I approach any letters to newspapers with caution since one of my best friends in Sixth Form used to write the letters to our local newspaper for pocket-money (Her father was advertising editor and used to regale us all with stories of how local papers operate). So it is entirely possible The Guardian has printed this Letter to my 10-year-old son precisely so people like me respond. However some of the feelings in it are so universal that perhaps real or not it still can be useful.
The first thing that struck me was the amount of detail around the birth 10 years on, the pain of which still seems to echo down the years. This is not a new parent, someone still processing or someone who is bonding at parent and toddler group. There is a certain similarity in the way all groups bond, like old soldiers sharing war stories birth stories are swapped, shared, commiserated over and laughed at.
Birth trauma and PTSD as a result of birth are very real. As the Birth Trauma Association say, the issue isn’t the birth itself (although certain risk factors increase the possibility of suffering from birth related PTSD) but how someone reacts to the birth. This can lead to people not sharing their “war stories” as they find the experience too traumatic. They can also feel ashamed of not doing birth right, or of making a fuss. This can certainly mean that ten years on the pain, the events, are still impacting on their everyday life. Talking, either to others with similar experiences or a counsellor who understands birth trauma and PTSD helps enormously. Trying to get your own child to understand is possibly the least helpful option, which brings me to my next concern.
My appropriate boundaries red flag was first raised by this phrase.
In between I just got fat and lost any chance of looking good in a bikini again.
A happy, close, relationship with children should not be one where anyone is ashamed of their bodies. However a 10-year-old, on the cusp of discovering their own sexuality, does not need reminding of whether their mother is “beach body ready”. There is a very real need at this age to respect the boundaries of a child, the embryonic sexual being, boundaries ignored by
Every time you cried in the night, I would get up and feed you from breasts that felt like they were going to explode and with sharp, shooting pains as you suckled.
Yes, breast-feeding is normal, natural, and for those parents able to do so a way of providing a healthy and nutritious diet for their child. For a 10-year-old boy, to be reminded of the fact he once sucked on those breasts, is a huge step beyond healthy boundaries. One does not have to be a freudian to call to mind Oedipus’ horrified cry of breasts twice sucked. I do not wish to go too far down this path. Its speculative even for a blog which is a response to a newspaper article, however respect for boundaries of our children is vital if they are to grow in happiness and health.
Wants and Needs.
The rest of the letter is largely dedicated to the mundane act of being a parent. But presented in a passive aggressive tone of someone who seems to be carrying a lot of anger, deeply buried, about the very mundaness of parenting. Looking deeper it also seems that this section is all about wants, their wants, and not the child, and what they want and need.
If this were a client and they said
I have had daily arguments with you about cleaning your teeth, eating your vegetables, nice table manners, picking up after yourself, having a reasonable bedtime and being kind to your brother. I have set rules about age-inappropriate games and films, cut your screen time and regularly drag you outdoors even though you’re fighting me every step of the way and it would be easier for me to give in.
I might ask, why are you dragging them, why is this seen in your mind as a fight? The writer seems to have a lot of things they want for the child, but no concept of the fact the child may have wants. It may be, that if this was a therapy session, we might have to look at the myth of the perfect family. We all carry them, the idea formed, often when we are children, of what a family should be. It often takes a lot of unpacking, grieving, a brave acknowledgement that their family was less than perfect.
No family is perfect, but families can be happy.
That is a truth many come to therapy needing to accept. Their parents were not perfect, the lessons they were taught did not always increase happiness and well-being, it is not letting the side down to explore other ways to be, other attitudes to families.
Then, almost at the end, the heart of the issue is laid bare, this is what in therapy we might call a door knob moment, when the client almost as they leave drops something new, and of huge importance into the room.
I gave up working full-time in a career that could pay me treble what I currently earn, so that I could be there for you after school and during holidays, even though during those times you don’t want to be with me. It has been very difficult and lonely setting up and running a business while looking after children, and you sometimes get angry with me for working.
The writer is lonely, struggling, feeling underappreciated, looking for support from their children instead of the adults around them. This is partly, again, a lack of boundaries, but is also a cry for help, a desperate need that will try to cling to anything for support, no matter how inappropriate.
If this were a therapy session, I would, with empathy and gentleness explore this loneliness. It is such a strong word, which screams out, disjointedly from the piece. However if you are lonely, your children are not there to break the chains of loneliness. Anger at them for not being able to solve your problems is common, but incredibly damaging. The process of parentification can itself take years of therapy to unpick.
The conclusion almost realises that they are demanding things of a child which are not the childs to give, they side step by claiming this is about the child’s best interests, and telling use the term guilt, aware that guilt is exactly what the piece is intended to provoke.
Perhaps the age-old reply of “I did not ask to be born” needs to be reexamined here and the myths of perfect families. Kids are sometimes rude, its part of growing up. Its only when we want them to be more than kids that it matters.