Setting boundaries is seen as a fundamental element of heathy relationships. There are countless articles freely available that instruct us on setting boundaries with co-workers, bosses, neighbours, intimate partners, children, and others.
In my work with Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers, survivors of child sexual abuse, and with parents, it’s something that comes up time and time again. Victims and survivors can find it difficult to set healthy boundaries, and to maintain them, once they have been set.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about how setting boundaries with others is definitely necessary – but it’s also necessary to set boundaries with ourselves. It’s an element of self-care that is worth highlighting. Self-care is something that a lot of my clients tussle with. It seems indulgent, wasteful, and something we’re not worthy of; especially those of us who have been brought up to believe that we are worthless.
Once people can be convinced that they are worth caring for, and once they can be helped to identify ways, and means, and techniques, that are examples of self-care for them, it’s hard to then place limits on those self-care practices. I feel like I’m saying to people ‘You deserve self-care, but not that much self-care.’
Being aware that addiction stems from trauma, and that traumatised people often battle addiction (even, sometimes, ‘acceptable’ addictions, like work, and exercise) led to my awareness that it’s necessary to establish, and maintain, boundaries with ourselves.
A self-boundary is recognising that a slice of cake might be good self-care, but an entire cake might not be. It is recognising that a walk in nature might be good self-care, but pushing yourself to walk 10kms a day might not be. It is recognising that healthy food might be good self-care, but four servings of healthy food in one sitting might not be. It is recognising that an early night might be good self-care, but that staying in bed for twelve hours a day might not be.
How do we know, then, when self-care becomes self-abuse? I think we can identify that by paying attention to our emotions, and how we feel about our self-care practices. Is your self-care practice something you look forward to, or something you are desperate to indulge? Is your self-care practice something that feels like you’re being kind to yourself, or something that you’re punishing yourself with? Do you feel better after your self-care, or guilty/ashamed? If it’s the latter, then you might want to look at establishing better boundaries with yourself. It’s a line we need to establish, and maintain, with ourselves exactly the same way we would with others.
Because, after all, the person you want to have the healthiest relationship with, is yourself.
The world is becoming increasingly aware of narcissists as more and more countries – the US, the UK, and Ireland, to name but three – have fallen prey to narcissistic leaders. As with any disorder that gains prominence, every armchair psychologist thinks they are qualified to diagnose people they know and, indeed, people they have never met, with said disorder.
Narcissism is not a glib label to be applied to every person we come across who has a well-developed sense of self-esteem. Putting yourself first is not narcissism. Having a healthy sense of self is not narcissism. Being proud of your achievements is not narcissism. Being in a relationship with a narcissist is eroding, exhausting, and can even be dangerous.
While a narcissistic partner and / or a narcissistic co-parent can be frustrating and bewildering, the most damaging narcissist is the narcissistic parent. I’ve had experience of narcissistic parents, narcissistic ex-husbands, and knowing narcissists in a professional capacity. As a result, I can honestly say that, of these, the most damage is done by narcissistic parents.
Narcissistic parents will do some (or even all) of the following:
Gaslight Neglect Lie – to, and about, the child Ignore – boundaries, successes, fears, and even the child as an autonomous being Foster dependency – emotional, financial, and practical Guilt-trip Manipulate
If you can tick any of these off, you have my sympathy, and solidarity. If you’re a woman who has borne the brunt of an abusive mother, and the complications peculiar to that kind of relationship, please feel free to join my online support group.
Today is not a good day. And part of me is delighted.
I cried today, for the first time since…I can’t remember when. I have shed some tears, and welled-up in recent weeks: Reading of people’s hardships, and triumphs, and sharing their joys and their sorrows on the other side of my screen how could I not?
But today, I felt miserable. Overwhelmed. I felt bad. By that, I don’t mean I felt ‘off’. I mean I felt like I am a bad person. Inherently, intrinsically, indisputably bad at the core of me. This is not uncommon for people who have histories of child sexual abuse; we feel that, if someone had done something so dreadful to us, it must have been because they saw the badness in us, and addressed it. They knew they could abuse and rape us because it was all we deserved.
Today, through the tears and (for the first time in a long time, sobs), I was able to logically provide myself with reasons why:
1. Hours of reading and writing about child sexual abuse for my PhD work (enjoying the work, but acknowledging that I need to mind myself in the middle of it).
2. A ‘brother’ hopping on to Whatsapp for the first time in years to hurl abuse during the week (blocked and reported).
3. Being reminded several times before breakfast – by all the Mothers’ Day posts on social media – that most people have mothers who don’t set out to deliberately destroy them (mine’s a narcissist, so I have hundreds of stories about how she’s done this).
4. Not being on top of the housework (is any of us ever on top of the housework?!)
5. The voice in the back of my head that tells me I’m not good enough, that I’ll never be good enough, that I’m rubbish – the voice that’s silent more often than it whispers these days – getting louder.
My daughters noticed my tears:
‘Mum! What’s the matter?’
‘Mum! What’s wrong?’
They asked, alarmed, concerned, caring.
‘Onions,’ I responded. It was true. I had been chopping onions in preparation for cooking brunch. ‘I rubbed my eyes with onion-y hands,’ I expanded.
‘You silly goose!’ Ishthara used her favourite admonishment for me. ‘But at least it wasn’t chilli!’
I smiled and agreed with her.
Now, I must go back to my girls and tell them the rest of truth. I must tell them that I was having a bad day. I didn’t, earlier, because I didn’t want them to worry. But I wasn’t doing them any favours. By thinking I was protecting them from my sadness, I missed the opportunity to tell them that sometimes, everything tumbles in, and through, you; and you need the cathartic release of tears.
All of that said, I’m taking today as a win because I am able to feel, to know, to realise that today is just a day. This sad day is just one day. Unlike (not too many) years ago, when a sad day would mark the beginning of, or be an unremarkable part of, weeks – even months – of sadness and weeping, and fear. Proper Irish fear – eagla – equal parts terror, and paralysis, and foreboding, and regret.
Today is a win because it’s just a day, and I know that. I have no fear that tomorrow will be the same. I know it won’t. In fact, the rest of today won’t even be as bad as the earlier part was. I am measuring how far I have come. I am grateful for the relief of knowing – as opposed to hoping – that this, too, shall pass. I am not condemned to months of misery this time around.
On Friday, September 13th last, I had surgery. It was gynae surgery – of the kind I’d already had a few times. I knew I wouldn’t bounce back, but I didn’t expect to nearly die afterwards, either.
On the following Monday, I decided it was time to get back to normal and I went upstairs to put laundry away. I’ve sometimes joked that housework will be the death of me, but I never thought I would be nearly right. I felt I needed to cough, but I couldn’t complete the it, and I had the weirdest pain in the centre of my chest. I didn’t know whether I needed to stand up, lie down, or curl into a ball to make it go away: I had no instinct on how to ‘cure’ it. I stamped on the floor of my bedroom, and my eldest daughter came running in. Ishthara’s great in a crisis, and had just finished a First Responder’s course, so she rang 999, and gave my history. In the middle of that phone call, she uttered a phrase which will forever live on in family lore:
‘I think you need to know this, but I’ve just realised my mum’s turning blue – and that’s not her normal colour.’
Within ten minutes, there was a First Responder at the house; doing his best to assess the situation and to take over the burden of responsibility from Ishthara – or at least share it with her. Within ten more minutes, there was an ambulance crew with equipment running tests, and within a further five, a doctor was sprinting up the stairs. There I was, five men in my bedroom before 11am on a Monday, and all I could do was worry about the fact that I hadn’t put the laundry away!
That was the rather dramatic start of a few months of health difficulties. I’d never been in an ambulance before September 16th, but I’ve got frequent flyer miles now! By December of last year, my reproductive organs, my lungs, my heart, my brain and my kidneys had all had little ‘episodes’. It’s like every major organ/system in my body just said ‘I’ve had enough’ and re-booted. I’ve been told by several doctors that they are amazed I’m still alive; and also that it’s incredible I’ve managed to come through all this without doing any lasting damage to any of said organs/systems.
I’m really lucky. Not just to be alive, but to be alive with the prospect of full recovery. I’m really lucky that my friends are incredible, and looked after me so well while I was ill. Most especially, I am indebted to my friend, Jane Travers who – as soon as she heard I was hospitalised – and why – hopped on a plane and came to Dublin until she was happy I was well enough to be left. (Ishthara explained Jane to her boyfriend like this ‘Jane is wonderful. She’s so lovely. But – once she gets an idea into her head just…..don’t bother arguing’). I’m really lucky that my girls are wonderful young women who cooked, cleaned, minded themselves, and the cats, and each other, and me, for months while I was unable to do any of those things myself.
The initial recovery plan would have seen me returning to ‘normal’ life in March, but then Covid-19 hit, followed shortly afterwards by the lockdown. I had been looking forward to two things; getting back to swimming, and visiting the hairdresser. I hadn’t sat in the salon chair since August, and it was time!
My hair was starting to annoy me mightily. I’d lopped a few inches off it in January, but it needed a skilled professional. During the week, I was marking assignments and just got to the point where I couldn’t put up with it any longer. If I don’t like something, I change it. So, I picked up the nearest scissors, and cut off as much as I could – not in a fit of pique, but rather because it just felt like time . Then I went upstairs, and finished the job off with a blade.
It’s not a statement. It’s not a Covid-19 Lockdown Haircut. It’s starting over. It’s a new beginning. Sometimes, modification isn’t enough. Sometimes, there is nothing to salvage. Sometimes, what you’d salvage would not really be worth saving. Sometimes, you need to just start all over again.
I am now the parent of an adult. And I don’t feel ready. I don’t feel worthy.
Ishthara Saoirse Larkin arrived into this world, ten weeks early, in a small town in India, 18 years ago. I’d like to say that I felt an overwhelming sense of adoration and love when I first held her. But I didn’t. I was shell-shocked. It was three days before I felt that powerful dam-burst of motherly love and – oh boy! – was it something else when it came. I’d always thought myself a pacifist but I was very shocked when I realised I would happily kill for this child.
Having spent so long waiting for her – and fighting with my own body over its refusal to get pregnant, I couldn’t quite believe it when I was, finally, holding my own child. When I was, finally, a mother! At last, nestled close to me was all I had ever wanted. For some reason I couldn’t quite understand, love didn’t flood through me the first time I held her. I was numb. It was almost as though I was in an altered state of consciousness. I couldn’t quite grasp that she was really mine, that I was really allowed to keep her. Years later, when studying psychology, I read Viktor Frankl, and the experience made sense.
In his book ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ Frankl details how he and others were liberated from a Nazi death camp. Instead of being joy-filled and jubilant, they found themselves mis-trusting their experience; not quite believing it. Frankl explains that they had spent so long dreaming of this very moment – and had their hopes and dreams dashed so many times – that now, they were not sure they could believe it. It took the men a few days to grasp the reality that their dream had come true, and was not about to be snatched from them. That’s what becoming a mother was like for me. It took a few days for me to realise that my dream was not going to be snatched away from me.
Ishthara has taught me so much since 2002. She has taught me what unconditional love feels like – both to give, and to receive. She has taught me that I can make mistakes, and still be worthy of love. She has taught me that I am good enough. She has taught me to forgive myself. She has taught me that, sometimes, my standards for myself are too high, and I need to ‘chill Mama’ just a bit. She has taught me that I am good enough.
During the week, Ishthara’s younger sister, Kashmira, asked me how it felt to have an adult ‘child’. I told her I didn’t feel ready. She asked me why. I told her that I didn’t feel wise enough, or accomplished enough, to be the parent of an adult. I feel like I should know more, be more, have more, have done more, in order to be worthy to call myself the parent of an adult. I don’t think I’ve changed enough since Ishthara was born to be the fully-formed parent of an adult.
Kashmira (being Kashmira!) probed that.
I had to think.
‘I suppose, when Ishthara was born, I wanted the same for her then, as I do now. The fact that I haven’t evolved makes me wonder if I’m any good at this.’ I told her, truthfully.
‘What did you want for her 18 years ago?’ Kashmira asked.
‘I wanted her to be happy. And I wanted her to reach her potential. And that’s still all I want for her. It’s all I want for both of you – but we’re talking about Ishthara right now, so…’
‘And do you think we don’t know that?’
‘I think it’s wrong that you’ve grown up in consistent poverty. I think it’s wrong that you have had no support – financial, emotional, physical, or any other type – from your dad. That you have no family apart from me, and each other*.’
‘But do you not see that that has given us a unique perspective on life? That we are compassionate because we understand rather than because we have an academic, or intellectual, understanding of other people’s lived experiences?’ (Yes, she really does talk like this!!)
‘When we say to the people we work with, when we’re older, “I understand”,’ she continued. ‘They’ll know we mean it, because we will. We’ll have been there.’
‘But….’ I started again, as my inadequacy raised its head.
‘No,’ Kashmira said. ‘Just listen. We have always known that you loved us. We have always known you’ve had our backs. Even on the really bad days, we’ve always known that you would manage, that it would be okay. Even last year – when you nearly died, THREE TIMES! in front of us – ‘nearly’ is the most important word in that sentence. We knew you wouldn’t leave us. That’s why you have an adult child.’
I was humbled into silence.
Earlier today, I spoke to my friend, Seán. Seán has known me since before I was 18, and his kids are all older than mine. I told him how I didn’t feel accomplished enough, to be the parent of an adult.
‘Don’t you get it?’ he asked. ‘The adult child is the accomplishment.’
Ishthara Saoirse Larkin is a wonderful young woman; she is compassionate beyond her years. She reads, and understands, people with an almost eerie awareness; she loves carefully, but completely; she radiates joy; she yearns to make the world a better place; she is intolerant of injustice; she is kind, thoughtful, generous and loving; she’s a great cook; she has a wonderful, droll sense of humour; and she saved my life (metaphorically – by being born into it – and literally – by performing first aid and calling an ambulance when I collapsed last September). I am pleased, proud, privileged, and grateful to be her mother.
Happy 18th birthday, my Darling Girl. The world is a better place because you’re in it.
* My father, Christy Talbot, and my brothers, Nigel Talbot, and Cormac Talbot, sexually abused, and raped me for 15+ years between them. My brothers, Barry Talbot and Ross Talbot, support them in their abuse of me, as do their wives / partners. My sister, Tracey Talbot, who was also raped by Cormac Talbot, is in such deep denial that she actually carried files into the Four Courts for him when I sued him and his brother for their years of abuse. My mother, Philomena (Johnson) Talbot is a narcissist who – to this day – condones the abuse I suffered at the hands of her husband and sons.
It’s that time of the year again – I need to choose my word. Now, I like to think that I generally choose my words wisely. I understand the power of words, and I try hard to select words that reflect, and convey, my meaning.
Since January, 2016, I have eschewed New Year’s Resolutions in favour of a single word to guide my intentions and my actions for the coming years. A few hours ago, I was on the phone to my friend Katie and I told her that this year was going to be defined by ‘Attack’. I explained that I was a bit fed up of being a ‘soft’ feminist. I was a bit fed up of being ‘gentle’ in my engagements with men. I’m learning to get a bit more obstreperous, but finding I’m not consistent with my obstreperousness. The conditioning runs deep.
So, I explained to Katie that, when I was using the word ‘attack’, I meant ‘dive in with enthusiasm’ rather than ‘aggressively assail’ or to deliberately injure. She understood. I admitted to having been influenced by Mona Eltahawy and her entreaty to stop being ‘nice’.
‘Attack’ I decided, was a good word to guide me through 2020. But. It didn’t really sit right. It sat ‘okay’, but not ‘perfectly’. I was happy enough to go with it. When I sat down to write this post, however, ‘Attack’ was no longer good enough. ‘Power’ sprang to mind.
So I’m running with it. I don’t want to be empowered in 2020 – I have power, I want to use it. My intention for 2020 is to prevent other people from blocking my power. My intention for 2020 is to ensure that I use my power fearlessly. My intention for 2020 is to use my power ferociously. My intention for 2020 is to use my power to attack.
It’s Day 10 of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence and I’m reminded of the SAFE Ireland Conference I attended last year: That conference brought home to me how the violence and abuse I endured when I was married had affected me more than I’d realised. It was listening to other women and their stories that finally brought home to me how much damage had been inflicted on me by my exes.
I’d been single since the second week of August, 2003 (two days after I found out I was expecting my second child). For the most part, I’ve been very happy to be single. I live a full life, enjoy my children, have wonderful friends and am always busy. Every now and again, though, I think it might be quite nice to have someone who regularly accompanies me to events, who can hold a conversation, who is blessed with intelligence, and who might be a contender for romantic partner. When I get into one of these moods, I end up on one or other of the (frankly, horrendous) dating apps. I rarely stay very long, but the last time I peeked over that particular parapet, I was pleasantly surprised.
At this juncture, I want to tell you that I thought long and hard about publishing this post: I felt that, having been through what I’ve been through, and knowing what I know, I am the last person who would end up in yet another abusive relationship. My reluctance to share this was multifaceted:
I’m ashamed that – given how much I research, speak, and write about, abuse – I didn’t see it until it was too late. I’m ashamed that I managed to ignore the signs – or that I didn’t see the signs in the first place. I’m ashamed that I acted in exactly the same way as so many other women in abusive situations do. Not because I think I’m in any way better than they are – either in the superior, or the recovered sense – but because I thought I’d learnt that lesson already. I thought I’d figured out how to stand up for myself in situations where there was even a whiff of nastiness. I was wrong.
As well as that, my pride is squirming slightly. I am writing in full knowledge that there are those who will read this and gloat. I know there are those who will read this and bloat with puffed-up delight that I have fallen foul of yet another man. There are those who will gleefully share this post and rejoice at the fact that I have been involved (again) with a man who has scant respect for me (or, come to think of it, women in general).
I’m also feeling a bit dim. I didn’t spot the coercive control that Saradhi subjected meto for what it was. I could kick myself. My marriages had been so dreadful – my life had been in danger on more than one occasion – that I thought anything less than the overt abuse (verbal, psychological, financial, physical, sexual and others) I’d been subjected to in those relationships wasn’t really abuse. I was wrong.
More than these, however, I am aware that every time I write, or speak, about my own experiences, I speak directly to other women who have experienced similar. I speak directly to women who felt their own shame; experienced their own bruised pride; questioned their own intelligence; blamed themselves for their own abuse. I reminded myself that every time I open up – other women open up to me. And that is why I do this – because abuse thrives on secrecy and abuse thrives on keeping the victim shamed, and abuse thrives on the silence of the abused. Knowledge is power, and the sharing of knowledge empowers those with whom it lands.
To give a very specific example of what I mean when I write ‘coercive control’:
Saradhi said he was very pleased that I was pursuing my PhD. He said he was very proud that I was working on such an important project. He said he was aware that I needed the time and space to work. He said that he understood it was the most valuable thing – apart from parenting my girls – that I was doing.
That’s what he said.
I know enough, though, to know that what a man says is not nearly as important as what he does. What he did was interfere with my study time as much as he could – and he always presented his demands, expectations, and manipulations as perfectly reasonable, in some cases as downright loving, so it was hard to argue with him.
I am quite the night owl, and I enjoy reading and writing late at night. He, however, was not a night owl – especially not during the working week. That was fine with me – I was quite happy for him to go to bed before me.
‘But I can’t sleep without you,’ he would whine.
‘You slept perfectly well without me for nearly 40 years,’ I reasoned.
‘Yes, but now I know you’re there, so I don’t want to have to go to sleep without you. I’d miss you too much. I couldn’t sleep if you weren’t there.’
I thought about this, and decided I could manage a compromise – I’d go to bed at the same time as him, and just read in bed. But he was having none of that.
‘I can’t sleep if there’s any light in the room,’ he explained. ‘That’s why I have blackout curtains.’
‘Can you wear a sleepmask?’ I asked.
‘No. That wouldn’t work. They’re never dark enough.’
‘They are if you get a decent one. I’ll get you a proper one.’
Proffering my next solution, I agreed to go to bed at the same time as him, I agreed not to read while he was in bed, but said I’d get up early in the morning and get a few hours’ work done then. That, however, wasn’t acceptable to him, either.
‘I can’t sleep at all if you’re not there. If you get up, I won’t be able to sleep on.’
I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me to suggest that he didn’t necessarily deserve more sleep than I did.
When I was home and trying to work, he would constantly interrupt me – and then berate me if I displayed irritation. I explained that my research involves getting into a particular ‘zone’ and working there. I need to engage my brain in order to make sense of what I’m reading, to make connections across literatures, disciplines, my own research, and my own lived experience. Then, I need to figure out how to make sense of all of those resources, and write that down in a comprehensive manner. He had no understanding of this –
‘That’s just too far beyond what I’ve studied,’ he told me. ‘I’ve never done anything like that.’
As if, because he hadn’t done it, it wasn’t valid. I was less and less able to do what I needed to do with him around.
On a few occasions, I stated that I had a particular, specific piece of work to do and needed a specific period of time in which to get it done. After agreeing that I would have the time – uninterrupted – to do what I needed to do, he broke that agreement every single time. He was doing something to keep himself out of my hair – but would suddenly need my help. Even if I explained that I was busy, he would assert that what he was doing was for my benefit (or for our benefit), and I needed to muck in.
‘It’ll only take ten minutes,’ he said to me one time, when he knew I was up against a hard deadline.
Two and a half hours later, the job was finally finished, and I was released from my obligation.
So – I had to go to bed at the same as he, and I wasn’t allowed to read or write in bed. I wasn’t allowed to get up early. I wasn’t allowed to carve out time for myself at all if he was in the same physical space as I was. If we were in the same building, he demanded every drop of my time, my energy, and my attention. I literally couldn’t expect to go to the bathroom on my own. Expectations of such privacy were called out by him as indicative of my inability or unwillingness to ‘share myself’ and ‘to be intimate’. I shouldn’t, he told me, ‘be so shy as to want to hide anything from him’. (This was also why he used to seek out my old journals, correspondence, and even notes from my kids to read and pass judgement on – in spite of my repeatedly telling him that unless something was addressed to him, or given to him, he was not allowed to read it.)
To deny any part of myself that he wanted would, he told me, be ‘just selfish’. And we all know that women are trained – from birth – not to be selfish. We are trained to be selfless, giving, accommodating, generous, self-sacrificing. It is expected of us. I should have remembered that. I should have remembered that the first time I felt uncomfortable. But, here’s the thing, I couldn’t quite articulate why I felt uncomfortable. What I’ve realised since, however, is that that doesn’t matter. Why I felt uncomfortable was not nearly as important as the fact that I did. I didn’t need to qualify, or quantify, my levels of discomfort. As someone once said to me ‘If it feels wrong, it is wrong’.
While I didn’t remember it in my most recent relationship, I will remind myself that ‘I don’t feel comfortable’ is enough. ‘That makes me uncomfortable’ is enough. If someone wants more details it is enough to say ‘I’m not sure. All I know is I don’t like it.’ Anyone who presses for more, can just jog on.
I have been silenced and censored before and, falling prey to the strictures of the societies I have lived in, I have even silenced and censored myself. On occasion when I knew I couldn’t explain, or articulate what I needed to say, I have said nothing – feeling that unless I could produce hundreds of words arguing my position, or unpacking my feelings, they weren’t valid, and didn’t deserve to have life breathed into them.
What I didn’t quite realise when I was living through it was that this jealous demand for every ounce of me, and this intrusion on my precious time was a form of coercive control. I had come across coercive control before, but it was in conjunction with other types of abuse – so I didn’t recognise it this time. I’ll recognise it for what it is the next time, though! (Even as I fervently hope that there isn’t a next time).
I’m hearing a lot these days about how we need to start ‘teaching empathy’ in our schools. How, if only people learned how to be empathetic, our society would be a better place to live. I agree. What I don’t agree with, however, is the notion that empathy can be taught in school as a distinct, and designated, part of the curriculum. What we really need is a change in our culture.
We don’t have to start teaching empathy – we have to stop teaching indifference and disdain. That lesson cannot be taught just by teachers in formal educational settings. It needs to be taught to children by everyone around them from the day they are born. We need a cultural shift that understand, demands, expects, and rewards, kindness. I don’t believe it can be taught merely as a set of classroom lessons – though, for sure, it can be reinforced through fun exercises, role-plays etc. – I believe it needs to be modeled by showing children what empathy looks like.
Part of empathy is good manners, and children learn this best by having it modeled for them. To teach my children how to be be polite, I modeled it for them. Rather than the performative ‘Say thank you!’ (which I believe parents and carers say to show other adults how good they are at ‘teaching manners’), I said ‘thank you’ at the appropriate times when my children were little. Like all children, mine were eager to emulate the behaviour modeled for them. So they quickly learned – without having to told – when to say ‘thank you’ as well as ‘please’, ‘may I?’, ‘sorry’ etc. and how to behave in a way that was considerate towards others.
We need to realise that most people are empathetic – some more than others, of course – and we have to nurture and nourish that. We have to model it. At the moment, we don’t: We model bullying, disrespect, unkindness, and disdain. These traits and practices are what we reward – and that is why our levels of bullying, sexual assault, and harassment are epidemic. It’s why our populations are suffering mental ill-health in such large numbers, and why we have so many people self-harming, attempting, and dying by, suicide. It’s why conversations about consent and male entitlement are suddenly ‘fashionable’ in media at the moment.
I would argue that unkindness and lack of empathy is what we’re teaching our children – because our default is to be empathetic. We are born that way – it’s our instinctive, default position because it’s part of how we connect with other people, and as human beings, we crave, and seek, nothing more than connection with others. It’s not what we need to learn, it’s what we need to unlearn, that we should focus on.
Yesterday, I spoke with PJ Coogan, on Cork’s Opinion Line about what it’s like to be the daughter of a narcissistic mother. You can listen back (from 12.00) here.
Being the daughter of a narcissistic mother is hugely damaging; not least because our society tells us that a mother’s love is unconditional, all-encompassing, and never-ending. When your mother is a narcissist, however, you know that to be untrue, but you can’t articulate it because you feel strongly (and, usually, correctly) that you won’t be believed. You will be treated as though there is something wrong with you because your mother doesn’t love you – but the truth is that there’s nothing wrong with you but plenty wrong with her.
If any of this resonates with you, please feel free to get in touch.
Those of you who follow me on social media will be aware that I have had a difficult month health-wise.
For those unaware, here’s the quick version:
On September 13th, I had fairly routine surgery. It was of a type I’ve had before, so there was nothing unexpected. (In fact, it was so routine for me that I even wrote a piece here for other women who might find themselves facing similar).
Three days later, I collapsed at home and started to turn blue. Thankfully, my eldest daughter doesn’t have college on Mondays, so she was there to call an ambulance. Once in hospital, I was diagnosed with blood clots in my lungs. A scan confirmed that there was a significant number of clots in each lung. It was stressed to me by no fewer than seven doctors how lucky I was to be alive – and how unusual it was for the experience not to have been fatal.
After being extremely well cared for in Connolly Memorial Hospital, I was discharged on Thursday, September 19th with medication and some Serious Medical Advice. I was told it would take six months until I’m back to (my version of) normal. I was warned that I need to take it easy; that I need to stay on bed rest until I feel able to do more. I was entreated to monitor myself, and that any change in symptoms, any bleeding, any falling over – anything that is out of the ordinary – necessitates seeking medical attention immediately. The earnestness with which a number of doctors gave me this information impressed on me the necessity to take it (and them) seriously.
Within 24 hours, however, I was transported (this time in the back of a squad car because an ambulance would have taken too long) back to hospital. Unfortunately, the staff at the nearest hospital – Tallaght – wasn’t keen on even triaging me, so my friend Jane drove me back to Connolly Hospital in Blanchardstown. Twice that night, my friend and family were convinced that I had died in front of them. I know I came dangerously close.
Once back in ‘my’ hospital, the team sprang into action, and I received the care I needed for what turned out to have been a neurological episode. Again, I was discharged after a few days, with even more medical advice; and previous advice emphasised.
I took the advice seriously, and took up residence on the couch in our living room. I slept and napped between sleeps, dozing between naps. Visitors were received with much delight, and I was grateful when they realised that an hour of being chatted to while upright was as much as I could manage before I’d have to lie down again, and possibly nap.
This Wednesday just past, October 16th, I was – again – in the back of an ambulance. Breathing had been hard all day, and the Nurse on Call advised calling an ambulance to return to hospital. Reluctantly, I did so. Transported by very kind paramedics – Eoin and John – back to Blanchardstown, I was diagnosed with low haemoglobin, and the start of an infection.
I don’t think my physical health has ever taken such a knocking, and I’m really not used to being unwell (save for the migraines every 3-6 weeks) – never mind being so unwell for so long, and knowing that it will be months before I’m fully functioning again. I’m very grateful, though, that I have managed not to do any permanent damage to myself. I’m also very grateful for the fact that I will get better. For a lot of people, there is no moving out of the wheelchair (I have one of those now), there is no moving beyond the mobility scooter (I have one of those, too; it’s on standby for when I ‘graduate’ out of the wheelchair); and there is pain – often constant pain. I am not in pain. I’m just exhausted, often breathless, and incapable of doing very much beyond resting.
Recovery is happening, though. Two weeks ago, I couldn’t shower without taking a rest and turning it into a Two-Act event, after which I’d need a nap of about an hour. These past few days, however, showering has reverted to being a One-Act event, with a mere half hour lie-down afterwards.
Recovery is also teaching me. Here’s what I’ve learnt so far:
1. It’s really hard to do nothing.
2. The doctors were right. I am still seriously unwell. I have had to learn what that means.
3. People are incredibly kind.
4. My daughters are amazing human beings.
5. I am finding it very difficulty to accept how ill I am.
6. I’d better accept it, and quick, or I’ll set my recovery back.
7. Nobody expects as much of me as I do of my myself (my PhD supervisors have said this
to me before, but I didn’t really understand it until now).
8. People are wonderfully kind.
9. Haemoglobin transports oxygen around the body.
10. There are pills you can take for all sorts of things, but there is no pill you can take to
speed time up.
11. There is tremendous kindness in people.
12. Being unable to do much for oneself is incredibly humbling.
A month ago, I had surgery to remove ovarian cysts. I’ve been around this particular block a few times, and knew what to expect, as well as how to prepare. Around the same time I was going into hospital, a few other women I know were similarly heading into hospital for the removal of ovarian cysts. They asked if I had advice, and I had!
Here are a few things I wish someone had told me before I had my first surgery for ovarian cyst removal:
It’s keyhole surgery, yes, but it’s still surgery. The incisions are small, but the amount of internal surgery is still the same. You will have stitches inside, layers of skin and bruises etc. that will need to heal. Also, remember, that when you’re unconscious, no one thinks to be gentle with you – they are just focused on getting the job done, so will rummage around inside you with a bit more vigour than they would if you were having a procedure done under local anesthetic.
You will bleed more than you expect. Get big granny knickers – at least two sizes bigger than you normally wear, because you will swell – and maternity pads. In fact, get maternity pads and enough disposable maternity knickers for a day or two.
You will often have huge gas pain afterwards: This is because you’ll be pumped full of gas to facilitate the surgery, and it gets trapped. The gas can go right up into your shoulders and be very painful. Get the strongest Deflatine type of medicine you can.
Get Night shirts for bed rest so that there’s no danger of elastic on the scar / damaged tissue.
Move as soon as you can after you’ve been released from hospital. You need to avoid clots (believe me – clots nearly killed me after gynae surgery a month ago, and I won’t be right for another six). Keep the surgical stockings on for 24 hours.
Remember that a general anesthetic can take up to six weeks to leave your system. The after effects include tiredness, and weepiness, and sometimes – if you are prone to it – you can get a touch of depression.
Take pain relief as you need it, sleep as much as you can, and use arnica tablets to aid swift healing.
Don’t expect yourself to bounce back – no matter what your medical team tells you. I recover well and quickly, but I found that on some occasions I was expected to be running around quicker than was possible. That said, do as much as you can, physically, but don’t push yourself. As your energy returns, remember
Listen to your body, and if you have any concerns, seek medical advice sooner rather than later.
Fourteen-year-old Ana Kriegal was sexually assaulted and murdered on the 14th of May last year. Two boys, aged thirteen at the time, were found guilty of the crimes against her.
Since the verdict was reached last week, there have been many column inches devoted to the case. There has been mention of how this is an ‘unusual’ case, how it shows the ‘dark side’ of Ireland. Such statements, however, are unhelpful and untrue. This is Ireland. This is the Ireland I grew up, this is the Ireland I now live in. I have seen people wonder how we ‘get boys like this’, but the truth is we create them.
Lack of education around pornography and sexual relationships has been cited as part of the problem – and I don’t discount these claims. The problem is, however, that it’s too easy to point to the obvious and suggest that it provides the complete picture. It doesn’t.
Irish society creates and condones the behaviour of these boys, and boys like them. Because – don’t kid yourself – these boys are not an aberration. Their attitudes towards, and treatment of, women and girls, is not unusual in Irish society. And it’s their attitudes that fuelled their behaviour. Yes, murder is still unusual in Ireland. Thirteen-year-olds murdering people is also still an unusual phenomenon, but thirteen-year-olds sexually assaulting girls is not nearly as unusual as you might like to think.
If Ana had ‘just’ been sexually assaulted and not murdered, think how the media and the public would have reacted. Without a doubt, she would have been unmercifully victim-blamed, in exactly the same way as every other victim of rape and sexual assault over the age of ten is blamed for their own victimisation. At this point, I would like to respectfully suggest that we need a cultural sea change so that the disgust we feel at crimes of sexual violence is directed towards the perpetrators of sexual violence, rather than their victims.
The problem is not with individual children or even individual families – the problem is with the whole wider society. I know this will not be a particularly popular statement, but – as my friend and colleague, Dr Jessica Eaton says – ‘our systems won’t change by protecting ourselves from our own shortcomings’. And we have shortcomings galore in this society.
Bullying is endemic in Irish culture. We have learnt that Ana Kriegal was bullied online, and in person. People – adults – were aware that she was being bullied, and they chose to do nothing. Before she started secondary school, her resource teacher told Ana’s parents that she was worried for the child’s welfare. Ana was suicidal before she left primary school. She was bullied by children a few years older than she before she even started secondary school.
Nothing effective was done to stop the bullying because we tolerate bullying in Ireland. It flourishes in Irish schools, in Irish companies, in Irish businesses, in Irish institutions. It is a top-down phenomenon, and it thrives because our systems support it: Look at how we treat whistle-blowers, and how we treat victims of bullying.
We neither teach nor model empathy, kindness, and compassion. Such traits are seen as weaknesses. Instead, we tell ourselves and each other that ‘Boys will be boys’, that victims need to ‘toughen up’, be ‘less sensitive’, and learn to ‘cope’. They are told that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’, even though every person with a pulse knows that simply isn’t true.
The word ‘resilience’ is also bandied about – as if resilience is a good thing, instead of another stick with which to beat victims. In case you’re confused, the word ‘resilience’ suggests that whatever circumstances exist to cause a person’s upset are established; and it is, therefore, incumbent upon an individual to look after themselves. As if the display of symptoms is synonymous with weakness. As if ‘vulnerability’ and ‘weakness’ are interchangeable.
Yes, Boy A and Boy B caused Ana Kriegal’s death, but we caused them. We – as a society – taught them how to behave. We – as a society – support bullying, victim-blaming, victim-shaming, rape-culture, and male entitlement.
Entitlement is an unhealthy personality trait that can lead to greed, aggression, a lack of forgiveness, hostility, and deceit. Specific to sexual assault, the lack of empathy and feelings of entitlement may lead individuals to believe that they deserve sex when they want it, without considering the wants and needs of the other person. Research informs us that when entitled individuals do not get what they want, they become hostile or violent.
We live in a society where we attempt to induce outrage and empathy by saying things like ‘Imagine if she were your daughter / sister / niece / cousin / friend’: By so doing, we rob the victim of her personhood. By insinuating that we can only see the victim as worthwhile or empathetic if we can, somehow, re-imagine her as someone like someone we may know speaks volumes about our inability to view a person as worthwhile simply because they exist. That, alone, should be enough without additional qualifiers – real, or imagined.
We need to create a society that is intolerant of bullying, misogyny, victim-blaming, victim-shaming, male entitlement, and rape myths. We can only do that by modelling such intolerance.
(Content Warning: References to Child Sexual Abuse, link to graphic piece on the effects of Child Sexual Abuse)
It’s been an interesting few weeks. As some of you may know, there is a Fear Nua* in my life and I’m enjoying all sorts of things that, for many people are ‘normal’ but for me are beyond any experiences I’ve had to date. It’s all good, though. It’s all good.
I’m not about to gush about him, because he is a far more private person than I am – and I respect that – but also because so much of what’s going on is private and personal to us and to the third entity that is our relationship.
I will, however, say this much: I’ve been learning an awful lot from him. One of the biggest lessons I’m learning is my own value, my own right to be, and my own right to be who I am. I’ve also been crying a lot more than usual, but they have been happy, and / or healing tears. Like last week, when I suddenly had a thought that had my eyes leaking; I’d resigned myself, years ago, to the thought that I would die without ever knowing the love of a good man, without ever knowing what it would it be like to be in a relationship with a man that wasn’t abusive. I really believed that I would die without being in a relationship where I was valued for who I am – or that I would ever be with a man who enjoyed being with me, rather than one who merely wanted to possess me, and crush me. Now, I know that’s not true. And, oh! The joy of that. The absolute fascination with being with someone who values my ideas, my opinions, my thoughts, my mere presence is something I know I can’t adequately explain.
A few days after we met, he mentioned, in the course of conversation, that he had been researching how to be with a woman who had trauma as a result of child sexual abuse. He wanted to know how best to react, how best to treat me, taking my history into account. Reader, you could have knocked me down with a feather. Never, ever, ever, has a man I’ve been with, or even a man I’ve been married to, shown the slightest bit of interest in finding out how they could make being in a relationship easier for me. I knew, then and there, that he was A Keeper.
Then, yesterday, he presented me with the bracelet you see pictured above. It’s a safety device, and I’ll explain why. Having already read this piece, he was anxious to work with me to ameliorate the effects any way he could. We were making progress, but then he had an idea. He reminds me that I have chosen him. That I choose him, repeatedly, every day, every hour, every moment that we are together. That I could choose to walk away, but I am choosing to stay because I am choosing him. As he is, likewise, choosing me. He needs me to feel safe. To know that I am safe with him, everywhere, all the time, no matter what. He would prefer if I stayed present when we’re together, because he is no threat to me, and I need to know that, and be able to remember that, and remind myself of that any time I feel I need to.
This bracelet serves that purpose: by simply seeing it, I am reminded of him, reminded that I am always safe with him. Touching it has the same effect, and – if I move my wrist slightly – the tags you can see chime gently, providing an aural reminder. As my friend Jane Mulcahy noted, tweeted to me ‘It’s v lovely & delicate, H. Like affection, intimacy & trust.’ I think she put it perfectly. This piece of jewellery has the added bonus of being beautiful. A bit like himself, really.
*In Irish, Fear Nua (pronounced Farr Nooa) means ‘New Man’.
Today – International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women – marked the publication of the first edition of the Uninvited Women Journal. I was thrilled to have a piece in it, which is reproduced below. The other contributions were written by inspiring women from diverse backgrounds and cultures. I encourage you to follow the link above, and read their stories.
VICTIM BLAMING, SHAME, AND MALE ENTITLEMENT: HOW THEY CONTRIBUTE TO A RAPE CULTURE IN IRELAND.
Like any culture, rape culture is a collection of elements. Three of these elements are victim blaming, male entitlement, and shame. The latter foisted on the shoulders of the victim, not the perpetrator. Victim blaming occurs when individuals blame elements of the victim’s behaviour to hold the victim at least partially responsible for their own assaults. It is often maintained by strong religious ideology. Shame, as an emotion, is socially constructed, and intertwined with disgust: The origins of disgust can be traced back to when our cave sisters and brothers rejected toxic foods because they triggered a sense of disgust. As human beings became more sophisticated, we projected our sense of disgust at certain actions and behaviours onto the actors of those actions and behaviours – creating shame within them.
Shame, then, has become linked to the idea of ‘normality’ and ‘acceptability’. I believe we need a cultural sea of change so that the disgust we feel at crimes of sexual violence is directed towards the perpetrators, rather than their victims.
Male Entitlement. Entitlement is an unhealthy personality trait that can lead to greed, aggression, a lack of forgiveness, hostility, and deceit. This sense of entitlement may lead individuals to believe that they deserve sex when they want it, without considering the wants and needs of the other person. When entitled individuals do not receive what they want, they may become hostile or violent: Higher rates of self-reported sexual aggression have been found among college males who also reported a higher sense of entitlement.
THE IRISH CONTEXT
I have three words that explain – to a large extent – how victim blaming, shame, and male entitlement manifest in an Irish context. Those three words are Roman, Catholic, and Church. The rise in religiosity in Ireland can be traced back to what the colonising English called ‘The Famine’, and the Irish refer to as An Gorta Mór 1 , when English parliamentary commissions indicated that the ‘civilising of Irish society depended on giving more power to the Catholic Church’.
1 ‘THE GREAT HUNGER’
The population of Ireland was thirded by starvation and emigration as a result of An Gorta Mór. Those who remained developed strategies to ward off similar catastrophes. These included religion, education, and culture, which the Roman Catholic Church took ownership of. I think it’s safe to say that there is a strong religious ideology in Ireland. Regular mass attendance is down, but people still do their hatching, matching, and dispatching in churches; and most children are still forced through three sacraments before they start secondary school.
Shame itself is constructed in Irish society with reference to Roman Catholicism. But there’s also a peculiar Irish complexion to shame that doesn’t cast equally on men and women. Women’s bodies are policed, their actions, educations, and possibilities, are mediated by peculiarly Irish social norms. Catholic notions of sexual morality proved to be especially oppressive for Irish women, who were told their bodies were shameful – but, apart from that, they were not discussed. It was not uncommon in 1950s Ireland for women to marry without basic reproductive knowledge.
Male entitlement in Irish culture is underpinned by our patriarchal, hierarchical, paternalistic norms, which favour men. Economics, social policy, and law, all reflect, and are reinforced by, dominant ideologies, constructed by men. The structures they underpin are patriarchal. Sometimes, these structures have with a paternal gloss to intimate a protection of women and children, but which undermines, and limits, women’s agency. Women are only considered in their proximity to, and relationships with, men; and our differences are seen as aberrations from a male norm.
I will accept that my title looks grammatically incorrect; or at least like I’ve managed to forget a word. Bear with me, though, I really do mean what I’ve said (typed).
A few months ago, I was sitting, having a work-related chat with the wonderfully talented and always exuberant Phil Kingston, at the Abbey Theatre. Within minutes, we realised that we were both Lamy fans. I explained that, because my writing is the way it is (small, not exactly artistic), I require an extra-fine nib in order to render what I write legible. I handed my instrument to him, and Phil wrote a few lines with it. He quickly agreed with me that it was a beautiful writer, and we had a most pleasant chat about pens, and writing, and choosing an instrument.
I mentioned that I habitually use a fountain pen, except for my Morning Pages which – for some reason – I choose to write on yellow legal pads in pencil. And, yes, I’m as particular about my pencils as I am about my pens. The one I favour for my Morning Pages is a beauty; a black 4B that I got in the Science Gallery a while ago. It is just the right blend of soft and dark for me: Not so soft that it smudges easily, and not so hard that it writes too faintly.
Phil and I continued our chat, we mused about how our respective upbringings had influenced our choices of writing instruments. In the middle of all this, I suddenly realised something, and shared it with him. I’d been brought up in poverty by an abusive (psychopathic) father and a narcissistic mother. I’d always loved writing – not just the intellectual, or creative, or academic element of it – but the actual, physical element of it as well. As a young writer of about four, I remember bringing my pencil to my mother to be pared. She refused. There was ‘still plenty of writin’ left in it’, she had declared, and refused to sharpen it for me. Any time I wanted to sharpen my pencil, she would admonish me, and tell me I was being wasteful – which was a sin! – and I was to use the pencil until it was no longer possible to write with it.
Of course, I internalised this message, and carried it with me into adulthood. It took until last August before I realised that I it didn’t serve me to believe that I was only ‘allowed’ to pare my pencils when their points were beyond usability. When I realised that I no longer needed to hold to that ancient belief, I abandoned it immediately. Since then, I have sharpened my pencil every time I have felt it necessary; I have allowed myself the tactile pleasure of using a pencil at its optimum point. It is bliss. Joyful, delightful, pleasurable.
It’s a small thing – sharpening my pencil every time I want to, so it always feels good when I’m using it – but it has made me examine other habits and attitudes that were foisted on me by others, and which don’t serve me. I feel liberated beyond what might seem rational by this one small thing.
So it’s really not an error when I ask – ‘What’s your Pencil?’ What is the old belief or habit that you’re hanging on to that is not serving you, and is not aligned with what you want, and deserve, for yourself?
I am delighted to report that Headstuff has published a piece I wrote about Narcissistic Mothers. You can read it here.
On foot of recognising the terrible damage my own narcissistic mother is responsible for, I set up a support group for daughters of narcissistic mothers. It’s a secret group on FB (so no one knows you’re there, except you and the other members).
Being the daughter of a narcissistic mother can be a very lonely place; Society would like us to be very quiet about the fact that our mothers don’t love us. Even people who didn’t have ideal childhoods, even people who were abused by their mothers, find it difficult to believe that there exist mothers who simply refuse to love their daughters. Those of us who have suffered – and those of us who continue to suffer – the terrible impact of narcissistic mothers, however ‘get it’.
In part, that’s why the FB group is such a wonderful place to hang out – it’s populated by wonderful women who completely understand how it feels to have a mother who doesn’t care about you; who pits your siblings against you; who lies about you; who refuses to celebrate your wins; who puts you down at every turn; who is jealous of your every success and attempts to take the good out of it; who cannot bear the idea that you might be happier than she; who is filled with rage at the idea that your standard of living might be better than hers etc. etc. Having somewhere to bring this hurt, where you will be understood, and not judged, is a huge relief.
If you’d like to join, this group, please contact me via this page, DM me on Twitter, or send me a few words on Messenger .
I’ve been reading since before I was three, and books have always been sacred to me (then, Hinduism taught me that they really are sacred!). Books helped me to make sense of the world I knew I didn’t fit into (and often believed I didn’t belong in). They gave me new words, opened up new arenas, showed me things, taught me things, gave me different perspectives, nudged me towards decisions, instructed me, and even annoyed me.
I had books for my girls before they were born, and read to them several times a day. Reading was never ‘just’ about books – it was about signs, menus, cards, posters, advertisements, magazines, and timetables. Yet, I still managed to produce a non-reader. I couldn’t understand how she had no interest in reading and tried everything to get her to love books. The library was (and is) a place we visit for pleasure. The Kindle is stuffed with books that might interest her, our home has shelves full of books, boxes full of books, bags of books, tables littered with books and yet – and yet – she doesn’t read.
I tried everything to interest her in books; I continued reading, and talking about books, and sharing bits in books I was reading. I presented a trip to the library as a treat (well, it is!); I got her books in different genres; I got her graphic novels; I borrowed audiobooks from the library, and played them in the car when we were all together. Believing that there is no difference between a reward and a punishment, I never tied reading into getting ‘treats’ (reading is a treat itself).
Niggling away at the back of my mind was a conviction that reading was difficult for her. But was reassured, on a number of occasions, that her eyesight was so good, she could nearly see around corners, and she definitely wasn’t dyslexic. A few years ago, however, she was diagnosed with Irlen Syndrome, and the difficulties I knew she had with reading were finally recognised.
It was too late, however. She hadn’t learnt to love reading; she’d learnt it was difficult and time consuming, and painful. She could read – she just didn’t choose to.
One day, I realised that the problem wasn’t hers, it was mine. Books had been such a relief for me – such a joy, such an escape, such a wonderful gift, that I wanted to give that gift to my children. A gift, however, is only a gift if it brings joy to the recipient. I was pushing something on my child that she really didn’t want. Unpacking what I wanted her to get from reading, I realised it boiled down to four things:
Love of story.
Critical thinking skills.
Then, I realised that she could get all these elements are available from things she does enjoy – films, television programmes, and live theatre. And I was reminded – one size does not fit all; there is more than one way to skin a cat; as a parent, I need to provide access to what my children need – not what I want them to need, or what I think they need; my children are ‘of me’, but they are not ‘mine’; not everyone is a ‘reader’ and that’s okay.
My daughter can read, she just chooses not to. If she needs information that can only be accessed via text, she can navigate that text. In much the same way as I can sew – I just choose not to. If I need to fix, create, or mend something, I will drag out the sewing machine and set to. I’d much rather, however, pull my knitting close, and enjoy that. Knitting does for me what sewing (or other crafting) does for other people. Theatre, films, and TV programmes do for my daughter what books do for me. And that’s okay – we have plenty of shared passions and interests to provide us with common ground and opportunities to strengthen our relationship. What’s far more important is that we already have the ability to read each other like books.
Here we are again, ‘celebrating’ another Hallmark holiday. My friend, Martin McMahon tweeted this morning that it might be a good idea to do away with the notion of separate parental celebration days. I’d go even further and suggest that is might be useful to do away with parental celebration days altogether.
Let’s face it – if you need a day set aside to remind you that you have parents that you should be kind to, then that day will not make you a ‘better’ son or daughter. If you don’t have a father or mother worth honouring, then these days have the potential to be the source of much anguish for you. Many of us have neither a father nor a mother to celebrate, so annual reminders (on top of the daily reminders) are unhelpful, to say the least.
Spare a thought, too, for the children at school whose parents are absent. I’ve been an active member of SPARK for about three years now, and I am aware that some children are acutely hurt by their schools’ activities around making cards and gifts for parents who are not part of their lives. I remember my own daughter being very hurt by a teacher asking her, when she was only 7, if she had ever even met her father (the principal took her teacher’s side, so I started homeschooling).
What, really, is the point of ‘Mothers’ Day’ and ‘Fathers’ Day’? Like Valentine’s Day, they just seem like an excuse to encourage people to spend money (that they may or not be able to afford) on things like gifts, cards, and meals out. They can add pressure to already pressurised relationships. They serve, as far as I can see, no useful purpose.
Yesterday, this petition popped up on my timeline. It details the plight of a young man who is the same age as my youngest daughter (14). Please bear in mind that I know nothing about this family, save what I read on the petition page, and saw on an RTE news-clip.
From what I can glean from those sources, Nonso Muojeke has lived in Ireland since he was two years old. His mother was widowed, then ‘claimed by’ her dead husband’s brother. According to Mrs Muojeke, he – and the rest of her in-laws – treated her horrifically. She fled to Ireland, from Nigeria, with her two children, arriving in 2007.
The family was refused asylum in 2009, and has lived in a terrible legal limbo since. Nine years is a long time to live, with no security, with no idea whether or not you’ll be allowed to stay indefinitely. Not knowing if you might be taken from your home and sent back to a place of danger. I can only imagine what that does to a person’s mental health.
For me, though, the person at the centre of this tale is not Nonso himself, but his mother. This is a woman who was treated horrifically by her in-laws after she was widowed and ‘taken’ by her dead husband’s brother, as his wife. She gathered the courage and the internal, and external, resources to leave the house, the village, the country, with her two young children. She arrived in Ireland – a place she knew little, or nothing, about and has stayed here, in spite of her case being fouled up by her solicitor (solicitors can pretty much do what they like in this country, by the way – without fear of censure). She has managed to provide for herself and her family without drawing from the public purse in terms of receiving a cent in social welfare payments, or getting healthcare for herself and her children.
She has held herself, and her family, together all this time. She has helped them to become part of the community where they live. She has kept her boys fed, warm, educated, housed, loved. And safe. She has kept them safe.
Now, however, the family is at risk of being returned to Nigeria. To a place where Mrs Muojeke was abused and degraded. To a place where the boys don’t feel a part of the society (because they never have been), to a place where the boys’ mental health would be at risk. None of this appears to matter to the Department of Justice, or the Minister for Justice. What this tells me is that returning a woman to a place where she is seen as nothing other than chattel – where she can be ‘inherited’ like a piece of furniture – is not something that this government objects to. This government is fine with the notion of a man ‘claiming’ his dead brother’s wife for himself (and then abusing her). This government is clearly absolutely fine with the idea of a man abusing a woman. But then, we know that already.
We may have voted to repeal the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution, but we haven’t yet managed to repeal patriarchy.
More people voted in the referendum than have ever voted on a single day in the country before. It was that important. The vote was carried by nearly 70%. It was that important.
Of course, those who voted ‘No’ are very disappointed. They may be feeling hurt, and upset, and abandoned, and powerless. They fought hard for something that was important to them, and they feel let down by those who voted ‘Yes’, and who are responsible for the fact that the 8th Amendment will be repealed, and women will have bodily autonomy.
I would hate for those voters to feel powerless, so – based on a number of suggestions that the No voters mooted as ‘solutions’ to choice – I’d like to offer the following for their kind consideration:
The No voters were very concerned about foetuses being aborted because they (the foetuses) had severe, life-limiting, life-constraining disabilities. Given their concern, I’m sure they’d love to help children and families who have disabled children. I know several such families who need respite, who need practical help with regard to buying nappies and specially-adapted vehicles and much more. My friend, Tracy McGinnis, has a GoFundMe page to raise money to buy an adapted house for her severely disabled son. You can donate here.
They were also concerned that women and girls who were pregnant as a result of rape would not have abortions. Clearly, their concern for those of us who have been raped – and especially those of us who have been raped by our own fathers and brothers – is touching. I’d suggest donating funds to their local rape crisis centre, sexual assault treatment unit, or even training and volunteering to help women after they have been raped.
There was much attention paid by the ‘No’ campaigners that even the threat of suicide, or other mental health difficulties, was not enough to offer support to women who wanted to make choices around their pregnancies. I’d suggest that they fund-raise for Pieta House, the Samaritans, or – better yet – to pay for more perinatal psychiatric services in Ireland. Currently, there are only three such specialised doctors, and they practice in Dublin.
As a lone parent – one who didn’t abort, in other words – I’d have loved their support when my children were younger. My family of origin is toxic and abusive, so I have no contact with them. Nor do I have support from the ex, so someone to have come around a few times a week to help with the housework; with child-minding; or even to make me a cup of coffee and chat with me when the kids were in bed, would have been fantastic. So – No Voters – find a lone mother in your locale, and find out what you can do to help her. Then help her.
In a similar vein – find a man who was left raising his child/ren on his own because the 8th Amendment caused his wife’s death, and do what you can to help him, and them.
No-ers had a great plan for women who didn’t want to continue their pregnancies: They figured these women should continue their pregnancies, and then have their babies adopted. Now, the problem with this ‘solution’ is that adoption is the solution to unwanted parenthood, not unwanted pregnancies. So, here’s what’ I’d suggest: People who think adoption is a great idea should roll up their sleeves and get stuck in to helping re-unite babies, who were sold by the religious orders, with their birth parents. They should campaign to have the files held by these religious orders opened wide, and information shared with those who want it.
These are just a few ideas off the top of my head. I’m sure you can think of more. Please feel free to share them. No voters – you’ve shown us your passion, you’ve shown us you can mobilise, you’ve shown us that you can be (dare I say it?) obstreperous; you’ve shown us how loud you can be when MSM ‘silences’ you; you’ve shown us that you can persuade people to fly in from all over (but especially from America) to help you. Put all that passion and expertise (and money!) to good use and help out the already-born.
Privately, a friend who works in an economically-deprived area in Dublin, told me that in the past year, three lone mothers have died by suicide in that area.
Mothers who parent alone get the shitty end of the stick in this country. Lone parent families have the highest rates of consistent poverty in Ireland, according to the most recent SILC report (which you can read here). The vast majority of lone parent families are headed by women. There are barriers to education and paid employment – and the work women do in the home is completely discounted; it’s expected that we will
*make appointments for the children
*take the children to those appointments
*do the laundry
*do the garden (if we’re lucky enough to have one)
*organise the handyman (if we can’t do the DIY ourselves)
*top up the leap cards
*keep the car on the road (if we’re lucky enough to have one)
*organise drop-offs and pick-ups
*do drop-offs and pick-ups
*pay attention to every sign and symptom of our babies, children, teens so we’re on top of their mental health and physical health
*provide healthy, nutritious meals for our children
*clothe our children
*provide appropriate shelter for our children
*ensure that they are doing well at school
*fight for everything they require if they have any sort of additional need
*pay all the bills
*organise birthday parties
*find the money for cards and gifts for our children’s friends’ birthdays
*make time to spend with each of our children on their own
*read to our children
*take care of their cultural, sporting, and academic requirements
*make sure they take their medication
*keep an eye on who they’re friends with
*get to know their friends
*forget that third drink on a weekend night, in case one of the kids gets sick and you need to take them to the doctor / hospital
*turn down invitations because you don’t have / can’t afford childcare
*monitor the kids’ internet usage
This list is not exhaustive. In fact, it barely touches the tip of the iceberg of the things that mothers parenting on their own are expected to do – and judged and vilified for if they don’t, or don’t do it to someone else’s ridiculously high standards.
Is it any wonder an increasing amount of us are suicidal?
* If you are affected by any of the issues raised, you can contact: Pieta House at 1800-247247, or Samaritans by telephoning 116123 for free, texting 087-2609090 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or Aware: aware.ie; Tel: 1800-804848; Email: email@example.com
Today is a tough day for many of my American friends. It’s Mothers’ Day over that side of the Atlantic, and that’s not all sweetness and light for everyone. Aside altogether, from women who have lost their mothers to illness, there are many who were never mothered to begin with.
I believe that the last social taboo surrounds abusive mothers. The dominant narrative is that mothers are all-loving, all-giving, self-sacrificing fonts of love for all their offspring. To challenge that account of mothers is, to many, worse than blasphemy. This has the effect of silencing so many of us who survived our mothers, and who want to share our experiences to find other survivors and develop a community that understands, and supports us.
I remember, about eight years ago, I decided to cut ties with my toxic, abusive family (my father and two eldest brothers sexually abused me my entire childhood, my other brothers, my sister – who was also raped by one of my brothers – and their partners, choose to support my eldest brothers), and a friend of mine said ‘Well, yes, cut ties with all of them. Except your mum. You can’t not talk to your mum. Because….well, she’s you mum.’ It’s so difficult for people who were raised by someone who loved them – however imperfectly – that those of us who never experienced maternal love actually exist.
In the month or so since I started my secret Facebook Page for Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers*, I have been amazed, horrified, and comforted by the amount of women who share my grief at having been raised by at least one narcissist. The last time I spoke to my mother was at the end of 2016. It was a surreal conversation, in many ways, and if I hadn’t recorded it, it would be hard to believe some of the things that came out of her mouth actually did. Most notable was her response when I asked her why she had never told my sisters-in-law, that I had been raped by my brothers.
‘It’s not my place,’ she said.
‘Not even to protect your grandchildren?’ I asked.
‘It’s not my place,’ she repeated.
To reveal that I was telling the absolute, irrefutable, empirical, truth about my brothers was too much of a challenge to her view of herself. She couldn’t possibly be the person she wants the world to believe she is if she admitted that her sons raped her daughter, and she chose to support her boys instead of her girl. Mind you, this is the same woman who refused to let me be taken into care as a teenager because she was ‘worried about what the neighbours would say.’ When I confronted her with this piece of information (gleaned as the result of an FOI request), she nodded and said categorically and with a tone of extreme rightousness ‘Yes, yes, I did say that.’ Only a narcissist could possibly utter such a response.
In the case of narcissistic mothers, however, they don’t actually care about the ways in which they damage their children. They feel no remorse, accept no responsibility, offer no apologies, and care only about how they are perceived by people they don’t live with. If you suspect your mother might be a narcissist, this article provides a short list of things that others do, that narcissists will never do.
Finally, this piece, from Dr Karyl McBride, offers ten tips for coping with Mothers’ Day for adult children of narcissistic mothers. Mind yourself.
*If you’d like to join, please send me an email, a DM on Twitter, or drop a line in comments here. Comments are moderated before posting, so you won’t be revealing more than you’d care to share with the world at large.
Let me tell you about anxiety. Or, rather, let me tell you about my experience of anxiety. I’ve had anxiety for years, but didn’t know what it was until about two years ago. Then, I had the diagnosis, but didn’t realise the plethora of symptoms that could be attributed to it until the medication eased them. That’s right – I’m on medication for my anxiety, and have been for about a year. I don’t think I’ve ever admitted that before, because of the amount of stigma associated with being on medication. Still, in 2018. But I refuse to allow that to hold me back from speaking my truth. If I had asthma and needed an inhaler every day, would I be ’embarrassed’ or ‘ashamed’ or ‘shamed’ because of it? Probably not.
(As a brief aside, I love my medication. It doesn’t make me happy – it doesn’t make my life any better, it merely enables me to meet the life that comes at me without falling to pieces. It makes me functional. It restores me to myself. )
Anyway, even with medication, I still have anxiety, and even with the medication, it sometimes gets bad. Now, we all get a bit anxious. I accept that. But clinical anxiety is to ‘being a bit anxious’ as clinical depression is to ‘being a bit sad’. Here’s what it’s like for me:
I wake up in the morning and it feels like I have something heavy – like a cannon ball – sitting in my solar plexus: It feels like it’s pinning me to the bed. I am paralysed by it. I lie there, trying to identify the source of the fear. The following sentences literally form themselves in my brain:
‘What have I failed at?’
‘What do I have to do today that’s terrifying me?’
‘What is today bringing me that I won’t be able to do?’
I know that I generally feel a bit better if I’m upright. It can take me up to two hours to cajole myself out of bed, though. So I get the added delight of telling myself:
‘This is you, doing nothing.’
‘This is you, failing. Right here, right now, this is exactly what you’re doing. Failing.’
‘You’re useless. You’re doing nothing. You’ll never get anything done.’
‘Just give it up. Give up everything you’re trying to do because you’re not doing it! Just STOP! Stop everything because you are nothing.’
I’m getting better at ignoring that voice, though, or of dismissing it when it speaks to me.
In addition to the shit I tell myself, I find breathing difficult when my anxiety is bad. I can go a minute or so without breathing, and not notice. Clearly, this is not a good thing. Especially when I realise I’ve been holding my breath, and then I bring my attention to it, and run the risk of inducing a panic attack! Really not a good look. (Panic attacks are evil.) So, I’ve got better at just breathing Like A Normal Person (for those who aren’t familiar, Normal People are people who aren’t me!).
Then there’s the wasps in my head. Not actual wasps, you understand, but that’s what it feels like, sometimes; that there is a whole swarm of angry wasps inside my skull, and I just can’t stop them buzzing, flying, stinging, the inside of my head.
Sometimes, for the sake of variety, my thoughts will try to emulate barbed wire on the inside of my head, rather than wasps. They’d hate me to get bored. They are hard to deal with, I’ll admit it. But I’m working on catching them and dismissing them before they multiply. I’m not always successful – but, then, they’re not always that bad. A soothing distraction can be good – taking up my knitting, or doing a bit of colouring (as I mentioned before, I use kids’ colouring books because ‘mindful’ ones crank my anxiety levels up), or sticking. I also love devotional music – I prefer Hindu mantras – but devotional music comes (I feel) from a very special place, so devotional music of any persuasion touches me. Get on to You Tube, and see what works for you.
Recently, I have found that it really works for me if I forget about compiling a list of things to do – and give myself just one, achievable task to get through in a day. Some days (like today), it might take me all day to get it done. Funny thing is, that once I have that ticked off, I often feel like doing something else. So I’ll do something else, and that feeds a sense of achievement I hadn’t expected.
I’m learning to be gentle with myself. ‘Speak Love to yourself,’ my friend Kuxi wrote to me today. (When I’m bad, I can’t speak. I know, I know, it should be a national holiday, but it just feels like it’s too hard – so I send emails, or text messages. I know it’s important not to isolate myself too much.)
Also today, for the first time ever, I caught myself thinking
‘It’s going to be okay. You’ve lived through this before. You’ve lived through worse. You’ll bounce back – you always do.’
And the relief was amazing. I was able to recognise that I’m more unwell than I had previously admitted to myself, and reach out to a variety of people who can help – friends, my supervisor at uni, my doctor.
But the most important reaching out I did was to myself. I was kinder, gentler, more understanding of myself this time around than ever before. I’m hoping it’ll ease up soon, and the next time it’s bad, I’ll be more aware and reach out even sooner. If you have anxiety, what works for you?
A few days ago, I started a secret group, on Facebook, for daughters of narcissistic mothers. One of the last remaining social taboos is challenging the myth of the ‘perfect mother’. While it is perfectly acceptable to snark about other mothers online, revealing that your own mother was abusive is still frowned upon. The fact that mothers are still revered makes it difficult to discuss the failings of your own with others. But the only way to heal from anything is to acknowledge it – and acknowledgement starts with naming. Giving a name to our mothers’ behaviour is the beginning of dealing with, and accepting what we went through.
I am, of course, using ‘narcissistic’ in a clinical sense, rather than to just mean ‘self-centred’.
Characteristics of Mothers With Narcissistic Personality Disorder:
1.Everything she does is deniable.
2. She violates your boundaries.
3. She displays no respect for you.
4. She refuses to accept that you are a woman separate from her; entitled to your own life, and experiences.
5. She plays favourites with her children.
6. She undermines you – your dreams, ideas, and successes.
7. She is jealous of you.
8. She demeans, criticises, and denigrates you.
9. If you don’t behave exactly how she would like / expects you to, she will treat you as though you are crazy.
10. She lies – by omission, and commission.
11. She reinvents the past to make herself look good – or least better.
12. She has to be the centre of attention all the time.
13. She manipulates your emotions in order to feed on your pain.
14. She’s selfish and wilful.
15. She’s self-absorbed.
16. She’s unable to accept criticism, and gets extremely defensive in the face of it.
17. She’s infantile and petty.
18. She’s aggressive / passive-aggressive.
19. She ‘parentifies’.
19. She’s manipulative.
20. She’s exploitative.
21. She projects.
22. She can never accept that she is wrong about anything.
23. She cannot accept that others have different ways of doing things.
24. She blames others for her mistakes.
25. She actively works to destroy your relationships.
Not every aspect on this list may apply to your mother; but it’s safe to say that if she presents with at least 15 of the 25, she’s a narcissist, and you’re having to deal with the effects of her personality disorder.
For me, one of the worst parts of growing up with a narcissistic mother was her total denial of my right to an emotional life. She never recognised my emotions, needs, or desires. She expected, and demanded that I share details of every experience I had outside the home with her. Depending on what it was, she would
(1) ignore me/it,
(2) counter it with a story of her own,
(3) use that particular need or desire against me, or
(4) using her passive-aggressive skills or outright manipulation to guilt trip me for having needs, desires, etc. that were separate, and different from, her own.
This continued right throughout my childhood and into my adulthood, until I found the strength to escape from the toxic, abusive family I grew up.
One of the saddest things, for me, about the FB group*, is the fact that so many of the members have disclosed a history of child sexual abuse. It’s terribly sad that so many of us have both those things in common. Having grown up with a narcissistic mother can also impact on our own mothering. A mother who didn’t love you makes loving your own children something you worry about: How can anyone possibly be expected to emulate a behaviour that has never been modelled for them? (Dealing with narcissistic mothers, and their effect on pregnant women will be discussed at this workshop in May.)
Of course, I accept that my own mother had adversity in her own life. There is sexual abuse in her own background; she married young (as she says herself, to ‘spite’ her own mother); and her husband was abusive. She suffers with a food addiction, and was a secret eater throughout my childhood. She’s deeply unhappy, and feels the need to inflict that unhappiness on her own daughter. While I can have compassion for the fact that her life didn’t exactly go to plan, I can still hold her accountable for her behaviour – something she’s completely incapable of doing herself.
(*If you’d like to join the group, DM me on Twitter, or email me firstname.lastname@example.org)
Here is what we need from you right now. (When I say ‘we’, I mean ‘me’ and the abused women I’ve spoken to recently.) We need you to listen to us. We need you to listen to our hurt, and our rage, and our pain. We need you to understand that, actually, this is personal. It is a personal message to every woman who has ever, or will ever, be raped or sexually assaulted – and Lord knows there’s enough of us – that we will be abused and traumatised again by the legal system if we dare to open our mouths and report the assault/s. That more worth and weight is attached to the lies of rapists than to the truths of rape victims.
Dear Decent Men, we need you to call out men (and women) of your acquaintance who say things like ‘I knew they were innocent’ – remind them that, in law, ‘not guilty’ is not the same as ‘innocent’. We need you to remind people who say that ‘Justice was done’ that there is a difference between ‘justice’ and ‘law’. We need you to remind others that laws were written for privileged men, by privileged men, to privilege privileged men.
We need you to remind those who need reminding that just because a judge is female, that doesn’t necessarily mean she is sympathetic to other women; that the legal system is a patriarchal institution, and those who are successful within it must play that game in order to be awarded success.
We need you to talk about how a jury of the accused’s peers is likely to be sympathetic to him by the very virtue of the fact that they are his peers – and not the peers of his victim. We need you to talk about how the members of the legal profession – on both sides – will have more in common with white, privileged males than with a rape victim.
We need you to let people know that you do not appreciate derogatory comments about women, and you do not want women referred to as ‘whores’, ‘bitches’, ‘sluts’, or ‘cunts’ in your hearing. We need you to state, simply, and calmly, that rape ‘jokes’ are not funny.
Dear Decent Men, we need you to make it clear that you think women deserve respect at all times; that you believe women – all women, all the time – are the only people who have a ‘right’ to their bodies: Everyone else has to ask, and that if they don’t get an enthusiastic, ongoing, non-coerced, freely-given ‘YES!’ then that’s a ‘NO!’ And ‘no’ is a complete sentence – not an invitation to do what you want anyway.
We need you to let other men know that when our vaginas hurt and are bleeding, and the pain is excruciating, that we may negotiate. We know that until a rapist climaxes, he won’t leave us alone. We know that a drunk rapist will take longer to climax than a sober one; so we offer an alternative – a hand-job or a blow-job – to make the burning, stinging, stretching, tearing pain in our vaginas, at our cervixes, at the very core of us, stop. That is not ‘offering’ to perform oral sex – it is the same thing as offering to swap one hostage for another. It is not an enthusiastic suggestion of consensual sexual activity.
Dear Decent Men, We need you to hold the space for us as we express our rage, and our fear, and our horror, and our feelings of being belittled and diminished by a system – a society – that does not value us. We need you to hold the space for us while we process our thoughts and feelings. We don’t need you to tell us things that you hope will make us feel better; that you hope will shut us up.
We need you to bear witness to our pain and suffering. We need you to acknowledge it. We need you to pledge to work with us to change a system that is so broken it is absolutely not fit for purpose. We need you to express, at every opportunity, that women deserve respect, not because we are / could be ‘someone’s sister / aunt / mother / wife / cousin / neighbour / girlfriend’ but because we are human.
I’ve been thinking about this post for the past few weeks. Then, with Valentine’s Day falling this past week, I thought about it a bit more.
I’ve been thinking about love, and how we seem to compartmentalise it. There are people we ‘fall in love’ with; people we are ‘expected’ to love, as a matter of duty, people we are assumed to love, and even deities that are demanding of our love. The idea of ‘self-love’ is bandied about – and we are expected to know how to love ourselves before we can ‘truly’ love another. I dispute this, as it happens. I know that I loved my children long before I loved myself. In truth, I think my children were instrumental in teaching me how to love myself. But I digress.
While there are people we are ‘expected’ and ‘allowed’ to love – love is treated as something that is in short supply: We’re not encouraged to be too flaithúlach (an Irish word meaning ‘overly generous’) with our love, and declarations thereof. As if, somehow, declaring love for someone not on our ‘permitted / expected’ list is somehow an aberration. Like you, I’ve also heard that old saw that you can’t love someone you don’t know, and it takes years to get to know someone well – and well enough to know that you love them.
Here’s the thing, though. I love a lot of people – and, in part, I’ve only realised that, or allowed myself to recognise my feeling for these people as ‘love’ in the past year or two. There is a very long list of people I love, and I have started (only recently, mind you!) to tell them. I’m newly confident. That confidence is as a result of a number of things that have happened to, and because of, me in the past year or so. I’ve started telling people I love, that I love them. I don’t expect them to respond in any way but to hear me and to believe me. When I tell you I love you, I’m doing so in all honesty and sincerity. I’m doing so even though I may not have known you for years. I’m doing so even though I may not know every facet of your personality. I’m doing so even though I may not know or love everything about you. In a way, it’s similar to the Sanskrit greeting ‘Namaste’ – which means, essentially, that ‘the Divine in me recognises the Divine in you’. The essence of love in me recognises the essence of love in you and wishes to acknowledge it.
Life is short, and the things that really matter have been brought into focus for me quite sharply in the past week or two. I’ve read what Dr Alistair McAlpine learned from his terminally-ill, paediatric patients. I’ve witnessed the horror that is yet another mass shooting in the US, that left seventeen beautiful children dead. Closer to home, I’ve read Emma Hannigan’s touching and dignified farewell post on Facebook, with tears coursing down my face.
Life – even the longest of lives – is short. What matters is other people, and spending time with them. Spending time loving them. Eat the ice cream. Eat it with someone you love. And tell them that you love them.