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How I Regained Control After Chaos

Writing by Eileen Francisco // photographs by Lacey Barratt

An “anti-maternity” photoshoot consists of images representing a woman finding strength in chaos. Strength is represented in her stance, composure and attire. Chaos is represented in the disorder of the random scrap heap. 

Who am I at Midnight?

At midnight I am fearless

At midnight I am the most vulnerable 

At midnight I am a survivor

In the second half of 2020 I was bouncing back from Melbourne’s COVID lockdowns, rediscovering relationships, paying bills, and doing the delicate dance between wife-mother-breadwinner. In the midst of recovering from the Melbourne lockdowns, I was feeling elated because during that time I discovered I was pregnant and I couldn’t be happier. I was in control, living life and content.

Fast forward two months into my pregnancy and the life and marriage I thought I knew, was over. I had lost control of my seemingly normal life. The next few months would test my limits as I tried to reclaim it.

The initial shock of my marriage breakdown sent me into turmoil. I did not want to be pregnant anymore. My beautiful body, which was housing a precious little life, was suddenly foreign to me. I was in a situation that was unbelievable, so unbelievable in fact that to this day, I still don’t think it’s real. A barrage of thoughts came to overwhelm me, the most prominent were those of how do I regain control of my life? How do I stop feeling ‘trapped’, victimised and disconnected with everything around me (including my pregnancy)? How do I summon the strength to get through every day?

In those initial weeks, I was so disorientated that I would shift dramatically between feeling numb and manically distressed. These clashing feelings resulted in a disconnect from my body, baby and the man who put me there. I was spiraling and wanted nothing more than to fall asleep and never wake up.

Amidst the chaos, something within me – perhaps a deep seeded maternal instinct and love I had for the life inside me – kept waking me up every morning and kept moving me forward in the world.

As time passed following the breakdown of my marriage, I found enough space and time to reflect and search for causes of the damaging expectations I placed on myself as a woman, mother and partner and how much control we allow others to have over us. I thought deeply about the expectations of women, and how the society I lived in controlled my identity. Why did I feel “damaged” when I had done nothing wrong? Why did I think no one would find me attractive as a recently separated mother of two? Why was I more afraid to be in solitude than to stay in a broken relationship? The answers would help me discover what I personally needed to do to create a life where I felt in control, safe and valued.

I sought answers by looking back and analysing my past experiences. I used this reflection as part of the building blocks to help me understand the woman I am, and guide me towards the woman I want to become.

The female anatomy is amazing – there’s no greater proof of their power than the ability to create, give and nourish life. It’s aesthetically beautiful and no wonder hundreds of years of art is dedicated to it. However, through the centuries, women’s and non-binary folks’ bodies have been controlled, abused and disrespected by patriarchy, and every woman/non-binary person I know has experienced mistreatment of their body one way or another.

Throughout my life, I have often felt like my body isn’t mine. Even now, as a mother, my body is in service to my children. And as a young woman, I was conditioned to behave and submit to a role that serves men, and for a Filipino woman like myself, this process was exacerbated by the fetishisation of women of colour.

In 36 years my body has been through a lot. I can pin-point when my body has experienced trauma: seperate incidences of sexual assault (all taking place before I was 16 years of age), violence as a result of racism, sleep paralysis, being robbed at gun and knife point, and controlling behaviour from various partners. It has taken a decade of inner work and therapy to heal from all this trauma.

My body has suffered under the “male gaze”, touched without consent and objectified in a multitude of ways. Control over my body did not just constitute as physical damage caused by my abusers. There were also subtle forms of control in day to day situations including being told what to wear, manipulated into making decisions. I was told how to sit, pressured into doing what’s “attractive”, advised to act “ladylike”. There’s so much to unpack. I became aware that  the diminishing self-worth I felt during my marriage breakdown was rooted in trauma and the patriarchal conditioning of women. There were times I would blame myself because I was not acting and living up to my “role” as a woman, mother and wife.

My 20s were spent recovering from the harrowing events of my childhood. I still grapple with parts of it, but thanks to the self-work (and what a roller coaster it has been), I am more equipped to deal with the anxiety and depression caused by the trauma I experienced. In my 30s and as a mother, the result of that work proves to be crucial in creating a safe and nurturing environment for my children.

Six months on, I delivered a healthy new baby; my second son. I continue to grieve the idyllic life I thought I was going to have. Before COVID and my marriage breakdown, I had a vision I was working towards and I was grateful I had a partner to share that with. As an adult I was comforted by a life of stability and the control I had. I put a lot of trust in my partner to keep this vision safe and I thought our journey together would be effortless, but he had his own demons and faults that could not be kept secret. He was just as broken as anyone else. I was devastated to learn of his betrayal, but as time went on, my anger turned into compassion which in turn would allow me to start moving beyond the pain. I still experience a lot of pain, but with time it’s less and less hurtful.

How did I regain control of my situation?

I knew one thing early on. I did not want this time of my life to destroy me. I did not want to be a victim. I did not want this experience to turn me into a monster –  I couldn’t afford to. I had two children that needed me. During my initial turmoil, I fantasised about all the things I could do – drink, drugs, one-night stands, self-harm, disappear and never return. But they were just fantasies. If I chose that road, I would be relinquishing control over to something else and I would be the one wreaking havoc on my own body. My maternal instinct was too strong to put me or my children in harm’s way. I admit, I have slipped up on my road to recovery and I’ve learnt valuable lessons I take with me on my journey.

I couldn’t control the situation I was in, but I can control myself, my body and my decisions. As I experienced the chaos earlier this year, I knew I needed to set up mantras and mindful questions to guide me. I would repeat these every time I needed to face something challenging (and I still use them now):

Make decisions when calm (not angry); make decisions out of compassion 

I decided to stop myself from making any decisions when I was furious. I hated being angry and hated the spiteful person I would turn into if I allowed anger to control me. So whenever I felt the hot feeling of anger rise in my body, I simply stopped (and sometimes lay down), took deep breaths and waited for the sea of calm to take over me. Only then would I decide to act on anything.

Act with integrity – pause, reflect and ask myself “Will I regret this decision later on?”

One valuable thing I have learnt through my experience is to take some time out to be alone and reflect. I needed to create a physical space for me to retreat to if I needed some reflection time. I had enough self awareness and experience of “acting out” to predict the outcomes of certain decisions. It was crucial I made decisions that benefited my children over my desire for short term gratification.

Be kind and honest – to others and most importantly, to yourself

Being your own best friend is crucial to healing. I find myself getting into a habit of hugging myself like I would a friend in pain. Being kind to yourself through highs and lows. When you slip up and break down, practices that will bring on a sense of peace and understanding within yourself. We all have a ‘conditioned’ self – the person we are as a result of our past experiences and our learnt behaviour. When we are compassionate to ourselves, we are more forgiving of the person we are and this helps us build our self awareness. This self awareness gives us insight into what we need to do/change to help us create a future self we long to be.

These have guided me throughout the early stages of my tumultuous time – and I have never been so grateful to have had these to keep me grounded and safe. With these, I was able to regain control of my life and decisions, and to create the space for deep reflection and learning. With my new found lessons I am able to find a stronger “me” and create a path to recovery.

As I found more room to breathe, I took the negative energy I was feeling and directed it into creating art. I rediscovered my love for music and my solo project Midnight was born. Through songwriting I was able to express how I was feeling and created a beautiful collection of melancholy songs. I found so much meaning behind the music, that I wanted to do more. I embarked on collaborative projects with fellow creatives, including this essay and it’s images. Creating art has allowed me to control what I release into the world, and whatever I create to be positive and reflective. Through everything I’ve been through, I’ve discovered that the connections I’ve made through sharing my story and art has brought me a lot of meaning and purpose. I’ve experienced stronger bonds with the important people in my life and I was able to uncover a stronger version of myself.

This is just the beginning.

Eileen Francisco

By day, Eileen Francisco is a mum of two boys and marketing officer. At night she writes and performs music under Midnighta musical alter ego formed after a year of lockdowns, heartache, and grief. As a way to process complex emotions, Eileen spent many nights in front of the piano and Midnight was born in 2021. Follow her musical journey on Instagram @midnightmisc

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