Thank you, once again, to everyone who has written to me—your words made me cry, but in a good way. Writing down my story has felt like letting the stopper off a carbonated drink after it’s been shaken—the words have exploded out and my fingers can barely type fast enough. The difficult part is pressing ‘Publish’ and putting the story out there in the public domain. It’s hard to reveal so much about my life, but it’s been even harder to keep it to myself. When I get the supportive and encouraging responses that I have, it makes it worthwhile, and I can’t express my gratitude enough.
How I’ve enjoyed hearing from my past schoolmates—you’ve made me feel that I wasn’t as bad as I believed! As I read your stories, I see that so many of us were lost and struggling to find our way through that maze of authoritarian parenting and Catholic indoctrination. Thank you for sharing your stories with me.
To those who have been prompted to start writing their story, I can’t tell you how much that thrills me! Send it to me when it’s written—if you want, that is. These stories made and shaped us, and they’re worth telling.
To those, like me, for whom abuse has continued into adulthood, please stay in touch—we can support each other.
The need to write my story
This series began as a single essay about my reasons for choosing motherlessness, but it grew and is still growing (sorry!). I wrote the ending, then felt that I needed to explain the journey, and here I am still writing it.
I have to write this story. I’ve carried it inside me for so long, sitting like a lump of concrete in my belly, weighing me down and affecting so much that I do. For years, it’s been crying out, begging to be told, and now that I’ve started, I have to keep writing it. I don’t care if no one reads it, I need to tell it. For so many reasons, but primarily for me. My self-esteem, self-respect, and self-confidence were crushed as a child. I lost my way as a teenager, but I managed to scramble back to the path and stumble forward, one step at a time, and build a good life, to have loving relationships, and to be a decent mother. Despite the abuse and despite some pretty bleak periods, I did it. I had to face my demons, and I worked hard, but I came through and I’m proud of that.
Closing the Door
Obediently, I did as my psychologist told me, and I closed the door on the relationship with my mother. Intellectually, I knew he was right—I’d given my mother hundreds of chances to change and she hadn’t. But deep down, I still hoped that she would. I hoped that once she lost us, she’d look at herself, see how hurtful she’d been. I hoped she’d realise how important we were to her and how much she did love us after all.
But she didn’t. She wrote and gave me her version of the events of that day, laying the blame solely on me. She told me how used and hurt she and my father felt, and how selfish I was, after everything they’d done for me.
I stood firm and didn’t give in, and the letters kept coming, with their numbered paragraphs and footnotes, telling me what she’d told relatives about me, and what she’d ‘stopped short’ of telling them. She told my husband how weak he was for not standing up to me, and how disappointed she and my father were in him.
‘We have always hoped you would help Lou in adversity, and wisely draw her attention to inappropriate activities before they land her in very hot water and caused irredeemable damage, far beyond what we can bear to contemplate.’
Each time I pulled a letter from the mailbox my heart raced and my hands trembled—I could barely read them. In the end, I saved them for my husband to open. I knew she was punishing and threatening me to make me give in. I knew, too, that if I gave in, it would stop. That’s what I’d done in the past—given in to stop the abuse, so life could go back to being smooth again. Until the next time— and there was always a next time—when it would all blow up again.
I had my husband’s support. He’d take me by the shoulders and say, ‘Don’t listen to her. You. Are. Good.’ Over and over, trying to make me believe it. I’ve never needed him as much as I did during that period, and I suspect I would have given in without him.
But I couldn’t believe him, not at first. It was still hard not believing everything my mother had told me over the years, including about their legal case. As much as I hated hearing about it, I’d wanted to believe they were right to keep fighting for justice and to clear their names, otherwise the lost money, the lost properties, and the twenty years of lawyers and courts and angst had all been for nothing.
I remember driving—I even remember which road I was on—when it hit me: this was not normal behaviour for a mother. We had not been a normal family. Normal mothers didn’t hit their kids the way she’d hit us. Normal mothers didn’t gamble sometimes every night of the week. Normal mothers didn’t fight a legal battle for twenty years, run out of money and ask their daughter and son-in-law to buy their house, then treat them like this.
My hands shook on the steering wheel. It seemed crazy when I thought about it. And for all these years, I’d believed it was normal. I’d believed she was right—so many people had wronged her and she had to keep pursuing justice. All those years of believing in something false.
My world was flipped upside-down—everything was the opposite of what I’d always believed. What was good wasn’t. What was right wasn’t. I wasn’t the one behaving irrationally—I was doing the right thing by my family. She was the one who’d done the wrong thing by her family.
I realised why I’d always felt misaligned, as if I had a fault line running through me. One part of me knew right from wrong, and there were things my mother did that went against that. Then there was another part of me, on the other side of the fault line, that wanted to believe her.I wanted to believe she was good and right. I was torn between trusting my own judgement—it was wrong to treat your children the way she did; it was wrong to lie; it was wrong to leave your family at home while you spent evenings and weekends at the Casino—or believing what she told me—it was acceptable and right. I’d had to compromise myself, go along with things I knew weren’t right, in order to keep my mother.
At thirty-six years of age, the two sides that had been forever wrangling with each other could finally stop fighting it out. I could start to trust my innate sense of right and wrong, my own judgement, instead of what my mother told me. I could finally begin to trust myself.
Life Without Parents
I settled into a life without my parents. I kept going to counselling, completing the homework my psychologist gave me: I had a list of good things about myself I had to recite aloud twenty times a day. I’d made up the list in his office—all the good things I wanted to be. Things like, ‘I am a good wife and a kind mother’ and ‘I don’t care what others think about me’. Each week when I returned, I marked myself out of ten for how well I’d achieved them. At first, I gave myself one out of ten, then I got up to twos and threes, and after a few months I was giving myself sixes and sevens. Lo and behold, it worked! What’s more, I got better at living these things—I was a better wife and a kinder mother, and I stopped caring about what others thought of me.
At home, our lives became much smoother and easier. The heavy cloud that had hovered over me for more than three-and-a-half decades shifted out of the way a little, and sometimes the sun peeped through.
For years, I’d had bouts of abdominal pain, diarrhoea and vomiting, and, eventually, I was diagnosed with abdominal migraines. They stopped when I cut off from my mother. So did my need for antidepressants.
I lost the critical voice that had always sat on my shoulder, judging everything I did, telling me I was bad. If someone told me I was nice, I’d think, ‘You wouldn’t say that if you really knew me.’ I’d thought it was my ‘conscience’ speaking, but after it fell away, I realised it had been my mother’s voice.
Since the age of twelve, I’d held onto the hope that my mother would one day change. I wanted to believe that, deep down, she was a good person. I hoped she’d see all of the mistakes she’d made, the hurt she’d caused, the damage she’d done, and I hoped she’d stop it.
It hurt to accept that my mother didn’t care about me or her grandchildren enough to do something about herself, that we were worth so little to her.
I began to see my mother’s actions for what they were. Despite what she said, they were not the actions of someone who loved her daughter or grandchildren. Ever so slowly, I realised she’d never really cared about me, not in the nurturing, caring, loving way that most mothers do. Not in the way I cared about my kids.
I had to accept that my mother’s love wasn’t going to come, and at some point during 2004, I stopped chasing after it.
Next week in Part 4:
Our only option was to sell the property. We asked our lawyers to send my parents an eviction notice. We felt heartless and cruel but had little choice—my mother had refused to deal with a property manager or sign a lease or pay the rent on time. We had to choose between supporting my parents or looking after ourselves and our family, and, as I had to keep telling myself, we had a right to look after ourselves. We wanted to be free of the financial and emotional burden that owning the property had become.