Many parenting survivors struggle with guilt, as they simultaneously work on raising their children and re-raising themselves. The decision to add journal prompts at the end of each essay in the Trigger Points Anthology was to encourage readers to use the connection and shared experiences as prompts in investigating their own personal parenting struggles. We are honored to share a response to one of those prompts with you today. Frieda bravely allows us to witness her own battles, and I can assure you by the end, you will be celebrating her insightful triumph. Frieda speaks open and honestly and that takes courage. We thank you, Frieda. This is what the #SurvivorsEmpoweringSurvivors series is all about.
I do carry a massive amount of guilt for the effect my struggles with my mental health have upon my kids. The thing I feel most guilty for is the ‘overspill’ they have witnessed whilst I’ve been in the midst of a crisis (triggered by doctors, dentists or just a bad day). My curious eldest has asked me questions at such times and I’ve answered him honestly, but I wish he didn’t know all that stuff because of the weight and darkness of it. I worry about them having a bleak view of the world because mine is so distorted and inevitably affects theirs. I do talk about this with them though, and try and point out the presence of helpers and good people – in the Paris attacks recently, for example.
I regret that I am not a better model of emotional regulation, as I can find it hard to contain myself and come out with all sorts of inappropriate and bizarre comments/observations (which the kids find hilarious) when stressed. “Do your silly thing again mummy,” they often request, but it’s not something I have much control over and I worry about the affect of this on them.
I struggle with self harm and this is something I do lie to them about. I keep it as hidden as possible, which is mostly possible, but I make up weak and off the cuff stories about fresh scars in the swimming pool and they’re clearly not convinced. There has developed a definite taboo around them asking, and I know they feel that and must be confused, but I worry that if I told the truth they would see self harm as a valid coping mechanism and I really don’t want to pass that on to them.
I try to own my emotional states by saying to them things like “I’m having a hard day today. If I’m grumpy, it’s not because of anything you’ve done”, or “Sorry, I’m knackered/in a bad mood, it’s not you.” I try my hardest, and manage well to not take my struggles out on them; that’s part of breaking the cycle. I try and limit my negative self-talk around them, but at times it’s really hard to keep that running commentary inside. Because of them knowing a lot of stuff that other kids their age haven’t generally come across yet, we talk openly about all sorts of things. They know they can ask me anything and I will do my best to be honest with what I know.
It took me a while to fully grasp the SD bit of PTSD, but that has been very useful to get my head around. I find stress very difficult to manage and understanding the physiological basis of that has helped me to take it more seriously. It’s not all ‘in my head’, well it is, but deep in the physiology of my brain. Fully grasping that has helped me prioritize keeping my stress levels as low as possible because that’s when I function at my best, which is what I want to be for my kids.
It’s hard to keep on top of, but at least I recognize what’s happening now and can try and do something about it. Finding out about PTSD was a big “ping” moment leading to a shift in how I perceive myself. I blamed myself for not coping better, for being a middle aged adult who’d had some good experiences, but still couldn’t ‘get over it’, still re-living parts of my childhood daily. I thought it was all my fault for being weak and unable to cope when everyone else was just getting on with it.
I thought I ‘let’ the past rule my present and to not be able to transcend it highlighted my weakness of mind. And anyway, loads of people have had loads more difficult experiences than me and they do ok, so why don’t I just stop fussing about it. It led me on to reading about trauma and discovering the work of Babette Rothschild, Pete Walker, Bessel Van Der Kolk, which again was a revelation to me, and let me off the hook some more for why all these memories were still so raw and unprocessed in my body.
It’s very much work in progress and self hate is my most easily accessible emotion. I wish I could do so much better than I do. I guess that’s a thing I find really hard about parenting – that wish that I could be the mum I imagined I could be before I had them. I wish I was able to be fully present, to share their joy and spontaneity more, to take them out on trips instead of needing to stay within my comfort zone, to have attracted a wider support network including other children to substitute for lack of biological family. I wish I had the resources to get male role models on board. I do my best, but the reality is, it often isn‘t good enough. It’s limited and a bit barren at times when I wanted it to be full of vitality and colour.
Part of me believes I don’t deserve my kids, especially as I actively (as a lesbian) chose to have them. I feel that I wouldn’t have passed the test if there was one, and I certainly don’t live up to my own expectations. I remember the heartbreaking moment of realization that “breaking the cycle” was beyond me, that I was damaging my kids with the sharp edges of my own brokenness.
But then I see parents out and about casually humiliating their kids or being really disrespectful and I think at least mine don’t have to put up with that. My psychologist, who used to work in forensics, said to me last week “It’s not all those other people you should be comparing yourself to, it’s the people locked up on secure wards who’ve had more similar experiences to you. You’re doing fantastically.” And that’s hard to hear, hard to let in, hard to think about those people with no freedom as a result of having messed up childhoods, but part of me feels reassured by that. Maybe I am doing ok; maybe my kids will grow into relatively unscathed, content men.
Self compassion and forgiveness are things I’m still trying to make friends with, but being an introvert, I spend most of the time in my safe cold corner with my back to them. It’s hard to believe I am worthy, it’s hard to get over my deep ambivalence and let go of the self hatred as it feels like my identity is founded on it, and what would I be without foundations?
Part of me thinks that to be compassionate to myself would mean feeling the pain of all that happened instead of the hard faced denial which keeps me at a safer distance from it. But another part of me wants to feel more whole, wants to find life easier and feel less alone and less alien, and I know that can’t happen until I stop nursing this fetid resentment towards myself.
In terms of celebrating the good work I am doing as a parent – I am always open to learning from my children. I tell them many times a day how much I love them. I apologize when I mess up. I so want the best for them and do whatever I can to support them. I try to own my “stuff.”
A recent parenting success took a long time to unfold, but I feel really glad to have got there. My boys, aged 9 and nearly 12, are arguing a lot at the moment, petty bickering which can turn into full on fighting. I find it really stressful, and cannot relax or tune out, I’m vigilant around it and without realizing have assumed they experience it similarly. It has been hard not to react to them from a place of stress “Will you stop arguing, it’s really stressing me out” or, “Ok, it’s bedtime if you two are too tired to get along.”
The other day they were playing a long game of Monopoly whilst I was doing various jobs in the kitchen and I noticed my stress levels rising as they bickered constantly. But then I kept noticing that they were still playing the game quite amicably together, and I fully realized something which has been gradually dawning on me. My associations with conflict are that it will soon turn to violence, which is why I find it so intolerable, but I realized they experience it in a completely different way – that it is part of a normal range of communication for them. When I acknowledged this, it felt like a real breakthrough and I was able to let go of my vigilance and stress around it, and leave them to get on with it. And then of course I realized my vigilance and stress added nothing useful to the situation anyway!
Another time, a few weeks ago, I was feeling very triggered by their arguing, which had got physical and I felt like I would explode with the stress of it; I couldn’t think what to do to help them. I felt like shouting out my frustration and punishing them, but I knew that wouldn’t help, so instead I made hot chocolate and toast and invited them in to my bed for a story and they soon made friends. I feel a lot of compassion for them, and it feels so good when I get it right.
I would say that’s one of my parenting strengths – a willingness to look at myself and see what past things I might be bringing into a situation in order to prevent projecting things onto them or blaming them for things which are more to do with me. Sometimes it takes me a while to get there.
Bio: Frieda Blenkinslop is a single lesbian mum living in the UK with her two energetic boys, 9 and nearly 12. Her dream job is running the Nurture Room in a primary school, working with children who struggle with their behaviour. Frieda is currently working on completing a counseling course and enjoys running a couple of times a week to shake up her mood. You can follow Frieda on her personal blog: notesfromthelooneybin.