My girl turns six in a few weeks, which has got me to thinking about parenting and about what we do for our children. Which in turn has got me thinking about my own parents. My ex-husband and I split before our daughter was even two, which was tough going for everyone, but the thing I am most proud of is the fact that even though we are no longer in love with each other, we are still very much united in our love for her.
She doesn’t remember us ever being together, so in a way being so young when we split was a blessing because she’s never known it any other way, but what she does have is an unshakeable sense of a solid mum and dad who still work as a team, keeping her wellbeing at the centre.
My ex still comes over on Christmas day so he can open her presents with her, we share childcare, he pays his maintenance every month, we attend all her school events together, we make joint decisions, he moved continents just to be with her, so that he didn’t miss out on her childhood. If our girl is naughty we talk to her together, presenting a united front so that she has firm boundaries and feels safe in knowing that she is on solid ground.
And even though I wouldn’t say we are ‘friends’ – like we wouldn’t hang out or go for coffee together, there is a mutual respect between us. Irrespective of our own history as a couple, it isn’t about ‘us’ anymore, it is about her. And even the times when he annoys the shit out of me (and I’m sure vice versa) we always manage to park our annoyance with one another in order to work together for her. Because why wouldn’t we? We are adults, we are the parents, our needs come second to hers.
As a result of this we have managed thus far to raise an extremely happy, confident, well-adjusted six-year-old who knows who she is and feels she has a place in the world. In professional speak, she is ‘securely attached’ – which will pretty much be the blueprint for her adult life. Because it is the work we do now, when they are tiny, when their core selves are still developing, that will set them up for later.
It is so often the case that children that are insecurely attached grow into damaged adults, adults with mental health problems, adults with substance misuse problems, adults that find life a struggle because they feel a void within them that they are always trying to fill. Not having an internal secure base, not feeling safe in the world, well that shit stays with you.
It fuels a heart-breaking cycle of loneliness and dysfunction that leaves so many permanently stuck in an abandonment scenario, lacking any skills with which to navigate through life. Lacking resilience to deal with its challenges, trapped in a shaky sense of self that is unable to whether the storms.
I have met a lot of damaged people in my life, and I count myself as one of them, and the one common thread that binds together every story of woe I have ever heard is that we all had pretty shitty childhoods. I do not think I have ever met anyone who struggles who has reported having a happy, well-adjusted life with supportive caregivers. And that is no coincidence. It just isn’t. Children learn what they live, and if what they have lived is dysfunction or trauma or abuse or neglect, well that’s the foundation upon which their sense of self is built.
I grew up in the hedonistic 1980s, a time where adult fun came above children’s needs, that was just the way it was. I look back at that time now and find the selfishness of the adults involved quite breath-taking. As a parent myself now I can never imagine a scenario where I would willingly try to manipulate my child against her other parent, where I would try to poison her innocent thoughts, where I would do anything that would put her security in jeopardy.
I could never imagine a situation where I would walk out on my child, and never contact her again, no matter what was going on. Because no matter how tough you are doing it as an adult, no matter how jack you are of the shitty circumstances you find yourself in, no matter how vulnerable you feel, your child will always be more vulnerable. Because they are a child. And you are an adult. You are the parent, and it is your job to do just that: parent. It is not a responsibility you can just abdicate because it gets hard. You chose that job, you had that child, so do your damn job.
I was lucky really, because I had a wonderful stepfather whom I adored, and despite his propensity toward criminality, which did bring its own challenges, what he taught me was that family is everything. He had a moral code imprinted on every fibre and he lived his life typical of that old school brand of burly men, on the wrong side of the law, but always exactly where they needed to be when it came to the people they loved.
He looked after his parents with utter devotion, he stood by people, he took on another man’s child and did the job of being a parent, not because he had to, but because he wanted to. He loved ferociously, no matter how unruly I was, no matter how disturbed I was, it didn’t matter, it was unconditional because I was his daughter. And family is everything. And that was the job he signed up for.
Even when he was in prison, my dad spent his days making me soft toys and jewellery boxes from matchsticks, and writing me letters even though he was severely dyslexic and often his letters were indecipherable. But he tried. He didn’t stop being a parent. He was a good man, an honourable man, who made poor choices which got him into bother, but when it came to being a parent, he excelled.
The man whose actual DNA I shared on the other hand was largely absent. I’ve known many men who have had the ability to just walk away when they get new families, and I won’t ever understand that mentality, because like I said, nothing and no one could ever drag me away from my child. I would die for her; I would kill for her. But to be honest that’s his issue, and he has to live with whatever nonsense reasons he comes up with to justify what is, in reality, blatant neglect.
He came back to the UK last year for a holiday, and caught up with everyone by all accounts, old family and friends, friends of friends, but did not contact his daughter or grandchild. Now that would’ve really hurt me once, but since becoming a parent myself I’m long past the point of caring about a man who has never shown any regard for me. I’m long past the point of having any respect for someone whom I view as a failure on the most fundamental level.
This is the man whom when I was raped in Africa in my twenties responded that “it was to be expected putting my head in the lion’s den (Africa)” and that it would be “interesting to see how someone who has been making a drama about nothing all their life deals with a real drama” … or words to that effect, I don’t know, I only got the abridged version second-hand.
And by “drama” I assume he means my mental health, because according to the man who actually knows nothing about me, bipolar is just a big old fuss about nothing. This is the man who refused to come to my wedding, despite being invited, who advised my mother to throw me out when I was in the midst of an acute manic episode, who has never once acknowledged my birthday, or Christmas, in 30 years. Or my daughter’s birthday.
This is the man who once waited in a shop doorway with his wife when he saw my mother and I coming, me about 10 years old, my sister a baby in her buggy, struggling with shopping bags in the wind and rain, and laughed at us as we walked past. Who actually revelled in our humilation. This is who these people are. Jesus.
So for all these reasons, and many more, my daughter doesn’t know he even exists, maybe I’ll tell her when she’s grown up, but until then it’s irrelevant. I have made that choice for her, because having an open, innocent heart she would want a relationship with him, and I know that he would only let her down. And if a person doesn’t add positive value to her life, as far as I’m concerned she doesn’t need to know them. It is my job to shield her from people who will hurt her, and being rejected by her biological grandfather would hurt her, so I do my job. I parent her and protect her from harm.
My stepmother added me on Facebook a few weeks ago out of the blue, I have no idea why, she hasn’t spoken to me for years for some unknown reason. I don’t have anything against her, I actually quite like her, so I accepted. Now she has removed me for similarly inexplicable reasons. Probably because they are in Europe again, and I doubt she wants me to see that they’re in the UK visiting and will not be visiting us.
I know they are here, just as I knew they were here last year. It’s the arrogance of it all really, the ludicrousness, the narcissism. I really don’t care that they’re here, but not ‘here’. My father has never been here, either literally or emotionally, and that’s his choice. I barely know these people so why they deem themselves important enough to make a secret of it is beyond me. I hope they have a good holiday, I genuinely do.
It took me a really long time to make peace with the fact my biological dad didn’t care, years of being tormented by the rejection of it, years of chasing him, phoning him whilst acutely unwell, years of being hung up on and told to “fuck off”. Years of trying to lose myself, or find myself in other people, or booze, or whatever. I cried many, many tears over that man, until the time I became a parent myself. Then it all changed. Then I realised that some people just should never have children. But I am not one of those people.
And the words of an amazing psychologist I once had came back to me: “Laury, the way you make peace with it, with who you are and where you’re from is to do it differently yourself. You can’t change the type of parents you got, they are who they are, and who they are is not what you needed. They failed you. But it’s their failing, not yours. They made the choices, and we are, in the end, the choices that we make. But the way you turn it around is with your own children. By making sure the cycle stops with you. By being a different type of parent”. And you know what, I am. And she was right. Doing it differently is where the real healing begins.