real life

'My mum attacked me when I was two. For years I was terrified I would harm my own children.'

Content warning: This post contains mentions of family violence and may be triggering for some readers. For 24-hour support, please call 1800 RESPECT on  

When I was 13, I realised that not all mothers were like mine. It wasn’t the fact my mother had home-schooled me up to that point, or even that I was an only child in a strict but loving family.

It was the fact most children weren’t raised by a mother who’d tried to kill them.

Until that point, I’d always known our family’s secret wasn’t appropriate conversation with strangers or a conversation topic for other children.

My mother had home-schooled me throughout primary school and she’d taught me to cook, sew and clean. In my young mind, I saw her as both the loving mother and the bad mother, two separate people.

It was when I was 11 that the images of my two separate mothers began to blur, as she slid into another breakdown. Three months of plane trips across the country, fights and police involvement later, my parents called it quits on their marriage.

It was my parents’ divorce which pushed me into the school system and saw me living with my father, right as I began to go through the questions, hormones and confusion of teenagehood.

Joining my peers in a school environment changed the boundaries, as I was confronted with questions about the white tube sitting in my throat, helping me to breathe in noisy breaths.

With my mother no longer a part of my daily life and my schoolmates finally approaching an age where such things were hard to keep under wraps, parts of my story began to join the whispers around my class and in the grades above me.

Sometimes older students or teens in my own grade would seek me out, asking me how true the story was.

‘When I was two-and-a-half, my mother cut my throat with a knife,’ I’d wait for the shock to pass and then tell the rest of the story. ‘She experienced a psychotic episode and I ended up in hospital for three months, and I’ve had a tracheostomy tube in my throat ever since.’

Those teen years were tough without the changing feelings towards my mother, but when I finally cut contact, I thought I had my past under control.

When I was 22, I fell pregnant with my first child and it was the catalyst for a whole new range of unconfronted issues to fill my life.

susannah birch
"Until you don’t have a mother around, you don’t really think about the things you could be missing out on." Image: Supplied.
ADVERTISEMENT

Until you don’t have a mother around, you don’t really think about the things you could be missing out on.

Mothers are meant to be there to talk about periods and boys, plan weddings, hold your hand in labour and babysit children when you’re feeling sick. They’re meant to give you advice about baby food, teething and playdates.

But even without her in my life there was one major fear that I was too scared to tell anyone.

‘What if I’m like my mother?’ I asked myself.

I’d visualise the worst situations that could happen and I began moving my daughter away from anything that could be dangerous, to either me or her.

I’d put her across the room from the heater or have her in a different room if I wanted to use a knife or the stove.

Until that point, I thought OCD was simply something that made people clean more than was necessary. I didn’t realise that invasive thoughts were the underlying problem, and Postpartum OCD was a common issue, with many women having scary thoughts which led to compulsive actions to protect their children from unlikely events.

I was fortunate enough to find out that what I was experiencing wasn’t unusual, even without my past, and neither was the postpartum depression that settled in when my daughter was a year old.

Looking back, the mental health issues I experienced after having my babies weren’t unusual.

As they grow up, though, I have other questions to face.

‘Why don’t you talk to your mum? Why do you have a scar on your neck? Why do you breathe funny?’

Right now, they’re happy with my answers of my mother not being nice, surgery and health issues as answers to their questions.

But as they grow older, how will I explain? When they go through their own confusing teen years and began to question my reasons, what will I say?

Although many people, when faced with my story, immediately condemn my mother’s actions, my reasons aren’t as black and white. Not talking to her has less to do with her uncontrollable attack on me, and more to do with how she handled her illness and relationships years later. I see her as a person who has good and bad in their lives, like many of us. A woman who raised me, when she was able, teaching me to read and question and live life.

When it comes to that, how do I explain my complex relationship with my mother to my own children, and help them understand that life is full of shades of grey?

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

00:00 / ???