Please bear with me on this, I think it may be a slightly long one, but I hope to cover quite a bit of ground.
I have now been a mother for nearly six months, and although parenthood is this hard, whirlwind of a journey, it has been bloody amazing too. The tiredness and dirty nappies I knew were coming and so expected. What I didn’t expect was how becoming a mummy would change the person I was, inside. Let me explain.
Before Evie was born, I had mixed feelings, as you know. I really wanted this baby, but I was terrified of messing things up (or in other words, making her turn out like me). I thought I would pop her out, and go back to work full time at say, six months (full time of course) and that would be that. I didn’t see myself as this motherly figure, I was myself as the same person, plus this little baby that would totally fit into my normal life.
How wrong was I?
My life as I know it has gone, and actually I’m pretty glad about that. I love my new life, where my sole focus is that precious little bundle I keep by my side. As the months have passed, I have found the ideas and ethos that I like, and I have found those that I don’t. I have embraced the ideas of attachment parenting (in short, keeping baby close) and am breastfeeding on demand, babywearing (wearing her in a sling, lots) and co-sleeping (don’t worry, I am following the guidelines for safe co-sleeping). I am planning on extended breastfeeding until she is ready to wean on her own (not sure how that one is going to go down with family but who cares), extended co-sleeping (partner isn’t happy but again, who cares) and gentle parenting techniques (no discipline as such (I will explain more on this later, don’t dismiss me until you have read it!), no naughty step, no shouting or hitting/spanking).
I have been doing quite a bit of soul searching (as the title alluded to!) and I feel as though I need to get some of those thoughts down and out where I can process them properly. I wanted to share them with you as maybe some of you could identify with them.
First off, I have been thinking a lot about the past 10 years, and about how much my mental illness has taken from me. I have been struggling to come to terms with the fact that my dad’s illness is progressing (his chemo has failed but he is now taking what the doctors have called a “wonder drug” – more on that in a bit) and the saddest thing for me is that my illness has stolen 10 years of which I could have spent having a much better relationship with my parents. I have been thinking about my early years, and about how my illness developed, partly because I need some sort of closure on things but also because I want to do everything in my power to prevent history from repeating itself with my own daughter.
As Evie grows every day, I do get a lot of unwanted “advice” from my family, mainly my mum, dad and sister. They do feel they have the right to give me advice on most things, despite me never asking for it. It does make me laugh when my mum gives me advice and then says “Well, you turned out fine…”. Often I have to bite my tongue to save her feelings, as I want to point out that even after 10 years of intervention, I’m still not “fine”.
I have been digging a little deeper into the relationship with my mother/parents when I was a young child. According to my mother, I was breastfed until I was four/five months old, until she went back to work, and I went to a child minder (Lyn – we are still in touch now and I love her to bits). Immediately this flags up something in my mind. Evie is now nearly six months and she hasn’t been away from me for more than 3 hours. She is still exclusively breastfed and I plan to keep it that way until I have to return to work (part time rather than full time). I wonder, did this early separation between me and my mother lead to my issues with “seeking out a mother figure” behaviour all through my teens and twenties?
Let me elaborate on this point: Only a few years ago when I started thinking about my illness and how I behave, did I come to realise that from around the age of 12, I had sought out and found various women who I held in my life as “mother figures”. In fact, it may have been even earlier than 12, as I can remember some behaviour at junior school (so I would have been 9 possibly 10?) being similar. The cycle was always the same; I would find a woman, normally quite a lot older than me, and I would become almost obsessed with them. I would try to spend as much time as possible with them, and learn as much as I could about them. I wanted them to love me as I loved them, and would be devastated when they didn’t. During my school years, these were more often than not teachers, school nurses, matrons or similar. I can remember quite a few, I can think of nearly 15 names, and I am sure there were more. As I got older, my tactics changed slightly. As I went through mental health traumas I would share my “secrets” with these teachers or people, I suppose to get them to look after me – self harming, which then turned to suicide attempts. When I left school (and I was dreading it as I couldn’t imagine living without those people in my life) and moved to university, the cycle continued with my university lecturers. The obsessions continued, and unfortunately two years into university it happened with a woman who turned out to be a lesbian, leading to a catastrophic relationship detailed in this post here. Even after university it continued, through friends and even my mentor when I did a post-grad type course. All the relationships with these people had similarities. They were all female. They were all substantially older than me. They were all people I looked up to. I told them all my troubles, trauma and confided in them (to get them to look after me). Some I asked to change self harm dressings for me (when I was perfectly capable of doing it myself). Some I bought expensive christmas/birthday presents for. I honestly now believe that all my life I have been looking for a maternal attachment. The sad thing is, I don’t feel able to have it with my own mother. Of course, our relationship is a lot better, and a lot closer now. But we will never have the type of relationship that all my life I wanted, and I think now I seem to have stopped repeating this behaviour with other women, perhaps I have finally stopped needing it.
When I think back through my childhood and teens, I can remember several incidences of where my parents have reacted in a certain way, which had a profound effect on how I thought and felt about things at the time. Of course, there is the school of thought where parents have the right to treat their children the way they want to, but for the purposes of me trying to work out how my illness progressed, and how I became who I am, go with me on this one.
I mentioned above that I am planning on/hoping to follow a more gentle method of parenting, and within this I want to avoid punishment. When I first read that you could parent without punishment, I thought it was crazy. I thought it would mean I would bring up an ill mannered, spoilt little brat who in all honesty, needed a slap (crazy huh.) But then I read into it more and I realised something; my parents brought me up with punishment, and where did it get me? So let’s look at this a little deeper.
Children who are punished for things, start doing things for fear of punishment. They don’t do it because they want to, or because they want to make people happy. They do it because they are scared of what might happen (be it a physical punishment, or having something taken away). I can vividly remember feeling scared of punishment, and it made me angry and resent my parents. There is a question to be asked in whether the relationship between the parent and child should be based on punishment (so fear, resentment, pain, threats) or whether it should be based on trust, empathy and love. I don’t want Evie to resent me, but I do want her to respect me (and I wholeheartedly believe that respect should be earned.) I don’t want to punish Evie, but that doesn’t mean I won’t set boundaries, and stick to them.
If my thoughts on parenting are wrong, then the worst case scenario is we raise a child who is spoilt and entitled. In some ways, I think to myself that actually I would rather that than raise a child with mental health issues like mine. I suppose only time will tell on how effective this parenting style will be but it feels like to right thing to do.
I mentioned above that I can remember several incidences of things that happened and the way that my parents reacted. The first happened when I was 12. I went on holiday with my parents to Jamaica, and stayed in a nice all inclusive resort. One evening my parents were at the “party area” when I noticed that there were people swimming in the pool. It was dark (although there were lanterns around the pool) and the pool was actually out of sight of the area where my parents were. I asked if I could go night swimming, and they agreed. I can’t remember if they gave me any boundaries to stick to. In the pool, there was a bridge, going right over the middle. When I went swimming, I met two black boys, who must have been a similar age to me, or maybe slightly older. One was called Paul, and the other ones’ name I have forgotten. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I ended up underneath the bridge with Paul, and we were “heavy petting”. It was my first time, and from memory, I just grabbed his bits, and he just grabbed mine, lol! When I got back to the room, I wrote about what had happened in my holiday diary. To this day, my dad still tells me that I wrote about it knowing he read my diary every day, but that is not how I remember it. I didn’t realise he would read it. Anyway, when he read what I had written, first of all he didn’t believe me and just assumed I had made it up, but secondly he got very angry, and so did my mum. She called me a slag, and he pretty much grabbed me by the neck and threatened to throw me over the balcony of our apartment.
Now this, to me, is traditional, mainstream parenting and although they were doing what they felt was right at the time, it was not the right thing for me, as a 12 year old child. This situation, whether or not I had lied, could have been saved from later manifesting into negative thoughts and feelings towards the male sex in general. What I actually needed, was to be sat down and explained to that my body and private areas are to loved and respected. I needed to be taught how to respect myself and how things like I had done should be saved for when you love someone enough to share your body with them. My parents, I believe, should have questioned their judgement over letting their 12 year old daughter go swimming in the dark alone with other boys (perhaps they did – guess I didn’t ask). Instead, they punished me for my behaviour and the cause of it was never brought up for discussion.
Another incident happened when I was between around 7 and 9. We were watching a flight back from a family holiday in Tenerife and I was unwell – I had been suffering from diarrhoea and vomiting for several days. The vomiting had stopped but the diarrhoea hadn’t. Anyway, I remember this quite clearly. I was wearing my favourite denim dungarees – they were like dungarees but shorts. On the way to getting on the plane, I farted. At least I thought I was going to – instead I actually pooped myself. I was literally mortified, but couldn’t say anything as I was too embarrassed and ashamed. Instead, I sat there through take off, braced between my hands on the side of the seat and my toes so I didn’t have to put all my weight on it. My dad kept asking me if I had farted because it obviously smelt bad. When we were up in the air, I went to the toilet, cleaned myself up, scraped it into the toilet, washed my pants in the sink and dried them as best as I could under the hand dryer, and padded myself out with paper towels, before returning to my seat. When we finally got home, I found a way to throw away my favourite dungarees as I was too ashamed to put them in the wash in case my mum saw them. I have never really discussed that incident with anyone, and to this day my parents don’t know. When I look back now, I feel sad that I couldn’t confide in either of my parents at the time, and ask them to help me, and that I was already so emotionally alone at such a young age. I hope that through thoughtful parenting Evie never has to experience that. I hope she grows up feeling safe, secure and able to discuss anything no matter how awkward or embarrassing.
When I was about 9, I had a cat called Sammy. One morning as we were reversing out of the drive on the way to school, I saw her lying on the curb, obviously dead. My mum jumped out of the car and ran in the house, obviously asking my dad what to do. Nothing was really said to me about it, other than she had been hit by a car and that she would be buried in the garden the following day. The next day I got up early before my parents were up and went into the garden. I found Sammy in the garage, frozen solid wrapped in a white plastic bag. I sat there with my thin nightdress and bare feet, unwrapped her and hugged her and stroked her face. I sat there and said goodbye to my beloved pet. I am so sad that I was never taught about death, and given a chance to understand it, but I do see something beautiful in the fact that at the age I took it upon myself to find my own way to say goodbye to her. As with the last incident, my parents never knew I did this.
Another incident happened when I was in junior school, so I must have been between 9-10. My parents had booked me to go on a school skiing trip to Austria, but shortly beforehand I had an argument with my mother. The way I remember it, was her calling me names, but I am sure there was more to it and I am sure I was being difficult, as I often was at that age. Anyway, I ran away from the house and I hid in an alleyway between two buildings in the garden centre a few doors up from my house. I must have only been missing for several hours but it had got dark and I could hear people walking around and calling my name. Eventually, I got cold and hungry and so started banging on the wall (I’m guessing so someone would come and investigate, and then find me). When I got home, I can only remember being met with anger, (How could you do this, we called the police and everything) and punishment (Well you are definitely not going on the skiing trip now). It was actually only my sister who slept on the bottom bunk in my bedroom and who tried to talk to me about WHY I had run away in the first place. As it happens, I begged and begged and was still allowed to go on the skiing trip, and the incident was never spoken about again.
When I left junior school and moved to senior school, I gained an academic scholarship. Much later, I was searching for some paperwork at my parents house when I came across a letter written from my mother to the headmaster of my junior school. The basic gist of the letter was that now I had gained an academic scholarship to my new school, it meant that any referrals to psychiatric help/psychotherapy could be cancelled as they were no longer needed. When I read this, I think I sat and stared at it for hours. How I wish that she hadn’t written this letter and I could have got some help right at the beginning.
When I was 12 (ish) my mum developed breast cancer in her left breast. I don’t remember much of the circumstances around her cancer, other than the way I found out about it; that is, my dad was driving me to the school bus stop and he just dropped into conversation “Oh, and your mum found a lump, and it’s cancer”. He then deposited me at the bus stop and left me to go to school. I find myself wondering whether the complete lack of communication between my parents and I had an impact on my mental health in later life, as it definitely had an impact on our relationship. When my mum went in for her mastectomy, I didn’t want to visit her. I knew how upset she was about this, but I still couldn’t bring myself to go, and then when I did, I just sat there in silence with a lump in my throat. Even now, I struggle when something is “wrong”. Anyone else other than my parents, I am caring, gentle, helpful and empathic. I show emotions readily and want to help. But with my parents I feel isolated and unable to show that I am concerned or even interested. I don’t know how much of that is down to my upbringing or how much of it is just “me”. I feel terrible about one day when my mum actually made the effort to drive into the city to pick me up rather than me getting the bus. She was going through chemo and had lost her hair, so was bald with a bandana on. I actually asked her to park up the road as I was embarrassed by her. It must have hurt her so much when I asked her that. I wish I could turn the clock back and not be so bloody vain and short sighted.
It has taken me a long time to let go of the blame I have towards my parents. I know now that they did the best they could for me, although sadly it was not what me as a person needed to grow into a well balanced, secure and healthy individual. I feel sad that my parents cannot see the impact of their behaviour on me and their contribution to the development of my mental health problems, and therefore they believe it was my fault, that I chose to go through what I did.