Tag Archives: family

Justice and the family

Yesterday I ran into a very powerful blog post about the treatment of women and children in the family courts. It is a tough read, CW for a lot of abuse detail https://victimfocusblog.com/2020/09/22/misogyny-in-the-family-courts/

I spent a couple of years in the UK family court system. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t gone through it appreciates what a harrowing system it is to be in.

Firstly, the assumption is that contact with both parents is what the child wants, and in the child’s best interests. This largely isn’t affected by what the child says. Or how the police assess risk in the situation. My solicitors told me that if I had been killed by my ex, he could still expect contact.

I was questioned repeatedly about traumatic experiences. This is the worst thing to do to someone who has been traumatised, but I was made to revisit those experiences over and over again. No one seemed to care what that, or any other aspect of the process was doing to my mental health. My poor mental health was, however, raised as an issue about whether I could be a good parent.

It is normal to threaten to take the child away if you don’t co-operate with contact. The parent who is seen as being hostile to other parent, will be told that non-cooperation can mean they are seen as the problem and the child will end up with the other parent. This is a terrifying situation to be put in. Give the child to the abuser, or the abuser gets the child for most of the time. The blog link I shared details examples of how this happens even when the child themselves is reporting being abused by the other parent. It is also normally the case, from what I’ve heard from other women, that victims of violence and sexual assault are treated as unreasonable if they don’t want their child to have contact with the person who did that to them. In all other contexts we try and protect children from known sex offenders.

I was upset, terrified and emotional the whole time. My ex was calm and reasonable. This counted against me. I was treated as though I was irrational. I never felt anyone considered that I might have had good reasons to feel as I did.

The family court system will put pressure on parents to present the other parent as a good person. This is hard when an adult is setting a child a really bad example. It’s also highly problematic if there is abusive behaviour. It’s really hard to parent well if you don’t feel safe telling your child if they are being treated badly, if something unsafe is going on, or inappropriate. For example, if one parent decides to ‘win over’ the child by letting them stay up late, watch whatever they want, eat what they want, not do their homework, and buys them anything they want it is the parent who stands up to this who is going to be in trouble with the family courts.

I’m just talking broadly here. I could write pages on the things that were said to me that haunt me still. It was a process that had a terrible impact on my mental health. But, I got my child through with no direct contact with the father he did not want to see. I was told repeatedly that he would want contact at some point. The boy is 18 now, and free to do as he pleases and oddly enough, he still doesn’t want contact.

This is a system that needs to change. There needs to be much better recognition of the widespread nature of domestic abuse. It needs to be clearly understood that an abusive person is not going to be a good or safe parent. Children who report abuse in this context should always be taken seriously. Safety should be the first concern, always. Better support needs to be in place for abuse victims.

Family time

One of the things that has become really important to me in the last six months or so, is family time. Not in an organised, doing things sort of way, but the time –usually at weekends – when the three of us just slum around together.

I like it because this is time when I have to make very little effort – none of us do. We just do the things we enjoy – typically reading, crafting, listening to stuff, watching films, eating… we can go long periods without anyone saying anything much, checking in only when there’s something good to share. I think this is the natural outcome for a bunch of somewhat introverted people sharing a small space. I really value not having to make small talk or be entertaining.

Part of why this time has become precious is that it’s a good deal more scarce than it used to be. In the boat years, the three of us lived in a tiny space and spent a lot of time together. Now, we all have more going on, and we have a far more involved – and entirely wonderful – social life. But it means those quiet times really shine out. I appreciate them more for them not being the only option I have most days.

I’ve always been a funny mix of introvert and extrovert and I don’t fit well in either box. I crave human contact, I can be intensely social, I can deal with large groups of people in noisy spaces, and if I don’t get enough social time, I become sad. I have an equal need for intensely quiet time without too many other people around. I used to need total solitude for some hours every day, but that’s not been a thing for a few years now. My husband and son give me the space and the peace I need so I can do my introvert time with them in the mix.

When things are crazy-busy, nothing seems more luxurious than a Sunday afternoon with nothing planned, nowhere to go and nothing specific to do.


The Tigerboy grows up

The young man of the household is seventeen now. I’ve never been a terribly conventional parent – I don’t order him about, I don’t shout at him unless there’s a genuine emergency and I’ve always taken his opinion seriously. We’ve had a fairly gentle time of it through his teens – despite him doing that while I’ve been sauntering towards the menopause. He doesn’t need to fight me because he knows he’s respected, and that, I think, has made a lot of odds.

This year particularly has raised a lot of questions for me about when one stops parenting (if ever) and what it means to parent someone who is an adult. I’ve looked around with interest at the parents of friends, especially. The parenting of adults in my own family is not something I can usefully refer to – on one side, a lot of silence, on the other, a lot of arguing, and neither giving me models I can work with. I’m asking a lot of questions about where to stand, when to step in, how much advice to give and when to step back and let him get on with it.

I can look at my own history as a teen and twenty something and see a number of times when I wish, with hindsight, that someone had stepped in. Inevitably there was a lot I didn’t know. I could have done with a wise elder to teach me about boundaries and self respect. I could have done with some solid relationship advice. So I’m doing the sorts of things I think I would have found useful and we will at least get to make new and different mistakes.

I’m also at a point of feeling like thus far, I’ve parented pretty damn well. I say this because the young man – formerly Tigerboy but now evidently evolving into something else, is a pretty awesome human. He’s kind and considerate, he looks out for people, he gets in and helps when help is needed and he does so cheerfully. If things are tricky, he negotiates. If he’s upset, he doesn’t slam around or yell at anyone and we work things through. I could wish he had a better sense of how unusual and splendid he really is, but in terms of shortcomings, this is one we can live with. He could be tidier, but I honestly can’t find it in me to care about that most of the time.

Parenting has been an often terrifying adventure, but we both seem to have come through it reasonably unscathed. That’s something I am proud of.

Am I a terrible person?

Any sane person looks for external evidence about who they are and how their behaviour impacts on others. However, a person in a toxic environment may be dealing with a chorus of voices telling them they are awful. This might happen in a family context, in a school or workplace, or anywhere else one person with little power can be made scapegoat, or whipping post. For the person who is fundamentally kind and well meaning, this sort of feedback can cause immense distress and psychological difficulty. And if the harder you try, the more you fail, the more distressed you will become, and the more you may feel you have to stay and make up for your mistakes.

This is a common domestic abuse scenario. The innocent party in all of this may feel personally responsible and may come to believe that they are a terrible person who really must try harder to fix everything. It can be very difficult to find your way out of one of these. I honestly have no idea how anyone does it alone. My own experiences and the stories I’ve heard others share tend to suggest that friendship, and the people who refuse to buy into the scapegoat story are key to getting out of one of these roles.

Blaming and shaming isn’t just something that happens inside small, abusive groups. It happens on a much bigger scale with the blaming, shaming and gaslighting of the poor, the disabled, migrants, the mentally ill, the unemployed. We live in a time where those with most power routinely punch down, and blame those who suffer for that suffering. Collective resistance is the only possible answer to this.

If you’ve been cast as the villain in someone else’s story, how do you tell what’s going on? How do you tell if you’ve been obliviously awful? Have you been indulging a sense of privilege and do you now feel hurt for being called on it? Are you more upset about being called out than about the harm you may have caused? These are not easy things for a person to judge. Wounded pride and challenged privilege tend to get defensive at this point. People who mean well try to sort things out, make amends, and improve.

Here’s something it took me a long time to learn. If you’re the sort of person who listens, learns from mistakes, tries harder, says sorry and means it… then you will still fuck up now and then. But, you’ll sort it out mostly. You’ll move forward if you’re dealing with people who allow that. If you’re trying, truly trying and nothing you do is ever right, or good enough, then the odds are that you aren’t the problem here. If you can get it right with some people and not others, look hard at that. The odds are it’s because some people meet you half way, and some people don’t. If you’ve been cast as the villain, you will never be allowed to put things right and move on.

It look me years to establish that if someone was ok with me, it was not simply because they didn’t know me well enough yet to hate me. Sometimes, you have to collect a lot of evidence before you can demolish a role you’ve been cast in against your will. There are plenty of people out there keen to make others responsible for their own shortcomings. If you’re kind enough to internalise that, they will keep shitting on you, and telling you that the shit is your own.

Being a kind person doesn’t require you to keep on being kind when people are routinely shitting on you. It is perfectly reasonable to move away from people who can only criticise you, and for whom you are never good enough. Even when that’s family members. It is perfectly ok to give your time and life to the people who see you as a good thing. Trust them. They may not be labouring under any illusions at all.

Playing a role

We all play roles in our lives in deliberate ways. We have work roles, family roles, social roles, community roles. Where we take these on consciously and deliberately, they can be wholly functional and useful. However, we can also occupy roles that other people have cast us in, and we may unconsciously play out roles we’ve created for ourselves. When this second kind of role playing occurs, it can make a sense of authentic self, and forming genuine relationships very difficult.

One of the things that makes playing a role problematic is that those of us doing it will assume what we are doing is normal and reasonable. We seldom come to this alone. We may be playing the role our family, or our culture has ascribed us. We may be replicating stories handed down from our ancestors – and not even the most recent ones. If we think what we’re doing is the only thing a person could do, we won’t notice it. Recognising that roles have been given and people are expecting each other to play them can be difficult.

Roles become a problem when they have rigid boundaries and do not allow us to grow or change. Roles like victim, aggressor, saviour, martyr, doormat, useless one, the problem, the one who is always wrong… are relentless. You can’t be a complete and happy person when stuck in one of those roles. Often these can come in clusters – a family cluster might give you one saviour parent, one martyr parent, one useless child and one problem child, for example. We can spend our lives playing that kind of dynamic out and passing it on to the next generation.

People who cast themselves in specific roles – the victim, the one who is always right, the one everyone must love – need other players to compliment their role and maintain the story. Victims often need both aggressors and rescuers. The person who is always right will need scapegoats who are always wrong. People often don’t realise that they’re repeatedly playing out the same basic story and just drawing new people into the supporting roles.

Over the next few blog posts I’m going to be exploring ways of looking at the stories we might have written ourselves into, or unwittingly been drawn into, or cast in from birth. Stories are how we make sense of the world, and challenging core stories about who we are and the roles we play can be deeply uncomfortable stuff. We may not like what we find, and dealing with it probably won’t be easy. So, bring cake and blankets and be patient with yourself if this is a relevant journey to take.

Not so nuclear families

Children start learning from the moment they arrive in the world – if not before then. What they see and hear, feel, touch and get to do starts, from the first moment, to shape their sense of the world. What is normal, and what isn’t. What’s ok, and what isn’t. These are often not things their parents have set out to deliberately teach them but things that are absorbed from their impression of the environment. To offer a more dramatic example, there’s evidence that the children of holocaust survivors experience something akin to inherited trauma.

We all have our oddities, neuroses, weaknesses, flaws, bad habits and so forth. The child growing up in a nuclear family spends those first few years in the world created by the parents. Those oddities become normal. Anything dysfunctional about the parent can become how the world works for the child. The parent who cannot show affection or give praise creates a child with low self esteem all too easily. The parent obsessed with washing, or weight management, or anything else you can think of, creates a world in which those things matter, and it is normal for them to matter. The parent who thinks boys are more valuable than girls, or who normalises domestic violence, or fat shames their child – there are so many possible examples of how a child can be set up for disaster here.

Having regular access to a number of adults has to be the way to go. The child who sees many adults will not be so persuaded that their own parent, or parents are exactly how the world works. They will see diversity, they will hear it, they will know more than one opinion is available. If they see their parents with other adults, they will be less persuaded that their parents have godlike powers, or natural authority, or are infallible or anything of that ilk. They may find people they can better identify with than their own parents. Given an array of models to emulate or reject, the child has a far better chance of finding their own identity.

Of course there are issues of power and control here. Show a child that your way is not the only way, and they might not want to do it your way. Show them that you can make mistakes, and they won’t think you’re right when you make mistakes. Let them see other parents in action and they might question how you parent. But if parenting is more about protecting the fragile ego of the adult than it is about raising a healthy child, it is pretty much a certainty that there will be problems.

Re-writing history

History is a surprisingly malleable thing, as I came to realise while writing Druidry and the Ancestors. So much depends on perspective and the tone in which you tell the tale. We can talk about glorious Empire, or the horrors of colonialism. History that focuses on Kings is very different from the history of radicalism and social change. In choosing which story to tell we are announcing which bits we think mattered most. Often we’re making certain kinds of story disappear.

I’m very conscious of the historical absences. Women are often written out, even in times and places where they were clearly significantly active. Mainstream history books do not tend to show much of the lives of the poor. Those who were colonised tend to also be ‘vanished’ from the pages of history. You won’t see much trace of the sick and disabled, or children, and most of the time anything that is not firmly heterosexual is also rendered invisible. All the people who did not fit in the main thrust of the progress narrative. The ones who went the wrong way or got the wrong ideas. There are so many kinds of people history encourages us to think weren’t even there, or didn’t matter.

All of the same things apply when we create tales of personal history, and family history. Some things are edited out – consciously or not. Other things we allow to become the big story about how it was and what it all means. Meanings are especially hazardous. The urge for meaning is a very human one, but the journey from ‘this thing happened’ to ‘this thing means’ is so easily messed up. We can become convinced of all manner of unhelpful, restrictive things, because we’ve made a history story that we think proves it.

As a case in point… I was not the world’s happiest teenager, and that wasn’t all angst. There were some tricky things in my life during those years. I ascribed a number of meanings to my experiences: That affection would be conditional on my utility or sexual availability. That I was in some way inadequate or insufficient. That things going wrong in my life could all be attributed to my personal shortcomings. I carted all of that into my twenties, and found people who were glad to pick up the threads and keep weaving that kind of story for me.


With hindsight, it becomes evident that there was a space where I was valued and cared for. At least one, and because there was definitely one, it becomes easier to imagine there might have been others. I could not see it at the time (for good reasons). I can see it now. I get to re-write my teens, and that lumpish, awkward, unwanted girl can be re-imagined as someone who had a value and place after all. That in turn allows me to think differently about a lot of other experiences, and to see where I am now in a wholly different light. I have a new story about how things were, and through that can change things about who I am.

In any situation that affects you, current or historical, it is always worth stopping to see if there might be other stories. Would it look the same from someone else’s perspective? Is the ‘meaning’ really self-evident, or did we bring it with us and plonk it down out of habit? Are we playing the role we think we’ve ascribed for ourselves? Hero, victim, rescuer, powerless, guilty… What else changes if we change the story? There are no absolute truths here, only what we can do with how we decide to see things.

Little rites of passage

When thinking about what to celebrate, we tend to focus on the big, defining moments in life – birth, death, coming of age, marriage, and elder rites. In practice life is dotted with smaller moments of deep significance, too, and there’s much to be said for honouring them along the way.

We had one yesterday. The boy has come to the age of travelling independently to and from school. It tends to be an option here in the UK at 11, with the shift from Primary to Secondary school. Friends of his are bussing in and out of town, also on their own for the first time. For children using school buses, or living very close to their school the moment of independence can be earlier. There are of course many young people and parents who won’t get this little rite of passage, because the school run is by car. For us, the school run has meant walking or cycling, and I’ve done it with him at least once, and often twice a day since he started school 7 years ago. It’s been a significant part of our lives, and a little bit of time we’ve used for talking and sharing. There are other spaces aplenty for that, but it won’t be quite the same.

Go back not so very far in time and the idea of parents on the school run would have seemed preposterous to the vast majority. It used to be that you walked to your local school, if you were any kind of normal person. A few miles in all weathers. Cars, shortages of safe places to cross roads, increased anxiety around stranger danger and an increased addiction to total ease and comfort have all helped shaped the change. It’s easy to drive by, drop the kid off and drive away. Adding to the traffic problems and the road dangers. I’m a dogmatic fundamentalist when it comes to this one: Walking and cycling to school is good for young people. It allows time to warm up the brain in the morning and wind down on the way home. There are social opportunities, and the fresh air and exercise is good. A healthy child can go out in all weathers, assuming the right clothes, and not suffer in the slightest.

There used to be far fewer such moments in the process of loosening ties between parent and child, I suspect. Children used to be freer sooner, and there wasn’t the same social pressure to insulate the young to the current degree. We used to expect that a child could be responsible for themselves walking half a mile or so. These days you have to be much more careful. Grant too much freedom too soon and social services may be called in. With gloomy talk of feral youth, and resentment of young people roaming about in the streets, the young are increasingly battery raised. Free range children are alarmingly rare.

Part of me knows that this moment of shift and changing responsibilities, is a really important moment in the life of my family. We honoured it with something sugary. Part of me knows how modern and weird this is. He could have been sent off as an apprentice by now, squire to a knight, or in full time employment in some other era. Part of me knows that for much of history, statistically speaking he’d have done really well to have lived this long in the first place.

In other times and places, first knife ,first hunt, first kill, first wound would have marked the journey from family bosom to independence, in whatever order they came. Now it’s first mobile phone, first part time job, first independent journey, first car. The moments of significant change are in so any ways defined by the culture in which we live, as soon as you get beyond the more biologically informed set. It makes me wonder what we might pick as some kind of ideal series of transitions and key points.

Talking about love

I’m currently reading Tiziana Stupia’s breathtaking spiritual autobiography, Meeting Shiva. It is a book very much about the interplay between spirituality and love, and it raised a really important issue for me: We don’t talk about relationships much. As a culture, we talk a bit about sex and attraction, usually through the medium of glossy magazines aimed at women. We have romance and erotica genres that are for the greater part, total fantasy, selling us ideas of love and relationship that cannot be lived up to in practice. We also get dramas and soap operas, which give us images of shouty, dysfunctional relationships in a way that tends to normalise unhealthy behaviour.

Much of what we learn about love, we learn in the contexts of our own families. This means that we can absorb all manner of odd and unhelpful things as normal. Hangovers from Victorian ideals about the stiff upper lip, religious impacts on gender relations… habits of control, battles of the sexes, and on it goes. We learn how to be in relationships with other people only by doing it, and often we mess up, which causes a lot of pain.

If I had talked about my experiences during my first marriage, there is every chance someone could have helped me challenge what was happening. One of my big problems was the belief that I deserved how I was being treated. The experience of being treated as a useless, difficult, unreasonable, demanding person eroded my self-esteem. Only when I dared to take that shamed and humiliated sense of self to someone else, did I get the opportunity to hear a different story. I haven’t felt like an unreasonable nuisance for years now.

In the heat of a relationship, working out what is fair and reasonable isn’t always easy. Emotions colour interpretation, the desire to please and to be loved can warp our thinking. Been there, done that. Talking to other people helps improve perspective. Often its easier to think clearly about the less immediate issues of someone else’s love life.

We’re taught to expect happily ever after, to believe that true love is easy and requires no work, and to assume, when things are tricky, that maybe they just weren’t ‘the one’. Some of us are taught that love is owed to us, while others learn that we have to jump through hoops just to be tolerated. We learn a lot of crap, then we take it to each new relationship and wonder why there seems to be a lot of crap in the mix. We learn passive aggressive tricks and ways to manipulate, we keep score, we make contracts, and all of these pretty normal things are destructive.

There are things love needs in order to thrive. These are not the things suggested by rom coms or commercials. Trust. Honesty. Care. Respect. If you don’t have those, you don’t have anything. They won’t fall into place over night, all of them. They have to be earned, built and developed. We have to be willing to be vulnerable with each other, to share the bits of us we are less fond of, and acknowledge they exist. We have to accept that our significant other won’t be perfect, and also that our loving them will not magically change them, or put right everything wrong in their lives. We have to know that they cannot save us, heal us, or wave any other kind of magic wand. The love and support of another person can be tremendously helpful, nurturing and healing, but it won’t do the job for you. No one should expect their partner to change for them or because of them. No one should expect their partner to stay the same forever, either. And yet both expectations are held by many people.

I’m convinced a lot of the problem is that we just don’t air this stuff enough. We need to get away from fantasy stories about love affairs where, once the ridiculous setback is overcome, it all falls neatly into place. We need to stop believing in magical princes destined to kiss all traces of frog out of us, and find some new kinds of stories, or possibly old kinds of stories, that have a bit more reality in them. Happily Ever After is not just a lie, it stops us exploring all the other stories about what happens along the way, how you cope with it, and how to build the good stuff and nurture a relationship.

How we love can be a profound facet of our spiritual lives. Equally, messed up love affairs can be spiritually crushing. So many religions focus on who you are allowed to love and on what terms. Druidry should be much more about doing it well, with soul and integrity.

Another year older

Mostly I’m going to take today to read and be less workish, it being my birthday. However, birthdays lend themselves to considering where we are in life, where we’ve been, where we might be going. The celebrating of birthdays is one of those community and family focal things as well, affirming bonds. Or at least, it can be. Thus far I’m having a really nice day – I have some new books and some chocolate, there was coffee in bed, lovely messages rolling in on facebook, and I woke up in the arms of a most adorable man who treats me like I’m special every day, not just on occasions. Of such things are happiness made.

But inevitably I end up looking back, three and more years ago, to the time before and the other life. The year my ex forgot that my child might want to give me a birthday present and was too young to go shopping by himself. The lingerie that turned up most years, bought to amuse him. I’d maybe wear it once, much of it was then ‘borrowed’ for him to wear and I’d never wear it again. One year I was told off for wearing on a normal day a bra that had been bought for his amusement in the bedroom. Only, all of my other stuff was depressingly tatty. There was the year we went into Birmingham, my present was going to the sea life centre- what I wanted. Only when we got there, he looked at the entry cost, at the size of the building and muttered that it seemed like a rip off, so we went away again, failed to find anywhere affordable to eat, and went home. Happy birthday me. The year James wanted to make me a cake, and needed help (He was five or six). The misery-inducing stompping, banging and burned mess that followed because the ex couldn’t make cakes, couldn’t follow a recipe and didn’t want to do it. There was a decade when birthdays were miserable, along with anniversaries, valentine’s day, Christmas, mother’s day… all opportunities to tell me how impossible I am to please, which of course meant there was little point even trying to do something nice for me, because I wouldn’t appreciate it, or like it. There were a lot of years like that, and they are not easily forgotten. I started to believe I must be an awful, demanding, horrible, unreasonable, ungrateful sort of creature, because I was forever being told that so much was done for me, and only my ingratitude made me not see all of it. With hindsight, I see all of that in a very different light.

I know myself. I appreciate the bliss of a good night’s sleep and the joy of waking up beside someone who touches me with love, and whose words leave me feeling warmed and cared for. I appreciate the joy of a smiling child who has chocolate to bestow, and his noble reluctance in helping me with it (I persuaded him, I can’t eat all that chocolate by myself!) I appreciate the coffee in bed. It doesn’t take vast outlay to make me smile. A little care, enough attention to know what I might like, or the willingness to ask – my family enquired about book titles, and are furnishing me with research material. This is a longstanding tradition. One year they all clubbed together to get me a book on the natural history of otters – the only scientific one in existence. This year I have an excellent looking thing on Shinto, and have asked for Philip Carr Gomm’s Book of English Magic. Often, this is how Ronald Hutton books have come to me as well.

It’s not about the money. It’s the taking time for the other person, trying to find something they will enjoy, sharing a good thing, honouring bonds. A friendly line on facebook, a walk in the sun.  Two years ago Tom bought me a mug, with tentacles. Three years ago he drew a picture for me. Happy things.

This is another day of celebrating my freedom, and rejoicing in the good things in my life. This is a day of being so very grateful for the good friends I have, and for the lovely man I am now married to. Remembering the past is part of the process of coming to terms with it, and letting go. There’s too much to think it could all be forgotten, but the sharp things become a little less cutting with every day and before me, is the prospect of days with nothing of that ilk in it. Good days, with good people, and a world of possibility to explore.