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The day we told our children we were getting a divorce

Anna Whitehouse and her former husband Matt
Anna Whitehouse and her former husband Matt

There was no huge moment. No Big Bang. It was 3pm on an average Tuesday afternoon when my husband Matt and I decided to go our separate ways. I remember sitting on the patio step as he came and sat down beside me. And we both knew the subtext to our innate calmness: that it was done.

We’d relationship counselled for two years, we’d talked, we’d cried, we’d fought, we’d wrangled and we’d clung on to the not-so-bitter end. But with our kids now aged five and nine, we had to think about the atmosphere of the home they were growing up in. It was time to knock 17 years together as a couple on the head.

Anna Whitehouse and Matt
Anna and Matt on their wedding day - Stuart Bebb

And it wasn’t done lightly or rashly; it was like a song gently petering out. The calm after the storm, perhaps. There wasn’t anger or even visceral pain at this point – the period prior to that had been consumed with both. It was an exhausted defeat, if anything, but with an abundance of respect and love for the family unit we had built off the back of a giddy night in an O’Neill’s pub in 2005.

The hardest bit was knowing when – if at all – to get out. We’d talked about it a few times before, had heartrending chats and decided not to get on that train. There’s no expectation that ‘til death do us part’ is an easy brief and we found ourselves just relentlessly papering over the cracks at an eventual matrimonial cost.

This was a post-lockdown world, but for us, it followed years of miscarriages, post-natal depression, relentless slogging for clients, building our Mother Pukka brand - a portal for news, reviews and comment for parents - and working together, writing about every aspect of our lives.

Anna Whitehouse
Anna found it hard juggling parenthood with the demands of building her Mother Pukka brand - Clara Molden

The truth is, I don’t think I ever recovered from going straight back to work after the birth of our second child in 2017. My life was becoming increasingly public by that point, as I built Mother Pukka online, posting every day to an audience of hundreds of thousands, talking about family life, giving talks about work-life balance while, ironically, mine collapsed around me.

Our youngest refused a bottle for her first year; this beloved bundle never apart from me for more than a few hours while I spoke to corporate audiences and 200,000 strangers every day. It was like a sledgehammer had been taken to my maternal soul and since then, I’ve been trying to gather up the broken pieces of my lost self. Think slightly scratched digits picking up shards of glass hoping to form a whole once more.

Looking back, that is where the first ruptures began: Matt and I working manic hours with two young children, and so much of it played out publicly. Nothing prepares you for that postnatal rage, the hormonal and biological rehashing of your body and mind in one fell swoop.

After our first was born, I spent weeks at home, gently recovering. After our second, and working for myself, I went back too soon. Nothing prepares a couple for that postnatal period: the constant conflict between defending a career you have worked so hard to create, and the physical and emotional pull that makes you desperate to hibernate with your precious newborn.

Towards the end, I didn’t really know where my personal pain ended and our collective pain as a couple began. It was a quagmire of unmet needs and passive-aggressive utterings. Painful breastfeeds by night and utter loneliness and disconnection by day.

Anna Whitehouse
Anna initially tried marriage counselling to stay with her husband - Clara Molden

The children were increasingly becoming aware of ‘Mummy’s black tears’ (the smear from crying into mascara) and ‘Papa’s tired voice’. Yet there were still beautiful moments; times when we laughed together at something one of the kids said, or rolled around playfighting in the garden.

But we were increasingly falling apart at the seams. Fleeting frustrated words would leave me in floods of tears, and it felt like we were walking an emotional tightrope every day. We’d first talked about separating two years before. The arguments had been coming with increasing frequency, and in one, Matt said it all made him want to leave.

Then a couple of months later, in the middle of an argument on a plaza near Liverpool Street, among a huddle of commuters, I said the same.

We agreed to try marriage counselling. We tried little linguistic tricks – saying “us” and “we” instead of “you” or “me” in exchanges. We tried taking 10 minutes to walk around the block to calm ourselves in heightened exchanges.  And all the time trying to work out what is the fault of you as a couple, and what is the fault of you as an individual.

There were real peaks in those two years, moments of deep connection. But the tensions in between slowly grew louder and longer. In the run-up to our decision, one thing that sat with me was societal expectation. The word ‘divorce’ feels brutal. Even the words ‘marital breakdown’ hit hard. But you can’t stay together through fear of social embarrassment or fear of what might follow.

Every day became a weighing of the benefits and losses. On the one hand, we would keep our family unit intact, but at what cost? How much more harm would it do to raise our girls in a home with tension always in the air? When the tears outweigh the laughter, it’s time to go.

When we eventually told our daughters, all four of us sat on our bed; we were determined to keep the mood light, with no tears from us. We told them we’d keep the house; that Mama and Papa would alternate weeks of living there. We made it sound like it would be their place, with one parent each week coming for a sleepover, while the other lived in a flat we shared. And we told them we had realised we were meant to be best friends, not husband and wife.     
To be continued next week