If you skipped the intro to Peace Me you should read it first here
How well we deal with our feelings is so important and as children, if we haven’t been equipped to deal with and process those feelings properly, we carry them right on through to our teen years and it’s at this stage of our lives where the ability to cope with our feelings is of paramount importance. I was never equipped to process my feelings in a healthy way. Our family has a very long history of sweeping things under the carpet, ignoring the obvious and just getting on with things. Because getting on with things is how so many people exist. Some exist just fine but for many of us we suffer in silence or we act out our unprocessed feelings in all the wrong ways.
I felt as a child, that I didn’t really matter and I thought there was something inherently wrong with me. I experienced multiple episodes of sexual abuse and after telling my father about the first guy – my dad did nothing. In fact, that guy (Jack) remained a family friend for many years. Quite simply my dads’ fear of confrontation overruled the responsibility of protecting his daughter. My father was on the whole, unavailable to me. I experienced some very real cruelty from him. None of it was physical – my father rarely even touched me which is even more telling – but his words and his actions were worse than any beating I ever got later on in a government institution. I realise that’s a big statement but my father was the guy who was supposed to love and cherish me. The cruel adults in the institution, I had no such expectation from. My dad was abandoned by his mother at a very young age (three years old) and he was taken from pillar to post. A variety of orphanages and then abusive institutions. He was also sexually abused, as was my mother and like my mother and I – it damaged him until he died. Of course, I did not know any of this information about my parents until I was much older.
I carried much of the feelings about my father into adulthood and much of them remain unknown to most of my family. I’m choosing not to write about the actual details as they really do not add any further context to what I am discussing. What I am pointing out, is that I was damaged by his treatment and nobody really noticed. Nobody had a clue as to why I was running away from home at the age of ten. I continued running until I was classed by the government as uncontrollable and institutionalised indefinitely. However, you learn a lot on the streets. I learned that I was safer there than at home. I learned from the streets how I could work the system if I ever fell into the governments clutches. It was from the family home (sleepovers at friends and sports) that I experienced even more sexual abuse. I simply did not want to be at home.
My mother was busy working full time and raising four children and serving a chauvinist husband. In fact, it was the classic patriarchal setting. It’s just how things were back then. It no longer hurts me now because I have gradually over the years been able to equip myself with the tools to process those childhood feelings and move on – almost. Writing about it is therapeutic and much cheaper than any well-esteemed psychiatrist that I could afford.
I have also been able to forgive my parents and be grateful because they did the best they possibly could with the tools they had at the time. They were damaged souls trying to ‘just get over it’. I also hope that my children can forgive me for my mistakes as a parent and know that I too, was operating with the limited tools I had at the time. This is my point about parenting. People only operate with the tools they have been equipped with and those tools have more to do with the society they live in at the time. It is society as a whole that needs to support parents and children and be open to new and progressive ideas without shouting others down when they fear the changes surely coming.
People who are hurting tend to hurt other people. So if we start with our children perhaps there could be more healing and less hurting. Yes?
We also need to pay more attention to the diversity amongst each other and our children. We could start by not telling other families they should ‘fuck off back home’ because they have different customs and or beliefs. It’s cruel, ignorant and totally based on fear but more damaging is that children take on these views because they learn it from the adults around them.
I will never forget my best friend coming to my house one day and knocking on our door. Our living room was the very first room next to the front door. When I answered the door to my friend my father who was sitting in the living room muttered: “what’s that black bitch doing here?” I literally wanted the ground to swallow me up, I was so deeply embarrassed and felt so ashamed. My friend, however, did not miss a beat – she had heard this many many times, sadly mostly from grown adults.
In the institution I was in (Wilson), the girls were segregated. We were encouraged by the male staff to hate based on colour. Those staff members often incited racial wars and seemed to get a real kick out of the girls hating on each other. These grown adults would then go home and repeat these attitudes to their own children. So that wheel keeps turning. The white girls were called ‘white trash’ or ‘white moles’ and the black girls were called ‘black sluts’. I’m not proud to admit that after coming out of that place I had many issues in regard to black people. Not because I truly knew what I was on about – simply by the ignorance I was taught by my own parents and the adults around me, of whom, I really want to push home this fact – were themselves taught this way of thinking. It isn’t until we grow into ourselves that we start to form our own ideas from our own experiences.
Children take on everything around them. So it’s your choice what the children around you see.
Mental illness was hidden from children in my day. I still remember my mum taking the Bex powders whenever she had a headache. She must have had lots of headaches. Bex was known as ‘mothers little helper’ and was freely available over the counter until they were linked with high rates of kidney cancer and banned in 1977. I’m not sure what else mum used to take but I know she was always taking something either prescribed by a doctor or freely available from chemists. Looking back I can see that she was struggling with depression and anxiety. She was yet another one who had carried her unprocessed feelings from a sexually abusive childhood into adulthood. Nobody cared enough to help her despite several adults (including her own mother) knowing that my mum from the age of four was being sexually abused. Her mother was often too drunk to care and when she was aware she covered it all up and did nothing to protect her daughter. In short – my grand mother was a piece of shit. I’m not dressing that kind of crap up – some people are just pieces of shit.
My mum loved to shop and still does to this day. It makes her feel happy. I remember when my father was about to get his payout from the government over the abuse he suffered as a child in those god awful boys homes. I took him aside and told him to not spend all this money with mindless shopping and his response was that it’s what mum had always done and it makes her happy. Sweep that crap under the carpet. Cover it up – don’t deal with it. It’s just how it was back then huh?
That sweeping under the carpet, the not talking about things carries itself on through the generations. I too shopped – for many years. Until I realised it was actually causing me more pain in the long run. I’m still in danger of doing so again if my mania is permitted to run off and play!
The point though is that we tend to mirror our parents in many ways. What kind of mirror were you looking into as a child? What kind of mirror are the children in your life looking at? These are important questions that need some honest answers.
Fortunately, in some cases, we do the opposite of what our parents did as a direct response to our own experiences. For example, I told my kids I loved them every day from the time they were born. My father told me he loved me once – when he was drunk and apologising for being an absolute prick to me at the time. My experience and the resulting feelings drove me to ensure that my kids knew I loved them. Yet many of my behaviours must have surely left them confused. I was just as messed up as my parents – I just displayed it in different ways.
Time also grows us and I know this to be especially true in how I raised my sons compared to how I raised my daughter who was born seven years after my last son and with a new husband.
My own children suffered when I kicked their dad out. At first, I had the three boys and there was the battle royal over custody. The custody battle was simply awful. I got to see the patriarchal bullshit system at its finest. I was reported repeatedly to child protection services by neighbours who had been manipulated by my ex. Although those manipulations failed in the end as the child protection service officer attended the court case to defend me. It was declared that the reports and harassment were based on lies and acts of retribution. The fact I aborted a pregnancy to another man while separated from my husband was brought up (and allowed) in court – like it impacted on my ability as a parent. The fact I had left the kids with my husband the first time we broke up because he refused to leave the house was also part of his lawyers’ defence – I had ‘abandoned’ my children. There was no mention of the very well known fact that children statistically cope better by staying in the family home while the parents sort out the finer details of a marriage breakdown. There was also no mention of the fact that my ex was preventing me from seeing the kids. I had to hire a lawyer to get that sorted.
My ex and his lawyer were so focused on what I was doing when I was away from the children rather than on what I was doing when I was with them.
In the end, I won sole custody but only months later my eldest son decided he wanted to live with his dad. I absolutely knew at the time that my ex was manipulating the kids’ feelings but was powerless to do anything about it. I am also very much a supporter of letting kids decide with whom they wish to live when it comes to relationship breakdowns – even when it doesn’t go my way. I would love to write about this time of my life to make myself look good but I can’t – it would be dishonest to you, myself and my kids. I was twenty-six years old with three boys, a broken marriage and feeling what I refer to as ‘bipolar as fuck’ but in great denial about that bipolar disorder. One son had just left to live with his dad. Not long after that, I had decided it was all just too fucking hard. I was sick of the continual fighting with my ex, his endless abusive phone calls, his continual threats and all the bullshit that goes on in dysfunctional relationships.
I had been seeing a guy and whenever the kids were at their dads’, I was out drinking, taking drugs, hell-raising. Then the kids would come home and I would switch to ‘mama mode’ again. However, it was getting very hard to switch between the two – ‘good mama’ and ‘good times Donna’. Good times Donna, of course, was in full mania stage and back then you certainly didn’t acknowledge or admit these things – they got you put in the ‘nuthouse’ – a place I was determined to never be again. After a year of all this drama with the ex and my own internal struggles, I packed up the kids stuff and left them with their dad. I told my ex he could have them and leave me the fuck alone. Immature? Yes. Irresponsible? Yes. Regrettable? Oh very much so.
It was a matter of a month and I was deeply regretting my actions and I took my youngest boy (aged three and a half) back. I simply refused to return him after having him for the weekend. My eldest was staying with his dad – he had reiterated the fact repeatedly because he didn’t want his dad to be lonely. This was coming from a seven-year-old boy. His father’s manipulations and his own confusion about my actions had made him feel that he had to ‘be there’ for his dad. This is where we fail our children and it’s something that I have regretted ever since.
I married the ‘guy’ I was seeing (my now husband of 25 years). We had moved to another town a few hours away and by this stage, the ex and I were on talking terms. After only a couple of months, my new husband and I realised that the reality of living so far away and still being able to access the other children was in fact unrealistic. In fact, those couple of months gave everyone a chance to re-calibrate. We were in constant phone contact with the kids and writing letters so it was a natural progression once we moved back to the same city, that we were meeting up at parks for the kids to play and for all of us to see each other. My focus at this stage was to get my ex to a place where he would accept that the kids may change their minds about whom they want to live with. I knew my middle son wanted to live with us. It wasn’t long after that when he did come to live with us and a couple of years later we had our daughter.
Things calmed down a fair bit through these years, the kids were fairly settled and they accepted my new husband and his two children visiting every other weekend. There were hiccups and a few dramas but very much the normal kind of stuff that comes with trying to engage three families simultaneously. The most important changes had come from the adults – when we settled – the children settled. When we showed maturity, the children felt safe. It really is that simple. But bloody hell it was a real learning curve for me. I didn’t go into motherhood with those tools, I had to develop them from all the mistakes I made as a parent and unfortunately, children pay the price for that. The flip side is that I learned many of those tools when the kids were still relatively young so I was able to show them that adults can change for the better.
They got to see (eventually) their parents actually get along with each other. They got to see that family means many different things. Both of the boys living with us changed their mind about where they want to live (at separate times). We facilitated this even though it hurt me deeply. One only stayed away for a year and the youngest left when he was nearly twelve and honestly, it really had more to do with the liberal freedoms they got at their dads’ – plus the motorbikes and cars. He’s still mad about cars. In fact, all the boys are mad about bikes or cars just like their dad. My eldest never came back to live with me, he came close several times but then he would change his mind. I still believe he didn’t want to ‘abandon’ his dad. Of course, there are loads of things I have chosen not to write about merely because it’s a matter of privacy for my children but I think I have written enough to give the general idea of how children are made to feel when adults can’t get their shit together.
So what’s this got to do with children’s feelings? Everything. Children feel and react in direct response to how we treat them and in how we respond to them.
When I was in junior high school my best friend died. He was my boyfriend for a few years as we were growing up. He was my first kiss and my first clueless grope! He also suffered chronic asthma and carried a ‘puffer’ with him everywhere. One afternoon on the bus home from high school some of the students decided it would be fun to take the puffer from him and throw it around, puffing the spray out as they threw it from one to the other. What they didn’t realise at the time was they had just about emptied the puffer. That night he died from an asthma attack – there was nothing coming from his inhaler (puffer). I was devastated to learn of his death and when I found out about the episode on the bus and who was the main culprit – I lost my mind. I tried to attack this guy at school with some industrial scissors. It was one of my older brothers who stopped me thankfully. As a side note, I was quite a violent child in response to the cruelty of others. Of course, my parents were also told about my attempted scissors attack. I can still remember that night as if it was yesterday. We were sitting at the dining table having dinner and my dad was telling me how stupid I was, how my friend was just ‘scum’ anyway and he just got more belligerent in response to my silence. Another piece of me went into hiding that night. I was expected to just shut up and deal with it – the death of a childhood sweetheart. Of course, there was not a hope in hell of going to the funeral or having any real closure. I was left wondering how many pieces of me would make the whole pie called ‘Hiding’.