Last week, I wrote about how I’d found it hard to let go of my children at puberty—the age when they started wanting autonomy over their lives. Although I spent a long time writing that post, I felt as if I’d barely skimmed the surface. Writing about parenting through puberty and beyond isn’t simple, nor is it something that can be covered in a single blog post.
But I also felt as if I hadn’t really written what I wanted to say—that I’d missed something important. A couple of days after I published the post, the answer came: I hadn’t mentioned the real reason I didn’t want to let go of my kids—Fear.
Like a lot of parents, I was scared about loosening the parental reins. But it wasn’t the big, bad world and all its dangers that worried me: My biggest fear was that my children would become like me; that they’d make the same mistakes I did.
In the last post, I mentioned how hard I’d found my own puberty—the physical changes, the self-consciousness, the low self-esteem. But at puberty, something else changed, too: my behaviour.
I’ve written before how I was a good girl throughout primary school. I managed to maintain my good behaviour up to Year Six, when I was made House Captain and won the Junior Citizen of the Year Award.
That all changed in Year Seven: I became naughty and rebellious, and started doing attention-seeking things.
It began with writing notes to friends and sending them flying across the room as soon as the teacher’s back was turned. Then I started sneaking out of school at lunch time and buying Lifesavers from the shop across the road. I ate them in class, popping in three or four at a time, and then I’d put up my hand to answer a question. I did it blatantly and deliberately so the teacher would notice the lollies rolling around inside my mouth. I didn’t hide my disobedience; I wanted to get caught.
During other lessons, I crawled around the floor of the classroom tying girls’ shoelaces together or to their chairs. My classmates didn’t notice until they stood up and couldn’t separate their feet or their chair fell over.
Before class one day, I pulled my shoelaces right out and tied them to the teacher’s chair. I held the other end so that when the teacher came in and tried to sit down, the chair didn’t move. I was sent out of the room for that.
One Science lesson, I taped a note to a teacher’s back without the teacher realising. It said, ‘I love myself’, and I laughed every time he walked past. I can’t remember the punishment for that one.
I was sent out of many classes, and was soon spending more time in the corridor than in the classroom. I lost count of my detentions, and how many lines I wrote at recess or lunch or after school.
When none of that worked, I was sent to Sister Joseph, the head of junior secondary, a formidable woman who looked as if she was made of a mixture of steel and iron. But I persisted with my naughtiness and ended up in the Principal’s office, on more than one occasion.
Meanwhile, the punishments became more brutal. I didn’t like it, but I acted as if it was water off a duck’s back. One Catholic feast day, I wasn’t allowed to watch a movie with the rest of the school, but was made to sit in a little, dark room off the Science Lab—that’s one of the few times I remember crying.
The final crunch came when I was moved out of Year Seven and into Year Eight, Sister Joseph’s class—I promised to be good after that, and although it didn’t look like it, I really did try because I wanted to stay with my peers.
I wanted to be good—I admired good girls and I didn’t like being punished. But the lure of being naughty was too hard to resist. For a start, I was making people laugh, and thinking up new mischief was fun. I was also enjoying breaking the rules, pushing the boundaries, taking risks. It was exhilarating. I was saying a giant, ‘Up yours’, to authority.
Around me, everyone only saw a naughty, attention-seeking girl, and that’s how I felt about myself, too—that I was bad, very bad. Other kids were able to be good and obedient, and I wanted to be like them, but I just couldn’t, and I didn’t know why.
This went on for a number of years. My misbehaviour escalated, along with the punishments, especially after I discovered alcohol and its emboldening effects.
Many years later, when I’d settled down, I felt ashamed of the things I’d done. I apologised many times to my mother and asked her how she’d put up with me.
I see it differently now, and I understand why I behaved as I did—at the time, it was the only way I had of expressing how troubled I was. I was attention-seeking—I wanted someone to notice. I wanted them to see how unhappy I was.
I’d tried telling people what was going on at home, always tentatively, and always with antennae on high alert for signs I wasn’t being believed, or that I was about to get lectured. I never found anyone to confide in, no one ‘safe’—except my sister, who was there and knew.
In those days, children weren’t believed over adults, as we saw with Pell and the Royal Commission. Corporal punishment was still acceptable, in homes and schools. Kids weren’t allowed to complain about harsh discipline. You were expected to be obedient to your parents, and to respect them, no matter what. It was very one-sided.
I never fitted the mould of good child. I called unfairness when I saw it, even to an adult. I didn’t give in; I stood up for myself. I backchatted. I got angry. I was punished for all of that, even when I was right, because I was only a kid, and I was being disrespectful and rude.
With no one to tell it to—and even if there had been, I don’t know that I had the words—I tried to survive by tamping it all down, and just hoping it would go away.
But it didn’t. I was full of resentment and anger at the unfairness and injustice of it all, full to bursting point. Acting out was the only way I could show what was going on inside me. Not that any of it was a conscious decision.
However, no one wanted to look behind my behaviour to find the reason.
I know now that kids don’t muck up without a good reason, even if they can’t articulate it— especially if they can’t articulate it. It’s their only way of showing how troubled they are.
When my children reached the same age, I found it hard to let them make their own decisions without watching over their shoulder. I’d experienced only one teenager before—myself—and that hadn’t gone well. I was frightened they’d do what I did, repeat my mistakes, and I didn’t want them to have to go through that. I wanted to protect them from it, keep them safe.
As it turned out, my children weren’t me. Because I wasn’t, nor had I ever been, my mother.
When I became a mother, I set out to give my kids what I didn’t get—a happy childhood. I wanted to prove that you could raise children without abuse and that when you did, they would turn out confident and happy.
That was my aim—to raise ‘good’ people. Because I had another—very secret—motivation. I wanted to prove that I hadn’t been born ‘bad’. That I was born good, like everyone else, and if I’d been mothered with love and affection, instead of violence and abuse and shame, I mightn’t have fallen off the rails.
Being a good mother has been the biggest aim of my life. It’s underpinned almost every decision I’ve made over the past twenty years, and even before. At times, I felt as if I was sailing unchartered seas without a map or compass. I didn’t know if I was heading in the right direction or doing it right. I wasn’t even sure my theory was right. But I kept going, trying harder, working on myself, and I didn’t give up.
I don’t have young children anymore. Half of them have reached adulthood—one is in her third year of living away from home—and the other half are well on the way.
All of them are good people and none have made my mistakes. That my kids haven’t repeated my mistakes is, for me, success. I’ve accomplished what I set out to do and learnt a couple of things along the way:
1. Mothering kids without violence and abuse and shame will raise confident, happy adults who are good people.
2. I wasn’t born bad.
“… People with great passions, people who accomplish great deeds, people who possess strong feelings, even people with great minds and a strong personality, rarely come out of good little boys and girls.”
In your comments, I just ask that you don’t mention my mother. I love reading your responses, so please keep writing. x