Belfast rape victim Winnie M Li on joy of first baby after fearing she would never be a mum
A year ago, if you'd told me I'd be holding my newborn son in my arms at the start of 2020, I'd never have believed you. And 11 years ago, if you told me this, I'd have outright scoffed at the suggestion.
Because 11 years ago, I was deeply traumatised and nearly suicidal, dreading a return to Belfast for the trial of my rapist, who violently assaulted me in Colin Glen Forest Park, one spring afternoon in 2008.
As each year in my life went by, I gradually healed from the original violence, but would discover new, unexpected ways in which that single assault still affected me: in my reluctance to walk down a street alone at night, or in my general attitude towards dating, men, and relationships.
I especially doubted if I'd ever become a mother, as the long tail of the trauma disrupted my career and finances, the places I lived, my social circles, and - I feared - my chances of ever meeting someone suitable before my child-bearing years came to an end.
Would that be the long-lasting legacy of my rapist's actions that spring afternoon, when I was 29: that I'd never get to bear a child of my own? Often single and increasingly hopeless, I froze my eggs at the age of 37.
But life can take unpredictable turns, some bad, some good. And within the past year, I somehow, unexpectedly, met my partner Sam.
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And even more unexpectedly, I became pregnant.
And now at the start of 2020, at the age of 41, I find myself the mother of a content and healthy four-week-old son named Timo, who looks at me every morning with his still-developing eyes, full of utter trust and hope, unaware of the violence that can exist in this world.
There is something about that infant innocence which promises to make things anew, even though I know it's impossible to erase the past entirely.
Rape and voluntary motherhood are not experiences you'd imagine to be closely connected. But as women we are so often still subject to the limitations of our biology: how our bodies can be cruelly used by others, or become requisitioned in the process of pregnancy.
As a survivor and activist against sexual violence, I'd been so accustomed to the negative aspects of female biology - our vulnerability towards assault - that motherhood has thankfully reminded me of this positive aspect: our ability to create another human being in the space of 40 weeks. And our chance to have a family, to raise a child, to have a 'normal' life that I never thought I'd have as a rape survivor.
Chance would have it that my newborn is a boy. My rapist was 15 when he attacked me and, to this day, I wonder how he grew up to be so violent at such a young age.
Now, tasked with the responsibility of motherhood, I see the need for raising a boy-child who will be considerate and understanding, respectful of gender equality, a positive contributor to our society.
Here is another opportunity to re-write our traumas of the past.
Has becoming a mother helped me heal? I think as rape survivors, we face a lifelong process of healing. But any life experience that can lessen the memory of our trauma, that can put distance between what happened then and where we are now - anything like that is a welcome step towards building a new, brighter life.
Later in 2020, I'll be returning to Belfast to run a series of literary events using writing to address experiences of gender-based violence, thanks to a literature grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland.
I'm also looking forward to finishing my second novel soon and to new writing projects. In fact, this very morning, I didn't expect to be writing the piece you're reading now.
So, we never know what the future holds. This year, we can hope for the best. And even if that doesn't happen, we can know that a better year will come along, sometime in the unmapped future.
Winnie M Li is the author of Dark Chapter, Legend Press, £8.99