My Damaged Mother Taught Me How NOT To Be A Parent

Some parents never escape abusive childhoods – instead they make almost exactly the same mistakes with their kids, as Scheenagh Harrington can testify.

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My Damaged Mother Taught Me How NOT To Be A Parent

I know exactly what kind of parent I want to be, but like most mums (and dads), there are times when it feels like I’m laying tracks two feet in front of a runaway steam train, frantically making it up as I go along.

But unlike many people, I don’t have parents of my own to call on for help and advice.

I haven’t seen my father since I was about 15 and, in all honesty, it’s no big deal. He did not – as I’ll explain in a bit – provide the cut-out-and-keep template of a Top Dad.

My mum, Carole, though, is a different story – and a complex one.

Next year will mark a decade since I last spoke to or saw her, and the anniversary has made me think a lot about the past and how she has influenced my relationships with my children.

I have to start with my grandparents, who were far from functional. My grandad was a paedophile who abused at least two of his daughters, while his wife – my nanna – pretty much let him get on with it. Whether my mum was one of his victims I’ll probably never know.

I remember moments where I tried to reach out but she would recoil, sometimes physically

Her childhood, peppered with abuse and poverty, with the threat of the workhouse hanging over them, was tougher than I’ll ever understand. And things didn’t improve when she married.

Enter, stage left, my dad. Handsome, charming, articulate – and as nasty a drunk as they come, handy with his fists and a firm believer that women should be kept barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen.

I have very few memories of our time as a family living in Hull; Dad, Mum, me and my two brothers. But the overwhelming feeling when I try to dig through the fog is of being frightened. So I don’t do it very often.

Everything gets clearer when he left in the late ’70s, when I was aged about eight and it was us and my mum against the world.

I was aware from a very early age that money was tight – we lived on benefits – and I know most of Mum’s energy went on making ends meet, feeding and clothing us and keeping a roof over our heads. I guess a needy child was the last thing she had time for.

I remember moments where I tried to reach out but she would recoil, sometimes physically. Kisses and cuddles were almost non-existent, and she rarely played with us.
She told me I looked like a freak after I’d had a haircut I loved.

My Damaged Mother Taught Me How NOT To Be A Parent - my mother taught me how not to be a parent 300x199
Scheenagh Harrington with her mother in 1996.

As I grew older, I bragged about how liberal she was, letting me stay out until all hours while my friends had parents who laid down strict curfews. In my 20s, Mum was there when boyfriends went sour and attempts to move out went south.

On the surface it doesn’t seem so bad, right? Everyone has their ups and downs, that’s normal.  I’ve even told myself the same thing and wondered if I’m imagining stuff. But then I remember.

I remember the threats to leave, and me pulling on her arms, sobbing and begging her to stay, and being walloped for getting two drops of water on a freshly-painted wall.

I remember being thrown out for God knows what reason, sitting on the front step wondering where the hell I was going to go, and being left with babysitters who were cruel and borderline abusive.

I went on a week-long camping trip with nobody to wave me off and nobody to meet me when I returned, and eventually found Mum at her friend’s house. I was almost hysterical with fear that she’d left. She laughed in my face.

I remember phone conversations where I’d be telling her something important and she’d cut straight across me as if I wasn’t even talking; I remember so many other moments.

All, tiny, tiny slights among so many others.

I know I wasn’t a perfect child, but I gradually came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t have mattered if I was.

It’s not easy to write about this, as I have no wish to demonise her or pretend I’m some sort of innocent victim. I absolutely do not compare my life to my mum’s – hers was horrific, mine merely a bit difficult. Her experiences made her who she was, but Mum’s inability to change, to give even just a little, eventually broke my heart.

Several members of my family still don’t understand my decision to turn my back on Mum

I thought I’d finally won her approval after I got pregnant for the first time and my husband and I had our daughter, Eleanor, in 2005 – she was Mum’s first grandchild.

At first she was delighted, but as our daughter grew, her interest dwindled. We’d visit every ten days or so but she would barely have anything to do with her.

During phone conversations, I went from telling her everything about our daughter to almost nothing, just to see if she’d ask. She didn’t.

During the first three years of my daughter’s life, a suspicion grew into a conviction that my mum really wasn’t interested in her. For me, that crossed a line.

I had long since dealt with and moved on from knowing Mum had favourites among her children and I wasn’t one of them, but my daughter was not part of the twisted branch that had hurt my mum. She’s done nothing wrong and deserved better.

When my husband, James, was offered a job in another country, we grabbed the chance with both hands. I rang Mum to let her know and she was pleased for us, which was weirdly reassuring. But in the six weeks between that call and us all boarding our plane, I never heard from her. Not once.

My husband flew out a month before my daughter and me. My father-in-law, who dotes on his granddaughter, took the chance to spend every morning with her before we left, while my mother-in-law, who would fold space and time to help us out with childcare, both served as a reminder that my mum’s behaviour was not normal.

Several members of my family still don’t understand my decision to turn my back on Mum. They think I’m heaping more cruelty on someone who’s already had a plateful, and maybe they have a point.

I believe my mum is a damaged person. She was broken by horrible men and has made some bad choices

I believe my mum is a damaged person. She was broken by horrible men and has made some bad choices. But I also think she did the best she could with the emotional tools she had and maybe, in a weird way, our crappy, non-existent relationship has actually helped me.

I chose to walk away from her because I felt belittled and unloved, and she was starting to extend that behaviour to my child. My family would have cheered me on if I’d cut an abusive man out of my life, yet they chorused: “You only get one mother”.

Call me selfish, but I’m not going to turn a blind eye to coldness and cruelty just because my family did with my godawful grandparents.

So while Mum, who’s now 67, doesn’t influence my day-to-day life, she’s very much front and centre on the days when I’m not doing quite so well on the parenting front.

I will fight and struggle and fail and try again to be the best mum
I can

We have three children now, two boys (Robert, eight, and Philip, four) my mum’s never met, and I take every chance to tell all three that I love them. I squidge them as often as they’ll allow – my daughter’s 12 but will still come for a cuddle when she feels the urge. I wouldn’t dream of refusing her.

I make a point of being among the last parents to leave when they go on school trips and I’m near as damn it the first one in the car park waiting for them to come home.

I want them to know in their bones they are loved, valued and appreciated, that my husband and I will listen and help them, open doors, find opportunities and, yes, metaphorically kick their backsides when we think they require it.

I will fight and struggle and fail and try again to be the best mum I can, because that’s what parents are supposed to do. And therein lies the irony: maybe my mum has a legacy after all.