This is what makes a bad mother

Note: As with many articles about abuse, particularly those that include anecdotes, this may prove triggering for some.

People tell me that there is something about giving birth that makes a woman worried. Not about actually giving birth but about being a bad mother. I don’t have kids, but every woman I know who has been initiated into the ranks of Mummy tells me they worry.

If my child comes home with head lice, am I a Bad Mother? If I let my child sort out their own battles, am I a Bad Mother? What if I step in to level the playing field when  that kid from mother’s group is biting mine?

It’s really hard.

You worry. You worry so much about your kids. You just want to protect them, to see them grow into happy people. This is why I have always been puzzled as to why, when I told my mother that my father was sexually abusing me, she said I was lying.

It seemed so very…un-motherly.

And, if you ask me (and even if you don’t) it was an actual, real-life example, one of the few, of bad mothering. It took me five years to work up the courage to tell my mother what was going on, and then…nothing. No help. No acknowledgment. Just denial.

And instructions to stop giving my father attitude.

I was thirteen when I told my mother about the abuse.

I was fourteen when she found me screaming in my bedroom in the middle of the night with my drunk father in there.

It was then that she suggested we get counselling. Apparently, I refused. Funny that. I was a kid. I needed protection. Not counselling.

I’m thirty-five now, and I can safely say it’s only in the last year that I have really started to come to terms with what my father did.

And what my mother didn’t do.

In my teens and early twenties, I ran the gamut of child-sex abuse survivor behaviours: anorexia, binge drinking, inappropriate relationships, overeating, overspending. Anything I could do to avoid feeling. Anything I could do to punish my body for being so shameful.


If I had grown up somewhere other than South Africa, with its looming threat of HIV/AIDS, I suspect I’d have ended up as a sex worker, as so many abuse survivors do.

Fortunately, I still wanted to live enough that I avoided that particular one.

And then, thank God, I stumbled into a yoga class and found something that made me feel, for the first time in my life, safe. Like my body was under MY control, rather than someone else’s.

That kept me going, more-or-less intact, for the subsequent decade it took me to get strong enough to face my demons.

So folks, the head lice? They don’t make you a bad mother.

But if your kid tells you they are being sexually abused, believe them.

Believe them. It’s not the sort of thing kids make up.

Get them as far from the abuser as quickly as possible. Get the law involved. Make sure he or she can’t hurt any more kids.

And never, never, discount how traumatic the experience will have been for your child.

I’m a cynic, and I don’t believe that abuse can be stopped, because it happens in darkness and secrecy. But no child should have to grow up carrying the shame of a sick adult.

Teach your children about their rights to their bodies.

Teach them to speak up if they are uncomfortable, and if they say something, even if you think it’s not ‘real’, listen. Foster an environment where your children feel heard.

And if they tell you they were abused, believe them.

Otherwise , I’m afraid to say, you are a Bad Mother.

Please note if this post or any of the comments bring up any issues for you, or if you need to speak to someone please call the NSW Rape Crisis Centre on 1800 424 017.  It does not matter where about you live in Australia, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home.

Nadine Fawell teaches yoga, drinks coffee and has a very good life, despite her childhood. You can find her yoga-ing and raising awareness at