If I had to sum up my philosophy for parenting after trauma, I would say: don’t try to fix your parenting, but fix yourself, and then parent. (That’s very Zen, isn’t it I’m sure I must have read something like that in a book about Zen, but I can’t remember which one.) Kids don’t want your fake parenting, they want your real self. Like, did you ever have the experience that you’re playing with them, and they do something that is really funny, and you laugh – a proper spontaneous belly laugh? And then what happens? They’ll do the thing that made you laugh, over and over again, trying to provoke the same laugh that they got the first time. Because that genuine burst of emotion felt so good.
But what about the bad emotions? The “bad” emotions? You know – fear, anger, sadness? I think you have to take a bit more care – I see this as a gradual transfer of responsibility where you should only really be sharing your feelings fully when your kids are adults, or near to it. Smaller kids need to feel safe, they need to not be parentified – so you need to choose what you share with them, and they need to know that whatever emotions you’re having, you’re OK, they’re OK, and nothing bad’s going to happen.
I find all this fairly easy and instinctive when it comes to fear and sadness. My kids are fine seeing my genuine fear of, say, rollercoasters, and being “booed” at 7 in the morning when I’ve just got out the shower and the house is still silent and I think I am going to have my breakfast in peace, but as they’ve just been starting swimming lessons I’ve been trying not to make it obvious that I don’t like the water on my head. I’m fine with them seeing me crying at the kitten book scene in Despicable Me, but if someone starts shouting at me in the supermarket car park because whatever, I’ll sniff the tears back and say I’m OK. That sort of thing. It feels instinctive, what to share and what to quietly keep to the background of their life. I mean, it’s one of the reasons I think you need regular breaks and adult contact if you look after kids, as it causes stress – but I think it’s right. If we were all in those fabled sort of Back In The Day When All Was Well extended family units with older relatives sharing childcare and everyone sitting round the table shelling peas, this wouldn’t be a source of stress because you’d be in constant contact with other adults and you wouldn’t have to carry the full burden of conversation with a small, crazy person and it would be easy. I mean, it would in your family. My family’s all fucking mental.
But that leaves anger, and I’m not all that good at anger. It’s a common unwritten rule (ha – they’re all unwritten. That’s half the fun!) in narcissistic families that only the narcissist parent’s anger is acceptable: not only acceptable, but righteous and justified. (I’ve just quoted the KLF, haven’t I?) Kids’ anger is utterly unacceptable. It’s almost the worst thing you can do, be angry. It makes you unacceptable. Unlovable. Wrong.
You carry it into adulthood, the toxic shame. I’ve had so many experiences where someone would be an utter dick to me, and I’d get like the slightest bit angry and I’ll start this panicked run-through of everything they said and did, trying desperately to convince myself that I’m not the hideously awful person I now feel like. I sometimes have to go and do nice things for other people to convince myself I am the sort of person who does nice things.
It makes it bloody hard to parent small children. I wanted to create a home where people could feel free to express all their emotions. I did all that stuff of sitting on the floor in Tescos empathising with their tantrums. “You’re angry. You’re so angry that you can’t eat the toilet block. It’s so annoying! Why do they make it a nice colour if you can’t even eat it?” But I wasn’t doing any work to make my own anger more acceptable to myself, and the asymmetry was going to bite me in the bum.
I grew up in a house where only my mother’s anger was acceptable, and mine was abhorrent. I was creating a situation where my kids’ anger was acceptable, but mine as a mother’s was not on. Look who’s the arsehole in both setups. I’ll give you a clue, it’s the woman who’s standing in the kitchen at 9am inhaling a family bag of artisanal crisps.
The kids were getting older and more annoying, and there’s only so many steak and mustard crisps any one person can eat. The anger started leaking out of me in other ways. I was shouting at them – I’d be nice faced, patient, till maybe about 2 in the afternoon I’ve taken all I could deal with and I’d then I’d blow my top and yell at them both.
It was shite anger. First of all, because it happened as a result of an accumulation of annoying things, it didn’t relate to the small, straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back incident I’d blown up at. They’d be looking at me like, I’m sure the last time I rubbed playdoh into the carpet you just laughed it off. Did we… get a new carpet?
Second, it didn’t actually make me feel any better. You’re supposed to feel better after you’ve had a good shout, but this was end of my tether shouting, not get it out of my system shouting. And it was coming with a big helping of toxic shame.
So what did I feel ashamed about? Being too angry? Too loud? Scaring the kids?
No. What I felt shame about, specifically, as I was shouting, was that I was fat.
Let’s just cut away for a minute and talk about this. Now, I am fat. My BMI is firmly into the overweight category. I come from a stock of people who managed to survive in a country where the best growing crop is the fucking turnip and the winter days are about 25 minutes long. I know how to sit still and conserve energy. And add to that the artisanal crisp-inhaling tendencies, and it adds up. I am, as Kevin Bridges would say, not “documentary” fat – but definitely on the porky side.
I wasn’t fat at all as a kid. I left school aged 17 and I was somewhere between a size 12 and a 14 – average if anything. And yet I’d felt fat my whole childhood. Fat was a massive thing for my mother. She’d been extremely thin as a child, and a teenager – she’d look at her wedding and first anniversary photos, and remark wistfully that she’d been so thin before I came along and ruined her figure. Every few months or so she’d look at me appraisingly, remark that my dance classes didn’t seem to be working, and launch another diet. Her and me. She’d go along to Weightwatchers or the local one at the leisure centre, bring it home and we’d pore over it, try and figure out how we’d survive on it. Diet foods would be bought, and I’d be warned how hard it would be: no food after dinner time, no snacks, no sweets. The diets would normally last as long as I lasted: after a week or two of undressed salads and a single weetabix for breakfast I’d break and ask for more food. Regretfully she’d comply and the diet would be shelved, for her as well as me; it was a relatively painless process for me because she was never particularly angry at me for falling off the diet. It was the one thing I was allowed to fail at.
I mean she’d fat shame me for it later: it’d come up when we were buying clothes, an experience so painful I’ll be giving it its own post at some point, and it was one of her go-to insults when she was yelling at me. IIRC it was presented as a moral failing, a sign of my inner rubbishness that I had been given a healthy body but I still wanted to fill it with junk and ruin it.
Anyway, if you’re still following this, let’s cut back to the floor and the playdoh. I’m sitting there shouting and suddenly I get this feeling of toxic shame and it’s got a real flavour of “you’re too fat”. And my conscious mind is sitting there going “what the fuck? We’re going to talk about the crisp habit now? What the fuck is going on?
I’m not saying there was nothing to be ashamed of. Massively losing my shit at my kids is not on. Sending them the message that mum’s disapproval is random and different on different days, is really not on. But what has fat got to do with it? It spurred me to start reading around it all – anger, and abuse, and then emotional flashbacks and CPTSD, and it started to fit into place. My expression of anger is triggering an emotional flashback of being unloved and being unacceptable. It fit. It felt like coming home.
Nowadays I make an effort to express my anger with the kids at the time it happens, in proportion, and with the proviso that we all still love each other and you can still have a hug (quite often 2 of 2 will ask for a hug in the middle of a telling off, have the hug, and then listen to the rest of the telling off). At first I felt the toxic shame response rearing its head whenever I raised my voice but I told it to fuck off, and after a while it did. And the kids are calmer, and listen to me more, and if anything are happier than before. A little bit of anger, appropriately applied, has made our lives a lot better.