The last thing I expected to do this year was fall in love. I’ve been a single parent for eight years after a traumatic divorce and had remained voluntarily celibate for all that time.
But when I met Gavin in February, he was so brilliant, so fascinating and so kind that he took my breath away.
We were introduced through work; he’s a music producer who’s worked on platinum-selling albums, while I’ve made my name as an author but have recently started singing professionally. Gavin was recommended to me as the best person to produce my first single.
I confess I was in something of a trough at the time. Life felt impossibly stressful. I’d moved house, contracted food poisoning, then juggled a series of professional crises while looking after my 16-year-old daughter, Bethesda, who has been home-schooled since 2012.
At war: Antonella and her daughter, Bethesda, 16. Antonella, 56, was surprised by her daughter’s anger when she found love
Still, the fascination between Gavin and me was immediate and mutual, though we both hid it well at the time.
He was wearing a baseball cap that made him look like a member of a boy band, but there was such a sweetness about him. He was so different to other men I’d known — respectful, shy, straightforward. We bustled about his recording studio in Wolverhampton while secretly shooting each other sidelong glances.
I did notice him showing off at one point — he can play almost every instrument perfectly. I wondered if he was attracted to me, but dismissed it as my imagination.
After 16 hours in the studio, we began texting on WhatsApp, though there was absolutely no flirtation. We then talked on the phone. After a few weeks, we were talking every night — for hours. Still, there was no suggestion of romance.
Inseparable: Antonella with Bethesda in 2015. Antonella Gambotto-Burke had divorced her daughter’s father eight years ago and has since been a single mother
I was crippled by shyness. ‘Why would he want me?’ I reasoned. I was a 56-year-old single mother hamstrung by domestic responsibilities, whereas he worked with beautiful, young women every day.
I had no idea he felt the same way about me, but eventually, six weeks after our first meeting, I decided I had to act on my feelings and I leaned in for a kiss. It was a delicate, almost chaste kiss, but afterwards his smile slowly expanded.
‘I fell in love with you immediately, but I never imagined you would reciprocate,’ he later confided.
The problems started when I told Bethesda about him. I was confident she’d be thrilled — after all, I’d dedicated my life to her for the past eight years and she had watched me suffer miserably through six of them. We have no secrets and since the divorce, we’d become each other’s closest companions.
‘I suppose hair is too much to expect at your age,’ she snorted
Surely she would be delighted that I had met someone who genuinely made me happy? But as my relationship with Gavin deepened, Bethesda’s eyes narrowed.
When our telephone calls became a nightly feature, she loudly observed: ‘Talking to that Northerner again, are you? Don’t you have work to do?’
And when I showed her his photograph, she snorted: ‘I suppose when people get to your age, hair may be a little too much to expect from a man. Or, for that matter, a waistline. On the other hand, he’s not in a motorised wheelchair yet, so that’s a plus.’
Of course, my situation is far from unusual. More than a third of marriages in Britain end in divorce, and 14 per cent of those splits are high-conflict — as mine was. The repeated legal battles, which I never wanted, left both Bethesda and me deeply traumatised. I can’t share the full details, but my ex is no longer a part of her life and he is the main reason she feels so negatively towards men.
Gavin (pictured) is Antonella’s boyfriend and since her daughter’s frosty meeting he has managed to smooth things over and is making plans to join mother and daughter for a day out
Friends have told me stories of how their children scowled at their second weddings, refused to acknowledge new partners, or threw tantrums — and even, in one case, a cake — at events attended by the ‘interlopers’. I soon realised I had the situation all wrong. Bethesda was worried she’d no longer be the sun around which I revolved.
Over the years, she and I had become a wise-cracking, deeply loving team who could take on any adversary together, from leering locksmiths to rogue landlords, so it was only logical that she might see my new boyfriend as a threat.
‘Why are you paying attention to him when you could be paying attention to me?’ she half-joked.
The hostility began to affect her behaviour, threatening to upend our lives together.
She refused to go to bed on time. She washed the dishes, her only daily chore, at midnight, so the kitchen was a mess all day. She disagreed with almost everything I said, threw screeching tantrums over the most trivial things, and refused every offer I made to spend time with her. She started calling me ‘dude’ and twerking in response to questions about her schoolwork.
When I placed his picture on the shelf, she finally cracked
When I asked if she wanted to go with me to the local summer fair, she looked me dead in the eye and said: ‘But I have no one to go with.’ This was teenagespeak for: ‘Going to the summer fair with my mother would be beyond tragic.’
Looking back, I realise she was scared. But at the time, happy and newly in love, I simply could not understand why she wasn’t ecstatic that I was with a man who not only made me madly happy, but who had the potential to make her happier, too.
Gavin was adventurous, funny, responsible, and offered to make her ice cream from scratch.
‘He sounds… nice,’ Bethesda conceded, visibly fuming, after I pointed all this out.
Gavin has always been deeply empathetic to her feelings. His son and daughter are now grown up, but he went through years of teenage drama, too.
Not wanting to destabilise Bethesda by having him stay overnight at home, I regularly travelled north, spending long weekends in hotels while she stayed with her godparents.
Gavin and I would feed each other fresh pineapple chunks, dance around in our underwear, laugh like drains, and wake up at 4pm. It soon became apparent that this was it for both of us: the big one.
When I framed his photograph and placed it on a shelf in the living room, however, Bethesda finally cracked. That evening, I discovered it shoved behind a painting. Sighing, I returned it to the shelf. Bethesda again crept in and hid it. I confronted her. And the force of her fury startled me.
‘How could you put a picture of this, this, this stranger on our shelf?’ she thundered. ‘And in a frame bigger than the ones for my pictures!’
Incredulous, I pointed out that there were four photographs of her on the shelves. She scoffed: ‘That is our shelf. Can’t you live without seeing his silly face? He’s not a member of this family!’
Her eyes were wild. We both needed time out.
She spent a few days cooling down with her godparents. At home, I mowed my way through comfort foods, exhausted.
The force of her fury startled me: ‘He’s not a member of this family!’ she thundered
The truth is, navigating my own heart was sufficiently challenging without having to constantly negotiate adolescent melodrama.
For a decade, I’d functioned almost exclusively as a mother, without any consideration for my own needs. I felt that, as a fifty something, I had more than earned the right to bask in this delightful and surprising love story — yet now it was marred by a fear that my modestly attired, polite, straight-A-student daughter would go off the rails at the first sign of me having a life of my own.
Heaven knows I’d spent enough time worrying my failed marriage would be a blight on Bethesda’s life. As clinical psychologist Laura Markham points out, children with divorced parents are less likely to excel at school or go to university, are significantly more likely to use drugs by the age of 14, twice as likely to divorce as adults, and 40 times more likely to be abused than children who live with their biological parents.
With statistics that bleak is it any wonder I’d become utterly wrapped up in trying to protect my child? Bethesda loved to joke that she and I would end up as an eccentric, ageing mother-daughter duo, like the women in the U.S. documentary Grey Gardens, who lived in squalor in a decaying mansion, surrounded by cats.
… AND BETHESDA TELLS HER SIDE OF THE STORY
Possibly the most annoying aspect of my mother’s new relationship is that she and Gavin spend half the day on the phone to each other and I can hear almost every word through our shared wall. I wear headphones to block out the droning (‘I love you!’ ‘I love you more!’).
When not blowing gross kisses to him on the phone, she talks about him endlessly, raving about his mind, his soul, his genius, and so on, which can make me uncomfortable. I mean, do I really need to know that he calls her THV, short for Tiny Hot Vampire? Mum has always been an enthusiast — at her best she’s a carnival, impossibly happy — but it can feel like she’s shoving Gavin down my throat to make me like him, rather than allowing our friendship to evolve naturally.
I like that he has more progressive views and is clearly more grounded than my mother, who can disappear into a world of abstractions.
The thing that weirds me out is how fast they’re moving. I get that they’re old, but shouldn’t she wait a year or two before getting so serious?
I always laughed, but inwardly I was screaming. The last thing I wanted for her was to feel burdened by a sense of responsibility for me because I was alone.
In fact, that was part of the reason why I’d gingerly started using dating apps in 2018.
The men I met at first were certainly varied. There were the Patently Unsuitables (the twentysomething security guard who sent me photographs of his bottom; the banker who lied about his wife and children), The Lovely-But-TotallyWrongs (the charming literary alcoholic; the aristocratic heir who loved pottering about with his pelargoniums), and the PleaseKill-Me -Nows (the married Frenchman who detailed the size of his manhood and bragged he could ‘take me on’).
In retrospect, I realise I was nowhere near ready for any kind of serious relationship. With my self-esteem at an all-time low, I was only just beginning to discover who I was outside marriage — and what I was looking for in a partner.
But with Gavin it was different. We walked at dusk holding hands, demolished cheesecake at charming gastropubs and talked through the night.
I realised I wanted Bethesda to properly meet the man I was dating. The London launch party for my latest book — about motherhood — felt like the perfect opportunity and he drove down specially for the event.
Halfway through the party, when I was busy signing books, Bethesda asked if I could walk her and her friend to the train station. I instantly looked around for him. For once, I thought, there is a man I can rely on. He very kindly offered to accompany them.
Later that night, Bethesda, in a strangled voice, conceded that he was ‘very sweet’. He had charmed her and her friend by being quiet, attentive and understanding. He let them do the talking.
But when, six weeks later, I was introduced to his twentysomething son on a Zoom video call, Bethesda’s anger flared up again.
‘What?’ she shouted. ‘It’s way too soon for you to meet his son! What if he grows too attached? What if you break up with your boyfriend? Then his son will be devastated!’
I stopped and looked at her. Suddenly everything clicked into place. She was talking about herself, and the betrayal she felt by a father she never saw any more.
This was nothing to do with my boyfriend’s son. Her anger was a means of protecting herself against what she feared would be another insupportable loss. My heart went out to her.
I’d love to say that this realisation changed everything and we are now one big happy family, but this is real life, so of course it didn’t. Bethesda continued to push my buttons and I continued to react and then apologise.
It was Gavin who eventually soothed her troubled heart by asking my permission to send her a parcel.
She opened the bright orange box on my bed, thinking it had been sent by my aunt. I watched as she unwrapped, among other treasures, a malachite frog (she loves frogs), a 1990 copy of Jack Kerouac’s essay collection Lonesome Traveler, the Rubik’s Cube he’d loved as a teenager, and a small canvas artwork of an angel by a famous Italian graffiti artist.
Suddenly it all clicked into place — she was trying to protect herself
Gavin explained the provenance of each piece in his explodingspider handwriting, finishing on a wish for her happiness.
‘Oh my God, look at this,’ she said, holding up a folded piece of paper that was the last gift in the box. It was an origami bird made by Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant, with whom Gavin had worked. I was floored by Bethesda’s expression as she looked at it.
She was working hard to remain level — studied indifference is her baseline — but I could see that she was moved.
My boyfriend had succeeded not in transforming her, but in touching her heart. I felt so happy I could have wept.
Bethesda has agreed to let Gavin join us on a planned day out in a fortnight, where he will meet her closest friends. She also agreed to let him stay with me at home.
This man has brought so much happiness to my life and all I want is for Bethesda to feel it, too.
- Antonella’s new book, Apple: Sex, Drugs, Motherhood And The Recovery Of The Feminine, is out now. Follow her online: @gambottoburke.