Growing into my skin
For most of her life, author Jo Bloom felt like an outsider. Different from her family, especially her sisters, and bursting to leave her home and see the world in a different way. Here, she describes the long process of growing into her own skin, and how the birth of her son helped cement it.
Growing into my own skin
Posted on: Thu 11-Dec-14 22:08:42
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"Anywhere not here." In a notebook that dates back some thirty years, these three words are scrawled across the page. I have no recollection of writing them but I can easily imagine the circumstances. Probably I'm fourteen, fifteen and I've just fled from a row with a family member, a row I likely started because I was a reliable catalyst for conflict. Probably I was still breathless with rage and misplaced injustice and had barricaded my bedroom door with pillows and a chair while I wrote those words.
There is no pleasure in this memory. I dislike thinking about my adolescent years as much as I disliked living through them, brimming with messy emotions and increasingly aware of how different I felt from the rest of my family, particularly my sisters. Sandwiched between them – the elder extraordinarily bright and shy, the younger upbeat and popular – every day was a reminder of how unmoored I felt.
Aside from my spiky nature, it's fair to say the main difference between us was my restlessness. I love being Jewish, I'm passionate about my heritage, but I knew from early on that I had to sample life outside of the leafy suburb where my family settled. After teenage years spent belonging to a vibrant, proud Jewish community, my curiosity was bursting; I had to see life through a new lens for a while. As sad and unsettled as the idea sometimes made me, it wouldn't go away. Increasingly, the world beyond North London beckoned.
I visited for Shabbos dinners, took part in family events and remembered birthdays most of the time, but I still wasn't great at family life. I remained convinced that I was the outsider.
When I dropped out of university and disappeared off to Prague and then New York for six years, my parents didn't try to stop me. This decision must have hurt them but they never withdrew their support of me or showed any bias towards my sisters, both of whom stayed close by. Instead they sent me letters reaffirming their unconditional love: "...wherever you go or whoever you are with," my father wrote when I first got to Prague, "will not alter the fact that we are your parents and you are our daughter...all we pray is that you find contentment. Not money, not necessarily marriage or children if this is not your path, but contentment." I would read those letters and weep, torn between wanting to be with them and wanting to find my own life.
But living abroad for so long changed me for the better; I became far more at ease with myself and my choices. It meant I could return to London in my mid-twenties to do an MA in Modern European History, stay in regular contact with my family but live across the river in South London and not feel that I was betraying them. By the time I hit my thirties, I was living in a flat by the sea in Brighton, taking my fiction writing seriously, not thinking about kids and having a string of fairly unsuccessful relationships. My sisters, meanwhile, were married, growing their families, and spending a lot of time together. I wasn't a stranger. I visited for Shabbos dinners, took part in family events and remembered birthdays most of the time, but I still wasn't great at family life. I remained convinced that I was the outsider.
And yes, I was still prickly, prone to combat.
But then, as I turned forty, everything changed again: in the space of one year, I fell pregnant, got married and on the day I went into labour I printed out a good draft of the novel that I had high hopes for.
During pregnancy, I grew anxious that having my own child would mean that my family expected more from me - more than I wanted to give. And yet, the moment my son was born these worries vanished. For the past four years I have wanted my son to see his family at every opportunity. I have loved watching my parents fawn over him and seeing him play with all his cousins. I get enormous pleasure out of sharing him and showing him off. And I have compromised nothing. I am now so sure of who I am, I can let them all in without fear of losing myself. Finally, I can relax.
Jo's novel, Ridley Road, is published by W&N and is available from Amazon now.
By Jo Bloom