Note: I wrote this letter because one day, when my sons are older, I want them to read about this difficult time in their lives and know how hard I tried to get it right, even if I didn’t always succeed.
To my beautiful boys. I’m so sorry Mummy has been sad lately. You’ve caught me crying often. You comfort me with cuddles and ask me what is wrong. I tell you I’m ok, ‘Mummy’s just a little sad’ or ‘Mummy’s feeling stressed’ and at first that’s enough. But as the weeks have passed you start asking more difficult questions. ‘When are we going on a dog walk with Nanny again?’ ‘When will we see (our cousins) T & A?’ ‘When will we see Uncle O? Can we FaceTime him to see some magic tricks?’
What am I supposed to say? How do I protect you from the truth? How do I explain that my whole birth family has turned against me because I decided, at 45, to emancipate from my Mother.
As the weeks have gone by, you have felt their absence more. No Nanny catching a lift on the school run. No trips after school to see your younger cousins. No FaceTime with your favourite Magician. You start to realise that my sadness and these absent relatives are linked. You want answers. Where do I start? How do I frame such a painful message in a way that is appropriate for a five and a nine year old?
You are both Autistic like Mummy, you are both super bright and mature for your age. But you are both so different. L you are easier to manage. Unless extremely happy, or very angry, you experience emotions from a distance. You are very resilient and adaptable. You accept change even if you don’t find it easy. Your world is Transformers toys and your YouTube channel. You eat, sleep and dream your special interests and although you tell me that you miss these relatives, you are mostly angry that they have upset me. Only when you ask after your new baby cousin do you seem visibly upset. You are remarkable with younger children and describe yourself as a baby magnet. I know your heart hurts at the thought you won’t see these cousins again.
H, you are so like Mummy it is unreal. You feel every emotion so intensely, so acutely. You have deep thoughts and want to discuss everything. You say exactly what is in your head, even if it is rude or shocking. You are quick to cry, have bad dreams and hold onto hurts. The feelings you have been sharing with me have reduced me to tears. You usually do this when we’re in the car. I think it helps you talk when you don’t have to look into peoples’ eyes. You tell me you are sad. You tell me you are angry. You tell me you miss Nanny. You miss her dog that you were scared of for so many years and grew to love just this last year. You miss going to her house ‘because I like that place’. You tell me you want to punish her for upsetting me. Then you tell me you want to go and visit her when you’re a grown up. You fret about whether she will still live at the same house and how will you find her if she moves?
So how do I answer your questions? It is so hard. To you, my Mother is just Nanny. Nanny who you love and who loves you. Nanny with the crazy hair and huge dog that you’ve both grown to adore. But to me she is heartbreak. She is rejection. She is destructive. She is lies.
You tell me how much you miss playing with your cousins and you get tearful because you think baby A will forget about you. You decide that T will remember you as he is three and you gave him lots of your toys. You ask whether you will see your Uncle who does magic tricks, again. You tell me he is funny. That he is kind. You are confused by the concept that people who love you and are kind to you, can at the same time be horrible to your Mummy and Daddy. You talk about Uncle A and his girlfriend A. ‘He is kind! He shows us funny things on his phone. A is nice, she gave us nerf guns!’ Its strange to realise the things that matter to you, my children, the things that make an impact, that make you value others outside our own little family.
So I tell you about your Great Grandma, whose Mummy was very cruel to her. And how when your Great Grandma had her own little girl (that was Nanny) she ended up being mean to her too. And then Nanny had a little girl (that was me) and she tried very hard to love me. But the older I got and the more independent I got and the more I wanted to spend time with friends and build my own life, the more angry she became. She didn’t have the chances I had, because she’d had me too young and her husband (my Dad) was very mean to her which made her feel all alone. I tell you about my Autistic brain and how my feelings are turned up to 100 and how badly my heart hurts and my brain aches when people are mean to me. I tell you that I couldn’t cope with Nanny being mean to me and not telling the truth or saying sorry, so I had to be brave and decide not to see her anymore. H, when I told you these things you were outraged. ‘Why didn’t she want you to grow up? You had to travel the World. It’s amazing!’ If it is so obvious to you at five, why was this not obvious to her?
I tell you that I never, ever intended for you to stop seeing your relatives. I know you love them and are loved by them. I would never do anything so selfish nor deliberate as to restrict your access to the people who love you. And I told Nanny that. I wrote that she could arrange to see you through Daddy.
I promise you my boys, that I tried so hard to manage my retreat from Nanny with dignity and kindness. I still love her, I worry about her. I want her to be happy. I wrote to your Uncles asking them to look out for her, to protect her and support her as I wasn’t able to do that anymore. Naively, I thought that everyone would understand. That I could remove myself from her harmful influence without it hurting you, my boys, or Daddy. I saw no reason for anyone else to get involved. I never anticipated that other family members would ‘take sides’. Why would they? After all, when I emancipated from my father when I was pregnant with L almost 10 years ago, there was no big drama. No showdown. We simply ceased to communicate. No one batted an eyelid then. No one tried to change my mind. In fact my brother D ceased contact with him shortly after too, unable to cope with the pressure of a father whose idea of quality family time was sinking 15 pints before passing out.
How stupid I was to think that my Mother, your Nanny, would let me slip away without paying the price for standing up to her. To her, it was crucial that everyone take sides. It was essential to establish herself as the victim, the innocent, the person in the right! So began her campaign to discredit and harm me in ways I never anticipated.
First she sent messages to Daddy telling him that I was mentallyi ill and in crisis. She told Daddy to ‘be brave’ and to ‘use his intelligence’. She tried to shame him into admitting that this was all my fault, that your crazy, broken mummy couldn’t be trusted.
But she underestimated Daddy. She underestimated his love for me, his loyalty. She persisted in ignoring how good Mummy’s mental health had been during the Lockdown. She disregarded that Daddy had seen with his own eyes how manipulative and cruel she can be to me. She had forgotten that 10 years ago, having read my childhood diary, a distraught Daddy tried to discuss my past with her. But she’d refused to talk about any of it, the shutters firmly locked. In fact, she has often told me over the years that she ‘has nothing to apologise for’ as if she can blindside me into accepting her silence.
Then came the messages from my brother O, your favourite Uncle, Master of Silliness and Magic Tricks. A brother I believed I was close to, who I thought understood and accepted me. His messages were aggressive and accusing, bullish attempts to coerce Daddy into blaming me for the inconvenient conflict, to blame my mental health. When Daddy refused, O met his resistance with furious accusations. He said terrible things about our parenting, spiteful and shocking lies from someone who has never had children nor shown willingness to accept such responsibility. O tried to turn our shared experiences of partying in our pre-children days into gruesome scenes as if from the movie ‘Trainspotting’! He conveniently forgot how Daddy and I owned our own home and held down successful and well paid careers during those carefree days where the only things we were responsible for other than our mortgage and jobs was our tropical fish tank. Yes we partied hard at weekends but we also worked hard, we were passionate about fitness, Daddy played national league hockey! We were like every other young couple we knew, trying to have fun and find purpose in life, a purpose we only found when we had you, our beautiful boys.
My other brothers, your Uncles, including L’s Godfather, have said nothing. Their silence is deafening. My one attempt to connect with them over three months ago now, to explain and ask for their understanding if not their support, was totally ignored. I’m still not sure what is worse. The angry, confrontational reaction of O or the apathy and ignorance of the others? No matter, it all amounts to the same outcome. They are not ready to accept my truth as it would mean revisiting their own past and the harm our Mother caused to them. It would mean them having to DO something, to make a decision, to consider how the way they were parented has impacted their behaviour, their relationships, the way they parent…
What makes their silence so baffling is that I know my three oldest brothers have all spoken openly about our abusive childhood to their current partners and their exes and have shown bitterness and resentment towards both our parents. These conversations have often been fuelled by alcohol but there’s no denying that our terrible childhood and adolescence was a topic we all kept revisiting. In fact we often joked about it which probably seems in bad taste, but I now recognise this was a coping strategy. A way to downplay the seriousness of the situation because none of us knew what to do about it and none of us wanted to hurt our parents. I still don’t.
I had naively thought that my brothers’ girlfriends would at least have empathy, would try to maintain a relationship with me, particularly for the sake of your relationship with your cousins. I am confident I have been a good friend and sister to each of them, and a loving Auntie to my nephews. Yet with one exception, I have been met with cold silence or judgement and self serving lies. In a way I feel more betrayed by them than I do my brothers, because they could have done the right thing. They didn’t live our past, they don’t carry our baggage. They didn’t have to take sides. They could have guided my brothers to stay neutral, to enjoy separate relationships with our Mother and I, just as they do with our Father.
Thankfully I have loving support from the ex wives of my two oldest brothers. But even this has brought me grief. My brothers have told me that I made ‘bad decisions’ supporting my sister in laws. They think my loyalty should have been to my brothers. But they did not treat their wives fairly or correctly. I set up my stall early on, explaining I was on the side of their CHILDREN, not on his or hers. Still I was labeled a bad sister for not blindly supporting my siblings and ignoring their mistakes no matter how much harm it caused. This attitude is frightening and suffocating to me. I’m a strong woman and having watched my own mother live through a terrible marriage. I am a passionate advocate for women’s rights and equality. I love ALL of my brothers and I always will. In my head they are still the innocent little boys I played with and helped bring up. They were victims just like me, but with one critical difference….They were LOVED.
Without a shadow of a doubt, my mother and my father loved their boys. They excused their behaviour and ignored their mistakes because they KNEW they had both let my brothers down. They felt guilty. They felt ashamed.
But they did not love me. Certainly, not past the age of 11 when my desire for independence and sense of injustice led me to start challenging the violence and fear that was commonplace in our home. If I had to choose, my fathers pattern of drunken rages and cold indifference towards me was far preferable to my mothers insidious criticisms, calculated rejection and physical assaults. But perhaps I could have learned to forgive them both (and I certainly tried) if I had felt loved by either of them. But my father only showed me resentment or (once I’d grown up) used me to prop him up when he needed money or a roof over his head. My mother thought she loved me. And she could show me kindness and care when life was treating her well. But every single time her life got hard, whether down to her failed relationships, money worries, work stress or health issues; then her resentment for me would boil over. How dare I enjoy life when she couldn’t? How dare I find men who loved and respected me, who didn’t beat me? How dare I have a good career? How dare I earn money, own a home, drive a car? How dare I raise my children with such passion, confidence and self belief? My mother always used to criticise her appearance and say how ugly she was, then she would tell me how much I looked like her. My mother would constantly berate me for being so outspoken, for fighting my corner, for arguing with people (including my husband) if I felt mistreated. I think this angered her because she never stood up for herself and on the rare occasions she tried to seek help from her own parents, she was ignored. She could never understand why my husband tolerated that I didn’t do his ironing or carry dinner to him on a tray.
It was always a bone of contention between my Mother and I, if I criticised my brothers. She couldn’t bear to hear a word said against her boys, and has always been so quick to judge their partners because I truly think she doesn’t understand what it is to be a woman supporting another woman. It’s an alien concept for her, thanks to the abuse she suffered at the hands of her own mother.
But still you ask questions, so I try my hardest to give a sanitised response. I tell you how your cousin’s Mummy has taken Nanny’s side because she never had a good relationship with her own Mummy and she needs Nanny’s help to look after your cousins. I tell you that your cousins love you and will never forget you even though my tears soak my pillow at night knowing I will never see T run towards you again with that look of utter adoration.
I tell you how I sent your Great Grandad a message begging him not to take sides and to please let us still be in his and your Great Nanny’s lives. But he sent Mummy a very angry and spiteful reply. He accused me of lying and told me to stay away. He broke my heart with his cowardice. He was too proud to accept responsibility for his role in Nanny’s cruelty to me because he had wilfully ignored the domestic abuse she suffered at the hands of her own Mother and later, her husband.
I haven’t told you how shaken I’ve been by the behaviour of my birth family. I haven’t told you how heartbroken, betrayed, how cheated I feel. I haven’t told you the disappointment I feel in some people even though privately I knew they could not be trusted because they have shown poor integrity in the past. I haven’t told you how the greatest wound has been caused by my grandfather, because I grew up comparing him to my father and convinced myself he was good and noble, how a man should be. But his determination to silence me and his vicious retaliations have made me realise my vision of him was just a daydream and that good, noble man doesn’t exist.
Your Grandad S, my Father in Law has tried to help me understand my Grandfather’s reaction. He explained that in older generations, speaking up about family dysfunction and cruelty was taboo and somehow made the whistle blower seem worse than the perpetrator. Does that help me accept what’s happened? No. But it shows me how dangerous pride can be and how critical it is to tell the truth, to stand up for yourself because you can’t rely on others. You just can’t.
I wish I had a crystal ball, I wish I could tell you what the future holds. What Daddy and I agree on is that there is no going back. It makes a Mummy physically and mentally ill having Nanny in her life. The last three months, despite the deep waves of sadness and your painful questions, I have felt lighter, freer, calmer. The lifelong weight of responsibility towards Nanny is gone. I can focus on what matters most, Daddy and you boys. I can give you more of myself because I am not weighed down with trying to force Nanny to like me, to love me, to value me. I don’t need her approval anymore and I don’t have to fear her rejection.
As for my brothers, I try not to waste too much time grieving for these one sided relationships. I spent my whole life looking out for my brothers. Caring, advising, coaching, loving. I never got back even a quarter of the love I invested in them. When I was 16 I went to visit my Grandparents in Spain with my school friend. We were out walking one day and talking about my brothers and my Grandad said carelessly, ‘Ha, when you are older not one of you will speak to each other’. I was horrified that this man who
I viewed as wise, would say such a terrible thing. I told him he was wrong and he laughed easily. But it turns out he was right about that one thing at least.
As for your cousins, I miss them every day. I know they will forget us and I grieve all the happy memories we should have been able to make. But their parents have made their choice, they chose lies, they chose selfishly and I know they will come to regret their cowardice but regrets always come too late.
Children should NEVER be used as a weapon. You my children are everything to me and Daddy. We chose to make you, I grew you, we are responsible for raising you. We love and accept you completely. We give you the safety and security I never had and the freedom to be who you want to be. Right now are you so young and it is hard for you to accept you have lost all these people you loved. I wish I had a magic wand to resolve all these hurts. I wish my brothers and their partners, my grandparents too, had chosen NOT to take sides. I wish they had not felt it necessary to lash out and attack Daddy and I with judgement and lies when they have never walked in our shoes. I am a forgiving person, Daddy, not so much! But we both respect honesty and integrity; bravery and apologies. Will those apologies ever come? Will my family ever take responsibility for their actions? I doubt it. It’s far to easy to repeat the selfish mistakes of previous generations and perpetuate abuse than it is to be different, to challenge, to dare to make your own path like I have.
L, H, you are so loved. And you have a wealth of people who love you, people who ALSO love, respect and accept Mummy and Daddy for who they are. You have maternal and paternal relatives who will always support you. You have cherished friends, committed teachers. Most of all you have us.
My wonderful Auntie V once shared a poem with me that made me really sad. I can’t remember it exactly but the gist of it was about how our children are not ours to keep but ours to nurture until they fly away. I understand that poem now and I promise I will do everything possible my boys, to help you fly. I trust our love will never be broken, not by time nor distance. I will never reject you and I will always be waiting when you need me.
Lizzy Van Tromp
If anyone reading my blog is affected by estrangement from their family or a key family member, I’ve been advised of an amazing charity that supports adults in this situation. We are not alone xxx