“Throughout my childhood I always assumed I was a mistake because I was illegitimate. I cannot ever remember my mother playing a game with me, giving me time, and she didn’t do cuddling. I felt that I must make myself as small as possible, not get in the way, draw attention to myself. In the evenings my father sat listening to classical music, and as he didn’t tell me not to, I would pirouette around the shop. One day I was taken to a farm to live. My mother told me that I would never see my father again, and that he didn’t love me anymore. I asked if he liked my dancing, and she said no, he didn’t. So I thought, if he doesn’t like my dancing, I don’t like him. And that was it, I never gave him another thought, and I never saw him again. My mother married the man who used to help her at the off-licence. He was twenty-four, taking on a wife of thirty-four and three children of thirteen, twelve and six. The only time of my childhood I recall any real warmth, the time I was happiest, was the six months on that farm. My mother was housekeeper, so she was actually at home when I got home from school, and we would have a cup of tea together.
My stepfather was an absolute disciplinarian. I was still sent to bed at seven pm when I was fourteen. They didn’t use corporal punishment but they didn’t need to. If I was told off, I would be given looks and silence, with an atmosphere for days. I would rather have had a hard slap and then get on with life. People say smacking is the worst thing; it’s not, emotional coldness is worse.
When my stepfather adopted me, they suggested that as I would have his surname, I could change my Christian name as well. I thought it would be fun, and came up with loads of names. My original name was Fiona, but overnight I became Jackie. By the age of eight I had a new father, a new name, and an erased past. My self-esteem was crap. I was bullied at school because I was different; I partly brought this on myself because I didn’t make the effort to fit in. My stepfather was doing shift work and was at home when I came home from school. He didn’t like me being in the house, so I had to come in really quietly and stay in my bedroom. I wasn’t allowed to have the radio or the TV on, but I’d always read hugely so I did that. I had to prepare the potatoes for the evening meal, but wasn’t allowed to have dinner with my parents. I made my own tea; usually sandwiches. Occasionally if they were having something I really liked I’d ask my mother if I could have some; sometimes she’d say no and sometimes yes. If I sat at the table I wasn’t allowed to join in the conversation, but whether I’d had the meal or not I had to do the wiping up. This was normal to me, just the way it was.
When I was thirteen a girl moved into the village and we became friends; I went to her house almost every evening. I loved the friendly, happy family feeling there. I was bullied at home, but my mother didn’t do anything about this. I wasn’t told off very often because I was a totally obedient child. I didn’t rebel; I tried to please them all the time. I did very well at school, achieving ten very good O levels, but I’d already decided to leave school, and at sixteen went into the civil service. I always gave my mother thirty per cent of my earnings and never begrudged her that, though I still catered for myself. We lived in the same house but I can’t say we were a family. I had a few boyfriends, then I met Ant. One night we were laughing and joking in the pub, and suddenly I knew this was the person I’d been waiting for. I was nineteen when we married. The reason Ant and I got on so well was that we had a cultural shorthand; we didn’t need to explain things to each other. His mother died when he was eight, his father remarried when he was eleven. His father picked him up from the station after a holiday, and said “by the way, I got married this summer”. His stepmother’s first words to Ant were “I don’t normally like little boys”. She hated him; he used to deliberately irritate her. So Ant and I knew exactly the place that the other had come from, and that was the key to our relationship.
I emerged as the person I am now about fifteen years later. I’d had our four children by then, and as a parent I made a conscious decision to be different to my own. With all the children, when I decide to do something, I consider the ramifications of that decision – important when you have four children, because everything you do with your first child, you have three other children watching to see how you are going to handle the situation. While I really wanted the children, I had no friends or extended family to call on so I found my children’s early childhood really difficult.
My aptitude as a parent has come from reading. I read everything that is written on parenting. I educate myself. An important influence was a very supportive local La Leche League group. One huge eye opener was a session called ‘problem ownership’. For example, the child’s bedroom is their space, which they control. This means that if it’s a mess, I don’t tidy it up, or nag them to, I’ll just shut the door. I said to all the kids, “your room, up to you”, they all said “wow!” My eldest later said it worked for her because she couldn’t stand it being untidy any longer; she had to do it herself; there was nothing to fight against. It worked! I’ve tried to incorporate problem ownership with the rest of the parenting I do. They are learning the consequences of their actions – or their inaction. If they ask me if they can do something and it’s not an immediate yes or no answer, I ask for a few minutes to think it through. I’ll work it both ways to define how I feel about it.
This is not passive parenting. If anything it’s more active. From an early age you must strive to be consistent and when you are a permanently knackered parent this is very hard! I’ve always gone on my gut feeling, always ploughed my own furrow. I never bowed to peer pressure or competition. Being isolated in my childhood made me feel more comfortable with doing my own thing when parenting my own children. So from an early age, if my child was protesting, I would ask myself if it mattered, and if the answer was no, we didn’t do it – completely opposite to my very controlled childhood. I always gave my children choices: the red socks or the blue socks. Busy deciding, not arguing. If children practice making decisions that don’t matter, when they get to the really big decisions they will have had had practice in making the right choice for them. I respect my children as people. I celebrate each child’s individuality and the fact that they are all better at ‘stuff’ than me – I really love that! It’s like nurturing baby birds; you throw them up into the air and they fly, and that is just the most fantastic feeling, when these kids fly.”