Well that was the start of a conversation I have managed to avoid for around a decade. It was so hard, but I am glad I managed to start it.
Preparing to begin…
I have been speaking with my therapist Chris about how to talk to my eldest daughter about my childhood. She has frequently enquired about why she never met my mum? Or why I had to go into foster care? The most heartbreaking question she has ever asked me. “Didn’t Grandma love me? Why didn’t she want to meet me?” At the time she knew that my mum had never met her and she was aware she was a couple of years old when my mum died.
I never lied to her, but I always managed to avoid the conversation. Saying things like, I will tell you when you are older, or my mum was poorly I can explain how that impacted her when you are ready to understand a little more.
Chris and I had spent a whole session of prepping. Debating how to position the conversation. One of the most helpful considerations was that it was the start of a conversation not the whole thing. As expected I scheduled the time in my diary once and found an excuse to move it. I had set aside some time again and once more found myself looking for reasons why the timing was wrong. But I managed to notice just as Chris predicted I was simply trying to avoid it, so at my set time I invited her out for a walk. We often have a little walk and talk just about day to day stuff so the request was not unusual.
Listening is easy talking is hard…
As we walked I offered her an opening. “You know you have often asked in the past about my mum and dad and I have always said when you are little older we will talk, well you are getting a little older now so we can discuss it a little more if you like.”
At first the questions felt easy to answer, in the sense I was not disabled by my emotions. She asked about what had caused them both to pass away. I explained the reasons as best I could. Then it got a bit more complicated as she started to inquire why they had divorced. Once more I tried to explain what I felt she would understand in a truthful open way, without wanting to scare her. I talked a little about the involvement of the police and social services deciding me and my sister could not live in the same home as mum and eventually deciding the same about dad. We talked about the fact that whilst circumstances meant they had to divorce my mum made it very clear years later she never wanted to go back to dad.
Then I tried to explain along the lines I prepared for that mum and dad were not good parents. Trying so hard to balance not wanting her to think social services will rock up out of the blue if a parent simply raises their voice and not wanting to frankly traumatise her.
I used examples I had vetted with Chris and Stephen… There were a few times no one came to pick us up from school. That sometimes I would have to cook for Me and Mel or we might not have tea… (It was never that extravagant but I managed beans on toast).
Then what felt like totally out of the blue she landed a question I was not prepared for. “Was there abuse?”
Dam I was not expecting that. I gently asked where she had heard that word. She explained in school. I asked what she understood that to mean, she listed the three types and offered a solid explanation. Then without any further answering from me, she dived in deeper. Was there sexual abuse? I was like a deer in headlights. “Why did you ask that?” “Why do you want to know?”
I spent the better part of fifteen minutes not answering her. Which was probably answer enough. I tried to understand why she wanted to know. (Foolish enquiry really, she wanted to know because she wanted to know). I tried to explain that I didn’t want to upset her and that we could come back to it another time. (She was not buying it. “I will give you two minutes then you can answer.”) Eventually she reluctantly agreed that before we went any further down this path I wanted to speak with her dad and with Chris.
Calling in the Cavalry…
Dam her dad was amazing as ever. He encouraged me not to wait two weeks until I was seeing Chris again. He suggested we find a time to sit down together and speak with her. That he would support me as he understood it was hard.
A couple of days later we sat at the table and I tried again to avoid it. I was skirting around the questions. I started to find myself getting upset, tears quietly falling down my face.
“You can do this.” Stephen nudged me. I looked him square in the face. “Do you think this counts as one of those emergency dial back your emotions situations.” I knew I was going to fail in saying much unless I could step back a little. He softly nodded. So I took a few deep breaths, found my place in the room and the world. Stopped my tears. And looked her gently in the eyes.
“Yes there were all sorts of abuse.” I had done it. I had admitted out loud to someone other than Chris and Stephen the reality of my past.
(When I had been younger and my mother first told her doctors what was going on they trouped me out to sit in a room whilst they gently tried to enquire. When I couldn’t say anything they sent me to a child psychologist who watched me play with play dough and nudged me to build stories with the characters I had made. (Dam I would love to read their insights one day although I suspect even the subterfuge games told them little). Before this therapy I had assumed lost of my past would go with me to my grave. Right now I am pretty sure much of it still will as I don’t feel able to confront with any real ability the details of some of those events. )
She dug a little further. I told her limited things, avoiding entirely the most difficult parts. But I offered what I felt comfortable to say and even Stephen chipped in with some of the things he has witnessed or knew. It was still really the least horrific parts, the way dad spoke to me, the way he treated me, I struggled really to even admit that he would hit or hurt me. But buried in there somewhere was the acknowledgment he did.
As the reality touched down it was her turn to cry and I felt awful. I felt like it was my fault again. That I had caused those tears. I had to remind myself that it was not my fault. Repeating over and over in my head that I shouldn’t have faced those situations let alone have to navigate this now.
She was confused and a little lost.
“But I loved them.”
“I don’t know how I feel…”
I explained as kindly as I could that she could still love them. That her feelings might not stay the same. That she might feel differently day to day, hour to hour.
“But how can I love them when they hurt you and I love you so much.”
I tried again to reassure her that feelings and people are complicated. That we often can’t choose how we feel. That I loved her no matter how she felt.
After lots of cuddles the first conversation was done. I reminded her how lucky I am to have her dad and her and her little sister and our wonderful home. That the life I have now is a million miles from the start and that made me extra lucky.
I have hesitated sharing this part of the journey with you all. This conversation was weeks ago now. I think I still wonder if I have done the right thing. But I couldn’t keep it from her for ever. I just wish she never had to cry tears for me.
It is hard to live in a bubble from your past but it is easier than accepting and acknowledging it. I hate it when I feel like my pain grows when I share it. But perhaps so does connection and trust and knowing.
When I reflected on the conversation with Chris, and I touched on the point I had made to Gwen that her feelings might change, and it was ok to feel anything she feels. He commented “…it’s funny how advice is often easier to give than take.” He is so right.