Earlier this month, I was honoured to have been invited by Jane Mulcahy to speak at her even on ACEs awareness in Cork.
If you’re interested, you can listen to her recording of the entire session here.
I’ve written before about language, birth, and women survivors of child sexual abuse. I’ve mentioned how words matter, and certain words are very upsetting for those of us with a history of child sexual abuse.
Earlier this week, I had the privilege of sitting with a pregnant woman and her husband. As a survivor herself of child sexual abuse and multiple rapes in her teens (sadly, revictimisation is a phenomenon that is not uncommon), she’s doing all she can to prepare herself for her impending birth. Part of that preparation included having a chat with me. We spoke about language and how words matter in labour. She used the word ‘surges’ and I had a reaction to it that I didn’t quite understand. Until now.
‘Surges’ is a word that is used to describe uterine contractions in labour. It was popularised by Ina May Gaskin and adopted by many in the birth community in the past few decades. It is deemed more ‘positive’ than using ‘contractions’, and sold as a reframing of the pain of labour, and it’s never sat comfortably with me. Here’s why:
As abused women, we had our experiences – our lived, physical, experiences – ‘reframed’ by our abusers. They would touch us and say things like ‘That’s nice, isn’t it?’, ‘You like that, don’t you?’, ‘I would never hurt you,’ etc. Their words were incongruent with our experiences and that – in and of itself – is damaging and needs work to undo. Telling abused women that calling contractions by another name will make them a more positive experience isn’t helpful. For the vast majority of women, labour hurts. That’s the bald truth of it. The extent to which it hurts, and how we deal with the pain, is individual. Personally, viewing labour pain as ‘pain with a purpose’ helped me. It wasn’t like a migraine (migraines are more painful), where pain doesn’t produce anything except more pain for at least 24 hours.
I think that midwives and doulas working with women who have a history of abuse might want to discuss the merit of using ‘surges’ instead of ‘contractions’ with their clients. Then, the women themselves should use the word that suits them best;that they are most comfortable with.
Labour hurts, and it doesn’t do women who have experienced abuse any good to tell them otherwise. What is helpful is talking about how to get through the pain, how to be present for it, and how the best thing about labour is that it ends. And that it ends with a baby in your arms. The wonderful woman I met with earlier this week also made the point that there is a difference between ‘pain’ and ‘harm’. As abuse survivors, we associate pain in our bodies with (often long-term) harm, yet the pain of contractions is not harmful, and reminding ourselves of that can be hugely helpful in getting through it while still remaining present, grounded, and participative in our own labours.
I will accept that my title looks grammatically incorrect; or at least like I’ve managed to forget a word. Bear with me, though, I really do mean what I’ve said (typed).
A few months ago, I was sitting, having a work-related conversation with the wonderfully talented and always exuberant Phil Kingston. Within minutes, we realised that we were both Lamy fans. I explained that, because my writing is the way it is (small, not exactly artistic), I require an extra-fine nib in order to render what I write legible. I handed my instrument to him, and Phil wrote a few lines with it. He quickly agreed with me that it was a beautiful writer, and we had a most pleasant chat about pens, and writing, and choosing an instrument.
I mentioned that I habitually use a fountain pen, except for my Morning Pages , which – for some reason – I choose to write on yellow legal pads in pencil. And, yes, I’m as particular about my pencils as I am about my pens. The one I favour for my Morning Pages is a beauty that is a black 4B that I got in the Science Gallery a while ago. It is just the write blend of soft and dark for me: Not so soft that it smudges easily, and not so hard that it writes too faintly.
As Phil and I continued our chat, we mused about how our respective upbringings had influenced our choice of writing instruments. In the middle of all this, I suddenly realised something, and shared it with him. I’d been brought up in poverty by an abusive (psychopathic) father and a narcissistic mother. I’d always loved writing – not just the intellectual, or creative, or academic element of it – but the actual, physical element of it as well. As a young writer of about four, I remember bringing my pencil to my mother to be pared. She refused. There was ‘still plenty of writin’ left in it’, she had declared. Any time I wanted to sharpen my pencil, she would admonish me, and tell me I was being wasteful – which was a sin! – and I was to use the pencil until it was no longer possible to write with it.
Of course, I internalised this message, and carried it with me into adulthood. It took until last August before I realised that I it didn’t serve me to believe that I was only ‘allowed’ to pare my pencils when their points were beyond usability. When I realised that I no longer needed to hold to that ancient belief, I abandoned it immediately. Since then, I have sharpened my pencil every time I have felt it necessary; I have allowed myself the tactile pleasure of using a pencil at its optimum point. It is bliss. Joyful, delightful, pleasurable.
It’s a small thing – sharpening my pencil every time I want to, so it always feels good when I’m using it – but it has made me examine other habits and attitudes that were foisted on me by others, and which don’t serve me. I feel liberated beyond what might seem rational by this one small thing.
So it’s really not an error when I ask – ‘What’s your Pencil?’ What is the old belief or habit that you’re hanging on to that is not serving you, and is not aligned with what you want, and deserve, for yourself?
I’m still thinking about the Safe World Summit that I attended last week. More than thinking, I’m processing. The two days were definitely more than the sum of their parts.
After my last post a number of people contacted me to ask why I hadn’t told Nigel’s wife and Cormac’s wife that they were married to rapists. The truth is, that I did. The truth is, that they know. The truth is, that they don’t care. The truth is, that (cliché of clichés!) my brothers married their mother: They married women who would be compliant, who would put their husbands ahead of all others including their own children. They married women who would be more concerned about what the neighbours would say than with providing protection to their children. They married women who would keep their secrets.
Back in 2010, I told Cormac’s wife, Orna, that Nigel had sexually abused me. I was building up to full disclosure, telling her about her brother-in-law before telling her about her husband (whose abuse was more sadistic, and went on for longer). She had no difficulty in believing me. She even went as far as to say that it ‘made sense’. When, however, she found out that Cormac – her own husband – had also raped me for years, and that I was suing both of them, she sided with the abusers, instead of the abused.
The truth is, that while they have no difficulty with the fact that they have married misogynistic rapists, they have a difficulty with the rest of the world knowing. As long as the information was kept within the family – as long as I observed that peculiar Irish form of omerta – they were happy enough. When I started to speak out publicly, however, when I started legal civil proceedings against the brothers who had raped me, their tune changed. Bear in mind, that Anita and Orna had not spoken to each other since December of 2004. Yet, when I started talking more and more publicly, about the abuse I had suffered at their husbands’ hands, these women rekindled their relationship and united to fight the truth.
Think about that for a second: Two women, married to two men, each of whom has had two children for these men, bonded over the fact that their husbands had raped the same child. Two women who would rather live with two men who have no remorse for their abusive behaviour, than leave them. You’d have to ask yourself why. Both men are wealthy. Both women signed pre-nuptial agreements. I don’t think that’s the only reason, though, I think there’s more to it than that.
I’ve written this post on foot of a challenge issued by Insia Dariwala at the Safe World Summit last week. She told us that each of us – by being silent – is complicit in the continued sexual abuse of children. This statement made me very uneasy. What was I doing to maintain the silence? What was I doing to contribute to allowing other children to be abused in the ways I had been abused? Insia Dariwala’s challenge, then, was to break our silence.
I have risen to that challenge. I will continue to do so.
Today, I will be in the Garden of Remembrance, at a rally organised by Colm O’Gorman (Executive Director of Amnesty International, survivor of clerical abuse and rape, and the boy who sued the pope). We’ll be standing with thousands of other people in solidarity with those who were abused – physically, sexually, and emotionally – by the Roman Catholic Church.
This week’s visit by the pope has been hugely painful for many thousands of people on this island. People are finding themselves hurt, upset, and triggered all over again. Even as someone who was never sexually abused by a member of the Roman Catholic Church – although members of the church concealed that they knew my two elder brothers (Nigel Talbot and Cormac Talbot) were sexually abusing me – I have found details of the continued abuse of people by the Roman Catholic Church upsetting. I have heard from many survivors of clerical abuse how difficult and traumatic these weeks have been for them. I want them to know that I bear witness to their pain, I acknowledge it, I believe them.
I am going to the Garden of Remembrance today because it’s important to honour the truth of those who have suffered. It is important to honour the pain of those who have suffered – and to recognise the origins of that pain; the Roman Catholic Church and the Irish society that stood by in silence and allowed the rape and abuse of young children to take place.
I am going to the Garden of Remembrance today to honour the memories of those who can’t make it: Those who were murdered by the Roman Catholic Church; those who were sold by the Roman Catholic Church; those who had their bones broken by the Roman Catholic Church; those who had their spirits broken by the Roman Catholic Church; those for whom being there would be too emotionally difficult; those who died by suicide, who are in addiction, who are homeless, who are in psychiatric units on account of the trauma visited on them by the Roman Catholic Church.
I am going to the Garden of Remembrance today because it’s the least I can do.
The first week of August was World Breastfeeding Awareness Month, but in the US, the United States Breastfeeding Committee has declared the whole month of August Breastfeeding Awareness Month. In honour of that (not in the least because I didn’t blog about the issue during the first seven days of August!), I wanted to share a few thoughts on breastfeeding after child sexual abuse (CSA).
While so many of us want to breastfeed, and spend our pregnancies imagining doing just that – and, indeed, preparing for it, it’s not always that easy. Aside, altogether, from the issues and difficulties that many women without a history of CSA encounter, there are additional difficulties that may manifest if the new mum such a history. I’ve enumerated a few of them here:
It’s not all bad, though. For many women with a history of CSA, managing to breastfeed successfully can be an hugely healing experience for women. It is a(nother) example of her body ‘behaving’ properly; of her body doing what it’s supposed to do.
If you are supporting a new mother who has a history of CSA, there are things you can do to help:
The transition to motherhood is a monumental one for every woman, but it can be harder for those of us with a history of CSA. Ditto breastfeeding. Being sensitive to the possibilities can make the experience so much easier, and empowering, for these women.
I am delighted to report that Headstuff has published a piece I wrote about Narcissistic Mothers. You can read it here.
On foot of recognising the terrible damage my own narcissistic mother is responsible for, I set up a support group for daughters of narcissistic mothers. It’s a secret group on FB (so no one knows you’re there, except you and the other members).
Being the daughter of a narcissistic mother can be a very lonely place; Society would like us to be very quiet about the fact that our mothers don’t love us. Even people who didn’t have ideal childhoods, even people who were abused by their mothers, find it difficult to believe that there exist mothers who simply refuse to love their daughters. Those of us who have suffered – and those of us who continue to suffer – the terrible impact of narcissistic mothers, however ‘get it’.
In part, that’s why the FB group is such a wonderful place to hang out – it’s populated by wonderful women who completely understand how it feels to have a mother who doesn’t care about you; who pits your siblings against you; who lies about you; who refuses to celebrate your wins; who puts you down at every turn; who is jealous of your every success and attempts to take the good out of it; who cannot bear the idea that you might be happier than she; who is filled with rage at the idea that your standard of living might be better than hers etc. etc. Having somewhere to bring this hurt, where you will be understood, and not judged, is a huge relief.
If you’d like to join, this group, please contact me via this page, DM me on Twitter, or send me a few words on Messenger .