21st Oct 2018
My daughter is 17
On this same Sunday in 2001 it seemed like the world was tipping over into some new place. Six weeks after the September 11 attacks and the the headlines were screaming war, counter attacks, terrorism, invasion. I was sad to be bringing a child into this kind of world.
My waters broke undramatically on Saturday night. They tried to break them some more and if I had known how that was going to feel I would have said no thank you.
At 9.00am I was induced with oxytocin via intravenous drip infusion. At 9.15am I was in full blown labour. For four hours I was assaulted by wave after wave of intensity. The gas made me hallucinate and cry on the shower floor and for one true moment I wondered if I was going to die. Surely nobody could survive this? My mother came in, saw me on the shower floor and started to cry. I told her to get out and only come back if she could keep herself together. I asked for pain relief but it was too late. I managed to get up and move towards the bed, drip in tow. The midwife scrambled to place a cover over the floor, I leaned over the bed and out she came at 1.15pm.
They handed her to me between my legs and there is a photo of that moment. The first time holding my baby, realising what I had done, bloodied and bewildered, the cord thick and curly dangling between my legs. I was stunned. I had a girl in my hands and I was a girl no more.
For days after I was sensitive, emotional, in pain, confused and angry. Why hadn’t anyone told me it was going to be like that? Why hadn’t anyone told me it didn’t have to be like that? I felt deceived, tricked, violated, humiliated. The deepest, most private parts of me were torn and stitched up, it hurt to sit on these tiny spikes and the haemorrhoids, I got mastitis and was prescribed antibiotics which gave me thrush, my nipples were cracked and bleeding so it felt like I was being stabbed in the breasts every time I fed her, I was sleep deprived and inundated with visitors for six weeks. Not one of them asked me if I was ok. The circle of love and female support I was blessed with before the birth was gone. Nobody – not a friend, family member or professional – had a comforting thing to say about my experience. It was like it was normal and that was it.
Of course all of this informs my work today. I want all women to know the truth. Birth is hard, hard work. But there are ways and choices so suffering is not mandatory and trauma for mothers and babies is minimised.
Having a baby at 21 changed the course of my life. Her reaction to the two-month vaccines, her allergies, her steadfast attachment to me, sensitivity to noise, extreme shyness, unusual intelligence, preference for animals over humans, all of it demanded my attention and gave me direction. My journalism career -my lifelong dream- was sidelined. I had a child who needed me present. She was and still is my mirror: fully feeling, rebellious, stubborn, expressive, dying to experience beauty, meaning, love. It is impossible not to relive my teenage years through her and it is more than uncomfortable, it is excruciating.
So now the dance we dance is one step forward, two steps back. I struggle to let her go. No, it’s more than struggle. It’s pure resistance. I am overly protective, crazy even. I tell her I don’t care if she doesn’t like me right now. One day she might understand and be thankful. The postnatal depression I had with her and her sister manifested as obsessive compulsive thoughts. I saw in my mind terrible things happening to my daughters for the first four years of their lives. I could not stop these images from flashing into my mind. Back then I did not have the understanding I do today about thoughts so I took them all seriously. I believed them and I let them have power over me. This made me an exhausted nervous wreck. On top of this was the shame of having these thoughts, the fear of telling anyone in case they thought I was crazy, the panic that I actually was mentally unsound. All of this made me withdrawn and lonely. When I stopped breastfeeding the girls at four years of age the fog lifted, the thoughts subsided. But the damage to my relationships with both their fathers was done.
Now I find my world tipping again into a strange place not unlike the time after she was born. She asks me to go to a party and my first response is no. My mind is flooded with worst-case scenarios, what-ifs and coulds; gang rape, drunken rape, spiked drinks, teenage pregnancy, drug experimentation that leads to addiction that leads to accidental overdose or depression or suicide. Every news story, every true crime novel, the faces of girls and women from the TV flash before my eyes, the details of their deaths remembered too clearly. What makes my daughter any less vulnerable? What distinguishes me from the mothers of those dead girls? Nothing. I wasn’t a helicopter parent of a toddler but I’ve made up for it in her teenage years, don’t you worry.
I know how I am being. I recognise the anxiety and the dysfunction because I inherited it from my own mother.
It didn’t matter that I vowed to be the opposite kind of mother – open, relaxed, cool, talking about periods and sex, loving unconditionally and accepting my child for whoever she became. It didn’t matter because apparently the grooves run deep. As well as your mum’s skin tone, eye colour, hip shape, you also inherit her trauma. So in mothering we are asked to undo, to heal, repair, forgive and be different for the sake of our own daughters.
In some ways my efforts with my eldest child fell into overcompensation. There were no boundaries. The lines were blurred. Were we mother and child or were we best friends? None of this mattered when she was four, five, six, seven. Not even at 11 or 12. But it did matter when she started calling me bro and telling me I was in an arsehole mood. Then it mattered a lot and then I established hard and fast boundaries, which confused and hurt her.
I am petrified of letting her go. The irony is the harder you hold onto them the more you push them away. So balance. You want to go to the party in the hotel room? I will take you and pick you up even though it’s 45 minutes away and I will call and message you and stalk you on social media because when I was 17 in hotel rooms we were taking ecstasy and having sex. You want to go to a house party 25 minutes away with a boy you just met and I have never seen? Ok sure, I will take you and pick you up. And yes, I want to meet him.
He is waiting out the front of the house. I talk to him over the head of my eight-yearold who is playing her ipad in the front seat.
Whose house is this? Are there any parents home? Give me your mobile number please. And your mother’s.
Do you take drugs? No? Good.
Do you drink alcohol? Yes? Ok, fine.
Listen, my daughter is not to be drunk when I pick her up tonight.
And know this: you are not responisble for her. She is responsible for herself and her own behaviour.
And you know what that means? You are too.
And if any harm comes to her, any advantage taken of her by you, I will kill you and I will burn this whole place the fuck down. I know you don’t understand this right now but one day you will. Do you hear me?
Yes, I understand.
Good. Thank you. Nice to meet you, have fun. Good bye.
My daughter is 17. The world is a different place. In a year she will be finishing high school and have more freedom, choice, responsibility than ever. I will have to let her go. Deep down I want to, honestly. I want her to get as far away from here as possible. To travel, to adventure, to fall in love, make art, love, magic, to do all the things I did not get to do because I was living under the weight of cultural burden and self-imposed restrictions.
This split – the dreams we have for our children and the paralysing fear the world will hurt them or we will lose them forever – is real and it is physical.
I cry in bed at night and in the morning when we have argued over curfews, when I suspect she is lying, when I see her in pain.
I grit my teeth – she calls this my snake face – when she refuses to listen, thinks she knows everything, is rude and disrespectful.
My stomach hurts when she is somewhere with kids I don’t know who have cars and she doesn’t answer my texts or phone calls.
At the end of it all, I know I must let go.
I must surrender her to life.
I know this is her journey, not mine.
I know she has to make her own choices and even if they are the wrong ones they will be right.
I know she will be alright even when she it not.
I know there is pain and heartache ahead and she has a right to experience them for her own growth and wisdom.
I cannot rob of her of the darkness because if I do I will also be robbing her of the light.
I know, I know, I know.
Maybe next year I will. Or maybe I won’t and we will do this dance forever. I don’t know. All I know is this love, this parenting thing, is a gift and a cross to bear. And nobody can tell you what any of it will be like – the birth, the first few years, the toddler years, the school years, the teenage years. All of it a great big, messy mystery we can only live one day at a time. I know I have fucked it up on many occasions. We all do. And then our children will grow into adults and do exactly what we did – spend a lifetime either repeating our mistakes, healing from them or overcompensating for them.
I thank my daughter today.
I thank her for being born as if she had some choice in the matter.
I thank her for being who she is, for raising me, for making me a mother and loving me like no other.
Because sometimes I wonder if any of us even deserves the kind of love we can only get from our kids.