Caught between a rock and a hard place

negative parenting traits
These words have been taking up room in my head for far too long and need to come out. I’d like to thank you in advance for reading, but must warn you that it won’t be the jolliest post you’ll come across today. I’ve written before about the importance of dealing with demons, so that your past does not end up dictating your future. But imagine a past so dark that no amount of counselling or medication could free you from it? The man I grew up believing was my father has an early life straight out of a misery memoir. What he endured was utterly horrific, yet he thought he was in control of it. Trust me it was the other way round. I’ve written about my mother’s upbringing before, and I think you’ll agree that she didn’t have a pleasant time either. I guess self-reflection wasn’t as trendy in the 70’s and 80’s as it is now, and neither of them recognised how damaged they were.
My step-dad was the youngest of six children, and his mother died when he was two. His father was in the navy, and often away from home. When he was back he was having a relationship with the eldest daughter. Sometimes they would make the other kids watch them having sex. When he was away he left her in charge with money to feed them all, and she’d lock them in the cellar where my step-dad (being the smallest) would have to escape and forage for food. If all that wasn’t bad enough, when his father died my step-dad was sent to live with an aunt. She had two boys who hated him and bullied him relentlessly. One day they put him into a beer barrel full of stinging nettles and rolled him down a hill. As soon as he was old enough to fend for himself he got into crime and spent his adolescence in and out of young offender’s institutes, then later prison. At some point he was diagnosed with bi-polar and given all sorts of treatments, then put onto the drug lithium long term. This is his first 20-odd years in a nut shell. There are so many stories but you get the drift.
My mother worked behind the bar when she was young, which is where they met. She would have been 21, and I would have been two. She had already cut ties with my biological father – who had an affair with her while engaged to the woman that is still his wife. To this day the wife does not know I exist, but that’s a story in itself. When she told him she was pregnant with me she gave him an ultimatum expecting him to call off his marriage, but he didn’t and that was that. She then met my step-dad, and fell pregnant with my half-brother a few months later. Unfortunately by then the wheels had already started falling off but it was too late to back out. All she ever wanted out of life was a family (her words), but this would not be be the happy ending she had so desperately longed for.
They spent my entire childhood in some strange on again off again relationship. From what I can remember it was a clear cut case of ‘I don’t want you, but I won’t allow anyone else to have you’. He didn’t live with us until the last few years that I was at home, but would come to our house most days at about 4pm for an hour or two. Apart from the odd Christmas where he’d sleep over, like the year my half-sister was conceived. He would often fill the freezer up with meat and bring food round, so I guess you can call that providing in the literal sense. He would inappropriately flash his money on our birthdays, which I know made my mother feel like crap as she lived on benefits and was barely able to make ends meet. He was never emotionally present, and could hardly give you a hug because it made him so uncomfortable. I think because he was never shown love or kindness, he didn’t know how to show it.
We were never allowed to meet his family which was a massive bone of contention. I later found out it was because he’d had an affair with his brother’s wife and fathered a son who his brother thought was his. Apparently the boy and my half-brother were the spitting image of each other and that’s why he kept us separate. Unlike most of my mother’s siblings, he prided himself on the fact that he worked. He never paid taxes though, it was all under the table cash in hand. I can’t help but feel this was just as bad as the dole-bludging my mother’s side did. It’s worth noting that he was an alcoholic, although completely in denial. In his eyes by working, and never having a drink before 6pm, he did not have ‘a problem’. He was an emotional bully for sure, but he rarely raised his fists which I’m thankful for. After they finally went their separate ways shortly after I left home, he travelled the world on his motorbike. He even came and visited me in Asia. I got on with him better by then, as had forgiven him for his part in my unhappy childhood. I stayed in touch with him for another couple of years after I stopped seeing my mother, but a dispute over my wedding day saw our relationship come to its final end.
My point is this: how on earth could someone so damaged just be expected to put it behind them and lead a normal life? How can a start like the one he had not have a massively detrimental effect on the rest of it? I firmly believe that unless we make peace with our past, it will haunt us forever. Too many people seem to think that having children will be the magic cure to all their problems, but my parents and lots of other people I have known throughout my life are living proof that the opposite is often the case. What are your thoughts on dealing with underlying issues of the past before starting a family? Should more be done to promote mental-health well being before conception? Do you have any recommendations of great websites or resources for people who need help? I’m really keen to know your views on this one. Please share any insights in the comments section.

40 thoughts on “Caught between a rock and a hard place

  1. I think it’s really important to try to make peace with your demons, but whether that is before or after having children I don’t know. I think as long as you recognise your demons and are committed to giving your children a good childhood then that is what matters.
    It’s a case of being ready to face the past, the demons, and sometimes I think certain people are never ready.

  2. Thanks Cat, that’s so lovely of you to say.

    I’m in complete agreement about self esteem – which is the hardest part for a lot of people. I know for me, my resistance in the early days of being with my hubby was down to not believing in myself. Essentially seeing fault in him because he loved me but I didn’t love me. I wrote about it here:

    Breaking the cycle was the hardest thing I have ever done, but now many years later it all seems like my past happened to someone else. I am genuinely detached from it, and it doesn’t rule my life in any way.

    I will read your book I promise! Hope you’re having a great week xxx

  3. Great, thank you, I would love to know what you think and, like I say, would be honoured if you thought the book could make a difference.

    The hardest part is definitely using the tools! I know them but definitely struggle to apply them

    And also recognising that we all struggle in different ways, almost no matter what our background is, not many people have it totally ‘easy’. It is the self criticism which I, and probably most people have to be most careful of, once we start to beat ourselves up we really aren’t going to get anywhere fast. So, to everyone reading this, believe in yourself, you are the change you want to see and you are wonderful just as you are, “The secret to healthy relationships is self-esteem” Alexandra Stoddard said this and she is so right, if you are gentler on yourself you will be gentler on others, and then they will be gentler on you – win win!!

    Lots of love and luck to everyone and your families xxxx

  4. Yes – would you too have ended up marrying a nice Jewish boy…? Well, however harrowing, the path you walked led you to your lovely husband and wonderful children, so there was good in it somewhere, clearly!

  5. It’s like all relationships isn’t it – sometimes things don’t work out because we are human. All we can do is take what we can out of them and move on. Your story reinforced what I feel, which is that most of the time, people try their best. But his best felt to me almost like a child’s eye view of things – just focusing on one aspect and thinking that because he had fulfilled that, the problem was solved.

    I think if we don’t have healthy role models and open ourselves up to discussion and development, we get stuck in the child mode, which is where we all start off after all, and the grown up parts of us don’t develop. And if your parents were not going to meet you on that level, they would be dragging you back, and I can see it would be quite a weird upside down relationship.

    You are right, self preservation has to prevail.

  6. Thanks so much Cat for your lovely, kind words. I have your book on my Kindle app and will definitely read it when I get the chance. I’m sure a book like yours could be the starting point for someone who needs to change but doesn’t know where to start. My healing process began with several years of reading self-help books, then I had a breakdown and was referred to my counsellor by a friend. Luckily I clicked with her from day one and she helped me immensely. I still had lessons to learn though, and ultimately it came down to me desperately wanting to turn my life around. You can have all the tools in the box, if you aren’t using them correctly nothing will be built xx

  7. Thanks for your kind comment. Unfortunately for some repeating history is the only thing plausible because they know no other way of life, but there are some great charities out there helping youngsters to break free from the cycle. Personally I don’t think it’s given nearly enough attention though.

  8. Thank you for your kind comment Suzanne. You’re completely right about the temporary plaster. Knowing how hard it can be from first hand experience, I couldn’t imagine stumbling through marriage and motherhood having not put my past behind me xx

  9. I love the way you always pick up on a detail that most others miss. You’re right, he knew that if he didn’t bring food we’d be living off beans on toast but in the grand scheme of it his ‘best’ fell very short of the mark. Same for my mother – that’s why when all was said and done there was too much pain to just forgive, forget and move on. For me there came a time where self preservation had to prevail. Talking about it all so openly on here has been a really useful outlet for me.

  10. My maternal grandparents were Jewish, and my Grandma really wanted her children to embrace the faith but they all rebelled. I’ve often wondered – in a sliding doors way – how different my life would have turned out had my mother been sensible, not rebelled and married a ‘nice Jewish boy’ like my Grandma had hoped.

  11. Wow, I can see that you want to feel sorry for your stepfather, but also feel really angry at him for messing up your/your mum’s life. Like you say, we all need to do something to break away from our past so it doesn’t wreck our future. I think there has already been a lot of good advice – personally, I’m with Suzanne. I think God is the one to run to for true freedom. But I also understand that this is not everyone’s cup of tea. 🙂

  12. I think on any level we have to come to terms with our pasts to be healthy and not live out the damage we have had inflicted upon us. I am not saying that everything in life is to be feared, but all of use come across challenges.

    Talking about our lives with others is a way of helping.

    I was so touched about the way your step-dad brought food to the house. He was obviously trying but so damaged he had no idea of what else to do apart from that and no idea of how inadequate it was.

    I think you are a real inspiration not only dealing with your past but accepting it and being open about it.

  13. Oh hon, I have no idea how tough that is. I’ll never understand men who leave their grown up family and start a brand new one with a woman often half their age.

    Recognising the similarities between your Dad and Ex couldn’t have been easy, and I know you’ve been suffering lately. You’ve done so well to have broken the cycle though. And as I’ve said before when she’s all grown up, Grace will see what you went through and know without doubt who the good guys are xx

  14. I underwent several years of counselling, and feel it’s an integral part of my story. I’ve written about my counsellor Nina in detail here:

    I’m thankful to have gone through the process way before having a family. It felt like a long old slog at the time, but looking back it wasn’t very long at all. Counselling really helped me, but I was very lucky to have found Nina. I know a handful of people who have been put off counselling because they didn’t click with the person in front of them.

    The charity you mentor for sounds amazing! We need more of them 🙂

  15. Thank you so much for your heartfelt comment Orli, I’m not ashamed to admit that I actually just cried. Because you have summed up my worst fears: what if I wake up one day and realise the cycle hasn’t been broken? You’re so right about having a supportive partner, and being committed to change. It’s not easy, but it’s worth every single second of time spent and tears shed. And when our kids are all grown up and we see our efforts reflected in them, we’ll know we made the right decisions xx

  16. I have so much I want to say, but some of it isn’t my story and I can’t write what’s not mine. I can tell you overcoming childhood is a challenge, and not one everyone can rise to. The sad truth is I don’t think you can predict who will overcome it and who won’t. In my opinion a lot of it has to do with your partner and your willingness to change. Change is tough and not everyone is willing to do the work, and some think that having kids automatically changes you but it doesn’t.
    It is a thought provoking and hard to read post and I think you have a lot of courage to have written it.
    I also think you’ve done those changes and that hard work. And I know sometimes our biggest fear is that we will wake up one day and realise we’ve made the same mistakes we’ve tried so hard to run away from. I don’t think it happens to those of us who broke the cycle. Just like you.

  17. I’m really at a loss for words but the way you’ve articulated this post speaks volumes about how strong you are as a person. You need to understand the past otherwise it could creep up on you when you least expect it. I’m not sure that makes sense, I hope it does. I guess what I’m saying is don’t bottle things up. You will be an even stronger person as a result x

  18. I think that it’s important to put the past behind you and to be the best parent you can possibly be to your own kids. Your story is so awful and I can’t begin to imagine how you begin to come to terms with what happened and move on. But you’re lucky enough to be in a happy relationship now, with great kids – so hold your head up high and congratulate yourself for breaking the cycle of abuse. Did you ever receive any professional help with all of this?

  19. This is quite a post and a very honest insight into what you have been through. In a similar way I went through the mill but not as severe as you did. I had to leave Grace’s father because I knew that if I didn’t the circle would never be broken. I was going through what my Mum did with my father and I didn’t want Grace to have the childhood I did. I don’t speak to my father anymore. He has a son a week younger than Grace and lives with a woman six years older than me. I got rid of Grace’s father because he was poisoning my life so why would I have my dad doing the same thing? I have put the demons to rest now. I don’t feel guilt any more about my father. I am so pleased that you managed to turn your life around too. Thank you for being this weeks newbie showcase. It is a pleasure to feature you xx

  20. I’m afraid I’m another person who cannot offer advice from experience. Sometimes just having somebody who listens to you (whether its as a blog reader or face to face) is as important as someone who imparts advice.

  21. I think the fact that you’re able to articulate all of this so well speaks volumes for your ability to survive it in the best possible way. I admire your bravery. #PoCoLo

  22. I think with professional help and love lives can be turned around. I’m working on a post on the charity Kids Company in London which helps so many kids and vulnerable young adults who’ve lived through abuse, neglect, violence and more. I’ve met some of them too in the past and it’s amazing what a positive effect Kids Co has had on their lives.

  23. i think you are so right honey, making peace with the past is most definitely the way to go! well done you on face these demons and coming through the other side xx

  24. Oh my goodness, what a life! The pain and heartbreak here is just terrible, as you say, who can get past that? I don’t have any advice other than making peace with God and to anyone who isn’t a christian I am aware that this probably sounds daft. I would recommend an Alpha course, there are hundreds of them across the country. I am sure that counselling has already been tried, if not, it should be. There really are some great ones out there but make sure they have been recommended first. Having children really doesn’t heal thing, I think it just puts a temporary plaster over a wound that will never heal. Such a sad story, cannot believe anyone has had to go through all that 🙁 I think you probably did right to walk away from your mum, self-preservation is critical. x

  25. I have no advice, as I just cannot imagine a life like this. It’s so unbearably sad and painful. I just wanted to say that again, I’m here reading, hearing you, and finding you to be remarkable xx

  26. I have to say, a very interesting post. Probably one of the most insightful I’ve read in a while, personally I think your past and previous experiences shape the person you are. Unfortunately some people who suffer abuse or things similar tend to repeat history and fall Into a cycle of more abuse and pain. As for having children as a cure in some instances I’ve seen it work, in some it triggers a temporary change but resorting back to their previous behaviour. But I do agree with what you’ve said about making peace with your past, I think that’s essential in order to move forward.

  27. Hi, I at a loss for words really, there is so much tragedy.

    As a counsellor I have unfortunately heard several stories as tragic as this one before and yes, you are right that very often we hope to cure our unhappy pasts by having children, but no, this usually doesn’t work unless a person has found a way to understand their past, and the wounds it has left them with. This is my job, to be a part of healing those wounds and I am passionate about what I do, I live to see people find the self acceptance which they never thought was possible, and to hear them let go of anger and hatred against people who were probably as damaged as they were and so, unfortunately, didn’t know any better.

    The main reason I wrote my book is to achieve what you are asking, isn’t there a way to help more people who can’t or won’t go for counselling? I based ‘Stay Calm and Content No Matter What Life Throws At You’ on the ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ posters because I found myself asking the question “what if someone’s past or present is so horrific that hey just can’t keep calm and carry on? What then? So I wrote a book which I hope answers that question.

    It is designed to be read by someone who would never choose to go for counselling because it has always frustrated me that although I see every day the change and hope that counselling can bring, I can’t help someone who can’t or won’t come.

    I would be honoured if you would review Stay Calm and Content and tell me whether I come close to achieving what you are asking for, something that can help someone understand themselves before they become a parent.

    Can I send you a copy? You can find it on Amazon and see the reviews it already has, I would love to know what you think.

    Thank you for writing such a brave post.

    With all my best wishes, Cat xx

  28. I wish I had some advice, but I don’t. I just wanted to say I’m so sorry to read this and, yet again, I’m in awe of how you got away and broke the cycle.

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