My daughter is fourteen now and I am fifty. That we have made it this far is a minor miracle but we go from strength to strength every day.
She is the only part of my second marriage that I don't regret. I had not intended to have more children and had a tubal ligation ten years before her birth. Friends and family talk about kismet but the reality was poor decision-making on my part.
My second husband was an ex-Roman Catholic priest who entered the seminary at age 12 years and came out at 30. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and I should have realised that marrying someone who had lived a physical and emotional life structured by the Catholic Church was bound to result in disaster.
Love really is blind. I was blind. The facade of impeccable manners, personal consideration, caring demeanour, confident persona hid a will of steel that could only have been forged by the patriarchal structure of the Catholic Church.
The first hint of trouble came when he decided his future lay in the Sunshine State. Mine didn’t. The most gut-wrenchingly foolish thing I have done in my life was to agree to leave behind my two sons, aged twelve and eight at the time. I have never forgiven myself for this.
My ex-priest husband had no understanding of the bond between a mother and her children, this being an experience outside of the seminary. The words that came from his mouth drowned the feelings pouring from my heart. They were words of comfort honestly given but professionally delivered. Words drawn from many years of comforting grieving souls and the full force of it rained down on me, enveloping me in a false sense or reality, making me feel so special to be married to such a wonderful man. So I betrayed my sons.
Life in the Sunshine State wasn’t sunny for me. I missed my sons like an arm misses an amputated hand. The pain didn’t go away. He thought I was deficient for not coping, especially as I had the devoted support of someone as wonderful as him.
So it was that he decided we should have a child of our own. This was supposed to make me forget about missing my sons. At the time, his wanting a child seemed reasonable. As his wife, who he supported so unstintingly both financially and emotionally, wasn’t I honour bound to support him? Because he was giving me so much, I agreed. As he provided the roof over my head, the food on my table, the clothes on my back and the money for airfares for my sons to visit me, I felt obligated to provide him with the child he wanted.
I had micro-surgery to reverse the tubal ligation, one miscarriage, then the news that my daughter had an extra X chromosome, followed by a four-week premature caesarean birth as a result of a persistent breech presentation.
I love my daughter. It was unnerving to be made feel responsible for the genetic defect. As my husband was perfect, being one of God’s chosen, he certainly wasn’t about to consider himself responsible for this unfortunate imperfection. I was forbidden to tell anyone about the extra chromosome.
While I was recovering in hospital, my husband told me he was going to resign from his job, as he didn’t think he should have to put up with a troublesome female employee. My pregnancy was very stressful as a result of his ongoing conflict with this woman who clearly didn’t take to his patriarchal approach to females.
So he resigned to pursue a business option in the private sector, even though he had no idea at the time what this might be.
I didn’t bounce back after the caesarean and had no family support afterwards. As soon as I was home from hospital I was doing the cooking, cleaning, washing, shopping etc, and generally providing a stress-free gracious home for my wonderful husband who provided so well for me. But I was depressed, physically exhausted and not coping.
My husband was unemployed four weeks later. Our home had to be sold to finance a business. This involved moving to the opposite end of the Sunshine State when my daughter was six weeks old. Needless to say, I was not in a fit state physically or emotionally to undertake such a venture. By the time my daughter was nine months old we had moved house three times on the Sunshine Coast until he finally found a business that looked viable.
I had given up on him by the third move. He was destroying me and I wasn’t strong enough to fight back. I ended up working a twelve-hour day sandwiched between a hot plate and a sink full of hot water and dirty dishes. When I got home I cooked roasts, corn beef, cakes and slices for the shop the following day. Each night, my few hours’ sleep were broken by a fractious baby.
My daughter didn’t belong to me anymore. She spent her time with a babysitter and received scant attention from me. I had been able to look after my sons until they went to school and was missing being able to do this with my daughter. I became angrier with my husband each passing day, although I took it out on everyone. Lack of sleep made it worse.
My husband never seemed to do very much, though he worked long hours. He supervised the women who helped at lunchtime and the girls after school who helped with the clean up. He was also the planner, organiser, buyer of things and strategic thinker.
When he came home, he was tired from a long day. He had to count the money, sit outside in the balmy evenings and smoke, enjoy a beer or two and relax. He was always pleasant to me and our daughter – in stark contrast to how I behaved.
The situation was untenable. I was angry with him for putting us in this terrible position. He was angry at me for not being a strong enough woman to cope with having a baby, losing my home, working 12 - 15 hour days, cooking, cleaning and washing for us – and never having a full nights’ sleep. At this time I also discovered my mother had bowel cancer.
Although he didn’t seem to understand my feelings, we continued this way for another eighteen months before he was ready to sell the business. Our marriage lasted another four years before I was strong enough to leave him. In those years, I got a job, retrained at tertiary level and got my self esteem back. I went from strength to strength.
But he took my daughter from me after I left him. He said I was an unfit mother for leaving my boys, for not looking after my daughter when we had the business, for being mentally unstable as evidenced by my obvious anger during that time, for neglecting my daughter because I had a job and was studying.
So I lost my daughter for four years. My ex-husband knows how much this has hurt me because he saw me go through it with my sons. This time, I coped because I had the support of my sons and was financially independent.
This year, he sent my daughter back to me. She is now a beautiful, independent young woman. Sadly, the conflict he creates with women who don’t bow to his control has now spread to include my daughter. So he has decided she needs her mother.
It has been liberating to share with my daughter the reasons why I ended the marriage with her father, and his role in my leaving of her half-brothers. We are strong together now.
I regret having missed out on significant chunks of my children’s childhoods because I wasn’t strong enough to stand up for them. It will never happen again.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem