This is the final instalment in this series. The first post, which is about my childhood, can be found here. You can click the links at the end of each post to follow the series to here.
It seems that September is my month for writing about the ‘big stuff’. Last September, I wrote about my sister’s death. I concluded that piece with:
‘I have these stories tucked away inside my heart where I’ve kept them all this time, sheltered and shielded. Now I unwrap them, one-by-one, these pieces of me.’
This series of posts has been tucked away far deeper than the tale of my sister’s death. Telling this story has felt like stepping into a dark room and forcing myself to stay despite the urge to run. Now I’ve told it, it’s out and can’t be hidden again.
Yet I had to write it—this is my story, the biggest story of my life. It’s been a burden to carry, both as a child and as an adult trying to raise my own family. Each time I’ve sat down to write, this is the tale I’ve wanted to tell. I’ve shied away for many reasons—thinking it was too big, wondering where to start, where to stop, and how to put it all into words; fearful of writing publicly about private matters; and worrying that people wouldn’t want to read it.
But, writing it and telling people has brought only relief—I feel as if I’ve unburdened a giant. And each time I read it, more of its intensity ebbs away.
As I’ve written this, I’ve tried to keep my emotions at a distance. In real life, I don’t always manage that. Many times, I’ve felt angry, very angry. I’ve felt sorry for myself and envious of people with nice mothers, and I’ve often wished that my mother was different.
Then I get off my pity pot, put my head down, and get on with it. But it’s been hard to raise a family with this as a backdrop.
Now that I’ve finished telling my story, I’ll let it sit for a while and let it settle. Eventually, I want to pull it apart and put it together again as a summary essay.
Thank you everyone, once again, for your comments, support, and encouragement.
We’re easy to spot, we adults who have been abused as children—there’s a vulnerability, a lack of confidence, a sadness about us. You can hear it in the words we say, see the pain in our eyes. And we have a few cracks. We share a bond because we understand something normal people don’t understand, and can’t possibly ever understand, because normal people have no idea what it’s like to grow up with a mother who didn’t love you.
Childhood abuse doesn’t just hurt physically, it’s soul-shattering. As a child, you look to your mother, the most significant person in your life, to learn about yourself. If you’re told you’re bad, that’s what you think you are. When you’re hit, slapped, kicked—words aren’t needed to tell you that you’re worthless and undeserving of respect. If your pants are pulled down and you’re hit while trying to protect the private parts of your body, it’s even worse—that shame and humiliation stays with you forever.
As a child, there was nothing I could do to stop the abuse—I was powerless and there was no escape. I tried to block it out, but there were days when most of my brain was taken up thinking, ‘How am I going to get over this?’ I couldn’t tell a teacher or a relative, let alone Child Protection. If I did try to tell my mother, I was told it was me—I was the problem, it was my fault, and if I behaved better, it wouldn’t happen.
I tried and I kept hoping that one day I might be good enough for it to stop. But I never was. The goal posts would shift, so that reaching them was impossible. Or what was good one day, wasn’t acceptable the next. Or if I brought something up, I was told it didn’t happen, when I knew it did. Or that I’d misunderstood, when I knew I hadn’t.
The abuse didn’t stop—it continued into my teenage years and beyond, and it’s still going. Sometimes I’m so tired of it that it’s hard to put one foot in front of the other and get through the day. I used to try to battle on, but I don’t anymore. These days, I curl up and let the sadness come.
Although I was aware that I didn’t have a good maternal role model, I had no idea how hard it would be to mother my children without one. All I knew was that I was determined not to do to my kids what had been done to me.
The pile of parenting textbooks by my bedside grew and I read them all in order to learn how to be a good mother. I took all advice on board and was constantly on edge—if I wasn’t with my baby, I panicked; if my daughter cried, I felt anxious until she stopped. I was trying so hard not to harm her.
At the time, I was unaware of how much of my childhood was being brought back by my children—I didn’t realise that each stage they passed through was triggering my own childhood memories. I wrote once before how the sight of my daughter struggling as she lay across my lap while I cleaned her messy bottom triggered the memory of lying across my mother’s knee, my bare bottom in the air and struggling as she hit me.
I didn’t realise, either, that each time I was attentive to my children’s emotional needs, it brought back what was not done for me.
I had no idea how scarred I was—all I knew was that I avoided anything to do with child abuse. As a doctor, I found it too upsetting. When out and about, I turned away if I witnessed a child being hit. I remember seeing a mother slap her daughter across the face in a supermarket car park. The mother walked off and the child lifted the hem of her dress to dry her tears. I felt hot, my heart raced, and tears flowed as I climbed into my car.
When I had my own kids, this was amplified. I did my best not to hurt my kids, but I couldn’t always stop other people from hurting them, or treating them unfairly, or not recognising their goodness. Each time it happened, my own scars would open, and in I’d slip. Sometimes, I couldn’t pull myself back out and the world would become bleak and painful once again, and I’d be sobbing on the floor.
I’ve spent hours in counselling, reaching into those painful places in my memory and extracting the scenes from my childhood one-by-one. I’ve sat with them and felt their fear and their terror, and let myself feel their pain. Each time I do that, the memory shifts towards a safer place—a place that doesn’t cause my heart to race or my breath to come fast when I think of it. A place alongside all my other memories, where it can sit without terror and without pain.
I still have nightmares about my mother but they’re fewer and only return when I’m forced to deal with her. A few weeks’ ago when my husband told me I’d called out in my sleep, I didn’t tell him that I’d been dreaming about my mother.
My sister and I used to talk a lot about what my mother did to us. I remember my sister telling me that sometimes she wanted to kill herself just to show our mother how much she hurt her. I told her I’d often thought the same.
My brother and I have talked about it. We used to joke about writing a self-help book for abused kids. We had chapters on, ‘How To Cope When Your Mother Beats You For Your Own Good’, ‘How To Cope When Your Mother Rubs Your Nose In Your Own Pee’, and ’20 Things To Do In The Car While Waiting For Your Mother At The Casino’. We had a bonus chapter for parents: ‘How Suing the Government Benefits the Family’.
Behind the humour sat decades of pain, humiliation, and grief.
I wish I could strip away my childhood and start again as a fresh and undamaged child. But I can’t. However, through my children I’ve been able to glimpse my undamaged self—the child who was good and was told she was bad. And mothering my kids gave me the opportunity to mother that child in me. I told the child Louise that she was good, and that what was done to her was wrong. That the pain she’d felt was valid, and that she hadn’t deserved it. And I told the wayward teenage Louise that I forgave her—that she’d been young, and she did the best she could, the only way she knew how at the time—escape.
I think the child Louise nearly believes the adult Louise, but she’ll never fully believe her. There’ll always be a part of her that thinks she’s bad, that if she’d tried harder, behaved better, it wouldn’t have happened.
In the last two years, my mother has lashed out at others close to her and has lost not only her children, but other close family members, too. Gradually, I’ve got my extended family back, and I hear more and more of the stories. My mother has also served an uncle with a writ for defamation—the same uncle who stepped in to help my father keep working when his dementia was worsening. Another uncle was threatened with a writ, and continued to receive threatening letters from my mother even after she knew he was dying. And I’ve heard the lies, including that she gave my husband and me $250,000.
There’s relief in knowing that others now know what went on in our family, and that I’m believed. But the sadness outweighs the relief. There’s a sense of loss for all that could have been: for my father, who worked so hard, but didn’t get the life he deserved; and for three beautiful, talented kids, who never knew how good they really were.
In spite of everything, I feel a sadness for my mother—she was intelligent and creative, and could have done so much. Instead, she chose to channel her talents in a destructive way, and has lost almost everything she had, including her family. I feel sorry for her, but I can’t help her.
I decided at a very young age that I was not going to pass the baton of abuse on to the next generation—my mother was abused, her mother was abused, and goodness-knows-how-many generations before her were abused. Someone had to stop the cycle.
My children are growing up—one is grown and left home—and I’ve done it: I’ve raised a family without abuse. I birthed four beautiful, good children, who are all still beautiful and good. Most of all, they all know their mother thinks they’re beautiful and good.
I carry a sadness that I don’t think will ever completely disappear. And tucked away deep inside, sheltered and shielded, I carry a mother-shaped scar.
But at least my children won’t have one.