As the Past Draws Nearer…

July 13, 2010 at 1:31 am (Uncategorized)

Last week an occasional reader of DoctorDi contacted me and made some stunningly insightful remarks about one of my posts, about what it maybe indicated about aspects of my childhood. She wished me luck with the pregnancy, and told me to be kind to myself once the baby comes, because in her experience, people who become parents after an unhappy or troubled childhood are oftentimes confronted by many things from the past as they begin facing the challenge of raising kids themselves. As a phenomenon, this makes perfect sense to me, but I didn’t understand just how right she would prove to be, nor how soon the confrontations would begin. After all, this is just the start of Week 17; we’re not even halfway. Our little friend hasn’t even been born, and I have already made a protective intervention on its behalf, a move that is proving so painful and horrible I can barely stand it.

I am trying to do the right thing, and I feel like I am being true to my own heart and my own best instincts, but in the process I am inflicting hurt elsewhere – and how can I possibly justify that? Can I? I’m really not sure.

My methods do not flatter me. I am a harsh critic, of myself and others, and it’s only been over the past few days of headaches, heartache, insomnia and anxiety about what I’ve done that I have been forced to think about what it finally says about me, and I have to admit that I am inherently selfish. When I think back across the bumpy trajectory of my life, I see two primary forces driving me forward. Self-preservation and self-improvement are the dominant instincts of my life, and they always have been, ever since I was a little girl.

In other words, there have been critical times, and they began in childhood in fairly dramatic fashion, when I have been driven by something deep in my core to act in my own best interests. Being propelled in this way has saved, changed and defined my life. There is no question of that. There is a motor in me that says, ‘GO, keep going, push harder, carry on, survive.’

And in the process of answering this call, I have left people behind.

In my instinctive quest for survival, I have not been able to carry to safety those who are perhaps weaker than myself. I wish I were that heroic, but I’m ashamed to admit that I am not. I never have been. I have scrambled and clawed and fought, and though it has always been in the fervent hope that everyone else was similarly engaged, and would also emerge from the battle intact, I see now that there are differences in foundation, and not everyone wants to or knows how to fight.

I find my instincts toward this 17-week old little friend growing inside me are already overwhelmingly fierce. I have a belief system, I have particular values, and certain life philosophies that I hold dear and that are absolutely intrinsic to my personality and the way I live my life, and I wish to set the best possible example for my child. I see now that I have always lived my life by these same principles. And because of this fundamental personal philosophy, there are some paths that I do not countenance and cannot ultimately support. We live in a society and an age that seems to insist that we’re not supposed to think or say such things, but isn’t it a lie to pretend we don’t judge others? I do. I’m not proud of it, but I definitely do. Am I alone in judging? I wonder now, because the truth is, I don’t universally accept people’s life choices as all of a piece, all part of some wondrous, mysterious human tapestry; no, I respect some decisions and some people more than others. I respect the individual’s right to make their own decisions, but that doesn’t mean I necessarily respect what they decide.

This distinction goes all the way back to the first moment I knew I was on my own, that if I wanted to get away from my stepfather, I would have to get myself out of there. I was 12 years old. I will never forget this day for as long as I live, because this light-bulb realisation changed the course of my life. After all the talk of running away and escaping and starting afresh, my mother sat us down after school that day and explained to us kids that she was pregnant again. Pregnant. I knew exactly how that happened, and I knew it meant she wasn’t going anywhere. If she was still sleeping with him, then we were done for. I was especially done for, as at the time I was the one most often singled out for his particular brand of torment. It was probably this motor mouth of mine, this compulsion I have to blab what’s on my mind – and boy, I didn’t think too much of him.

I have to get out.

I have to get away from him.

It was her decision to stay; I could respect her right to make that call, I just couldn’t agree with it. Ever since, I have continued to feel these messages to my brain on a visceral level. It is an overwhelming sensation that I can’t fully describe, but I hope you may have some idea of what I mean. It completely carries me away.

And I got out, I got away from him, but I left others behind, and it hurt them and undoubtedly made their own lives harder. He was forced to change focus, and who was left in his field of vision once I was no longer around? I have always and will always carry an enormous burden of guilt around this, around my escape and what it meant for those who didn’t get over the wall with me. Huge guilt and a gnawing sense of responsibility for the direction everything took later. Even though I hold myself to a very different measure, against which I feel absolutely accountable for the state of my own existence, still I expect I will always blame myself for the way things have turned out for the others who were there.

But this force in me, this selfish need to protect myself and mine, being Llew and our unborn little friend, I find it is wholly undimmed. If I perceive danger, if I perceive a trap or a pool of quicksand or a threat to my hard-won way of life, I am filled with a resistance that is all-consuming, and I begin to fight it, whatever or whoever it is. ‘GO, keep going, push harder, carry on, survive.’

How very right this reader was – although I doubt this post will give her much occasion to cheer.



  1. Annah said,

    Thats funny because I was going to warn you of the very same thing, after guessing you probably didnt have the mother daughter experience one would hope to have had in life. My childhood was horrific and Im not exaggerating. I escaped too..on my very own and very young and have the same survival instinct you talk of. I havent met many of us who have made it out the other side..there are a lot of people that get mixed up in all sorts of stuff if they had lived even one year of what I went through and by the sounds of it, what you went through too. So here we are, very proud survivors who have worked hard on ourselves (and I mean HARD) and we think we have made it…then BAM..pregnant and it all wells up out of no where! I found week 16 to 20 a very emotional roller coastal of anger and tears as I relived (NOT WILLINGLY) my childhood again. Its a strange final detox that seems to occur as we realise that we are about to embark on parenting. We have such an intensely strong desire to ensure we do not repeat the mistakes our mother made, that we tend to over react and panic and feel an overwhelming need to over protect our baby. In the midst of it, I had to talk it out with a professional..I had to otherwise I would explode. Im so glad I did..because we need perspective at this time, something our hormones wont let us have.
    We wont be our mothers I PROMISE you. I am 24 weeks pregnant with a little girl who will not have a perfect mother, but my goodness she will have some one who has been around the block and will protect and love her passionately.
    Also dont be too hard on yourself about what occurs when you protect yourself….the alternative of the protective shut people out scenario, is FAR worse…you survived behaving this way so there must be some good in it. With age/maturity we just need to tweak it a we learn to trust people again. True friends who understand you and your past will understand if you mess up every now and then.
    All the best with your beautiful preggers journey….treat yourself to the care and support you need to make it a happy one xxxx

    • doctordi said,

      You know, Annah, I didn’t see it coming, not at all. It’s been so long – a quarter of a century – and it doesn’t really take up much space in my mind ordinarily, but being pregnant has thrust a great many dormant worries right back up my throat. What you describe is palpably, painfully familiar – that’s it. I thought I’d made it far enough away that none of it would ever trouble me again, but it hasn’t worked out like that.

      I am SO sorry, so, so sorry to hear you have the faintest idea what I am talking about, let alone that you clearly had it pretty damn rough yourself. Surviving is good, I’m proud to have survived, but it’s not without its own quiet devastations.

      The terror has always been turning out like my mother, for a long time I was convinced I couldn’t risk it and wouldn’t be a parent, but then I realised I’d spent my whole life being nothing like her, and that it would be most peculiar and unlikely for motherhood to flip some horror switch… but it’s the fear, isn’t it? I am so happy to think of you just ahead on the road to your own child after everything you’ve been through. It’s not such a terrible thing, you know, to want so badly to do better than was done for us. I know we will.

  2. charlotteotter said,

    I don’t think you should be hard on yourself for acting to protect your baby, yourself and the child you once were. Those instincts were and are powerful and they are there for a reason. You listened to your instincts and acted upon them, something which many people choose not to do.

    Your finely honed instinctiveness will serve you so well on your journey into motherhood. All those parenting books abound, but nothing will tell you better what is right for your child, yourself and your family than that instinct.

    • doctordi said,

      Thanks, Charlotte. It’s very reassuring to hear this from a parent. I wonder – always – if people choose not to listen to and act upon their instincts, or if they genuinely don’t experience them as I do. Is there a chip missing? Because I honestly cannot fathom some of the choices people make – sometimes habitually – when to me they seem so obviously perilous. It mystifies me. I’d like to know if they’re ignoring an instinct or if they’re not receiving it in the first place.

      I think you’re right, and why in the end I did have to act the way I did. My instincts have always served me true, and this didn’t seem at all the time to lower the volume. Quite the opposite.

  3. Fiona Wood said,

    You were just a little girl, miraculously managing to give yourself the parenting that your parents weren’t giving you. Don’t blame yourself for looking after yourself. Do keep trusting those instincts when it comes to the baby.

    • doctordi said,

      Thanks, Fiona, but I do think it’s an impossible thing to avoid that feeling entirely. I have learned to live with it, by and large, but it does have the power to corrupt my judgement, and that sense of responsibility makes me make concessions I would otherwise never make, as if to try to make up for my survivalist brutality, which is how it sometimes feels to me. In order to do what I have done, it has been necessary to close myself off to certain other persuasive forces, and there is an undeniable brutality in that severing of ties. But yes, I would do it again.

  4. Lilian Nattel said,

    I thought I was all done with the past by the time I started a family. Ha! When I had kids, a whole lot of stuff surfaced that needed facing. It wasn’t fun, but ultimately that process made my life bigger, richer and more whole. Di, your protectiveness is a gift for your child. A lot of people, well meaning people, value niceness over protection. It’s the social glue…even at the price of their kids’ well-being. So the determination to be unlike your mother and the determination to protect your child even if it means hurting someone’s feelings is a good thing. (The fact that you mull it over and recognize it is honest and empathetic, though your choice is to proceed.)

    There are many ways to survive; some of them negative. But even among the positive ways, there are many paths. Yours was a positive one. Yes, there were people left behind. But you built a life. That’s your task in this lifetime–to build yours, to make your corner of the world a shining place. How you do that will be different from how I do it. But as long as it’s a place of truth and light and strength, it will be a good place for your child.

    • doctordi said,

      Lilian, it’s incredible, I just didn’t know this would happen. It’s enormously confronting to have it all spewing out of these usually benign recesses of my mind and heart – I have felt again so many things already that I thought I’d truly dealt with, so it’s been a shock, a distressing shock, to find myself in some sense transported Back There.

      You’re right – everyone’s task is to build their own life, and that’s really all that’s happening here. It doesn’t mean one person will build, as you say, more truth and light and strength than the other, it just means they must be free to build it in their own way.

  5. Grad said,

    Darling Di, you and your siblings should have been PROTECTED! You were children. It was someone else’s failure, not yours, and you remain guiltless for whatever may have happened then or since as a result of that terrible terrible failure. Loving and protecting our young is so basic, so intrinsic, that I am always horrified when that parental instinct and drive is missing. It is the most unforgiveable failure I can imagine. That you survived with your spirit intact and become a successful, loving, and stable adult says a great deal about your ability to nurture. Of necessity, you have had to nurture yourself and I think you did a fine job. You will do an even finer one with your own precious child.

    • doctordi said,

      Thanks, Graddikins. Oh, I hold the adults of the situation accountable too, don’t you worry. I think the failure of their duty of care is a spectacular wreckage. And it IS unforgivable – hence their long absence from my life. I stupidly allowed, at various points, my mother back in at several junctures along the way, until the final break came in 2002. She’s just a toxic person who seems to thrive on systematic attempts to utterly debilitate her children – it just took me a very long time to accept that such a thing was really possible.

      The guilt persists even though rationally I know it’s not my fault… it’s just one of those things, a life companion now, always travelling with me but usually keeping to itself.

  6. Norwichrocks said,

    Di, I’m with Grad – nothing that happened after you managed to get out was IN ANY WAY your fault. It was the fault of the adult who was abusive and, to a certain extent, the adults who failed in their duty to protect vulnerable children in their care from that abuse.

    And I’m sure you will make mistakes as a parent – I think its unavoidable, at least partly because of each generation’s difference of lifestyle and values – but you won’t make the same mistakes your mother made. And whatever mistakes you do make, its important to remember that kids can and will thrive on a lot of parental nonsense, as long as they are loved and protected.

    • doctordi said,

      Thanks, Woo. Oh yes, I’m very aware I’ll be as mistaken-ridden as a parent as I am as a wife, friend, sister, and human being. Flawlessness would be nice, if it were attainable. But there are some mistakes that aren’t really mistakes at all – they’re the errors that become entrenched behaviours, and that’s when I guess I personally start to have a problem with them. We all make mistakes, but I do think it’s what we do with them that counts in the end.

      I hold my mother at least as responsible as her husband at the time. She was wrong about him, and that was her mistake, but staying – and keeping us there – well, that was not an error of judgement, that was a conscious decision.

  7. davidrochester said,

    Survivor guilt is one of the hardest things to live with for those who have the guts and the focus to get out of an untenable situation. It’s difficult to fully realize that those left behind also have the choice to leave … and that despite the level of abuse and hardship, it is a choice. Your escape provided, and continues to provide, an example of what is possible, and for those who choose to stay, that is both a beacon of hope and a reminder of their own failure to do what you’ve done. Perhaps you have different inner resources; or perhaps you simply have enough honesty to act on them, and to push your own boundaries.

    Selfish? No, I don’t think so. Self-preservation isn’t selfish. How is a person to become fully alive, fully aware, fully actualized in untenable circumstances? It would be more selfish to stay stuck and deprive the self and the world of the person you’re striving to become.

    Being a mother will confront you with yourself as a child around every corner. But your instincts to protect and shield? Well, if protecting yourself and your child hurts someone who has the power, whether intentionally nor not, to do you harm … that’s a casualty of that person’s choices. People sometimes reap what they sow, and that’s the hard truth … and not your fault.

    • doctordi said,

      David, I always find your intelligent assessment of these kinds of situations enormously comforting. You have a very soothing way – I’m sure you know this – of achieving clarity and compassion in equal measure, and it’s always unusually helpful to hear your account of things. Thanks.

  8. Pete said,

    I read this yesterday but didn’t have a chance to comment. Just wanted to say that I was so sad for what you had to go through and also sad at the thought of toxic families and reaching the point of no return. But I also admire your strong survival instinct and your fierce protectiveness towards your baby. (I think I was also moved by the poignancy of your story and was glad that you wrote about it. Thanks.)

    • doctordi said,

      Thanks, Pete – I was really sad to know some of the readers of this blog were so easily able to recognise it as the same old sad story they’re carrying around. On one level, it undoubtedly lightens the load, knowing you’re not alone, but on the other, it’s not an experience you’d wish on anyone else, and it’s disheartening to know how many people can relate on one level or another. A friend emailed me after reading the post and acknowledged she was sort of clueless about its impacts having come from a happy home, and then as always, knowing other people really genuinely had a positive experience gives me so much reason to hope I can offer a child that life too.

  9. litlove said,

    There is nothing wrong whatsoever with being fiercely protective of your child. On the contrary. But my own experience of motherhood is that real, usable strength lies in flexibility. Children never do what we want them to, they never are what we want them to be. They are always testing the boundaries and challenging everything we think. I know so many parents who went into it saying, I’ll never do this, I’ll never do that, THIS is how it’s going to be. And of course it isn’t the way they imagine at all, and the lovely principles go straight down the drain in the real presence of the child. And in fact, that’s great. No problem at all. The danger lies with parents who are determined to push their convictions through at any cost. Judge everyone else, Di, that’s your prerogative. But let your child be whatever it wants. My mother was ferociously protective of me – so protective that she let no one else in, and refused to countenance any other ideology reaching my ears; I was her thing, her creature, her project. I’m not recovered yet. She forgot to protect me from the damaged parts of herself, as much as from the damage that other people can do. The terrible thing is my mother did it all out of genuine love – she felt she hadn’t been secure enough as a child, and she was determined her children shouldn’t feel like that. This may not make any sense to you, and that’s great – but I had to mention it as love can be as dangerous as neglect, in its way. I do do hope you’re not offended I commented in this way. I’m sure you’ll be a lovely mummy, but I know that all I wanted before I gave birth was someone to take me to one side and say, just don’t do this, okay? And present me with a long, long list…

    • doctordi said,

      Oh sweetie, I can see you’re not recovered yet – dear oh dear! I’m not sure how you could possibly offend me by sharing your own experience – or anyway, as you’re one of the least offensive people going around – but I did want to reassure you that – with all due respect to your mum – a total lockdown, blanket ban on reality is not at all my cup of tea.

      I haven’t made, to my knowledge, a single declaration about what I will and won’t do as a parent. ‘Never’ is a pretty silly word, and looks sillier to me all the time – I used to say I would never get married, and never have children, and now look at me. I don’t have a clue what this is going to be like. I have NO IDEA who my child is, and I have NO IDEA how I shall be with him or her when the time comes, so I am actually not thinking or planning ahead too much on either front. It seems like the very last word in futility to attempt to exert absolute control over a situation so famously beyond it. I’d like to meet Baby J first, and get to know her or him on her or his own terms as well as my own.

      I can well imagine over-protectiveness as something people like me have to watch. Personally, I guess I think a parent’s role is to do their best to help equip their child for his or her own unique version of a full life. It may not resemble my version very much at all. And that’s okay – individual difference is one of life’s greatest pleasures (and endless challenges). I do have a very large appetite for people and for human existence in general, it’s pretty fascinating stuff, so I can’t quite imagine wanting to shut the door in my child’s face… that’s not really the type of protection I mean. Love as dangerous as neglect? Well, we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that one, I think, but I do really see how smothering and stifling and limiting the best intentions can be. It’s definitely something I’m aware of, and thanks for the sober reminder of some of its effects. xxx

  10. litlove said,

    Hugs to you – you’ll be just great, and thanks for the reassurance. xoxox

  11. doctordi said,

    Hugs back, LL – I’ll certainly do my best. xxx

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