Tag Archives: Marriage

Nine

Apparently we don’t take photos of just the two of us? This is the most recent I could find…

A few days into my Grand Experiment with Temporary Diabetes – which sucks, by the way, I mean no one should flirt with diabetes even a little bit because it’s scary and tedious and it really sucks – I kept on getting my breakfasts wrong. I already knew that pancakes, waffles, toast or remotely edible cereal were all out, but unsweetened porridge started to make my little sugar reader cry too. And guys, I love breakfast. It’s my favourite meal. And so I wanted to cry a little bit as well.

‘Look’, said Tim, coming in to pick up my empty porridge bowl – THE LAST PORRIDGE BOWL OF SCOTLAND, it turned out – ‘just start eating protein for breakfast instead of carbs. You’ll be full, but your blood sugar will be fine’.

‘Protein is hard!’ I snapped. ‘Who’s going to make eggs and bacon every morning?’

He rolled his eyes, and replied like it was obvious. ‘I will’.

And he has, every morning since. Frying pan, sizzling butter, plate delivered hot onto my bedside table while I’m still rolling my giant carcass off the mattress and unsticking my eyelids. I never doubted that he was that kind of man, but he is totally that kind of man.

It’s our ninth wedding anniversary today.

When we got married we were young, young enough that these days I would tsk and say ‘whoa, that’s very young’. I know that marrying in your early twenties has its risks, and it’s true that we’ve had to do a lot of our Practising Being A Healthy Relationship-Haver on each other. We have felt and stumbled our way into better patterns, bit by sometimes-painful bit. Our wedding day was all gauzy satin and red roses – a long way from the weeks when I see him only in exercise lycra with helmet dents in his forehead, or else pyjamas (hey, you own jeans! I exclaim on Saturday mornings); where we get into bed and I’m so huge that all we do is groan in unison and switch our bedside lamps off; where a Tesco Indian Meal for Two is cause for an entirely sincere midweek high-five. There’s not much glitter in our day-to-day, but it feels special to me. It feels like home.

Life with children is sublime and ridiculous; mortgages and car bills are stressful; work takes up nearly all of our time (whether that’s wrangling a small boy onto the toilet when it’s already far too late, or ploughing through tech demos at the office). We have done one university degree, four jobs, two houses, three pregnancies and two-and-three-quarter children, and that’s a lot of scenery for nine years. But he has been the fixed point in all my whirling constellations, all this time. Still the person I can’t wait to walk through the door in the evenings. Maker of our morning eggs. Recipient of my ten thousand daily text messages.

Honestly, I would not be anywhere else.

Marriage and the Magic Question: Who’s Doing the Work?

 

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I sent the text at 6.30, when (according to his schedule) he should’ve been an hour into his ninety-minute journey home.

‘Hey, where are you?’

I hate sending that text – the studied casualness of it, the fact that I’m too tired even to put a smiley face on the end. Wherever he is, he is not here, and we both know that unless the answer comes back as ‘Five minutes away, and bearing a giant pizza with your face on it’, it will not be good news.

When I’m really cheesed off, I miss out the ‘Hey’. It sounds worse, somehow. AND I MEAN IT TO.

After sending the text it occurs to me to check Find My Friends, so I do. He’s still in London. I sigh out a sigh that empties my entire body of breath, and head upstairs to find pyjamas for the boys. Between tubes, trains and taxis, he won’t be home till almost 9pm. I will make a huge effort to remember that he’s had a hard day too. Some days (the 9pm days, when he walks in looking like stepped-on toast) I succeed. Some days (the 7pm-and-I-missed-bedtime-by-five-minutes days) I don’t.

Looking over the landscape of an eight-year marriage – the lumps and bumps and glorious vistas – nothing has stoked our mutual resentment more often than this, this question that only became important once we had children: who’s doing the work? Secretly, I suspect, we both think we’re doing the heavy lifting. Tim earns practically all our money, so is pretty much responsible for keeping four humans fed, housed and comfortable. It’s a high-pressured job that involves early starts, late returns and travelling away for days at a time. He has targets to meet, people to impress, an inbox full of emails to respond to. He can never quite keep up, however long he works. How exhausting.

Then me. While he earns the raw materials, I’m project-managing our whole lives into something happy and functioning. I manage the meals, the schedules, the homework, the outings, the finding of exactly the right pair of dinosaur pyjamas when literally none of the other five pairs of available pyjamas will do. I am always on call. When I want so much as a haircut I have to scrabble around for cover. My coworkers are irrational, demanding and sometimes downright abusive. I do not get paid one whit for any of it. How exhausting.

I’d rather our roles weren’t so thoroughly marked out, and so would he, but they are. Busy office jobs mean long hours out of the house; I’ve neglected my freelancing career enough lately (mostly through necessity, though this is something that hurts all on its own) that I struggle to justify the time it takes away from the boys. So there we are, despite our efforts decidedly not breaking down any stereotypes: the man works, the woman tends the children. We spend weekends recovering from breathless week-days, and at church.

Some days I watch him sail out of the door, on his way to deal with proper adults and get properly remunerated, and it feels like he’s escaping something, and I boil with the injustice of it. Some days I dance around a sunlit forest with a two-year-old hunting for Gruffalos, or watch H’s face light up when he sees me waiting after school, or put T down for a nap and settle to some writing under a duvet, and I know I’ll never be as lucky as this again in my life.

It depends on the day. I expect it depends on the day for Tim, too, whether his work feels like inescapable pressure or blissful, uninterrupted quiet.

Neither of us has really experienced the other’s life (my years of full-time work preceded our very-full-time children so I’ve never done both; the one time I’ve been away without them for a week, he had to work and the boys stayed with various relatives). Maybe one day it would be good for us to try. For now I think we’re where we’re supposed to be, as long as we keep reaching outside of our spheres to help and relieve each other.

We just have to remember (consciously, out loud, and over and over again) that work is work is work. Work, no matter what we’re wearing or which part of the brain we use. Work that keeps our lives, our family and ourselves intact. It’s all work, and it all matters, and we’re doing it all together.

Except for the boys, who are basically freeloading at this point. The rotters.

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Ask for what you need; stand up for what you think

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‘Use your words.

I can’t understand whining.

Tell me what you need. Use your words.’

If I had a shiny pound for every time I’ve said this in the last few years, I’d be running off to purchase the entire stock of Waterstones and a personal Elton John concert. I am not a mind-reader. When the boys need me to put right an injustice or provide something they desperately want, I need words.

It’s just struck me lately that, funnily enough, if I have learned anything from seven-plus years of marriage (apart from to defend your share of pizza with your elbows and all the ferocity you possess) it’s this same thing. Ask for what you need. Stand up for what you think. He is not a mind-reader. It’s been one of the most defining shifts of my twenties and it’s become one of the most important things I want to encourage in my children. Knowing yourself well enough to work out what you think and what you need – and then doing someone the courtesy of explaining it so they can be part of your solution – seems to be a recipe for good emotional literacy, self-respect and self-care.

Maybe it takes a while to know yourself well enough and be brave enough to express needs. Maybe you feel timid about taking up emotional space in your relationship, because you feel like you don’t really deserve it. Or you expect someone to automatically intuit what you need without having to ask. I think all of those things were true of me (still are, some days).

We were in our early twenties when we got married. I had graduated university and was a year or so into work; Tim had returned from two years pounding streets in South Africa and was well stuck in to his degree. We were settled and extremely happy. I remember those early years as being all world-building and discovery. It was lovely.

But no matter how well you know someone, once you live together you’re literally warts-and-all. There’s lots to get used to. I had a pathological inability to close a cupboard I’d just opened, and he moonwalked his socks off his feet every night and left them there on the floor by the bed. And there was so much I didn’t understand about myself or about him. The way men and women interact in general and the way we interacted in particular, fresh from and marked by our own families and experiences.

Half our arguments in those early days could’ve been avoided if we’d just asked for what we needed. But maybe it’s the sort of thing you need to learn together, over time.

One of my dear friends says this, and she’s right: relationships are a miracle. That you found someone who makes your soul sing, that’s a miracle. Out of all the people in the world! Of all the choices you could have made, and missed each other! You didn’t. You found each other. You are the answer to someone’s deep and searching questions, and simultaneously, they are yours. What on earth were the chances of that?

I would add this, now: the other miracle is that you get to grow together. You learn things from each other and in the process you learn about yourself, and then you try to change. I mean, I still leave cupboard doors open. WHY CAN’T I SEE THAT THEY ARE OPEN WHEN IT WAS ME WHO OPENED THEM. But over time, and sometimes painfully, I am learning to ask for what I need.

I had a bit of a rough summer, actually. Lots of rain, lots of solo parenting, not very many changes of scene. The boys and I got sick of each other, and the twelve hours a day I spend with them started to feel more like a ball-and-chain than a delight. By the time we got to late August I was exhausted by resentment and CBeebies. Then one evening I had a light bulb moment: I do not have to be miserable. Life with small children does not have to be miserable. It’s just that there are things my soul needs that I am not getting.

I worked out what they were and then discussed them with Tim the next day. Time by myself. Time with just him. Time pursuing my own career goals, however meagre they might be at the moment. He’s a man: he enjoys working out the logistics of a solution. We decided on some different things we could do with our calendar, and I felt like things would get better.

They have. So I feel like this will be my endless refrain to my children, when they start looking for relationships, and to myself in the mirror, and to you, lovely reader, if you want it and it feels right.

You are worth the effort it takes to be happy, and you can take responsibility for working out your own needs. Work it out. Then use your words, and let someone else in.

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Seven

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This guy. It’s our seventh anniversary today, and he’s about to get back from a week away. When he’s gone I feel the lack of him everywhere, from our bed to our dinner table to the text messages I keep having to send because he’s not there to tell things to.

We will pick him up from the airport, me and the boys, and go back to our house. I’ll put a chicken in the oven. The sun will slant through the windows onto the kitchen floor. We’ll set the table with napkins even though no one actually uses them. The boys will dance circles around him, and we’ll eat, and maybe go for a walk in the woods, and come back chilly for hot chocolate and an ‘animal crogramme’ on the telly. He will fall asleep five minutes in, like he always does. This is the space we made, and honestly, some days it blinds me to look at it.

Here’s to more of everything. I want it all.

asked to imagine heaven
I see us [here]
the way we have been
the way we sometimes are

Wendy Cope

I told the story of how we met for our fifth anniversary, here. Prepare for some tiny baby faces and enormous skater jeans.

Flying the flag for date night

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Real spouse talk: we find date nights hard these days.

Didn’t everyone say we would, and didn’t we think, all naively, that we’d find a way to work around it? I am in awe of couples who manage to get out once a week or even once a month. Whether you pay someone to come round (sometimes more expensive than we can afford, and difficult to do on weeknights) or just ask a friend (do they have kids already? What might the boys do to their house?), it’s bristling with awkwardness.

More real spouse talk: our relationship deteriorates, in measurable and significant ways, when we don’t have time alone.

And we do not want a relationship of pleasantries and routine. No, we signed up for hand-holding and intimate conversations and intimate everything else. I am here to make a stand and say that friendship, even best-friendship, is not good enough. Even with small children. Even with work and tiredness. I am here for heart-hurting love, and not a single thing less will do.

So it’s a good job, all things considered, that Timothy is the type to book tickets to BBC recordings on a whim, and take us off to London for the evening. All of us, because my brother- and sister-in-law were lovely enough to entertain the boys for the evening while we skipped off into the capital. They live just south of the river Thames, work in animation and theatrical makeup, and are the coolest and nicest people I know.

We were late, of course, so the first half of the date was characterised by sprinting: to the Tube station, onto the Tube, through a sandwich (awkward Tube eating is awkward), and then onto the theatre, where the lady told us they were already full. Great. So we took a long walk down through Bloomsbury to Covent Garden, and got a frozen custard from Shake Shack. Mine came with toffee sauce, chocolate pieces and a kind of malt powder that was like crushed Malteasers plus Horlicks plus crack. I ate it with blueberry lemonade at my elbow, and I honestly don’t think I’ll ever be the same.

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Pre-Raphelites woz 'ere. *shriek*

Pre-Raphaelites woz ‘ere. *shriek*

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Then – oh, my heart – we hired Boris bikes, and freewheeled over the river, Big Ben and the London Eye gleaming on the water, back to pick up the boys. I haven’t been on a bike since university, and went the whole way chanting ‘we’re not going to die we’re not going to die’. Three miles on a bike through London, while the sun sets? My date-o-meter just spontaneously combusted. We came back to chocolate fondue and some Peppa Pig talk, and it was all so perfect it hurt.

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On my flag of personal absolutes is painted ‘DATE NIGHT’. I believe in date night, however we wrangle it. If it’s on a Boris bike, so much the better.

Share with me your collected wisdom, o internet browsers: how do you make date night work? 

Six

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I remember that time you told me
you said
‘love is touching souls’.
surely you’ve touched mine
’cause
part of you pours out of me
in these lines
from time to time

Joni Mitchell

Looking at this blog, you’d think Timothy was a supporting player. I don’t talk about him directly, much. He wouldn’t like it. But today is our anniversary, and as I look around our brilliant, beautiful, messy life to find him at the immovable centre of it all, I wonder how on earth I was lucky enough to land just exactly where I should be. Love is touching souls, and surely, oh, surely he’s touched mine. It comes out in everything I do.

Happy anniversary, Mr Jeffcoat.

I told the story of how we ended up together last year, here. I am even more covered in banana now than I was when I wrote it.

To my sons: if I catch you treating a girl like a princess, I will break your kneecaps

My friend Megan Conley was in a library the other week, and overheard a horrific conversation between a couple on a first date. Well. We’ve all had our share of cringe-worthy first dates, of course (unless you’re me, in which case you’ve had your share of no dates at all). But this one, oh, this one got under my skin.

Meg wrote a beautiful response for the girl she wanted to take aside, which I hope you’ll read. But I am raising boys. With Meg’s kind permission, I’ve written this for them. 

My dear, lovely boys,

I don’t know when you’ll be reading this. Perhaps you already keep to your room most of the time and roll your eyes when you talk to me, because I’m the most uncool person you know. (Just as an aside, right now you think I’m the best thing since chips and ketchup, so there. (Extra aside: am I better at being an adult, now? I hope so.))

I’m willing to bet, though, that you’re already interested in girls. And that’s good. Because girls are what I want to talk to you about. You hear a lot about dating at the moment, I’m sure. A lot of it is good, sound advice. We’ll have talked about all this already, in person, so I don’t need to say anything here.

Here’s what I do want to say: if I catch you treating that girl like a princess, I will break your kneecaps.

I am so tired of all this girl-as-a-princess talk. Do you know what princesses do, in stories? They are kidnapped. They sit in towers guarded by fire-breathing dragons. They are the prizes in competitions of strength and manliness. They are the victims of spell-casters twirling their moustaches, and lie in enchanted sleep or as sad little swans on the river until they are rescued. And rescued they have to be, almost always, by the handsome prince on his white horse.

Oh, that prince. He is dashing. He is determined. He chops down the forest of thorns and defeats the evil witch even when all hope is lost. He works out the problem to be solved and doesn’t stop searching and trying and thinking until the princess has been found and there’s a happily ever after. I know it’s not always this way; I know there are princesses who think for themselves. There are exceptions to every rule. But for every Mulan there is an Aurora, and for every Belle with her library book there’s a Cinderella waiting for the ball, in fact twelve Cinderellas, a hundred Cinderellas: a princess at the top of every tower you can think of, and all of them waiting for you.

My dear boys, this is utter, utter pigswill. The girls you meet are not sitting in suspended animation, waiting for your manly shoulder to cry on, your voice to explain everything and make it alright. The girl you fall in love with has opinions, loves, passions, tragedies, strengths and weaknesses all of her own. She was born an endlessly complex, endlessly marvellous creature, and has spent her life thus far remembering and discovering who she is. She has spent her life in a world where too many stories told her that she had to stay put and look pretty, that all her value lay in what a man thought of her, wanted from her, was willing to do for her. I hope she is fighting against it. I hope she has come out spitting.

It’s not much fun for you either, this handsome prince lark. Of course it’s nice to be needed, but the pressure to always be the strong one, always chopping down that damned forest to get to her, can be suffocating. At best, you feel an added pressure to always be in control of yourself, to never show weakness or emotion, and to carry the weight of you both even when you’re sinking. At worst, you begin to assume that only you know the answers to the questions that bother you both. You make the decisions, you tell her what to think, you explain things, endlessly. It’s disrespectful to both of you, that sort of thing. It leads nowhere good.

This is what I want you to say, when you find a girl that makes you feel like the best version of yourself: to hell with the stories. Do you hear me? To hell with them. Neither of you have to be anything you’re not. Both of you are endlessly complex, endlessly marvellous creatures, and you’ll spend a lifetime learning each others’ strengths and bolstering your weaknesses. Sometimes you’ll be on the horse, and sometimes you’ll be in the tower. Sometimes you’ll be back-to-back, chopping down the thorns with a sword in each hand.

Let her be, in all her wonderful imperfection. Let yourself be, too. It’s alright. Together you’ll leap every obstacle and storm every castle and make something so fine we’ll hardly be able to look at it straight.

Oh, I love you to your bones, my darling boys. So will she. Be worthy of it. Or I really will break your kneecaps.

Your mother.

 

The way we work

Digger is always crashing our photos, these days.

Henry is experiencing some serious mama-love this month. Phases like that come and go: his heart beats for Daddy, as a rule, but every now and again he just wants to sit by me.

I do love it, while it lasts. But it has made me think – more than I was already – about the spaces we fill in our family, Timothy and I. What does Henry see us doing? What do I want him to see?

I mean something like this.

We had a day, a few months ago, where Henry wouldn’t take his morning nap. I went down to get him, eventually, and said ‘No sleep for you today, hmm? Want to come upstairs and help me work?’

And Henry said, ‘Daddy!’, and ran off towards the gate to look at the front door. Because I said ‘work’, and that’s what Daddy does.

I also mean something like this.

Since mama is the flavour of March, at the moment he wants things done the way I do them. One morning he’ll only get dressed if I come and help him. One lunchtime he only wants soup if I feed it to him. It’s not normal for him, so I don’t expect it’ll last long. But what if it did? The more it happens, the more my way of doing things becomes the correct way. And Tim starts deferring to me about what Henry needs and when. He doesn’t need to. It does a boy good to be looked at from a different angle.

We both matter, and suddenly it’s important to me that our sons see us collaborating. In everything. Timothy will win most of the bread for some years to come. I want him to love his work and excel in it. But I want the same for my work – paid and unpaid – because work is mine as much as it is his. And I will spend more time than Timothy changing nappies, wiping noses and singing songs about rabbits for the next little while. I will love that too, and try hard. But these boys are a product of both of us, which means that his opinion is as valid, and parenting is as much his as it is mine. I’m lucky, very lucky indeed, that Timothy never even considered leaving the nappies and vacuuming to me. He sees something that needs doing, and does it. But I want to make that obvious to the babies who watch us.

I think I believe in personal strengths more than I believe in spheres. My boys will grow up to be men, and I want men who understand that marriage is a partnership, not a pigeonhole. My girls, if we have them, will grow up to be women, and I want women who understand that they can think, and excel, and achieve any damn thing they want.

Oh, it’s all kind of a work in progress. Perhaps it always will be. But we are better together, we are more together than the sum of our parts, and that’s how I want it to stay.

Five

Tomorrow is our fifth wedding anniversary, and I have been thinking about phases.

***

We are eighteen. It’s my first move away from home. I am happy here, in a way I haven’t been for a while. We’re sat in someone’s living room on a Sunday afternoon. He’s playing chess, and tries to teach me the rules. I’m terrible, though he doesn’t say so. He’s too kind, and that – more than the dark-blue eyes and the dimples and that magnificent woolly jumper – is what makes me look at him twice. Then we’re eating a buffet dinner squashed in a corner – classic Mormon singles behaviour – and someone says ‘so Rachel, tell me everything about yourself’. I say ‘everything? Well, I was born in March 1985…’ And his ears prick up, I can feel it without looking at him. Because he assumed I was older, and actually (I find out later) we’re the same age. I think to myself – probably not in so many words – my dear self, GRAB THIS WHILE YOU CAN.

We’re not-dating for an awfully long time, and then we are. It’s confusing and heart-hurting and absolutely perfect. And then he leaves for South Africa. And we look like this.

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I still can’t play chess.

***

We are twenty-one, and he has come back through the arrivals gate at Heathrow, tanned and skinny in a worn black suit, and back into my life as though nothing’s changed. Except everything has: I’ve finished my degree, read piles of books, moved away from home for good and found a career I think I can love. He has left Africa behind: two years of connecting with people in corrugated iron huts and walking miles in a shirt and tie under blazing suns. He has jumped off sand dunes in the Namibian desert and seen more beauty and more degradation than he could’ve imagined. We have two years of letters to show for it: casual letters, heartfelt letters, carefully non-committal letters. He’s kept all of them, and brings them back nine thousand miles in a shoe box.

And now here we are, and this is the real deal. We start talking about marriage. It isn’t the easiest thing to work out, and it’s confusing and heart-hurting and absolutely perfect. And we look like this.

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I still love the days when he wears a suit.

***

We are twenty-two, twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five. We live in a little two-bedroomed flat in the sky, all whitewashed walls and cream carpets. My books are crammed in bookcases and his African print sits above our bed. We spend long Saturday mornings eating pancakes in bed and week-nights watching movies. We celebrate birthdays in London and anniversaries in Edinburgh, in Paris, in the Forest of Dean. He works late on university assignments and has dinner ready when I come home from work. We are busy, and often stressed. But the time we get to ourselves, oh, there’s nothing like it. We fit alongside each other like we’re two halves of a whole.

Marriage is hard work, and some days we get it wrong. It can be confusing and heart-hurting. Other times – more often – just perfect. And we look like this.

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I still beg for pancakes on Saturday mornings.

***

We are twenty-six, and now there’s three of us. We are bowled over by what this tiny baby has brought with him. Most days I can barely see straight. He finishes university and starts work, and I stop (for now). He comes home in the evening to a toddler waiting by the gate, and me, with hair pointing in ten directions and mashed banana all over my clothes. I feel like everything I was has been dismantled and rebuilt from the ground up. I feel, more to the point, quite indecently wrinkly. There are days, weeks on end when I can’t remember being the girl who wrote one hundred and two letters for a boy under African sun. And then there are moments where I look across the room at him and I can see myself the way he still sees me. I can see the boy who tried to teach me chess in a blue jumper. I can see us rattling around in a little yellow car in Cape Town, and scoffing pain au chocolat on a Parisian street. I can see him this evening, reading a story to a little boy who got his eyes. I can see it all, all together, all of it at once.

We look like this, for now. Things are about to change again.

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I can’t wait for what might come next.

Socks and skylights: a story about love

For I am in love with you
and this is what it is like or what it is like in words.

Carol Ann Duffy

There was a moment, years ago. Before babies and broken nights, when just living in each other’s space, revolving in the same ordinary orbit, neither of us driving home in a cold car at the end of the evening, was wonderful luxury. I picked up his socks from the side of the bed and was amazed that we’d made it here, that we’d ever got close enough to think about each other’s socks. He closed the drawers I left open (frequently). In our clean, lovely flat. Our huge, white bed, and tiny kitchen. And all of it we’d chosen together, these bits of a life shared.

Anyway, this moment. 4am. I woke up and there was rain hammering on the skylight, wind beating against the wall in the dark to be let in. It’s a cold and lonely thing to hear in the early hours, in a new, half-empty house. I turned over and Timothy turned with me, asleep, his heavy arm settling over me. I was safe. And he would offer up all the warmth and solidity I wanted in the middle of the night, everything he had, for as long as I wanted it, because he couldn’t help being himself. And somehow, unimaginably, I did the same for him. We fit.

That was the moment I knew I’d landed in exactly the right place. I wish I could describe it better than that. But that’s only how it is in words.

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There are twelve of these heart clips hidden around the house today. In a minute I’m going to have to ring him up for a clue…

Happy Valentine’s Day! We go on a bit about the hearts and flowers, but on a day that celebrates love, please know that you are fiercely loved by lots of people, whoever you are. And our lives are more lovely because of it.

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