It's said that once you become a parent you will get to know someone who you have known all your life but never really known. Your own parents. Usually this is said with tenderness and often forgiveness.
Since I became a mum I have got to know mine better too. Only they don't come out the better for it. It has stirred up a lot of deep seated resentment and anger.
You see … I was the compliant one. I did well in school and at after school activities. I never caused much trouble. I had self-obsessed parents, who lived knee deep in their own problems. They simply had little time for me. I definitely got more attention from them if I did well and was helpful.
Our home was a good middle class academic home. Liberal, tolerant and forward thinking. Members of the chitteraty. You can tell them by their unfailing and superior persuasion. My parents imparted a lot of knowledge. Mainly about astrology, politics, STD and contraception.
My parents got drunk at parties and it being the seventies had multiple partners. Before I turned 14, I had had 3 stepdads, 3 stepmums, not counting the lovers. I could tell these lovers by their unnerving, disproportional interest in me, and then they’d suddenly be out of our lives again. I also had 6 stepsiblings, some of whom I never saw again after our parents split up. This did not faze me too much. This was normal.
One day a week I would cook for the family. Thursdays. I started aged six and stopped when I moved out aged 18. There was a purse to go shopping for ingredients. If mum forgot to put it out I would cook from whatever I could find in cupboards and the fridge. I painted my first wall in our new house aged 8. From aged 10 I cleaned the house every week. I babysat for people in the neighbourhood and my younger siblings from aged 12. And so on… None of this ever seemed unusual to me. Until I became a mum. Now I think blimey, I was a kid. I also think it strange that my siblings and I spent so much time home alone.
My siblings never really learned to cook or clean. They spent their time getting angry and shouting at the grown ups a lot. They wanted to be seen. I reasoned with them, telling them our parents loved us but agreed they could be silly. That they – my siblings – should grow up, stop shouting and stop expecting things of my parents that they would never get. But they just kept on slamming doors and moved out as soon as they could. I now cringe at what I said to them.
As a good adoptive parent I read a lot about parenting and trauma. But I’ve been surprised at how much I seem to be reading about my own family rather than about my daughter. I understand that my parents had awful upbringings. I see their pain. That they did try to do their best. But at the moment this knowledge does nothing but anger me. For crying out loud they had four kids with ten fingers and ten toes. Who have all done reasonably well in life.
My parents were well educated and affluent. I flirt with the idea that they had a moral obligation to get themselves sorted. Instead they indulged in decades of extended adolescence. Once they became parents why did it not dawn on them to try?? My mum did. But in effect this meant that she spent my adolescence in therapy. Emotionally unavailable. She was licking her own wounds. I get that. But I'll be damned if she didn’t inflict a few new ones.
I could tell my mother's mood from the way she turned the key in the door when she got home. And usually it meant I would get out and stay out of her way. Turn off the music, gather my things and go to my room if I had been daring enough to spread out and enjoy the living room.
It seems more customary to get angry at your parents in your teens and twenties. Not in your forties. I admit these thoughts and feelings of mine are puerile. I’m having my teenage go at my parents in my late forties.
But that's where I am.
Really really f***ed up at my parents.
I'll be damned if I want to repeat those mistakes.
I'm working so hard at understanding my past. I am especially trying to turn certain knee jerk reactions around. Like the short sneer at my daughter or a quick scolding of her when I can't contain her needs and demands. Those moments strike me with pure fear. Because I remember how it felt on the receiving end. So I work at our relationship. Moment by moment. Event by event. And I apologise to her when I mess up.
Being an older parent and having waited for so long to become a mum, I used to think it was a weakness, but now it seems it is a strength. I’ve done career, I’ve proven myself – of sorts – to others, I have a mortgage, a car, I can decide my own bedtime and what is in my fridge. By all accounts I’m a grown up. My parents were children when they had me. They only just finished school. I was a whoops. Born just before free abortion…
My daughter is the focus of my life.
I am very happily resigned to being second forever more. I want to be a mum till I leave this mortal coil. As a child, I often felt we were in the way of our parents’ happiness. Their sighs were a give away. I know they loved us, but did they like us? Do they?
I am determined to do it differently, better preferably.
Playing has been an excellent place to start. Enjoying each other.
Getting to know my daughter.
[This post was first published via We Are Family last year. I now will stand by it.]