Friday, January 28, 2011

There is a Difference Between Discipline and Being a Bitch

Sometimes people tell me that I overanalyse how to approach motherhood.  That you have to just ignore all the books and 'science' and go with the flow.  All kids turn out all right in the end, they say.  I have to say, I don't believe it.  Some kids get royally fucked up by their parents.  Parenting with your intuition is all well and good when your instincts are to be caring and accepting, but not when you are competitive, insensitive, and judgmental.  Like me.

I have been reflecting on this since last weekend, when my beautiful sister Steph got married.

I got to be one of the bridesmaids, and Bethany had a starring role as Flowergirl Minus Flowers Because She Would Eat Them.  Here she is trying on her dress:

Apart from providing the Flowergirl, my biggest job at the wedding was to give a speech.  In preparing the speech, I was trawling through our old baby photos.  I started to pick out the images which 'spoke' to me, which I felt captured something of Steph, without knowing exactly why, like this one:

I found other photos but I kept coming back to that photo of her clutching the doll, so tenderly and with such care.  6 months ago, she cradled my own daughter with the same tenderness:

And that made me realise what a bitch I truly was.

You see, when my sister was little I saw her love of dolls and animals, and all things delicate and sweet, as a sign of weakness.  Not only that, but I made her pay for it.  I am almost 3 years older, and from the moment my sister arrived in my life I thought it was my role to shape her and improve her.  To toughen her up.

I teased her mercilessly about the things she cared about.  I tried to push her to learn faster than a child her age ought to learn things, then was contemptuous or frustrated when she couldn't keep up.

My parents punished me whenever they caught me but it didn't make a difference.  I just did it when they weren't around.  Because I knew, with the conviction of a TV evangelist, that I was Doing The Right Thing.  In my head, I was making my sister into a better, stronger person.  One day, I thought, she would thank me for it.

She had a lisp as a young child.  I was a bitch about that.  She loved to ride horses and read Saddle Club books.  I had to be a bitch about that.  She wanted to do her debutante ball.  I was a super double bitch about that - because in my head even one day of wearing a pretty dress and having a fun time was buying into peer pressure to be a weak girly girl.

I was an authoritarian bully, and I held her up to unrealistic expectations.  By the time she was at school she reacted to the slightest provocation from me with rage.  As she reached highschool she distrusted everything I said.  She muddled through highschool thinking she wasn't very smart, even though she'd earned a scholarship to be there.  She had anxiety-related insomnia.

This is what happens when attachment goes wrong.  And folks, it is not pretty.

It was not until I was about 20 that I started to realise that what I had been doing was not guiding her with my immense wisdom, but wearing down her self-esteem with my narrow-minded bigotry.  I don't know what made me realise - or indeed if it was anything in particular.   Perhaps it was going to uni.  Perhaps it was that leaving home gave me enough distance from that familiar world that I acquired some sense of perspective.  I got enough space to realise I didn't have to spend all my time defending my way. Perhaps it was just time - I just started to grow up.

It was not a lightbulb moment, it was a gradual process.  At first I realised I probably shouldn't be such a bitch to her, but felt annoyed she couldn't just get over it.  Then I started to realise how much I had hurt her.  How much she had looked up to me, and trusted me, and how I had betrayed that trust.  Then I felt horribly guilty and struggled to make amends.

But then after a few more years I acquired some perspective on that guilt - yes, I had been a bitch, but I was about 4 years old when I started this behaviour, and not exactly wise enough to know better.   And by the time I was old enough, we had become entrenched in a pattern of fighting.  For a little tacker, she could thump me pretty hard, which greatly reduced my ability to see things from her perspective.  I never dared hit back because I knew that if I did, I would probably do some serious damage.  What's more, over time she came to distrust much of what I said - so even if I gave her a genuine compliment, she might become angry or upset because she heard in it some sort of implied criticism.  This in turn did nothing for our relationship.

So I stopped feeling guilty.  I decided my guilt was not helping anyone.  It didn't really matter whether it was my fault entirely, in part, or not at all.  The fact was she had been badly hurt and I wanted to do my best to help make things better.

It took years of hard work from both of us to rebuild our relationship.  We have both been to psychologists for help.  She still suffers from anxiety-related insomnia.  Was it just my behaviour that caused it?  Probably not.  Was it a major contributing factor?  Almost certainly.  How could constant ridicule from someone you loved and looked up to not fail to wear you down, or cause you to question yourself?

Then, I wasn't old enough to know better.  Now I am.  And now I know 4 things:
  1. I sure as hell don't want a repeat of this saga with my own children.  It is so important to let them know you value them for who they are and not expect too much, too early.  Making them feel like a failure for not being who you want them to be as quickly as you want it is not encouragement, it is just mean and makes everything harder for them.  True discipline is guidance and respects a person for who they are.
  2. There is more to discipline than punishment.  Punishing me was almost completely ineffective at stopping my behaviour.  What I needed was someone older and wiser to guide me in how I should treat my sister and talk through with me why I behaved the way I did.
  3. It is never too late to admit you were wrong and change, although it will not be something that happens overnight.
  4. Point 1 actually applies to anyone who loves you.

Knowing is not doing, but it is a good start.

My sister has turned out to be a wonderful, capable, intelligent, and well-adjusted person - but that is in spite of how I treated her, not because of it.  I would say we are close now, not least thanks to her patience with me, and her ability to learn to trust me again.

I am so sorry that she paid the price for my ignorance, immaturity, and stupidity.  I am very glad that she has found a man who is so loving and accepting of her.

She is happier and stronger now than she has ever been.

She is now the woman who, despite the way I treated her, was happy to be Maid of Honour at my wedding and stayed with me for two weeks to help out.  She is the woman who took three weeks of unpaid leave to fly to Darwin to help me through my final week of pregnancy, to look after me during labour, and to help take turns in looking after my baby at night for three weeks after she was born.  This is the woman who has found a way to come to Darwin for two and half months just to spend time with me and her niece, even though she has again had to take unpaid leave and pick up odd jobs to do it.

I couldn't stop crying during their vows, which they wrote themselves and kept secret from each other till the day.  He called her his Smile, his Courage, and his Heart.  Here he is, doing his best not to cry as he tells her just how much she means to him:

They both changed their names to symbolise that theirs was an equal partnership and the creation of a new family.  She was Rose and he was Stone and they are now Mr and Mrs Rosestone, which I think is beautiful (although, obviously, they got a bit lucky with the names there).

Photographer Brenner Liana captured their fairytale wedding perfectly.   Here is one she has posted on her blog:

As for me, I'm no saint, but I'm trying to do better.


  1. Amazing blog Caroline! So honest and heartfelt. Thanks for sharing, Denee x

  2. This blog is amazing, as Denee says above - very honest and heartfelt!

    You really shouldn’t be so hard on yourself. You are a great mother and you will not make mistakes that you are aware of. We’ll avoid those (but unfortunately make many others we didn’t see coming – this is life I fear and the beauty of hindsight!) I have things on my ‘list’ that I won’t do too! I think you can trust your instincts, more so if you are aware of your flaws. Bethany is a lucky baby to have you as her mummy!

  3. That is a beautiful post. I had a similar relationship with my sister growing up. I was the younger one. She is my best friend now. Thanks for sharing. xx