Parenting after bullying

“I like people quite well
at a little distance
I like to see them passing and passing
and going their own way,
especially if i see their aloneness alive in them.
Yet i dont want them to come near.
If they will only leave me alone
I can still have the illusion that there is room enough in the world” DH Lawrence

I still have a beautiful Liberty-printed notebook, full of the quotes I read as a teenager which appealed to me. I didn’t keep a diary, but looking back at those notes is a glimpse back into my mind twenty years ago (as well as a cause for regret that my handwriting, once so immaculate, is now more like the wanderings of a spider on the way home from the pub).

I have been mulling this post over for ages, and in some ways I wish I’d written it right at the start of this blog, when I was properly incognito. If you do know me, and you read this, please don’t let on to me that you have!

I couldn’t find a way of getting a handle on what I wanted to say, and then I remembered this poem, copied out when I was 17, sandwiched in on a page between ee cummings and WB Yeats (I had a thing for both portentousness, and, clearly, initials).

Things weren’t quite as I’d expected at that point. Life had done a bit of an ad-lib on me, and I was frantically trying to assemble a new script. It was nothing dramatic (I was still at home, with my lovely family; not ill, or suffering anything serious) but I’d left school as soon as I’d taken my GCSE’s, after months of bullying which had seen me spend most of that final year in absolute solitude. Time, and memory, can be frustratingly merciful, and the sequence of events is an impenetrable blur now. Somehow a friendship had gone sour, sides had been taken, and the consequence was that no-one really spoke to me from September onwards, with an occasional exception being made for that agonisingly intense berating at which teenage girls can excel.

I was lucky. It didn’t hamper my education, and I went on to 6th form college and then to University. I sometimes regret that I am not in touch with anyone who knew me before I was 18, but I know I’m not unique in that respect, even among people whose schooldays were the happiest of their lives.

Being bullied knee-capped my confidence, gave me what I now suspect is a life-long fear of confrontation, and predisposed me never to invest too heavily in anyone unrelated to me. It led me into some silly situations trying to win approval from those who were never going to give it, and turn my back on those whose esteem would have been more valuable, but although I would never say I am glad I went through it, I have survived relatively unscathed and count myself fortunate – it really could have been much worse.

Of course, now what strikes me is that in the self-absorption of 15, I never considered what effect watching this must have had on my parents. They knew what was happening, but I begged them not to approach the school – it seemed too pervasive a problem to be tackled without making things much worse, and I still don’t honestly know what could have been done about it. Perhaps I was wrong, but the subtlety and sophistication of girls seemed, at the time, impervious to any adult intervention.

Now that I have children myself, thoughts of bullying have moved from the abstract to something much more immediate. I am chilled at the thought of children or teenagers experiencing the same thing now, but with mobiles and Facebook and Twitter in the game. My mum eventually stopped me answering the phone in the evenings till there were no more calls, so home remained a sanctuary for me. I look at my children now, and wonder how long they will have that sense that the world stops outside the front door?

Over time, I’ve come to realise that I evolved a coping strategy much like the poem. I keep people at arm’s length, travelling light and moving on frequently, and with a “fight or flight” reflex in which the former has almost entirely disappeared in favour of the latter. It’s dawning on me, though, that this way of being isn’t sustainable with children, and nor is it really how I want them to learn to relate to others. Coming home and shutting the door with a sense of relief isn’t necessarily a good thing.

The scars of bullying on my character are like laughter lines now, faint and integral to who I am as a whole, but as I work out how to be a parent, they stand out much more vividly. I don’t know how to teach my children to interact with their peers, to weather the storms in their friendships, to find their place in a group and maintain it as people change, move on and develop. To take arguments and evolving friendships in their stride; to have strong enough self-esteem to withstand peer pressure. Would that I could sprinkle magic dust over them that protects them from bullying (or from falling into a group of bullies).

I know that it’s not just a case of what I say, it’s a case of teaching by example. I need to get out of the comfortable window seat and join in on the other side of the glass, but doing that feels alien and unnatural. Becoming a mother has been a huge help already in this: a shared overwhelming interest in nappies and feeding and sleep was a wonderful shortcut into friendship; maintaining that as our preoccupations diversify and our children’s interactions move on from toddler spats is more of a challenge. So far, I have had no problems with playground politics, but I shrink from the thought of interacting with parents of my children’s friends, should they argue or fall out.

I suppose, like everything else, it will be a case of doing my best and learning as I go along. Nor do I think that this is all a doddle for anyone, regardless of their own experiences growing up. It’s strange, though, to find myself still dealing with the ghosts of something which I thought had been laid to rest long ago, and learning that they still constrain my actions.

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4 thoughts on “Parenting after bullying

  1. Beautifully written, as always, and very moving. With my son having just started in the school system here I’m suddenly aware of the risks of bullying. It’s not actually an issue per se right now but he is no longer under my direct protection 24 hours a day and that’s a little scary to me. It’s going to take a bit of time to get used to.

    1. Thank you for your lovely comments. It’s a real challenge when they go off to start making their own way, isn’t it? My two eldest are very happy at school, but I’m increasingly realising they have a whole other world I only see bits of.

  2. I’ve read this post a couple of times now trying to see what it is about your post that has unnerved me so much. It’s obvious – we have something in common. Teenage girls can be truly loathsome creatures. I know (and still feel today) the ‘outsider’ feeling from all those years ago. If only I could go back and tell her what I know now! During tough times I know I revert back to that same teenager initially until I find the adult in me to come in and take charge. Thank you for writing this piece so honestly and eloquently.

    1. Thank you for your comments. I’m sorry if you had a rough time too. I have two boys and a girl, and although I’m probably being too simplistic, boys don’t seem to have quite the same gift for cleverly concealed nastiness (or not yet, anyway)

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