Family values?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I don’t mean any political hype here either. I am referring to the things we pass down the line, from ancestor to descendent, via both phenotype and genotype(nurture and nature)

Phillip Larkin wrote famously, “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They don’t mean to but they do,” and sadly, as both parent and as child, I can only concur. We are so often unaware of what it is we pass on to our children, the illogical and often harmful thought patterns that we inherit consciously and unconsciously from our families. So much of what we unquestioningly accept as right and true is a load of old bollocks, pardon my Klatchian.

My mum has been seeing a counsellor recently to try and help with her depression issues. I’ve been paying a keen but nonchalant attention to what Mum has to tell me about this; I’ve always found with my mother that an oblique approach is better than the more direct approach that works with my father.

On Saturday as we walked through Cambridge, she was telling me a bit about her last appointment. It mainly focussed on what would or would not be an appropriate thank you gift for the counsellor, but Mum let slip a couple of things. The first was the counsellor had identified her tendancy to beat herself up over the slightest thing; I could have told her this but it takes a stranger to tell you this sort of thing. I nodded and agreed, and we navigated our way along Hobson’s Conduit, and then as we turned the corner, Mum then mentioned something about her father.

“Grandad used to say there was no need for dressing gowns,” she said. “That if you were ILL, you would be in bed, and if you weren’t ill, you’d be at work. There was no in between.”

Now, my grandparents were born in the very last year of Queen Victoria’s reign, and born to unspeakable poverty. I’ve seen the pictures; they look like something from a reformer’s pamphlet. My mum’s grandfather was in the Merchant Navy and did the classic seaman’s thing of coming home every so often to meet the new baby and get the wife pregnant again. My great grandmother was a sick woman most of her life; I found out a few years ago that she had breast cancer in her thirties, had one breast removed but continued to not only have more babies but actually breast feed them with the one remaining breast. My grandmother was one of a massive horde of kids, and as the eldest was heavily involved in the upbringing of them all. Three children died in the space of ten days, at some point in the early years of the twentieth century. My grandparents eloped aged 18, to the dismay of the family; my grandfather was from an equally huge family, and as the seventh child wasn’t even the youngest. He wasn’t a catch, apparently, in economic terms. But life went on much as before, with my grandmother living next door to her parents and bringing up her brothers and sisters along side her own brood. My mum is one of eight.

To tell you something of the hard nature of my grandfather, I’ll share one of the stories about him. Back in the 30’s, when the economic crisis was pretty deep, he was working on the overhead railway in Liverpool. It doesn’t exist any more but as an electrician he was a skilled worker. Health and safety directives being non-existent at the time, he fell off. He fell more than thirty feet into the service pit below and broke his back. He lay there all night, every other worker having gone home. In the morning, he managed to find the strength to climb out and somehow get to hospital where he was told he had broken his back(though obviously no severing of anything in the spinal cord) as well as most of his ribs and that he would be in hospital for at least six weeks.Grandad’s response? He refused. Apart from the fact that he couldn’t afford medical care on that scale, he had a family to feed. So they put him in a full body cast, from neck to hip and…he WALKED home. The next day, he was back at work. He lost only one day’s wages.

I wrote a jokey line in the poem here Accident of Birth, about my ancestor’s hardness- “Lost a leg? Hop, girl, hop.” That wasn’t really a joke. That’s pretty much what my family would say. As a child, being ill meant you HAD to have a temperature to prove illness. And then if you were in bed, you stayed there and were not allowed to read. Or go down and watch TV, or do anything. There were no half measures. I once cycled the rest of the way to school having had a nasty fall taking the skin off both knees and both hands, and arrived at school bleeding heavily rather than go home, even though the accident had taken place only a short distance out. The onset of my periods brought trouble because my Mum simply couldn’t understand why I was making such a fuss about the pain; get out in the fresh air and run around, that’d sort it out. Every woman gets a bit of cramps but it’s nothing to make a fuss about, she’d tell me. Knowing now that the endometriosis that makes my life a misery was almost certainly present when I hit puberty aged nine, is no comfort. I have trouble explaining the condition to Mum even now. In the end, all this heroic stoicism is why I made myself drag my body almost a mile with an appendix ready to rupture, rather than make  a fuss and call for help sooner.

This is not the only attitude I have simply accepted and absorbed unaware; there are a lot of others. My big question is how to I shed the ones that are not only unhelpful to me now but are actually downright harmful? You see, some of the others are tearing me apart in ways I can’t begin to express clearly; and I can’t even see clearly what is good and what is bad and what frankly is more than a bit mad or even dangerous.

Because laudable though my grandfather’s physical endurance was, it was also stupid. Only because the story had a different ending can I marvel at his strength; in another universe, moving without keeping his spine straight could have severed vital nerves, either killing or paralysing him for life. Either would have meant the workhouse or worse for his family.

So my task is to sort the wheat from the chaff of my inheritance, both the physical attributes and the mental attitudes. I can’t do much about the physical; I’m stuck with the double joints and the blonde hair. But if I can isolate and understand some of the less tangible things, is there any hope I can rewrite my own inner progamming for good?

I do hope so.

16 thoughts on “Family values?

  1. Hi Viv,

    This a brave post indeed. It takes a lot of courage to accomplish and objective review of people who are close to you.

    I like your blog, and would like to add it to my blogroll. It will help me visit more often. Do let me know if it suits you.

    Licks n wags,


    • I would be honoured; I have had a little look at yours and it’s nice. Are you in India, by the way? i seem to have a number of visitors from that area of the world!


  2. Interesting blog – I enjoy the way you write with such insight and determination to make use of the past instead of letting it use you up.


    • Thank you very much! It’s taken me long enough to start to do it this way!
      It’s good to see you here; I love your picture!


  3. Pingback: Family values?

  4. This is such a great post and Philip Larkin is right in what he wrote.
    I have carried so much emotional baggage and beliefs from parents, grandparents and all the other usual suspects, and you are right; a lot of it really is a load of old bollocks once you start to challenge these beliefs.

    I had a very open conversation with my Mum over the weekend. My whole life I have always felt that I was a disappointment to her and never felt that she loved me. Telling her this was not easy for and it was even harder for her to hear it but I think it was an important step for me to try and rewrite my own programming and I think it was an equally important way for us to start over.

    Thank you for the inspiration and the reminder that I must read Philip Larkin’s book


    • I love and appreciate my folks enormously and it was only because Mum felt ready to chalenge her own parents’ views that I could even begin to start it.
      I am also aware there are family patterns of such negativity going back not just a few generations but many many years, and the weight of that is somehow far greater today than all the many gifts of family I have received.
      Glad you had the chance for that talk too.
      I like the Larkin poem because he doesn’t attach malice or blame but actually a sort of acceptance that even doing the best we can we screw up. There are no rehearsals for parenthood and what else do we do in the heat of things but rerun the model we knew as children?


  5. I too love and appreciate my parents and I no longer blame them for where I am in life. I agree that there are negative family patterns going back so many generations and I guess that when these generations grew up they didn’t have the options we have today e.g writing a blog or having easy access to information. They did the best they could with what they knew and what they had.
    I love the Larkin poem for the exact same reasons as you and the best lessons in life is by screwing up now and again! At least it is for me.


  6. Viv: This has been a lifelong journey for me; to separate the wheat from the chaff, as you put it so well. I think I am pretty much there in terms of my heritage, hence the post of today, but of course it still shows itself at times.

    I guess what has helped me to have a peaceful resolve about some of the family issues that have created negative consequences to me is to realize that my parents did the best that they could, as they were taught by those before them. They loved and appreciated all of us, and only hoped for a bright future, but that life was often hard work and sacrifice. I have turned some of the hard, negative lessons into some of my most vital lessons for my development.

    I don’t know if I will ever be completely done with the exploration, but I feel satisfied, and now ready to just appreciate them, just as they are, for the rest of their lives…..


    • Thank you Vanessa and J.
      I am only too aware that my parents and my ancestors did the best they could, because as a parent I am also only too aware of the mistakes I have made and yet know I was trying my hardest to be a good mother.
      I’m trying to deal pragmatically and without blame with the effects this has had on me; trying in effect to begin reprogramming myself.
      I had a talk with my only child, now almost 20 about what I feel were my shortcomings as a parent and she simply told me that yes, I had made mistakes but first she thinks I did a damn good job overall and any mistakes were not an issue, because I had done the best I could. I was pretty ill when she was small; she understands as a young adult quite how ill I actually was, and yet she feels that I did well. There’s no better accolade, I think, than that.
      I got an e-card from my dad this morning(it’s my birthday today) and it made me smile as it was a photo of me about half an hour after birth; I’ve got a Mowhawk hairstyle with a mass of hair standing on end and nothing else! It made me laugh; there was a caption too, but that was even funnier, but also private. I am so lucky to still have them.


  7. What an interesting and powerful post, Viv. One of my favorite quotes, I don’t know who said it, is “We are bound by our fate only as long as we accept the values that determine it.” That has helped to free me up, as well as to grow, from the moment I first read it. When I’m in a mental or emotional jam, I swim on down to the depths of where the values lie and then I either work thru them and keep them, or toss ’em and choose new ones. I hope it helps you.


  8. Hi Viv,

    Just wanted to drop by to wish a wonderful birthday and to let you know that the lemonade is packed in the picnic hamper along with other goodies.

    All the best



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