Why I abandoned my young family to pursue my career

Would you opt for a happy marriage over a career? Here, Lesley Darcy, writing in the Evening Standard, tells why she chose her career first.

Lesley Darcy
November 7, 2002

Lesley Darcy

Alice and Robert, the young children Lesley left to pursue her career

Runaway mother is just one of the accusations that have been levelled at me since I left my husband of 11 years, and my eight-year-old daughter, Alice, and seven-year-old son, Robert, 16 months ago.

I gave up everything to move to London and pursue my childhood dream of being a writer.

Despite damaging family ties and countless friendships, having no permanent home, no regular income and just enough money to meet December's child-maintenance payments, I don't think of myself as someone who has lost.

I've got something which most people can only dream of - freedom.

As a child I was a prolific writer and, during my teens, wrote a story about a gay schoolboy and his struggle to come out. I sweated it out for days wondering if I would be hauled in front of the head teacher to explain myself, but my English teacher must have been refreshed by reading something a little different and awarded me an A. I knew then that I wanted to be a writer.

But when I turned 18 I met my future husband and the writing took a back seat. We married two years later. My father, a retired lieutenant commander, asked "Are you quite sure?" moments before I drifted into the church on his arm wearing a meringue dress I had designed myself. I was looking forward to a lifetime of wedded bliss, and four years later the arrivals of Alice and Robert completed our happy family.

In June 1996, however, my world fell apart when my mother died from cancer. We had written to each other regularly and, in an attempt to fill the gaping hole in my life, I continued to write to her as if she was still alive. Eventually I wrote a novel and my computer began to see more of me than my husband did. Meals were late. Clothes weren't ironed. A layer of dust began to settle on our home - and on our marriage.

By now I was obsessed with producing a screenplay. After working myself into the ground, writing and rewriting, I finished it and started to approach literary agents in London. A few weeks later, my husband and I went to London, for the day, and while he surfed in an internet cafÈ I sat in my agent's office in Dean Street, thinking it was a dream. "You didn't sign anything, did you?" my husband asked when I emerged a while later.

"No," I replied. I lied. I had signed a contract to be represented as a writer and, from that moment on, I realised if I was going to succeed I would have to do it on my own.

My husband, who had become used to sleeping alone while I wrote into the early hours, was losing the girl he had married, and my children were losing their loving mother. I was always tired and irritable but was driven on by my overwhelming ambition.

Before long I made up my mind to leave. I was terrified of the consequences, for myself and for my children, but I just had to do it. Telling them was devastating. I explained that I didn't make Daddy happy any more and that I wasn't happy.

"Are you getting divorced?" Alice asked me, and I nodded. "I hate you, I hate you," she screamed at me and I had to fight to hold her. Her anger quickly turned to tears. Robert didn't understand what was going on but he cried too.

The day I left is still painful to recall. How do you explain to an eight-year-old and a seven-year-old that you can't live with them any more? That you are going to move a hundred miles away? That you won't be there to tuck them in and read them stories any more? They knew I loved them but they didn't understand why I was leaving.

The shock of my family and friends didn't come as a surprise - we were always the last couple people thought would divorce, but when people began to take sides, I found it very hard to take. People I had known for many years, people who loved me, didn't even try to understand why I was leaving. To them I was being selfish and cruel. When I told my father he broke down in tears, saying my mother would have been devastated.

On moving to London I knew only my agent and one other person. I found a flat to rent in Chelsea, a minute's walk from Sloane Square, and found a job in the City. I travelled back to Southampton every other Sunday to see Alice and Robert and they came to stay with me occasionally. They seemed to be coping with the split reasonably well; my husband had petitioned for divorce on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour and, within five weeks of me leaving, had found a girlfriend. Working full-time for the first time in nine years was hard, especially on top of the hours I spent writing.

Last Christmas was unlike any other. I spent Christmas Day alone, working on a modern adaptation of King Lear, and drinking a lot of tea. In the afternoon I walked to Battersea Park and climbed over a six-foot fence to sit in the Peace Pagoda and watched the lights on Albert Bridge go on.

Then I went home and drank half a bottle of champagne while sitting in a candlelit bath. I missed my children so much that it was a physical pain. Birthdays have been hard, too, not only theirs but mine. What mother doesn't relish being woken up with handmade cards at 4am and hyperactive requests to eat birthday cake for breakfast? I miss it.

More than a year on from leaving my family, I have grown as a person and the real me has emerged. I'm now free to concentrate on my writing career, my creativity has flourished and, with the support and faith of my agent, have all I need to succeed.

It's not easy: I cry every time on the train coming back to London when I've been to Southampton to see Alice and Robert.

Although I have an amicable relationship now with my ex-husband, he still won't let me into the home that we shared. This means Sunday visits are dependent on the weather. Southampton is bleak in the wet, and spending a day in a shopping centre is not quality time.

When they fling their arms around me to say goodbye I don't want to let them go but the minute I switch on my laptop and begin to write I feel like a complete person. At last I am doing what I have always dreamed of and I am happy.

Robert said to me recently that he had been very excited to tell his teacher: "My mummy is a screenwriter." Alice, in between wanting to be a ballerina and a pop star, wants to be a writer "like my mum". My kids are proud of me. What more could a mother ask for?