Most people tell you how special and rewarding maternity leave is. But they don’t mention the boredom. Once you’re done feeding, changing and cooing at you newborn baby, they’re asleep. And then you feel alone, wondering what the hell to do.
My boyfriend Chris, 36, and I couldn’t have been happier when Max was born in 2007. We’d just bought our first flat and, while I took maternity leave from my job as a bank manager, Chris continued working after a brief period at home. It sounds twee, but life felt close to perfect. But soon winter arrived and our walks or trips to the shops proved tricky with rain hammering on the windows. I found myself bored while Max slept, and – I can admit it now – lonely.
The first time I opened a betting website on my laptop was when a three-month-old Max was sleeping upstairs. I’d seen an advert on TV for a betting site, and – being close to Christmas – I naively thought a windfall would be handy. Within minutes I’d signed up to Skybet with my credit card to play on a Vegas-style slot machine. It started with a £10 bet but, within an hour, I’d played five games for £10 each. Soon I was depositing anything up to £100 per game, spending hundreds each day. I can’t believe it looking back, but I was honestly convinced I’d win big, and dreamed of announcing to Chris, ‘Guess what? I’ve paid off the mortgage!'
When I’d win – the most was £2,000 in one go – the rush was immediate, but then I’d spend the money playing another game. Most days, I’d close my laptop with a gnawing guilt growing in my stomach, knowing I’d lost money I didn’t have.
Within a few weeks I’d maxed out my credit card limit of £8,000. I knew I was down but I hadn’t realised how much because it had crept up slowly. So I used another and began looking forward to Max’s nap time when I could log on. Within six months, I had seven credit cards on the go – I’d applied for them without Chris knowing, feeling sick about my deception but doing it anyway. I justified it by telling myself I’d pay them o when I got that ‘big windfall’ and that it was my only way out of the mess I’d caused. I didn’t confide in anybody because I thought I could deal with it on my own. It worked for a while and, thanks to my job, I knew how to avoid late payments. I’d juggle money between each card to pay for the next. But within a year, I’d maxed them all out, leaving me in £35,000 worth of debt.
Soon, warning letters were arriving. Unable to apply for another card and terrified Chris would find out, I realised – my stomach churning – I had no choice but to tell him. I know what I did sounds implausible, especially as my job meant I knew exactly how to manage my finances, but by keeping it secret I think I’d kidded myself the situation wasn’t real or that, somehow, I could sort it. I couldn’t.
The thought of seeing Chris’s face as I told him mortified me – he’d hit the roof at my stupidity. So, I wrote a letter before leaving the house one morning, my hands shaking. I explained I’d got into debt and was struggling to repay it. When I got home he was furious. As he stood there bewildered, shouting a barrage of questions at me, I tried to remain vague – saying it was down to ‘shopping’ and my lack of income as my employer only paid me six weeks’ maternity leave. I felt hideous lying but I felt so stupid – I was a bank manager for god’s sake, how did I let this happen? To my relief, he bought it, and his mother agreed to lend us £10,000, with my parents giving us a loan of £12,000. Chris helped me consolidate my remaining debts to one lender and I blocked myself from betting sites so I wouldn’t be tempted. But the damage was done and Chris made it clear he couldn’t forgive me. Every argument ended with him throwing it back in my face and asking how he could trust me again.
I didn’t visit another betting site until three and a half years later. Months after welcoming our baby girl, Maria* (now six), I saw another TV advert for a ‘play with £50 for just £10’ bonus o er with Virgin Games. As clichéd as it sounds, I really thought I had the willpower to just play once, or twice. Maybe I could win back the money I’d lost? Before I knew it, I was playing daily on my phone, as I knew Chris checked our computer. I began deleting my phone’s history and keeping it on silent in case a noti cation pinged. Using my phone made it easy – I could do it anywhere, any time. I felt shady doing it, but I just needed a couple of big wins, then I’d stop.
At this point, my debt should have been paid off. But the further into debt I got, the more desperate I became to get out of it – placing bigger and riskier bets. I hated myself but I couldn’t stop. When I returned to work, seeing customers’ healthy bank balances made me panic and I’d end up gambling more to improve my own. I’d intercept the post before Chris could see it – terri ed he’d realise what was happening. I even got payday loans – something I’d tell customers to avoid at all costs.
Crunch time came when Chris opened the post while I was collecting the children from school and discovered a loan he didn't know about. 'How many loans have you got?’ he asked coolly as I walked in. Realising my lies were unravelling, I confessed everything. He was horrified to learn I had £14,000 outstanding. ‘I can’t believe you’ve lied again – you’ve ruined us,’ he raged. I moved out with the children, knowing Chris couldn’t even process what I’d done, let alone forgive me. We’re now trying to work through things and, while I’ve not gambled since, the reminders of what I’ve done are everywhere. We can’t go on holiday or move house thanks to my credit rating and I’ve affeected not just our future, but our children’s futures, too.
I’m worried about slipping back into gambling, but I’ve taken proactive steps like CBT and taking antidepressants from my GP. I’m more open with friends and family, although my mum doesn’t know (she’s undergoing breast cancer treatment, so I can’t confide in her just yet). For now – and with Chris’s help – I’m focusing on undoing the mess I’ve made and rebuilding my family. I’m just praying my luck’s in.