No matter how hard we try to shake our past it seems completely impossible most days. There are days that we will ‘forget’ the things we have been through but ultimately it shapes every decision we make going forward and never truly leaves us. Our past experiences both good and bad are what shapes us into the people we know today, that guide our morals, our desires and our needs.
I don’t see myself as having a particularly horrible or traumatic upbringing. In fact, quite the opposite. I was surrounded by loving family and always encouraged to be the best that I could be. I was raised not to hate, not to waste energy on things that I could not control and to always be the best version of me that I could.
Every single person I know has at some point said “My parents did this, so I will never do it” or “When I was a kid this happened, and I never want my kids to experience that”. Guaranteed, everyone holds on to something. Even when they don’t change their behaviour, they accept it is the way to be because they’ve known no different… no matter how much they disagree with it, they’ve never seen different behaviours modelled so they don’t change it. They’ve been affected by it and it will continue to affect their interactions.
We’ve all seen or heard the instances with parents and children where they say “Jane, stop swinging on the chair or you will fall”, after the third time, she falls and hits her head hard and never does it again. Or “Sam, don’t touch the oven. It is hot and you’ll burn yourself.” He touches the oven and burns his hand. The next time he goes near the oven he asks for help or uses an oven mitt.
Some lessons are harder to learn than others though, and some lessons are difficult to work out what the point of them is. Personally, I truly believe if we aren’t learning, we aren’t growing. We aren’t living. We are just existing.
As a little girl I was desperate to fit in, to make people happy and to be loved. I would never go against the majority, I’d do whatever it took to make someone else happy even at the expense of my own happiness and health. I would do what was expected of me, believing that the outcome would be that the pleasure others got from me being a ‘good girl’ would make me happy.
As I got older I found myself in situations; that looking back on; I should never have entertained. However I continued to be the people pleaser I had always been. I created a life with the man that everyone expected me to end up with. We got engaged, we had a baby together and we bought a house. Sounds great right? Well sure I suppose it was, he loved me, we had a beautiful son together, we had a house that suited our needs, he had a good job, everyone loved him. We were going to be married. I was doing all of the things I had been raised to believe were good and right. I was giving my family grandchildren, I was giving my mother the wedding she had dreamt of seeing her daughter have, and I was giving my son a family that stuck together.
As an 18 year old girl I had only one focus, making my family proud of me. At the time, that was my parents and my grandparents. I remember being told by my grandfather when the boys dad and I had started dating, “Don’t you hurt that boy”. It stuck with me. Everyone could see how much he loved me. He had told me just how much since he was 8 years old. But it didn’t seem to matter at the time whether I loved him. He was my father’s apprentice, in more ways than one. His work ethic was incredible, he took pride in what he did, and outwardly he was a ‘great bloke’, a gentleman, someone that would give you the shirt off his back if you needed it.
At 19 I was pregnant. I had left University, despite the fact that I had desperately wanted to study law since I was 12. I had taken a job in finance and told myself that what I was doing was right. I worked hard to be valued in my role, to build relationships with our clients so that they knew they could rely on me. I would work endless hours despite being pregnant and tired, often late into the night. I wanted to prove my worth. When our son arrived, I left my job and I stayed at home to raise him. My fiancé, struggled to make ends meet to support us. So I saved where we could. We didn’t go out, we didn’t travel, we didn’t do anything. At least, not together. He would take hunting trips with his family while Jack and I stayed at home. I would cry when he left us at home. More often than not, the minute he left the driveway. I told myself that he needed that time out because of how hard he worked and that one day we would be able to do things together, as a family.
We were still engaged, had been for years. I kept asking when we would get married, and the answer was always the same, “I don’t know. Soon”. And so he would let me start planning a wedding for the following year. And then he would throw a curve ball and say, lets buy a house instead. Or lets have another baby. Neither of these things were bad options. But there was always a nagging feeling that I couldn’t shake. Why wouldn’t he marry me? Why did he keep delaying it? Why did he always push me out and why was he so happy to be on his own? Away from us, his family.
But yet, I did as he asked. We bought a house, which meant I saw him less because he was always either working to pay for it or working on the house itself. When the next wedding date promise came, I fell pregnant with Ruby. We had it all at that point. We had a little weatherboard house in the country with a white picket fence, a rose garden to rival most, a dog in the back yard who was my best friend in the entire world and a young, vibrant, full of life, son. And now a daughter on the way too. What more could anyone want?
As things started to go badly with Ruby, I remember feeling as though I was annoying the nurses and doctors with my concerns. They knew better than me after all, they were trained professionals with years of experience. And so I stayed quiet and hoped that it would all be ok. I trusted that everyone else knew what was best and that I didn’t.
Until the day that she died.
I look back on that day and my feelings are mixed. It was both the day that I shut down and the day that I truly came alive.
I distinctly remember the moment that my emotions switched off. That moment when I went into protection mode or self preservation mode. My one and only concern at that point was Jack. I was angry, I was sad, I was lost. But feeling sad wasn’t going to bring her back, feeling lost was only going to keep me stuck in the same place and being angry was not constructive. And so instead I became hardened. I got on with life the only way that I knew how to at that point. I put one foot in front of the other, and continued to do what was expected of me. I planned her funeral, I looked after my fiancé and Jack. I went back to work. And when they time came, I fell pregnant again and ‘moved on’.
When Michael arrived I remember being so protective of him. I had fought for him all the way through, when the doctors ignored me I yelled louder until they listened. When I was told not to worry, I did my own research, I got second opinions, I fought. And at 34 weeks gestation and 8 weeks undersize my beautiful second son was born via emergency c-section. He was tiny, unable to breathe on his own, unable to feed without a tube but he was here. Because I spoke up.
I watched Jack with his brother from very early on. Jack had grown up far too quickly. He had experienced pain that no child should ever have to. He had learnt to read people and he had learnt to shut himself off from the world when he needed to. But with Michael, I saw a tenderness in him. One that I had recognised seeing in myself with my sister. A protectiveness, a desire to make sure he never felt the things that Jack had. Many nights I would see Jack steer Michael away from the back door his father was about to walk through, to shield him from the bad mood that was about to enter because their dad had had a rough day. They would disappear into their bedrooms and read books or play together. The more I watched, the more I realised I hadn’t learnt anything at all. I was making the same mistakes I promised myself I wouldn’t as a girl.
Completely as expected, once Michael was born, I was promised a wedding again. Almost as a reward for being such a good girl. Everyone else planned it. I didn’t want it. I hated everything about it. But I was going through with it because it was expected.
It was at the time that we had gone shopping for suits for all the boys in the wedding that I realised I was making a huge mistake. None of them wanted to be there. He complained the entire time. He wasn’t excited at all. His brother was already drinking to get him through it and I just wanted to get it over and done with. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be, surely?
And so, I made the decision to leave. Our relationship had not been traditional really, but I still held tight to the values I’d had as a child. I knew that if I married him, I wouldn’t leave. ‘Till death do us part’. So I had to go then, or be destined to stay in an unhappy marriage out of duty to our children and societal expectations.
The breakdown of our relationship happened over the course of years, it was slow and painful. The love was always there. I had no doubt that he loved me in his own way, as I did him. He was the father of my children, the first person that chose to love me. But we were just too different. We lived separate lives next to each other. Coming together for meals and the kids only. I longed for him to share things with me. Longed for him to want to experience things with me. I had learnt about cars, and hunting, and the music he liked. I’d learnt to cook the way his mother did, to be the kind of wife he wanted. But it wasn’t enough. He still didn’t want me. He still didn’t want to marry me. He still didn’t let me in. And so I always felt that I wasn’t good enough.
When I left, the two boys became my sole focus. There were dates, and even boyfriends. But always with the stipulation that my children came first, I would not give the next man a family, I would not be a wife to him, I would not give up me for anyone else. I had tried that path, I had done what everyone else said was right only to end up heart broken. And so my hardened exterior became a little harder. I threw myself into my work, and I excelled at it. I gave my boys all of the love I had to give. Always making sure that no matter what, they knew I was proud of them. That I loved them unconditionally and that I thought they were the two most perfect human beings in the whole world.
I was lonely. Incredibly lonely. But the alternative was to leave myself open for heartbreak. My head told me that the only way to survive now, was to stay true to myself and only myself. To do and say what I believed was right and hold unwaveringly true to that.
After one failed relationship after another I was growing tired. And had honestly reached a point where I had convinced myself that I did not need or want the fairytale anymore. I was ok, I was on my own with the boys. We were the three amigos and nothing was coming between that.
Then I met a man. This man was not what anyone or even I had expected I would end up with. He was older, he had lived a very different life to mine. He mixed in circles I’d never be a part of. His children were older, and he was in place in his life that I wouldn’t be in for 10 to 15 years. We were doomed from the beginning. It was perfect. He made it clear that he was not looking for anything serious, as did I. We got along, we had mutual interests and values. We could spend time together without arguing. I wonder now if we didn’t argue because neither of us ever put any faith in it going further so it never really mattered enough to argue about anything. He made me feel alive again. He made me feel like a woman. He made me feel desired. I wasn’t a mother to him. I wasn’t a valued employee and he certainly wasn’t with me because it was expected. As months went on, I felt a familiar nagging. The thoughts of “What are you doing here? Where is this going? How do you see this ending?” crept in. And so I told him it was over, that I couldn’t do it anymore. We’d both agreed on date one that this was what would eventually happen, and so I called it.
What I didn’t expect was for him to tell me that he didn’t want that. That he had developed feelings for me and that he could see I loved him and he didn’t want me to leave. I was torn. I did love him. But I knew where love led to… Yet, when I saw his face, looked in his eyes, I felt safe. I felt warm. I felt it was going to be ok. So I stayed despite all the voices in my head screaming at me to run. It wouldn’t be the last time I tried to run from him.
Time passed and he eventually told me he loved me. Yet we were still in our bubble, he hadn’t met my friends, I hadn’t met his. I was overwhelmed by his lifestyle and I was terrified of letting him into my world. One night when I was supposed to stay at his place, panic set in. I was months into a relationship I hadn’t asked for and uncertain about how the two of us could possibly work. When I arrived without a bag, he knew what I was doing and pleaded with me not to. We talked, he told me I was being silly. I relented.
I knew that if I ever was ever going to have a chance at making it work with this man that I had fallen for, the wall had to come down. I had to let him in. He had to get to know all of me. Not just the hard and stubborn exterior the rest of the world got to see. And so I allowed myself to be vulnerable with him. I told him about my worries and concerns, about us, about my family, about my work, about the kids. I cried openly with him, I told him how much I desperately missed him, I told him how much I needed him.
I stupidly believed at the time that even though I was so different to the women he’d been with in the past, so different to the people he surrounded himself with, that even though I came with so much baggage… that I would be the one. I’d be the one he would make an exception for, he’d let me in, he would want to understand me, he would want to be there for me.
He swept me off my feet. He showered me with affection and praise. He told me every day how beautiful I was. Who would complain right? He was on paper everything any woman in her right mind could want. And yet the longer time went on the sadder I became because he couldn’t or wouldn’t give me the one thing I desperately needed. The one thing I’d always wanted. Understanding and openness.
He too had become hardened. Beaten down by the loss of his marriage, and failed relationships since. He was scared to let someone in. He was scared to be vulnerable again too. Far more than I had been. The only problem was, I didn’t know that. When we had talked about shutting people out and he’d asked me to let him in, I assumed it went both ways.
As time went on, I only felt the distance between us get greater. We struggled for conversation, so much so that I started reading books to have something to talk about other than work and the kids because each time we talked about that it was shut down very quickly. That was all I had.
I spent hours before seeing him making sure that I looked nothing less than perfect. And spent the entire time with him worrying about whether I was wearing the right thing, whether he noticed my wrinkles, whether my hair was soft enough, whether I’d put on too much weight. I was not comfortable. I didn’t feel at ease at all. I would spend an hour before he would call, knowing that the phone call was coming, trying to think of things that I could talk to him about that wouldn’t bore him, so that we could talk for longer than 10 minutes. I loved hearing his voice. I loved being around him, and yet I couldn’t get that moment to last no matter how hard I tried. He always had somewhere else to be, something else to do or someone to go and meet.
After I’d met some of his friends I would sit at home waiting for him to call or text and ask me to join him the next time he saw them, I’d wait for him to include me. It never came. Even when we had been with them together and said something would be organised.
When I had mentioned him meeting the boys it was met with, “all in good time” or “there’s no rush”. Similarly when we talked about how little we saw each other I was fed a line about that being the way it was going to be for a while and we needed to accept it.
I had found myself in a scarily similar situation to my first love and I didn’t know what to do.
Here I was with a man that wanted me in his life, that told me he loved me yet I felt lonely. It was starting to hurt. No matter what I did, no matter what I said he couldn’t let me in. I had dreamed of what our life would be like together, but upon waking realised that that was all it would ever be.
And so, I left. The final time.
And just like the boys’ father it took for me to leave for him to decide that perhaps I was what he really wanted. I dare not compare the two men. They are far too different to draw comparisons. But human nature is a predictable thing. We are doomed to repeat our past if we don’t change our behaviours.
For me, I’ve taken time to assess where I’m at and how I feel about it all. He has promised me the world, he has given me things I could only ever dream of having, yet I can’t say that in my heart I believe that we will work. Does that mean that I don’t love him? No it certainly doesn’t. I love him as much as I love my family. I would walk on hot coals and broken glass to help him if he needed me. I would do anything I could to make his pain go away right now. But I know that there is nothing I can do.
I’ve tried, I’ve given him all of me. I’ve loved hard. I’ve run to him when he needed me, I’ve run to him when he wanted me. I’ve let him see the depths of me that I never let anyone else see. But I didn’t see any of that with him. Not until it was too late. Not until after I felt completely alone, exposed and stupid for expecting different.
For as much as everyone tells you that you need to move on from your past, leave it behind you where it belongs, it’s impossible to.
I have realised I will always be that little girl that wants to make everyone happy, that never wants to see anyone hurt. I will always be overprotective of my children, I will always be that woman that wishes she’d spoken up and believed in herself. I’ll always be that woman that walked away from the man she had hoped would be the one because she knew hope wasn’t enough. My past is still with me, it’s made me who I am. It’s taught me what to accept and what to expect. It’s taught me what it takes to make me happy and what I need to feel whole.
The one regret I had with Ruby was not sticking to my belief that something was wrong. Not making myself heard, and not believing that I was right in what I felt. I didn’t believe that I knew my body better than anyone else, that I knew what was normal and what wasn’t, that I knew something bad was about to happen if I didn’t affect change. I swore that I would never do that again. I made a promise to myself, to my children and to her that I would always take the time to evaluate my feelings and the opinions being given to me and I would go with what I felt was right. That I wouldn’t allow myself to be ‘talked into’ an opinion or be backed into a corner where I felt I had no other option.
I embrace my past, I allow it to make me stronger and wiser and I welcome the challenges my future brings. Don’t leave the past behind you, bring it forward with you, learn from it and grow.
Jess Castree is a mother to two little boys and one angel little girl. She is the General Manager of a Plumbing Company in Melbourne. All round workaholic, perfectionist, over anxious, slightly neurotic woman trying to make it in the big bad world we live in today.