Was bringing up the past a good idea?

Is the family really in moral decline? In the first of a two-part series, Celia Dodd discovers that `negative parenting' has always been a part of growing up; PART 1: DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILIES
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The Independent Culture
Fiona Waters, 40, was brought up in a conventional and comfortably-off nuclear family: her father worked nine to five in a steady local government job. Her mother gave up nursing to devote herself to her four children. From the outside, it may have appeared the ideal set-up, but Fiona's childhood was far from happy; she was first taken to a psychologist at the age of three and as an adult has suffered extended bouts of anorexia and bulimia. She attributes her problems to her obsessively controlling father and her very loving but overprotective mother who, by 1950s standards, was at 36 old to be having a baby. Fiona is the youngest by seven years.

With her own children Fiona followed in her mother's footsteps by giving up work when her daughter, now 16, was born. She also has a 13-year-old son, and is taking a diploma in counselling and natural healing. The past two years in therapy are helping her to readjust, if not to forget.

"In retrospect, I think my mother had the burden of bringing up four children almost alone because my father's presence was generally a negative one. We all used to breath a sigh of relief when he went out, and the atmosphere changed noticeably when he came home from work. We grew up with tension, so that it became normal to live in a constant state of anxiety.

"My father used to hit us with a tarred rope he made specifically for the purpose. As a child, the physical abuse stands out, but you become an adult when you realise how much psychological abuse there was, too. I can look back and see that some of the things he said were dreadful, but I didn't realise it then because I assumed it was the norm. He could kill you with a look. Yet all my life I wanted his approval.

"I could see that other fathers were not like him. It was agony having a friend to tea rather than going to their house which was invariably so much more relaxed and happy. I used to envy other people's families. I became aware of a physical atmosphere which exists in a house and how you can feel the difference. I'm still very conscious of atmospheres. One friend has a happy house with a wonderful atmosphere, and I really envy her that.

"By contrast, my relationship with my mother was very good; in fact it was almost too close. As I got older I looked on her as a best friend; she used to say I kept her young.

"I was very glad that she didn't work. I've got lots of nice memories which come back to her being at home; picnics, the smell of baking and her interest in what I had done at school. She was a very caring and selfless person, but I realise now that she clung on to me for too long.

"The combination of my mother protecting me and my father telling me I was useless has affected me enormously. It made me think there must be something to be frightened of - I grew up feeling helpless, hopeless, out of control and very wary of men. At 40, you feel an idiot expecting all men to react like your father. But the terror is in my veins.

"And I've always felt that I had to live up to this angelic image of my mother, which is incredibly difficult because she was very selfless. I now realise that, in fact, this wonderful mother of mine did make mistakes, and that one of them was being overprotective. And although she didn't have an easy life, she didn't ever have to lay down the law with us, and that must have been quite nice, knowing that all her children thought of their father as the ogre and her as the angel.

"Apparently, there was a time when my parents almost split up. I wish they had. When I was about 14, I begged my mother to leave my father. Although financially things would have been sticky I would have suffered a lot less and been on a more even keel psychologically had I been brought up by my mother as a single parent."

Mark Walker, 45, was looked after by a nanny until he was sent to one of the country's most prestigious boarding schools at the age of six; his brother, five years older, went away to a different school. Mark's father ran his own highly successful business; his mother did not work, but Mark remembers her as always busy running the house, organising their social life and playing golf.

From the moment Mark arrived at boarding school he was ostracised by the other boys and frequently beaten for minor offenses by the masters.

Mark is now a drama teacher and lives alone. His marriage ended after six years, and he has a 20-year-old daughter whose upbringing has been quite different from his own.

"The only therapist I ever went to see started crying when I was relating what had happened in my early life. I thought, sod this, I'm not paying 30 quid a go to watch you cry. So I didn't go back.

"I vividly remember the day I went to boarding school. I was dragged out of the car bawling and screaming, and held by someone as my parents drove off. It was more or less the same every time they took me back to that hellhole.

"My parents trusted my brother and I to the Victorian values of an establishment system in the hope that it would sort out what we would be and what we would achieve, perhaps because they were worried about doing the job correctly themselves. It was their blind faith in that system that did the damage. Without doubt, they did it for the best reasons. The problem was that they didn't have an input of their own, other than something that paralleled what was going on at school. That must have been the way they were brought up - they both came from strict, rigorous families.

"Home was a strange concept. Being at home was nearly as bad as being at school; it seemed both had much the same very strict regime, and I really couldn't differentiate between the two. There was no person I felt I could turn to, least of all my parents; I didn't feel protected by them at all.

"There were woods and a lake in the grounds of our house and I spent most of my time at home wandering around the woods. It was a sanctuary where I could hide and get away from everyone.

"I had to get through that period on my own. Then, at 18, I was off. I didn't go to university because I just wanted to get the hell out of that world. I was a hippie for a couple of years, completely stoned on every single drug going and when I got bored with that I went into the theatre. My parents were very disappointed with me.

"I always envied my wife's family. She had eight brothers and sisters, and I always thought that it would be heaven to have loads of siblings around, but it transpires that life most of the time was hell on earth for them, too. It's all relative I suppose.

"But I envied their interaction with people. It took me years to learn to deal with people without fear. The much-lauded self-confidence of public schools is fine if you stick to the straight and narrow and have a reasonable time of it at home. But I had to build that up on my own.

"My upbringing definitely influenced the way I brought up my daughter. It wasn't a question of being ultra-liberal and letting her get away with murder in reaction to my strict childhood. Communication was the most vital thing that was missing from my upbringing, which is why I concentrated on it with her. I would talk to her for days, if necessary, until she understood.

"Without doubt, had I gone to a day school I would have been very different as an adult. Those are formative years, and it's extraordinary how many different ways it affects you as you go through life. Even now there are things I have to deal with that stem directly from that treatment."

Sandra Buchanan's mother was a single parent at a time when it was both unusual and socially unacceptable. In the late Forties, when Sandra was born, less than a fifth of births were illegitimate compared to a third now. By working full-time, Sandra's mother also went against the social grain.

Sandra was brought up by her mother and by what she describes as "a strange kind of extended, poorly defined family" of grandmother and uncles who lived on a farm next door. She is now taking a degree in Russian at London University.

"I was close to both my uncles, but neither of them was like a father. I don't think anybody else can be like a father, because they never really belong to you in the way that a parent does and you never really belong to them. But my uncles were good fun and very affectionate.

"I was aware that we were different as a family from an early age, because other children were very aware of it and gave me a hard time. To be without a father was a social no-no. I felt that there was something missing because everybody else had one. And I knew it was not the normal thing. It seems to me that a father defines a family's status and that defines who you are - your identity is partly formed out of who your father is and what he does. When there are two parents a family is a closed circle. When one of them is missing there's an opening where other people or things can get at you. There's a sense in which you're not protected that makes you vulnerable. But the other side of that is that it can also make you very tough.

"Probably because my situation was so unusual it made me want to do everything else properly. Certainly I had a highly developed sense of responsibility, of not making things any more difficult for my mother. I knew she was under a lot of pressure because she was on her own.

"I wasn't aware of any stigma about my mother working full-time, although I was conscious that it was unusual. In my first year at grammar school we had a debate on `Should Women Go to Work?'. To me, this was a completely nonsensical question.

"I'm sure I would have been a different person if I had been brought up in a nuclear family. Not being within the confines of a regular family gave us freedom, a lot of children don't experience that. Sometimes the lack of limits felt like lack of care, but I grew up with a sense that I could do all sorts of things, that you don't have to be bound by this or that. I don't necessarily feel bound by social conventions. And because my mother was independent that showed me how to be independent.

"I can only assume that if I was being brought up by a single parent now it would be very different, if only because there are so many more kids in that situation. It's still hard, of course; I wouldn't want to be a single mother. But if there are other people in the same boat it helps - your mother isn't going to feel like some kind of sinner, or oddball, or someone who has broken the rules." !