When my brother was 7 or 8, and I was 10 or 11, we would bike home from school together. Bored with biking the same route every day, or maybe because we wanted to delay going home as long as possible, we biked alternative routes. One of these routes was onto someone’s driveway, out the back of his plot and onto a gravel road that ran behind the houses in our street. It brought us past a horse stable. (I became afraid of horses later because my father said they would kick and bite, but in hindsight they mostly bit and kicked him, not us)
One day, we biked home from school with my mother. My brother wanted to take that other route again.
We had encountered the man whose driveway it was a few times and he was not happy about kids biking through his driveway. After the story I’m about to tell occurred, my brother told me that this man had watched the whole event happen and had done nothing to help. He had cackled with delight at the injury my brother sustained.
So anyway, this time I didn’t join my brother on that path. I don’t know why. Perhaps because I felt guilty towards our mother for letting her bike alone. Of course, later I also felt guilty about letting my brother go alone.
My mother and I biked home and arrived. My mother went on to do the usual things. I don’t remember if it was just me or if my mother also noticed my brother took a long time to come home. I remember standing in the driveway. Suddenly, we heard him crying. He was on foot, without his bike. Blood ran down his forehead, over his left eye and face. He was wounded.
What would you do if you were the parent in that situation? Think for a moment.
Here’s what my mother did. She screamed, grabbed my brother by the hand and ran onto the street, disappearing from sight. There I was, a child myself, in the empty driveway of our house.
What would your child do, if you left them like that?
I did what a parentified child would do. I realized I’d have to go look for her and fix it. I knew by then that my mother was not reliable in meeting our needs. In her childhood, a commercial or something had been “Calmness can save you” and she would preach and preach and preach this sentence. But every single time something happened, she freaked the fuck out. I had learned by then that my mother would not be the sensible adult in situations like this. Not that I could express this verbally. I realized my parents weren’t normal, but I didn’t have the words to explain how absurd it all was.
But I remember the moment when I emotionally outgrew my mother. My mother is emotionally about 8 years old. That moment lay behind me.
So I took the house keys. I locked all the doors. And set out to find my wounded brother and melt down mother. I searched. I walked into a side street. A neighbour, on his bike, saw me and asked “Diana, what are you doing here, alone?”. And I replied “My brother is wounded and my mother panicked. She ran away and I can’t find them.” His jaw set. “I’m getting a car!” and he pedaled away in a hurry. Leaving me behind. Bewildered, I continued my search.
Then, neighbor Jenny appeared in the street. She called for me. “Diana, come on in, they’re over here.” There, in the kitchen of neighbor Jenny, were my mother and brother. My mother sat in a chair, absentminded, shaking, rocking back and forth and staring ahead. My brother sat in another chair, with a towel pressed against his head.
I remember looking him in the eye. I remember his face. I don’t know what my facial expression was, but his was desolate. Resigned. And deeply hurt. I have no mother. Nobody I can count on to care for me, that look said. I have no words for that look, that feeling. A profound loss of hope.
I don’t know if the neighbor who had gone to get his care was the one who drove my mother and brother to the doctor. I think it was. They didn’t take me along. I waited in dread. I could not relax until I saw my brother again. End even then, I could never relax. There was no rest for me anywhere. Hypervigilance wracked my both. I had chronic hyperventilation till far in my twenties. The worst part of being a hypervigilant child is that you are still helpless in the face of adversity. If no adult proves reliable and safe, if they are incapable of caring, nurturing, even incapable of acting in emergencies, how can you, a child, ever do that instead? I failed to prevent disasters. And the more I failed, the more I scolded myself and I tried even harder to be vigilant.
When my brother and mother came home, my mother went on to make dinner. My brother sat down in the couch. He stared at the floor. And then did what a child in an eternal warzone does. He collapsed without any outward sign. He didn’t cry. He turned on the TV.
When my father came home, we shook and made ourselves small. Would he erupt in rage? Insult my brother? Mock my brother or make fun of him? Or, not care and grab beer and moan and whine about his work? I don’t remember.
My brother confided in me that evening. He was scared about what kids in school would say. A 7-year old and a 10-year old, having to manage the world on their own, without guidance. No parent to turn to. I came up with a child’s solution. “You could say you’ve been in a fight! That’s cool” I said. He brightened up. “Oh yeah!” I don’t remember what happened with this.
Neither my mother or my father comforted or soothed us. They didn’t ask if we had been afraid. They didn’t say “You were a brave boy/girl” or “Thank you for locking the doors, you did well”. Nothing.
I asked my mother later “What were you thinking?”
Her eyes glazed over and she rocked back and forth slightly. She stared ahead and replied “I thought ‘doctor, doctor, I need a doctor’. The man next to neighbor Jenny is a vet.” She offered no other information. That was the end of the conversation. I didn’t know what to say or ask.
I have that same sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach as I write this down. There was just nothing there.
I know other stories of children of mindblind parents. I’ve read stories of children who broken an arm and the parent didn’t do anything. This child had to draw a visitor’s attention to get medical care.
I myself broke my foot on holiday around age 11 and they didn’t do anything. I couldn’t walk. My father had to carry me because I couldn’t walk from the tent to the holiday park’s center. It wasn’t until one or two weeks after our holiday that my mother somehow ‘woke up’ and suddenly said “Is your foot still hurting?!”. Then she took me to a GP, who asked questions and referred me for an X-ray. the bone had healed by then, but wasn’t straight. They said they could break the bone again to set it properly. They (two doctors) looked at me and asked what I wanted. I declined. My mother said nothing.
This is not about intentions. Anything my mother could think of, she wanted to do. Like take us to a doctor if she realized something was wrong. But often she didn’t realize something was wrong, and in emergencies she couldn’t be relied upon.