‘My tattoos aren’t a cry for help –each one is building me back to myself’

'I can safely say I know who I am now more than ever,' says Anna
‘I can safely say I know who I am now more than ever,’ says Anna - Clara Molden

I took my sweater off at a friend’s house last week and she stood back and said, “Wow, I didn’t realise you’d got so many tattoos.” It was said with more shock than admiration. And was accompanied by a raised eyebrow and a fair whack of concern. I stepped back and looked in the mirror and realised she was, indeed, right.

The last time I saw her there was just a small heart on my inside wrist. Since the divorce I’ve seemingly taken to my body with a marker pen and ended up with a Suffragette logo, a quote from Lorde (the singer), and my friend Polly’s initials.

It would be easy to scream “crisis” looking at my before and after photos. So much of my life has changed since the break-up of my marriage, including etchings of things that matter to me about my person. While this may seem like I am protesting too much – and I’ll take that on the chin – it really isn’t a cry for help via permanent ink. Every new illustration on my body is a little building block – or, perhaps, re-building block – of myself. And yes, I know it’s easy to identify any big changes post-40 as a “midlife crisis” – but maybe “midlife opportunity” is more apt.

It is also worth acknowledging that my ex-husband hated tattoos, so maybe there is a hint of reactive instability in the mix. But the truth is, I was a naive 24-year-old when I set off in pursuit of the Disney happily-ever-after. That ending started with a big fat marquee wedding followed by a first home and a gurgling baby. But somehow it never included the hairline fractures that gradually form with every passive-aggressive hiss about dishwasher stacking or holler of “Can you help, please?” as you’re standing alone in the dark, holding a crying newborn.

It also doesn’t account for fundamental inequality that goes with parenthood, which is that 54,000 mothers every year (including me) lose their jobs for simply having a baby. It doesn’t account for that being compounded during Covid when 47 per cent more mothers than fathers stepped back from their careers to pick-up the domestic pieces. It doesn’t account for the resentment that builds in all these moments which finally morphs into contempt – described by relationship expert Mel Schilling as the death knell of any relationship.

At 42, with two children, five miscarriages, excessive postpartum hair loss and the grief of recently losing two family members, I would say I know myself. Although not fully – that is a work in progress until The End. But I can safely say I know who I am now more than ever and I’ll take that after losing myself completely in promised marital utopia.

Of course I never thought it would be a walk in the park. I think I was clear-eyed about what it would take to navigate the daily hurdles that most couples exhaustedly scramble over, like whose job is more important and whose work Zoom call takes precedence over whose, and where one partner begins and the other ends within four chaotic child-ravaged walls.

But I did believe I’d still be in there somewhere, among the needs of two children and the, at times, desperate attempts to retain some form of work. Combining parenting with work remains one of the biggest conflicts I’ve ever experienced and is one I think most married couples are woefully unprepared for. When I had my girls, everything in me wanted to be with my kids. At the same time, I was desperately trying to hold onto myself. And my marriage was, perhaps, the collateral damage of a working world that is not set up for women to succeed.

But there is a strength in two people who have been married for 13 years sitting down at the family table like adults and deciding it’s over. However painful the process, there’s an ownership of self in deciding when something isn’t working. I could have stayed in no-man’s land for another decade – fleetingly happy and vaguely optimistic in a hinterland of “Should I stay or should I go?” And I’ve had a fair hammering from internet trolls over our decision to end it. But even though it’s a joint exit, I’ve had more flack than my ex, which raises more questions than it answers in how we perceive divorced women versus men.

But I’m proud of drawing a line under it, because that was when I started again on a dog-eared but clean sheet of paper that signalled a new chapter. One in which I get to decide who I am, while looking at the rubble of a woman I thought I was. And I am investing that time in lots of new things, including being a judge on The Women’s Prize for Fiction. That’s 68 books read in six months. Immersing myself fully in other women’s words has been healing with every page.

I’ve also invested time in some less nourishing pursuits, such as my tentative foray into Hinge and online dating. A particular low was a women’s healing circle I organised for some similarly disillusioned friends. It began with some sage being burned and ended with the full troop of grown women weeping privileged tears into yoga mats about issues ignited by a pastel-hued tarot card.

There’s no rhyme or reason to the process of coming through the other side of a significant relationship breakdown. And having run the full gamut of psychologist to spiritual healer, I’m not one to judge. But one thing I do know is that no matter how many people say “What you should do is…” there’s never a solution offered up by someone else that even touches the sides of how I need to proceed. I had to stand on my own two feet and look at myself hard in the mirror before crossing that line in the divorced sand.

Where am I now? I’m weaker in some ways, but stronger in many others. I’m exhausted, yes, but I’m also more robust. I’m older and a bit wiser, with a tattoo by Lorde on my forearm that reads “It’s time we danced with the truth”. Which I do deeply regret. A work in progress, indeed.