We grew most of our own food and kept a smallholding of animals; even making our own hay, milking our own goats, making cheese, and surviving largely off the land. However – the idyllic façade this presents was masking a very different world.
The truth was that our home-education was more of a deliberate and controlled isolation. A prime example of this is the fact that we all speak in perfect English radio-announcer pronunciation, even though we grew up in Scotland – we mixed so little with anyone else that we didn’t pick up an accent. Forbidden from reading magazines, listening to any modern music or radio, we lived in fear. Our father was 30 years our mother’s senior, having previously been her schoolteacher. He ruled with an iron fist – we lived on eggshells constantly. Physical and emotional abuse were a daily occurrence; he kept a sturdy stick across two nails hammered into a beam for beatings. To write about it feels incredibly surreal; I look back and find it hard to believe that the things that happened really did happen – but they did. I know he had also suffered an abusive childhood and mental health problems. This experience was used as a reason, an excuse for his behaviour.
As for our mother; she was a victim of domestic abuse – controlled from the age of 15, she knew no different and became complicit in his abuse of us. One especially memorable incident was a day when my father was beating my brother; my mother intervened – not to help my brother but to remove his spectacles so they didn’t get broken. My father swung round and knocked her to the ground, breaking her wrist. I remember the following events as clear as day, sitting in the doctor’s surgery while she concocted a story about one of the goats having pulled her over. She defended him at every opportunity, and became physically and emotionally abusive herself. She found it difficult to bond with females; I suspect this stemmed from a hatred of herself because of her inability to be free. Both of my parents were emotionally unavailable, unsupportive, unkind. They didn’t notice when I was groomed and sexually assaulted at age 15. Years later, when I disclosed this, my mother actively ignored what I’d said to her.
I left home at age 16 and fell into a pattern of abusive relationships, I know now that I was drawn to dangerous men because my brain found the pattern of abuse and fear somehow familiar, regardless of the danger or damage this behaviour caused. It was clear that I was also suffering from anxiety and depression – and as I later discovered, PTSD – but I was unaware of this at the time – because I was so used to the symptoms I was suffering, it seemed normal to me. I’d had panic attacks, nightmares, sweats and stomach pain my whole life.
Time went on, I grew older, became more aware of how ‘normal’ families functioned, how ‘normal’ parents treated their children. I was drawn to working with vulnerable children and got a degree in education, specialising in supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities. I know I was drawn to this because I wanted to help prevent what had happened to me from happening to others. I was trying to fix my trauma by fixing other children. I loved my work and did it for 14 years. However – I wasn’t fixed. After the birth of my first daughter, I became more severely ill. I ignored it for a long time, putting all of my energy and focus into her, determined to be the opposite parent of what I had experienced. I was desperate to do things differently, so read as much as possible on positive parenting, attachment parenting, and put an immense amount of pressure on myself to do things ‘right’. When my daughter was around 18 months old, I left her father and had a mental breakdown. My panic attacks overwhelmed me and I ended up signed off on long term sick leave. I determined to overcome my trauma – the main reason I gave myself this goal was to be well for my daughter. I signed onto a group therapy course with NAPAC – the National Association for People Abused in Childhood. It was the start of a long road to recovery, a road which I am still on now.
I met my current partner, and spent a long time pushing him away because he was so different from men I had known before. Gentle, calm, understanding. Fully supportive of my recovery journey. It took a very long time before I trusted him and let myself believe that he was a good person and that I wasn’t about to be betrayed in some way. He fully accepted my mental health problems and my daughter; and we had our own daughter 18 months after meeting.
Mothering has been and continues to be an interesting journey for me. Having had such a bad experience growing up, I was starting from scratch. All I knew was how NOT to parent. How NOT to be. I knew what I needed as a child, and I try my hardest to provide that for my girls. I try so hard to be present, to listen, to be authentic, open and honest. I am non-violent, I talk to them about everything. I tell them I love them multiple times a day; my father never once told me he loved me and I don’t recall my mother saying it either.
My favourite positive parenting guru is Janet Lansbury. I love the way she encourages authenticity. It helps me to be honest with my girls about my mental health. If I am feeling stressed and find myself getting grumpy around them, I know I can tell them that I’m feeling stressed and that it’s not their fault, and that it’s OK to feel grumpy. It helps them to process their own emotions; to feel acknowledged. I lost count of the amount of times I heard ‘shut up or I’ll give you something to cry about’ as a child. I still find it hard to express negative emotions. I want my girls to feel free to express themselves in every way possible.
It’s been very hard to know what is right. How to be. How to be gentle enough without forgetting the boundaries that children need. I often spend a long time worrying about whether I am being too harsh or too soft. My hypersensitivity to abuse makes me question everything I do and the way I do it. If I ever raise my voice I subsequently torture myself mentally, even though I KNOW ‘normal’ parents do lose it from time to time. I am so scared of being like my parents, my perspective on normality is skewed.
I reassure myself with the thought that an abusive parent doesn’t reflect. Doesn’t question themselves. An abusive parent doesn’t care about consequences. As my girls grow, I have additional proof that I’m doing OK – they are incredible. Both of them are so happy, confident, attached and well developed. They are bright, cheerful, empathic and imaginative. My wonderful, brave and strong daughters are my daily reminder that life is very much worth living, and that trials can be overcome. I know I still have a long way to go before I am really well, but every day is step forward in that journey. Becoming a parent has been the most rewarding and wonderful experience of my life.
I live a second childhood through their eyes; marvelling at flowers, insects, letting my imagination run wild in imaginative play with fairy worlds, exploring the streams and fields near our house, getting up to watch the sunrise, making duvet nests, baking, snuggling, painting, playing and giggling hysterically. Reading hundreds of stories, having tickle fights, creating our own family traditions.
It’s strange, but in many ways, I don’t regret my life, because without everything that has happened, I would not be on this path now, I would not have my girls or be where I am, doing what I am doing. Life now is incredibly wonderful. The past still haunts me but it eases as time progresses, and I know that one day, it will be a mere memory.
I also run a support group for around 6000 local mums, which I set up after my first daughter was born. The group focusses on being inclusive and gentle, and we help support mums with mental health problems, domestic violence, and all elements of parenting. It’s very difficult but very rewarding as well. I find my experiences have given me a deep empathy and understanding which can be used to help other people. This is another reason that I don’t regret my past. Without it, I might not be as well placed to do what I do.
Everything happens for a reason.