Relationship

How we stay together: 'When it did get rocky … the foundations held'


Names: Louisa Chircop and Steven May
Years together: 26
Occupations: Artist and writer

There’s a running joke between Louisa Chircop and her husband, Steve May, about who asked who out on their first date. More than 26 years after the fact, it’s still up for debate.

The Sydney couple first laid eyes on each other in the David Jones bridal registry. The 21-year-old Louisa was shopping for a friend’s engagement present. Steve, who was working there at the time, offered to help and then wrapped the gift for her. She remembers it took a while, so they chatted as he wrapped. When they realised they were both studying art at university, Louisa casually suggested they visit the Art Gallery of New South Wales together sometime.

A few weeks later, she returned to the department store, this time dressed to impress Steve. “I was enjoying my youth,” she laughs huskily. Steve looked surprised when she suddenly strode into his area: “He was in shock,” she laughs. “And he just said, ‘Oh hi. Do you want to go to the gallery?’”

The way that Steve tells it, that first mention of the gallery was Louisa asking him out. “And I said yes on the second visit … so there was like a two week gap,” he laughs.

Louisa Chircop and Steve May
“When you’re bored out of your brain thinking wouldn’t it be cool if the girl of your dreams walks in – and then as soon as you stop thinking about it, it happens,” says Steve of his first impressions of Louisa. Photograph: Louisa Chircop and Steve May

He remembers it as being an unreal moment. “When you’re bored out of your brain thinking wouldn’t it be cool if the girl of your dreams walks in – and then as soon as you stop thinking about it, it happens,” he remembers. “Luckily I was the best gift wrapper in David Jones. There’s nothing like the skill of being able to create your own rosettes to impress a girl. It’s better than buying drinks,” he laughs.

On that first date, Steve remembers feeling intimidated by how “arty” Louisa looked. “She’s got the big green eyes, and she actually looks like an artist. And I’m going, ‘Man, I’m out of my league already.’” They spent the afternoon at the Archibald exhibition and again Louisa seemingly out-classed him. “She’d be going, ‘What do you think of this?’ And I’d be going, ‘Great.’ And when she’d be talking about [the art], I would be like, ‘I actually don’t know that much’.”

Louisa took Steve up on his offer to drive her home, and he ended up meeting her large family immediately. Everybody liked him, Louisa says. “It was the first guy that had walked in that they fell in love with and started talking to. So it was instant approval.”

Steve laughingly describes that first family meeting as “exhausting.” He adds: “Being a Maltese family, they’d all talk over each other. So my head was constantly turning, and being polite, you always want to give eye contact to who’s talking. But when you’ve got seven people talking at once …”

Still, that energy was part of what drew him to Louisa, her “passion for her life and her art. And the fact that I’d never really met anyone who blurred things. Most people have their life and then they’ve got their work – hers was all together. And it was really interesting to meet someone so driven and fearless. … I came from a fairly conservative family, ‘Don’t rock the boat, just get the nine to five job’. So to find someone who was like, ‘Nah, fuck it. I’m going to make it’, that was quite interesting for me.”

Louisa Chircop and Steve May
‘It was the first guy that had walked in that [the family] fell in love with and started talking to. So it was instant approval,’ says Louisa. Photograph: Louisa Chircop and Steve May

Louisa could also appreciate how different Steve was. “He had this dark sense of humour … And I just found him quite calming and centred to be around, I think he had a boyish charm.”

They quickly became a couple and about four years later, when they were just 25, they put down a deposit on an apartment. “That was our engagement,” says Louisa. Despite their creative occupations, security was important. “I love to travel, I love not being attached to a home,” says Louisa. “But having a foundation or something we could always fall back on was a really big deal.”

Then on 31 December 1999, at 11.55pm, Steve proposed: “That was down on the Georges River. [I was] down on bended knee, ‘Will you marry me?’ ‘Yes, I will.’ And then all of a sudden there’s fireworks all over the place. And I’m like, ‘See what I organised for you?’”

Louisa Chircop and Steve May on their wedding day
‘I’d never really met anyone who blurred things. Most people have their life and then they’ve got their work – hers was all together. And it was really interesting to meet someone so driven and fearless.’ The couple on their wedding day. Photograph: Louisa Chircop and Steve May

Their daughter Charlie was born a few years after they were married but, as overjoyed as they were, it was the start of a very difficult time. As a baby, she had a number of health issues, almost dying on four occasions. It was pure luck that they caught the first attack, says Steve. The pair had been staring lovingly at her, “and going, ‘Oh, isn’t she beautiful? Oh, look how blue her lips are. Holy shit!’” It was “the only reason … we knew that she was about to choke.”

She had a series of suffocation attacks and febrile fits throughout her childhood. It was terrifying for the couple. Louisa also suffered from postnatal depression and giving birth led to significant health issues for her too. Both were shaken to the core: “We never saw this coming,” she explains. “If someone could have prepared me, and said to me, ‘When you have a child, it’s not all a bed of roses’. Because nine people out of 10 are saying, ‘It’s just wonderful’ – like a glossed-over movie.” In reality, “on the first day Steven is holding her going, ‘What do I do?’”

It tested their relationship. “The relationship plus having a baby, it’s almost like putting Ikea furniture together with no instruction book,” says Steve. “You sometimes drill the holes in the wrong place. Right at the start, we had the Ikea bits all over the floor … putting nails in all the wrong places,” he says. “It’s like, ‘Well, I think it should go there’. And it’s like, ‘No, I think it should go there’. And that’s where your conflict comes from. Because you’re both trying to build this thing together.”

“Eventually you compromise and you get there,” he adds. “But the thing is, when you’ve got a child that is a ticking time bomb, and you don’t know whether or not she’s going to survive the next day, the pressure that that puts on you as a couple, you cannot describe it.”

They also felt the pressure of adding a sibling. Over a few years, Louisa had a couple of miscarriages and her health issues worsened. Eventually they stopped. “The greatest weight that went off our shoulders was when we both decided together, one is enough,” says Steve.

Looking back now, they wonder if they should have asked for more help, instead of trying to do it all themselves. But having gone through it together bonded them. “We always feel like that’s what we’ve got when things go pear-shaped,” says Louisa. “That’s what keeps us together. We always focus on, ‘We got through that patch on our own, no one will ever know what we went through’.”

Steve says it has given them perspective. “When it did get rocky … the foundations held in there … I think overall it’s made us more resilient. ”

Louisa Chircop and Steve May with their daughter
‘We got through that patch on our own, no one will ever know what we went through’. Louisa Chircop and Steve May with their daughter. Photograph: Louisa Chircop and Steve May

They also credit the fact that they are both creatives. While Louisa continues to do her art, Steve is a copywriter and aspiring playwright. They’re each other’s biggest cheer squad.

After they decided not to have a second child, Steve encouraged Louisa to get an art studio and also to take up residencies, even when they could barely afford it. They understand the other’s needs for time and space to pursue their creative projects. “The most romantic present you can get her is a drill,” says Steve. “Because that helps her art, and that’s her love, and her passion.”

Their daughter is a teenager now and they still occasionally disagree about parenting. They have different approaches to conflict, says Louisa. “Steven has this amazing knack of turning arguments into jokes. He prefers to smooth things over, whereas I want to get to the nitty-gritty, and communicate.” He’ll often send her memes when they are arguing to diffuse the tension. “I know when the argument is going to frazzle out, because he turns the argument upside down into a joke.”

During Covid, because of Louisa’s compromised immune system, they’ve had to live in different parts of the home for safety. Not having much physical contact is tough. “It’s made it a bit itchy, that’s all,” says Louisa. “A hug is very healing.”

Steve describes their commitment as “understanding that imperfection is perfection.” He adds: “Those times of imperfection are actually part of a bigger story that you don’t just run away from … That’s how you survive a relationship together.

“And that’s how you grow closer. I mean, Louisa doesn’t really age, she’s ageless. So I still feel like I’m dating a 22-year-old – it’s pretty good,” he says with a wide smile.

the couple with their daughter
‘Those times of imperfection are actually part of a bigger story that you don’t just run away from … That’s how you survive a relationship together,’ Steve says. Photograph: Louisa Chircop and Steve May

Louisa agrees: “If we can accept that the model of everything is a cycle, we can always see ourselves getting through it.”

Their final secret to staying together is simple: “Treat the person you’ve been married to for 20 years like the person you’ve just met,” says Steve. “It doesn’t have to change. We still have the same stupid conversations that we had on day one.”

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