Elaine's Story
Ive got to get out

I felt that my mother didn’t love me – or even like me. I think she took a lot of her frustrations with Dad out on me. She used to call me “a lazy bitch”. I took that on board because I think I was quite depressed through my childhood.

I blamed Mum for part of Dad’s violence towards her, but I’ve come to realise that it was safer for me to blame Mum than to expect more of Dad. It was only one day when I was in my late thirties that I suddenly thought “Dad was really violent!” I’d never had that level of clarity before, and I realised that this was probably because I could now handle that realisation.

We moved off the farm and into town where we lived next door to my grandmother and other relations. Dad fought with both his mother and his sister. I don’t know what the arguments were about, but I remember the day he smashed my grandmother’s glass-topped table.

After that my grandmother became an eagle-eyed woman. She would very carefully check on how I was, and she would sprinkle statements to counteract what she clearly understood was going on for me – things like “people can overcome all sorts of things” and “this is not your fault”. She also said to me, “You are not destined to be just a housewife”. Children are like sponges for those kinds of messages.

It takes only one person in a child’s life who gives them unconditional love and acceptance and time, and I believe my grandmother is one of the reasons I survived my family situation. She showed me Dorothy Nolte’s poem ‘Children Learn What They Live’, which begins: “If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.” It is about how children learn from the behaviour they see rather than from what they are told. I thought about that poem a lot over the years and eventually I used it as the basis for a parenting programme I developed.

Dad and Mum both had affairs and that created a very unsafe world for us children. They separated many times. One time Dad was living at the local pub and Mum went and confronted him. He ended up dragging her home. He came through the house, pulling her by her hair and yelling at me that my mother was a “whore”, and trying to get me to side with him. Mum often ran away, but she came back because there was really nowhere to escape to. There was no Women’s Refuge then and I think it is highly unlikely that she would have gone to strangers for help anyway. It would have been very difficult for her to get a job and support us, and the stigma of divorce was huge. There would be a brief ‘honeymoon’ stage when she came home, but then we’d be back to normal.

Dad controlled the money, and he’d take issue with what Mum spent. Once, when I was a young teenager and everyone else had taken off because Dad had gone ballistic about something, I found him setting light to all Mum’s clothes on the back lawn because of the money she had spent on them. That night I felt so scared I had to get out. I put my pyjamas on and then I waited till Dad conked out, which he did because he had been drinking, and I sneaked off to the woman up the road who took me in for the night.

When we moved into town Dad worked as a contractor and he was often away. Mum went through phases of not coping with us kids. Sometimes she’d tie my little brother up to the clothesline as he was doing things like lighting fires in his wardrobe and under his bed.

Mum was a great cook but we didn’t have regular mealtimes – or bedtimes. Sometimes we’d go to school without any sleep because our parents had had a big fight, and Mum had taken off and we’d have had “who do you want to live with?” from Dad – which raised a lot of guilt and loyalty issues for us.

School was a sanctuary, as were other things outside of home. But we found it hard to connect to those things fully. We sat on the edge because that was a safe place to be. You don’t have to sort out relationships if you are a bit removed. You don’t invest yourself in friendships. You go through the motions but you are not really there because you’re protecting yourself emotionally and psychologically.

The worst case of physical battery on my mother by my father happened late one night after they’d been out to some big do. He totally lost the plot. He smashed windows and pulled her hair out by the roots. We just heard it – the breaking glass, the screaming, my mother pleading with him to stop. I got a pillow and wrapped it round my head, over my ears. My little brother got out of bed and hid somewhere.

Dad was a big fit man, and Mum was little. He punched her in the face and it would have been with a closed fist because the following day I couldn’t recognise her face. She couldn’t see out of her eyes.

She went to a doctor, and told him what had happened. That was the first time she had ever talked to anyone about what was going on. She’d never felt anyone would believe her. She and Dad separated after that night, and I remember thinking “I’m so glad”, but they got back together again.

Mum didn’t talk about the violence and neither did we, not even to each other. We’d go into each other’s rooms or just close down in our own little spaces. It was all very non-verbal.