This isn’t the post I intended for this week, but the original one has turned into an unwieldy epic and I’m still working on it.
Our second daughter finished school last year and will turn eighteen next month. This means both of our girls will have reached legal adulthood, and only our sons remain at school. I’ve been reflecting on raising our daughters, on the things I did well and of which I’m proud, and things I wish I’d done better, or at least ‘cottoned onto’ sooner.
I’m writing about all of that but, as I said, that post isn’t ready, so I’ll save it for the future. In the meantime, I plucked this section from it, as I thought it stood quite well as a piece all by itself.
My earliest memory is of misbehaving and feeling ashamed. I’d climbed onto the kitchen bench to reach the matches, and burnt my finger when one caught alight. I was frightened to tell my mother, because I knew I’d be in trouble. And I was—I got a hiding because I’d been told not to play with matches.
Later that day, my father took me with him when he went out. We visited Mr Hudson, and I remember standing under green perspex while they discussed something about a trailer. Mr Hudson noticed the Band-Aid on my finger and asked me what had happened.
I looked towards Dad because I didn’t want to tell this man how naughty I’d been. ‘She burnt her finger,’ Dad said, answering for me and winking at me.
To this day, I remember the relief of not being shamed publicly.
I don’t remember a time before I felt shame. As a kid, when I told lies, I was a liar. When I didn’t want to share, I was selfish. When I took things that didn’t belong to me, I was a thief. And I was ashamed of myself.
Those labels were repeated to me many times throughout my childhood, and I took them on board, internalising them, and believing that’s who I was—a liar, selfish, a thief. I wasn’t good like everyone else—I was bad, undeserving, unworthy. And I was ashamed.
I carried that shame into my teenage years and adult life. It was always there, casting a long shadow over decisions I made and moments that should have been happy.
When my husband asked me to marry him, I said, ‘Yes,’ then, ‘Are you sure?’
At my graduation, I felt unworthy and undeserving of the title ‘Doctor’.
When my kids showed talent at something, I said they got it from their father—nothing good could have come from me.
I avoided people who I thought were better than me, believing they wouldn’t want to associate with someone like me. If I did find friends, I felt lucky, and I put up with a lot of crap just to keep them. I’ve let people walk over the top of me because I didn’t believe I deserved the same treatment as everyone else. I’ve been unable to say, ‘No’, because I felt I had to ‘earn’ love, that no one would love me just for me.
For many years, I didn’t even realise I was doing this, let alone understand why.
When one of our daughters was seven or eight, Tamagotchis (an electronic toy) were all the rage. We hadn’t yet bought one for our daughter, and one day her friend came over to play, and brought hers along. When it came time for the friend to leave, despite searching high and low, we couldn’t find the toy anywhere. I asked my daughter a number of times, but she hadn’t seen it anywhere.
In the end, her friend went to leave without it. We said goodbye and once we were back inside, I kept searching. My daughter ran to her bed and sat at the pillow end.
‘The Tamagotchi’s not under the pillow,’ she said. ‘I already looked.’
Of course, that’s where it was, and I ran out to the friend, holding the Tamagotchi aloft, just as they were pulling out from the kerb. By the time I’d returned, my daughter was already in tears, begging me not to tell her friend, or her father, or anyone, and promising she’d never do it again.
I didn’t know what to do, whether to make her apologise to her friend, or whether to let it pass without consequence. I could see how bad she felt, so I decided to do no more—just the promise that she wouldn’t do it again.
She was still crying, so I sat on her bed and told her a story. I told her about when I was her age, I’d coveted my friend’s swap cards. One day, I pretended to discover some of them when I got home, ‘accidentally’ tangled inside my beach towel.
When my mother confronted me, I said I had no idea how they got there, that it was an accident, and I hadn’t stolen them.
I was given hidings until I owned up, sent to my friend’s house to apologise, and called a liar and a thief for years afterwards. Each time it was brought up, I felt overwhelming shame.
I did something different with my daughter: I told her that I could see how awful she felt. I also told her that she’d made a mistake, but that she was a child and that’s what childhood is about—making mistakes and learning. Discovering what’s right and wrong, learning what feels good to do and what feels bad.
I told her, too, that I believed her when she said she wouldn’t do it again, and I promised that if she never repeated it, I wouldn’t mention it ever again, nor tell her friend or anyone else.
She never stole another thing.
I’ve often felt like a mirror for my kids. I see them looking to me, hoping to see something good reflected back—love, pride, gratitude, the sense that they are good. And that’s what they usually get. (Not always—sometimes they get annoyance and frustration, but that’s normal and it passes.)
One thing they never get is that I’m ashamed of them or that they should be ashamed of themselves. I don’t want to give them that burden because I know it well, and the weight of shame is the heaviest burden of all to carry.
I try and have always tried to let my children know that their mistakes aren’t permanent stains on their character. That it’s okay to be imperfect, and that even though they err, it doesn’t mean they’re not ‘good’ people. Telling a lie doesn’t make someone a ‘liar’. Trying to steal a Tamagotchi doesn’t make them a ‘thief’.
They are mistakes and children are allowed to make mistakes. It is, in fact, part of the job description of being a kid.
Just part of the job description of being human, really.
On a completely different note, I need to tell you that my mother has contacted a few people who have mentioned her in their comments on this blog. To be on the safe side, it might be best to avoid mentioning her in your public comments.
Please don’t let this deter you from commenting about anything else I write, as I so look forward to reading your responses.
If my mother has contacted you and I don’t know about it, or if she does in the future, please let me know, as I’m taking steps to stop it.
Finally, I couldn’t post a blog without some photos. Here are some I took over Christmas on our trip to the Daintree Rainforest. For something different, I turned them into black and white, and it seemed to capture the ambience of that cloudy, wet day.
We found an abandoned sawmill:
Some of the native flora:
Boyd Forest Dragon
I don’t think I need to name this fellow: