I was 34 when I fell in love for the first time.
Before I fell in love I got married. To someone else, obviously. And before the two of us were married we’d lived together for four years. And just at the time we got together both my ex and I had a parent die on us.
We were on the shores of our twenties, that crazy adrenaline-fuelled time when you believe all the hype that you’re really a grown-up, and an invisible wall of pressure surges around you to crack on and make your moves. In the chaos of it all most of us make at least a few dubious ones.
My biggest mistake was to hide out in the safety of a relationship. There I could choose not to choose. I could mortgage myself against a steady stream of, ‘what do you think?’, and ‘what do you want to do?’ And then I could over-invest myself in delivering against someone else’s vision and agenda for life.
Until I was 30, whenever anyone told me they loved me I answered back that I loved them too. Some of this was simple social training. I grew up in a house where we all routinely told each other that we loved one other, several times a day. Although heartfelt, it was never a statement to stress over. It was as natural as the sunrising every morning. I love you. I love you too. Words.
Growing up in that environment, I learned that love is easy. It’s easy to be loved and to love.
That meant when my ex said, ‘I don’t love you and I don’t want to be married to you anymore’, it was devastating. Not because I loved him, but because it unearthed a deep seated fear that had nestled like a cockroach amongst all that love-filled childhood and adolescence: What if, despite all the words, I wasn’t really lovable? What if I wasn’t enough?
On my own, suddenly, I was aware of my smallness, of my not-enoughness. I was a fresh born foal, entering the world on twiggy legs, shaky and improbable. I was poised at all points for rejection, was ready to see it in the actions and reactions of my friends and family. Because the hard truth I had to face was I wasn’t loveable, I hadn’t been enough.
New-born, I staggered forward. The impulse to keep on going marginally stronger than my fear.
And then, something beautiful emerged.
Alone I could suddenly hear a voice, inside. It was a compassionate voice. It said nice things like, buy yourself flowers. It reminded me of the food I liked to eat that I’d side-lined in favour of the preferences of my ex. It said, go on, join the local theatre group/book club/women’s environmental network. That voice led me gently from the inside out, back into figuring out who I was for myself. The path was neither fast nor certain but I learned I could choose what pleased me, what gave me pleasure. And that changed everything.
And from the outside in, were friends, co-workers, family, my dog. New people that I met in my new state of singleness who welcomed it, who welcomed me. People were kind. Their kindness reminded me that love is bigger than the romantic one-on-one aisle we consign it to. They weren’t being nice to me out of pity, or because there was something useful I could do for them. They liked me. They loved me. I was one hundred per cent a work-in-progress and I was also simultaneously enough.
I hear so many women in their thirties and forties fretful about what they don’t have by way of relationships, settling down, starting a family. But I was 34 when I fell in love for the first time, 39 when I had my first child, 40 when I got married and 41 when I had my second child. None of it was planned or how I expected it to be, none of it predictable or knowable before it happened. But it happened just the same.
So, yes, I’m here as the poster child for falling in love later, for having kids later, for getting married later. But actually, more importantly perhaps than any of these, for being able to meet love first in ourselves, and then wherever else it inevitably erupts around us. Because, for want of using a phrase that sounds less wet (wet, wet), love is all around us. But the place it starts is right inside.