Ruth Fowler's family was catapulted to internet fame after she live-tweeted her home birth. But when her marriage fell apart, all of her new mom friends couldn't flee fast enough.
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I was never what you would call conventional. I worked as a stripper in New York to fund my writing career, did the whole “drinking too much, experimenting with every drug imaginable” bullshit we all do in our late teens and twenties, became a screenwriter, moved to L.A. and fell in love with a fierce, brave, handsome outspoken tattooed ex-con weirdo who took pictures of strangers on the street. We got married, ran out of money, and lived together in his van, which was parked in the back of our polyamorous friends’ house in South L.A. We became the darlings of the internet a year later, as the poster couple for what was regarded here in the U.S. as the “home-birth movement.”
Even before our son’s birth, pregnancy had conveyed upon me a level of acceptance I’d never before experienced. Whereas before I’d been known for my habit of calling people “cunt” (affectionately and derogatorily) amd writing provocative op-eds in places like Al-Jazeera, the Guardian, and Counterpunch that had earned the ire of people like Sinead O’ Connor, who’d threatened to sue me, the hormones softened my tongue and made it nearly impossible for me to continue publishing the angry, sarcastic pieces that I’d been building my career on. My work had become more thoughtful, contemplative. The exhaustion and nesting instinct made living in a van anathema to me. People started smiling at me, asking about the baby as my belly grew, assuming I was a “nice” person by virtue of harboring another life inside me, never thinking to question my credentials for motherhood. I loved every second of being boring and predictable. I loved prenatal appointments with my midwife, sessions that would extend into hour-long gossip sessions where we’d all laugh and cry. I loved making new pregnant friends and comparing our bellies and ailments and bizarre new symptoms. I suppose I threw myself into it partly because my husband didn’t. He was scared shitless of being a father, and he seemed to be having a breakdown—he was barely sleeping, losing his temper, acting so strangely that I would lock myself in the bedroom night after night, terrified, barely recognizing him as the man I married.
When I was seven months pregnant with our son, I learned why he was so off. I woke up at 6 one morning to find him locked in the bathroom. I banged on the door and he made a hasty, naked exit, leaving a wet towel on the floor. I picked it up, and found a piece of tinfoil with a startled, vivid smoky streak across it, a homemade pipe fashioned from the body of a ballpoint pen carelessly discarded nearby. I followed wet footprints that led from the bathroom, through the living room, down the stoop and outside to the front lawn where I discovered my husband—pin-pricked pupils, sweating despite the cool of an early October morning—outside, gardening urgently, wearing only boxer shorts. In shock, I texted my neighbor, the daughter of a former addict. She came outside and spoke briefly to him, and confirmed my suspicions.
He was high on meth.
I locked myself in the bedroom and called my midwife, desperate for advice. She didn’t have any, but she was eager to vent about an argument she’d had with my doula the day before. It was the first time I realized these magic women who were to deliver my baby were just flawed human beings—like my husband and me.
I confronted my husband a few days later in therapy. He agreed to a home drug test which came out positive for meth and heroin. He told me later he only took the test because he thought it was out of his system, and the evidence could be disposed of. I think, somehow, he wanted me to know. He was falling apart as our baby grew bigger, and he knew he needed someone outside him to make him stop.
I asked him to leave until he could guarantee he would come back sober and ready to address whatever inside him was compelling him to check out. I called his family, and cried. Though his mother appeared to sympathize, she sent a text to me later that day that was meant for her sister: “I think Ruth is as crazy as he is.” That, more than anything, made me realize I was alone in this shit. I wasn’t ready to be a single mother. My husband wasn’t ready to leave us, either, so he promised to get clean and seek help. The midwife, on the other hand, dealt with us with a new briskness once she’d calmed down about her squabble with the doula. She was a mandated reporter, and told my husband he had to get his act together, because she didn’t want to be the one to snitch him out.
And he did—for the remainder of my pregnancy, and for the birth. We began to fall back in love and remember why we were having a baby together. I went into labor on Christmas Day, 2013, and sent the first tweet out to my family: “Labor started at 8 p.m.” Our son was born at home 12 hours—and many tweets and pictures—later.
Then something bizarre happened. Newspapers across the world picked up on a Huffington Post piece about “the girl who live-tweeted her birth”—even gossip-blogger Perez Hilton wrote about us. Suddenly, mothers in Costa Rica, Taiwan, Japan, Germany, Argentina, England, Italy, Turkey were all reading about our son’s home birth. My live-tweeting catapulted us into the spotlight as the poster family for the home-birth movement.
Our fleeting internet fame forgave all of our transgressions. My midwife told me even she had been recognized in a store by two guys who were talking at the checkout about “the girl who gave birth and tweeted all those pictures.” People bought me food and sent me gifts and told me I was fabulous and told our son, Nye, that he was adorable, and told my husband he was an amazing father. Even the assistant midwife who’d been at the birth kept dropping by with wine and gossip and meals, drawn in, perhaps, by the seeming glamor of the cute tattooed dad, the British mom, the Venice Beach home, our “alternative” past behind us, simply more color to a perfect picture. I was hounded to do TV shows. Pale and wan from the blood loss of a retained placenta, I did one—and hated it, quickly retreating back to my pajamas and bonding with my wide-eyed, aware little son who seemed so much more mature than a newborn.
My husband and I rode the wave of this popularity for as long as we could—I suppose, because we both knew it would be over soon. Because, of course we were not the perfect, adorable sweet couple who had birthed their son at home. We were a family with dark, worrying secrets that I was scared would bubble to the surface again, and destroy us all as they nearly had before our son was born.
And they did. Even though he loved our son and was a natural father, my husband began to drink daily, and his temper grew exponentially. He’d spend hours brooding over a computer screen in the same pajamas he’d wear for days, ignoring our son gurgling on the playmat at his feet while I tried to take care of our household, our child, earn money, and love a man who didn’t seem to like the world or himself very much. I started to suspect he was taking drugs so I asked him to take a drug test after he turned up at 1:30 a.m. after having been missing for hours. He was furious, refused the test, and walked out. Within 24 hours he was demanding a legal separation and printing out a diary of my ineptitude as a mother. He began a blog he’d titled, “A Boy and His Dad,” a photographic diary detailing his struggles to maintain a relationship with his son due to his “bitch” wife.
He wanted me to feel scared. I was. I loved him, but the speed at which he left, and the venom of his response made me think he’d wanted out for a while. I felt I had no choice but to file for divorce from this man who was living in a van, stinking of booze, bellowing at me every day, and insisting on disappearing with our 8-month-old for hours at a time, refusing to tell me where they were going, refusing to return him for nursing breaks.
I hid the messy breakup and divorce and custody battle for awhile from everyone but my immediate family. But when the time came that I felt able to talk openly about it, I suppose I was naïve enough to think that it might elicit some sympathy, maybe even invite some help. But I instantly went from vaunted to reviled, and even mocked. I had become the Pariah.
I discovered that the curious, enquiring mothers who offered to give me support and a shoulder to cry on when they didn’t know all the details, now wanted nothing to do with me. My neighbor in our Venice fourplex—irritated when she’d learned I playfully mocked diaper-free parenting philosophies she endorsed on Facebook—took my husband’s side. She encouraged my husband to ditch the therapy, and fed into his narrative of “abusive wife tries to steal baby from loving husband.” She wrote long letters to court detailing conversations she’d overheard, things I’d said and done which might somehow prove my moral and ethical failings as a parent (“I have also seen Ruth with her arms around him this Wednesday saying she loves him so much”). Things took a sinister turn when she showed up with my ex-husband at our (intensely private) mediation session claiming that I was abusive to my son, tried to convince our landlord, on more than one occasion, to evict me, and then filed a restraining order against me claiming I’d poisoned her dog, and was threatening the life of her unborn child. It was thrown out, of course and revealed as simply malicious litigation by a very sick woman. Someone—to this day, I don’t know who—called the Department of Children and Family Services, and a skinny young woman with a Southern accent carrying a clipboard stumbled unannounced into my kitchen one afternoon, disappointed to find my husband had been banished by a restraining order, and my toddler son and I were engaged in little more than finger-painting, giggling and eating kale chips.
I asked the new mom friends that I’d met in prenatal yoga class and mamas meetings if they would testify in court—not against my husband, but on my behalf, to tell the judge what kind of person I was. Most of them “didn’t want to get involved” and “couldn’t be the kind of friend that I needed.” So I drifted toward other mothers who had felt the deepest kind of pain and grief imaginable. Like Mary, who had woken up one morning to find her husband had passed away from Deep Vein Thrombosis after a long haul flight before they’d ever had a chance to start a family. Laura who had lost her little girl, Layla, just a month before she was due. Opal who had to listen, over and over, to her teenage son relate to an uncaring courtroom how his father had assaulted him, an act which led one mother to say loudly outside the school gates well within Opal’s earshot, “I wouldn’t let my kids anywhere near her house.”
Dysfunction is infectious, or so it seems. There’s something about being “happily” married, “happily” pregnant, “happily” conventional that shuns not only the horrors that afflict some mothers, but those mothers themselves. We are complicit in our own tragedies, yes: How could we not be? Something about me chose to have a child with a man who would crumble and walk out on us at eight months postpartum. Laura’s daughter was not destined to ever set eyes on her loving parents. Opal married a man who would turn out to be abusive, not only to her, but to her children. Mary fell deeply in love with a man who would leave this world well before it was time, leaving her nothing but snapshots and memories and a well of unconscionable grief. I suppose part of our pain is waking up to that knowledge every day, facing that our intuitive and uncontrollable failures, that loving the wrong people, have hurt not only us, but those whom we love the most—our children, those we have, those we had, those we might have had. When others act as if proximity to us might prove catching, is it any wonder that in our darkest hours we half believe it ourselves?
What has stunned me most about becoming a single parent is how pain makes a mother the pariah amid a sea of carefully edited social-networking nirvana. That the words and comfort we expected from those that can see how much we have lost—the families we had planned, the families they still have—never came. Perhaps it is because to survive the storm of parenting, we have to reserve the empathy gene for ourselves. Or perhaps it is simply that no words are ever sufficient to cover the deepest pain imaginable when families are destroyed.
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