One of the aspects of parenting that I wasn’t wholly prepared for was the judgement. Judgements from the older generation, judgements from those without children, judgements from other mothers and, perhaps worst of all, judgements from my own mother.
Despite probably overly researching almost every decision I make, I feel the weight of these judgements when I talk about how we live; baby-led, breastfeeding, co-sleeping and striving to be a gentle parent. I find myself editing and omitting these aspects of our family life together because, although I believe in what I am doing, I recognise that these practices are viewed by many as being at odds with mainstream parenting – that gentle parents in particular are often accused of being at best permissive and at worst sanctimonious. So I wanted to reach out and explain why I am striving to be a gentle parent and how my parenting choices are based on my unique experiences; I’m not making them because I think I’m special or better than anyone else. My parenting choices are particularly coloured by my own mental health battles, battles which have caused me to seek out alternative methods of communicating with my own child.
This is my story:
My parents love me. I grew up in a beautiful, middle-class area with a mother and father who remain happily married and who I know always try to do their best by me: I was privately educated, I was taken on holidays, I was and am both loved and privileged. And yet here I am with a host of mental health issues under my belt which I have spent years trying to unpick; my Grandmother is bi-polar, my father has anger issues and I suspect underlying mental health issues, all three of his children have required mental health interventions. Genetics are a lottery – some things I won, others not so much.
When I was a child I had a ferocious temper and my parents didn’t know how to help me. They turned to traditional parenting ideologies in hope of containing my rage; I was punished in a variety of ways and I was smacked. But it didn’t work – my brother apparently had one tantrum, for which he received a smack on the leg, and he never did it again. But we are different my brother and I, and for me when that red mist descended I felt un-tethered; frightened and invincible at the same time; I could no more stop myself raging then halt a speeding train. The threat of punishment was immaterial, I was unhinged. My parents later told me that they were frightened by my temper. So was I. But they had each other to confide their fears to whereas I felt alone with my unwanted emotions.
I remember the shame when the dust settled; I had disappointed them again. I was bad. I lay on the bed in my parents room sobbing, my hands protecting my buttocks before they were pinned down and I felt the force of my father bringing down the hard side of the slipper onto my skin. The stinging pain. The shame. I’m sure it wasn’t that hard, my father loved me… and yet, it felt hard, I was alone. I was ashamed. I felt in my core that I was rotten.
Later in my life when I spoke to counsellors I would learn that it is unusual for self harm to start before puberty. I first remember sitting on my bedroom floor and repeatedly beating my legs until it hurt enough. I was 7 when we left that house – so although I know that I was no older than 7, I may have been younger – I’m just not sure. I hadn’t been exposed to any other violence in my life but being smacked had taught me that inflicting pain on myself was a way to process these overwhelming emotions alone and without the crushing judgement of my parents. These two memories – being smacked and beating myself – somehow occupy the same space in my brain. I didn’t recognise this as self-harm until I met my husband. To this day he says the only thing that makes him really angry with me is when I lose my temper and in a fit of rage I rag my hair, slap my face, smack my head. It sounds ludicrous to write it down. And yet this is a part of my life, it happens rarely these days – perhaps once a year but I am wise enough not to believe it has stopped, each time the clock is re-set and I wonder when I will regress again.
I was an introspective child, I asked my mother what the purpose of life was aged 6 and remember slowly processing what it meant when she couldn’t answer me; things inside my mind felt bleak. I wrote stories, I made up songs, I didn’t have many friends and I didn’t really mind, in fact I don’t think I noticed. At six years of age, I was essentially already a tortured artist in arguably one of the most privileged environments you can imagine. I think it’s fair to say that I had inherited some tricky mental tendencies.
I look to my Father now who still rages if something is spoilt or spilt, his compulsion for things to remain pristine already causing my own 16 month old son to be forbidden to play with toys in most of the downstairs of my parents’ home. I reflect on my own upbringing, remembering being hospitalised aged 11 for what turned out to be stress. I watch my son and already I see his spirit emerging true and strong and I hope that he has not inherited my tendency to experience emotions so intensely that I seem to leave my body for periods of time. But if he has, I want to help him; I want him to know that he is always loved, that nothing could ever make him bad in my eyes and that all feelings are transient.
So I turn to gentle parenting – I turn to something which makes sense to me on both an emotional and logical level and I hope I will break the cycle. Recently I was at a gentle parenting workshop where a parent described her six year old’s temper, how she had reassured her daughter that she understood big feelings were hard, she told her she was loved no matter what and held her close. To my surprise I burst into tears; I was both engulfed with sadness for myself as a child and warmed by the beauty of the interaction. I was overcome. And I knew in that moment that I had chosen the right style of parenting for my family.
Gentle Parenting is not easy and already there have been times that I feel I have fallen woefully short of the mark. But I am growing and I am learning; learning that just as I cannot expect perfection from my child I cannot expect it from myself as a mother. And just like my mother and father did before me, I am doing my best with what I have which, in the end, is all any of us can do.
*** I am passionately vocal about mental health. However this blog has been anonymised in order to protect my parents whom I love dearly.
Anonymummy is The Motherload®’s anonymous blogging identity; she allows us to tell the stories which are too risky, or too painful to share in our own names. Anonymummy is written by a different author every time. If you have an experience to share via Anonymummy, you can email The Motherload® editor in confidence on firstname.lastname@example.org.