Sunday, December 5

‘That first year was a crazy roller coaster’: why a new mother turned a crisis into cartoons | Family

“IIt is the Finnish winter in complete darkness and it is raining ice. And then you can’t sleep, and the baby is screaming and you’re too tired to get up, but if you don’t get up, no one else is there. ”Anna Härmälä is describing February 2015, when her partner abandoned her and her baby from Five weeks. To remember, you have to inhabit the “brutal darkness” of that time. “There was extreme exhaustion, deep sadness, moments of despair, but also moments of great love and purpose. That first year was a crazy roller coaster. It was absolutely … ”He pauses and breathes, searching for the right word. it is What is the word that describes how it feels when your partner has an affair and leaves you with a newborn? How do you explain it? Härmälä, a Finnish art teacher and children’s book author, began drawing comics.

The comics are raw, funny and painful, and take the reader directly to the moment of crisis: Härmälä, devastated by exhaustion, contemplating the sagging of her breasts and dark circles; intimate conversations with friends; snapshots of the messy loneliness of life stranded with a newborn. The drawings feel so immediate that it is easy to believe that you are reading the story in real time; yeah sure, as if a newly single mom, desperately trying to survive, would sit down every day and create a beautiful storytelling art about it.

A single cartoon of a woman with saggy breasts and bags over her eyes, with a messy house and a baby crying in a crib, with someone on the phone saying: “She is small for such a short time, it is important that you take advantage of her when maximum
Illustration: Anna Härmälä

In fact, Härmälä posted her first “single mother” comic on Instagram in March 2021, six years after the birth and breakup. When we speak, it’s summer, and Härmälä, now 39, is in a cabin in Finland, along with her current partner, their three children, and their six-year-old daughter Selma. “It’s safe to revisit what happened,” he says. “I am the happiest and the most comfortable with everything in my life. For a long time, I couldn’t think of parts or talk about it. Something was too painful. “

Härmälä and her ex-partner had been together for seven years. “The relationship was comfortable and safe,” says Härmälä. “But he had problems. Communication was not good. I was getting to the age where if you want to have children, you have to. “So the couple spent two years trying to have a baby.” I think I had a feeling that something was wrong in the relationship, but we had built a nest for the baby. The idea of ​​it ending, it just couldn’t happen. “

After the baby was born, her partner “had a great shock.” He discovered that he was dating another woman. “I remember sitting on the bed with the baby, and he let it go, and I really didn’t believe it.”

They briefly tried couples therapy, but it was clear that things were over. She went into survival mode. “It was like a robot, my body went through the motions. I made sure the baby was dressed, warm, fed; meanwhile, my head was elsewhere, in this dark mess. You can’t sleep, you lose track of time, everything around you is floating.

“But I am privileged. I’m middle class in a Nordic country, where you get free therapy and maternity pay so you can survive. I visited a psychotherapist once a week for a year. She knew exactly what to say and what she needed. ”The routine became an anchor, preventing her from floating completely adrift.

A cartoon strip of a woman with mechanical breasts breastfeeding at a table with friends
Illustration: Anna Härmälä

She also had close relatives and friends joined. “I started reaching out to other single mothers. It is a community, you are instantly welcome. I realized this has happened to a lot of people, mostly women. “That fact is reflected in the huge appetite for his comics.” I’ve received comments on social media from people saying they really need this, “he says. Härmälä. “I definitely needed something when I was alone with Selma in first year.” Aside from the American comedy drama Gilmore Girls, with its close mother-daughter dynamic, “I didn’t find many [of depictions of single mothers] That was not the victim of a single mother on a crime show. “

In the darkest points, his little daughter became his “compass.” The options were simplified. “It was easy to think: what is the best for her? Put me aside. “But were your own needs still there?” That was something I felt was really unfair, “he says.” When you break up a long relationship, maybe you want to party or travel for half a year, you need to meet yourself and feel your feelings. But there was absolutely no room to feel my feelings. So I cried a lot and walked a lot. “

He didn’t keep diaries, but wandered around Helsinki taking photos of the places where important things had happened: his therapist’s office; the building where she took Selma for postnatal checkups; streets they would walk on. “After the breakup, a lot of strange things happened, it was like opening the door to a completely new reality. He knew he needed to tell a story about this, but he also needed to survive. So the story has been bubbling inside for six years, and now it’s coming out. “

Despite the time that has elapsed, the comics are packed with incredible detail. In one, Härmälä sits at the table on his messy apartment. His eyes are blue bags of exhaustion, his chest parched from the pump. A lost sanitary napkin sits nonchalantly on her head. Over the phone, a well-intentioned friend sends a message: “It is small for such a short time, it is important that you make the most of it.” The comic sweetly sums up the scourge of unsolicited advice offered to struggling new parents. It also captures the isolation and chaos of the new parenthood. I am amazed at the precision of his memory. Do you use a creative license to retell the story? “It is the truth as I remember it, as I experienced it,” he says. “It was such a strong, devastating and traumatic experience that if I access these things, they are still fresh.”

A cartoon series of a woman holding a baby and her partner popping the bubble around them with their massive erection
Illustration: Anna Härmälä

She feels that the years have been necessary. “If I had done the comics earlier, they wouldn’t have been funny. They would have been revenge comics. What is the saying? Tragedy plus time equals comedy. It’s basically that. “

Was it inspired by other comic memoirs? “I’m not really a fan of comics,” she says. “It’s more than comics are what comes out when I want to tell a story.” In fact, it was seeing Fleabag again that gave Härmälä the voice he had been waiting for. “I was like: OK, now I know how to do this. There was something about the fact that the show can be brutal, fun, and painful. I thought: I’ll do that and see what happens. “

What has happened is a series of comics that are out loud hilarious, as well as tender and moving. Some are purely visual, like the four-panel depiction of your ex popping her cozy newborn bubble with her comically out of control erection. They explore Härmälä’s struggle to marry two grieving identities: new mother and newly single. In one, she goes on a disastrous “test date” where the boy begins glancing sideways at her huge dripping boobs. “That happened,” he laughs. “Afterwards, I realized that I had to finish breastfeeding before going out again.”

He started dating properly when his daughter was eight months old. “I enjoyed it,” she says. “I was rediscovering myself. I made a profile that said, ‘Artistic mom who has a wool sweater and isn’t looking for one-night stands,’ and I got to meet all the good web developer dads in their sweaters. It was good talking to another adult. That’s what’s missing when you’re alone: ​​you’re just talking to the baby and the wall. “

Many of his comics explore the changing relationship with his body. In one, your breasts have become mechanical equipment for feeding. In another, he regrets how “everything is completely rearranged inside … I’m like a virgin again, a virgin mother”. That was something else that seemed “extremely unfair” about being abandoned so soon after giving birth: “Your body has completely changed and yet you cannot go with that familiar person who is safe. You have to have sex. with someone new. “

Although she is still angry about everything that happened, she is determined not to “speak ill of her ex.” “He’s been a really good co-parent. He’s been making up for it in that sense. “Plus, there’s his responsibility to his daughter.” I don’t want to say anything that I’m not comfortable showing or talking to her. “

Has Selma seen the comics? “I was wondering about the one with the huge bags under his eyes. What is the blue under your eyes? “Oh, they are bags under the eyes, because Mom was so tired when you were a baby.” I was very, very tired, but I was so happy to have you. ‘ And what about your ex? “I told him I was going to do a comic. But now it’s on a bigger scale, ”he laughs nervously. “I think he felt he was so wrong that it is fair.”

I ask him if he feels vulnerable sharing it so widely. “I don’t mind sharing the difficult and brutal things,” he says. “I am more ashamed to show love things. Of course there was a lot of joy and love with my daughter. That is somehow more private, those things are mine. “

A cartoon strip of a single mother who is kicked out of a medieval village as a witch
Illustration: Anna Härmälä

When Härmälä reflects on what happened, she regrets something: “I wish I hadn’t been embarrassed,” she says, “but I did. I felt that I had been lowered in the hierarchy of motherhood and fathers. Society tells us that we need to have a man and keep him, and that if the man doesn’t love you, they don’t want you. “In one of his comics, drawn in the style of a medieval tapestry, Härmälä appears as the “single mother witch”, being driven out of town with hairpins. It is the perfect combination of images and text.

Are you still ashamed? “Now I am proud of what I managed to do,” she says. “My daughter is beautiful, she is doing very well. I have a flat, I have a job, I do everything myself. I do not need a man. I can be with someone if I want to, but it is not necessary. So I went from being there alone with a child feeling ashamed, to being proud. ”

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