Mariella Frostrup admires a reader’s attempts to come to terms with her past, but says she should be aware her mother may never take responsibilty for her actions
I am a 39-year-old mother who is struggling with memories of my own childhood. When I was 15 my mother put me in dangerous situations with older men which led to me getting raped. When I told her I was scared, she brushed it off and when I told her I was raped she told me to not be silly. She encouraged me to date men in their 30s and once had sexual relations with a man while I was in the same room.
I struggled to have a “normal” relationship until I met an old school friend who loved me, married me and fathered our beautiful girls. I have recently realised this could be the source of the anxiety and depression I am now dealing with as a mother of two young girls.
My therapist has suggested I no longer have contact with my mother or limit our contact, but this will be a huge change as she stays with us for four weeks of the year. How do I tell her this without bringing up the horrific past? I am also one of six siblings and none of the others suffered in the same way and only one knows the truth. I am worried how they will react if I tell them. I hope you have some wise words to guide me.
Who am I to advise you? It’s clear from your letter that you are the impressive survivor here. You’ve coaxed a decent life from incredibly damaging and unstable roots. Despite the terrible experiences of your adolescence you’ve somehow managed to move forward. It may simply seem good fortune, but to have created a solid relationship from the broken pieces of your teenage heart is itself a massive and impressive undertaking.
You need to balance how much better you’ll feel within yourself with how much pain the external fissures will cause you
I’m relieved to hear you are seeing a therapist. It’s not a moment too soon to try to come to terms with your past and also ensure that emotional legacy isn’t handed down to your daughters. Too often such experiences can take their toll down the generations, not because they’re in your genes, but because you need the wherewithal and courage to open the Pandora’s box of the past. How insightful of you to have sought help and also how responsible. You’ve been suffering silently for so long that it’s no surprise you’ve found an outlet in your current depression and anxiety.
I have seen some terrible stories in my position here and yours certainly counts among them. For the many of us who complain about dysfunctional relationships with parents your letter offers a salutary example of how bad things really can be. We presume that when an adult decides to raise children they will naturally be equipped with the skills and compassion to do so properly. So often that is not the case. What you endured as a young, innocent girl is unthinkable and I’m surprised you’ve managed to maintain a cordial relationship with your mother, let alone have her to stay a month a year.
Airing your experiences now will certainly cause seismic shifts among your siblings, and your relationship with your mother may never recover. The consensus post-Freud is that only by confronting our agony-infused early years can we move on with our lives, but there are those who argue otherwise. It’s far too easy for me to say it will be worth it in the end. Your mother is unlikely to admit culpability or to change, and your siblings may not forgive you for articulating the unthinkable. You need to balance how much better you’ll feel within yourself with how much pain the external fissures will cause you. It may even seem too high a price.
It’s certainly not your duty to host your mother, but it does indicate that you’ve reached some sort of entente if you can bear to have her in such close proximity. Your mental health has to be the biggest priority for you and your dependent daughters. Acceptable parenting may have been less well defined three decades ago, but that is no excuse for what your mother appears to have condoned, encouraged and failed to protect you from. You do need to address the damage and while it might be both cathartic and liberating to make a stand, it won’t be easy. Living with the anxiety and depression caused by the lack of resolution for what you experienced is, I suspect, no easier.
With the support and guidance of your therapist only you can decide how far and deep you want to delve.