A bad Mother and an African village

Ruth Hartley Storytelling, Creative Writing, Memoir, Short Stories2 Comments


The media are currently running stories about victims of poor parenting. Everyone has had mothers and fathers and was parented somehow by somebody. We know ourselves through understanding our families and parents. Unquestionably there are children who are victims and who have suffered, but there are also those who survive enormous difficulties and who still manage to forgive and love and built valuable relationships with people who failed as parents.

My mother was blamed

Short stories with my mother and myself on the cover

My father was grief-stricken and devastated by his divorce from my mother and the death of his first daughters. He was deaf and years of isolation and a colonial Edwardian upbringing had made him paranoid. After they had divorced this is what he told me -‘Your mother’s selfishness caused the deaths of our first two children’.  It was shocking to hear him say that and a dreadful responsibility for me to carry that terrible knowledge. It could poison me and kill my relationship with my mother. My father wanted my love and care to focus on him, but his method was alienating. Could I – should I – understand and forgive him?

A painful question and an exemplary answer

I was tortured by what my father had said. The only person I could ask about it was my mother, but should I, could I, ask her and what would be the result? I was eighteen and I didn’t want to spend my life with my father’s paranoid secret eating away my heart. I was afraid of upsetting my mother and angering my difficult stepfather. I knew my mother was courageous, intelligent, kind and very loving but I had to screw up my courage to speak to her. Her answer was exemplary. (She had probably already been subject to my father’s accusations.) ‘Ruth,’ she said, ‘You know me – make your own judgement of me based on that.’ Then she told me about her first children. She never said anything bad about my father.

My parents’ stories.

Dad and me at Christmas
Me and my mother

My father had gone to war. He wasn’t conscripted – he volunteered. My mother was left alone in a village in the bush with a toddler and a baby and an uncertain income. (I personally know how tough that is.) She decided to move to the city to get a job. The two children were taken care of in a children’s home for a few days while she found accommodation and work, but there was a measles epidemic and they were ill.  A short while after, the baby died a cot death unexpectedly and some months later the toddler died of osteomyelitis. My father was torn between blaming himself for leaving his family by going to war and jealous distrust of my mother’s motives for coming to the city. After the toddler’s funeral my father never spoke about the children again. My mother would later explain that my serious nature as a child was the result of thoughtfulness (she meant grief) while she was pregnant with me. We are all made of stories. They come from every part of the society that surrounds us and some of them conflict with each other. Nobody can be whole and alone as well as wholly separate and so good, bad, victim and abuser, black and white is a mix from which we are all made.We also cannot escape our social and political environment, even when we want to be good.

All parents are imperfect.

My mother

Do all parents fail? Yes – up to a point. In the end everyone dies and fails. You can pick a point in a relationship that is successful or choose one that isn’t, but is there a defining moment in an ongoing situation? Do we ever see the whole picture? No parent ever gets five stars, though there will be some who score less than one. Parenting is always a developing experiment with the unknown by novices. Judgements are made with hindsight, not wisdom. Siblings rate their experience of the same parents differently and some children need special parents or extra good ones. What do I know?  I’ve been a daughter, granddaughter, mother, grandmother, sister, stepchild, stepsister, step-parent and step-grandmother. How many individual relationships does that add up to? No one is good at everything they do all the time. There are no relationships that work perfectly. As most or all are imperfect let me ask – which are the relationships that are uncomplicated and freely chosen by anyone of us? Here is a link to the best books on parenting. Reading all of them means no time for children!

Emotional landscapes Collage by Ruth Hartley

A child in a global village community

My generation was brought up by parents who feared intimacy and demonstrations of physical affection that might make boys homosexual and invite danger for girls. We were also the children of men who had been to war and grown  up in a misogynist world. People are flawed and that means parents and their children are too. There will come a point at which a child will choose to identify with their peer groups whatever their parents say or do. There is no self-contained nuclear family of a mother, father and two children inside which parenting is done perfectly and there never has been. There is an African saying that it takes a village to bring up a child, but that village has become global and digital and harder to navigate. A mother’s and father’s parenting is only a part of that process and in the end we all have to work out how to parent ourselves responsibily. I know someone who found parenting impossible.I know parents who did their best. Parents are humans and love is not possible without forgiveness.

2 Comments on “A bad Mother and an African village”

  1. Marie Howie

    Dear Ruth

    What a thoughtful and reflective piece to write. Having spent a lot of time in the last few years undesrstanding my own childhood and being a parent myslelf it is a never ending process of learning discovering and changing.
    Simply Thank you
    Marie Howie

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