The word didn't come to me straight away. It wasn't until the following day that I understood I was a widow. The realisation was a door swinging shut on me: it came to me mid-step, mid-conversation, and it arrested me. I had no say in it, yet there I was: trapped, branded, cloaked by a social construction that couldn't possibly apply to me, but irrevocably did.
I tried to joke, of course, and the title Widow Johnston did have a certain ring to it, especially at my age. I turned 33 the day after my husband's funeral: my age made the state incongruous. Widows didn't look like me - particularly me in the weeks and months after the funeral, suddenly slimmed down by the adrenaline and sleeplessness, charged with energy. 'Widow Johnston' was a joke, an effort to normalise my new life, to have a code word that let us say 'This situation is ridiculous'. It hurt though. That's the point of black humour. It lets you let the pain in.
I embarked on a new role. One part of it was what I called 'grief administration': on top of closing bank accounts and phone accounts and updating insurance details and electricity bills and collecting his things from his workplace, my husband died intestate, without a will. I do not recommend this; it's a world of forms and lawyer's bills, of walking around with a death certificate in your handbag.
The other part was accepting other people's emotion. To begin with, this was a privilege: in the end it was exhausting. Sometimes people's interest was truly caring, and sometimes it was gossip-grubbing: sometimes it was just surreal. I had an inner circle whose sympathy and love I will be forever grateful for: I also have a little clutch of stories about the outrageous things people said to me, things that still make make me shake my head in wonder.
The same year that my husband died, Rebecca Lindenberg published her first book, Love, an Index, a collection of poems about the death of her own partner. In 'Losing Language: A Phrasebook' she articulates beautifully what I was groping towards:
He'll always be with you You don't have to try so hard
You're so brave I wonder what it's like when you're alone
You're so strong I can see you've showered
You've handled it with such grace You've done nothing that can't be repaired
Let me know if you need anything I won't come round again
It was hard not to get caught up in it. Within the arts community my husband was well known, and his sudden death attracted attention: attracted attention to me. I received so much praise for being young, for being strong, for coping so well. Lindenberg knew this too: both she and her partner were writers, and he died in a mysterious manner. "knows she's famous / in a tiny, tragic way. / She's not / daft, / after all" she writes in 'The Girl With The Ink-Stained Teeth'. There's a glamour to early widowhood: I can't deny it.
At times, high on emotion and attention and the supercharged nature of that first year, I thought about writing a book, or a set of essays, or even (you can see how swept up I was) giving a TED talk. To find an outlet for all the urgency, the words, the experiences, all the insights I'd been having and having shared with me.
And then I got past it. With time, widow stopped defining me. I met new people, people who knew nothing about my past, who took me at face value. And other people moved on - faster than you'd think they would. The first era of my widowhood ended one evening at a gallery opening. An artist - a woman with a very beautiful, very sad face - came towards me looking mournful. Before she spoke, I said to her "Don't. Please don't. I can't talk about it any more." And she looked at me, puzzled - talk about what? I had read her beautiful, sorrowful face as sadness for me: it was salutary to realise that actually, she just has resting sad face. It was time to stop thinking that people were thinking about me more than they were. Inflated by circumstance, I had to come back to normal size.
Still, I often wonder if I ever get to stop being a widow. Does it wear off? With each year of a new relationship do I chip away at my widowness, until eventually it is erased? Is there a statute of limitations: will I get a letter one day from Births, Deaths and Marriages, returning me to my pre-wedded state? Or is the only way to stop being a widow to start being a wife again?
There are so many differences between motherhood and widowhood; the two should probably not ever be conflated. Perhaps the clearest difference (putting aside that one starts with the beginning of a life, and the other with the ending) is that widowhood, or at least my experience of it, does recede. This Easter I will mark my fifth anniversary of becoming a widow. Where once widowhood felt like a carapace that encased me - as obvious as those steel structures that shore up earthquake-prone buildings - today the exoskeleton has sunk inside me, sits somewhere alongside my ribs and hipbones, invisible but defining my shape in the world.
On the outside, you can't tell a widow from any other woman. But last year, when I was asked to describe the most important influence on my character, it was this that I picked. Not my husband's death, so much, but the way I had to rebuild my identity after it, to take myself back. The widow is invisible from the outside, but she's still there inside me.