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Divorced parents across the country felt a guilty pang of recognition last week as Adele broke five years of silence to talk to Vogue about her new album, inspired by the end of her marriage. She and her ex-husband, Simon Konecki, have a nine-year-old son, Angelo, and Adele says the lyrics in some of her new songs are really for her boy, because he doesn’t understand why she had to break up with his dad.
“I just felt like I wanted to explain to him, through this record, when he’s in his 20s or 30s, who I am and why I voluntarily chose to dismantle his entire life in the pursuit of my own happiness,” she told the journalist Giles Hattersley, in a burst of brutal honesty. “It made him really unhappy sometimes. And that’s a real wound for me that I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to heal,” she added, laying bare the knife in the heart that so many separated parents quietly feel. The knife that we put there ourselves. Ouch.
Oh God, it sounds, when she puts it like that, pretty rough. But hold your nerve, girl! Think about what Jung said, that the thing that has the single greatest effect on children is the unlived lives of their parents. Which I have always taken to mean all the frustration, the resentment, the projections that parents let seep into their kids whether they intend to or not. All because they aren’t getting out there quenching their own biggest thirst. The unconscious, unexpressed suspicion that, were it not for the little ones, and this marriage that they are stuck in, they could be off somewhere living a very different life.
Hold your nerve, girl! Think about what Jung said, that the thing that has the single greatest effect on children is the unlived lives of their parents
Yes, divorce is bloody horrible, and best avoided if at all possible, and the greener grass on the other side often turns out to be Astroturf. But it’s not as if kids don’t feel all those other psychic resentments too. When I look at the people I grew up with and those of them who have strong relationships now, there seems to be absolutely no correlation with whether their parents stayed together or not. The correlation seems to be in whether their parents were able to be honest with themselves and try again, hoping for more, building better.
So is it easier to say it in a song, I wonder, because motherhood is so widely presented as the end of one’s own desires that it is hard to find any normal words for explaining these feelings at all? Is it easier to say in a song that, while you observe the growth of your child, you feel something growing in you too, the pounding realisation that perhaps this, all this, isn’t what you meant? That the ticking of the clock as you lay awake, night after night, has turned out to be the pounding of your own heart? “I wasn’t miserable miserable,” Adele admitted, “but I would have been miserable had I not put myself first.”
Yes, we’d all throw ourselves under a bus for our children but that’s meant to be the description of a hypothetical, unlikely and desperate act. It’s not meant to be the daily vibe. We can mistake sublimation of the self for maternal morality.
It all reminds me of the time I interviewed the musician Björk after she, like Adele, recorded a breakup album. Vulnicura documented the end of her marriage to the artist Matthew Barney, with whom she had a daughter. She had wondered if she should put the songs out there at all – they were explicit, recording even how long their relationship survived after their “final fuck”.
“Protecting my family was obviously the most important thing. That was priority number one, two and three,” Björk told me. “But then number four was… maybe this sort of hunter in me, this other person who looks and evaluates… That person looked at it and said, ‘No, if you cut out all the messy bits, it’s not going to be a document of this grief journey, it’s not going to be any use for anyone’.”
I think it’s my favourite Björk album; there is something so deceptively simple about it. Music is there to remind us of mixed feelings: the heartbreak of the melody, the constancy of the beat, the whoosh of the redemptive chorus. (All right, so Björk doesn’t quite do a redemptive chorus in the same way as Adele.) Adele’s songs can make us sad, but it’s a sadness we want to feel again and again, so we put them on repeat.
Last year, I published a memoir called The Hungover Games, a book about my own unusual path to motherhood. (I was living in Hollywood and working with celebrities when I found out I couldn’t have children, only to get unexpectedly pregnant by a touring musician one week later – and there were more shocks to come.) When I give readings or do signings, people sometimes ask me, with a curiosity that seems a little horrified, what my daughter is going to think when she’s old enough to read my book.
And I understand completely – I share their curiosity and their horror. It’s a question I asked myself so many times that I nearly didn’t publish the book at all.
Because some of it is going to sting, I’m sure, and some of it is going to present her own life story quite differently from how she has understood it. And then there’s the embarrassing sex bits – God, Mum, how could you? But after that has died down, and perhaps even after I am gone, I dare to dream that it might be incredible to hold something in her hand explaining that life is complicated, that parents are fuck-ups and that she is so deeply and desperately loved.
So please, keep on keeping on, Adele – the rest of us selfish mums are all rooting for you.
• Sophie Heawood is the author of The Hungover Games