Basic instinct

My mother was my father’s third wife. His first died of kidney
failure a year after marrying. His second, by whom he had two sons,
committed suicide during a severe and prolonged post-natal
depression. To his third marriage then, he brought two young,
deeply bereaved children and what we would now describe as an
enormous burden of emotional baggage.

My parents’ expectations were doubtless in conflict from the
outset. While my mother sought a lover, mate and her own children,
my father – no matter how much love and desire entered the equation
– was more in need of a housekeeper and nanny. Had they given
themselves sufficient time to gel into a unit, things may have been
different but, within a year, my brother was born – my mother’s
first child and therefore, her natural priority. Her two stepsons
fast sank down her agenda and the family began to split along its
ready-made fault lines. My arrival four years later merely deepened
the rift.

My mother would have needed to be a saint to disobey the biological
imperative to favour her own offspring. That favouritism was ever
unequal, though: my brother was always the apple of her eye yet,
perversely, she often criticised my father for not giving me, as
his single daughter, special attention.

While always aware of our differences, we children still functioned
as an integrated group: hostilities generally erupted only between
my brother and myself. In truth, I preferred my half-brothers’
company. They never competed with me, despite a wholly reasonable
anxiety about my threatening their share of finite emotional and
material resources.

They were also gentler souls than my brother and I, the younger one
especially, whom I could not have loved more had we been full-blood
siblings. Weeks before he was to begin grammar school, he died in a
road accident. My father, utterly devastated, must have believed
himself cursed. We children were distraught. What did my mother
feel? Grief, certainly, but not the coruscating anguish that, in
particular, struck my father and half-brother. Her quite
understandable inability to share that anguish, to make the
necessary allowances, only made matters worse.

When my parents finally split, my half-brother left with my father.
So, my brother and I sustained a double loss, to which my mother,
wrapped in her own misery, could give little account. Battle
commenced over property, custody and access, leading us all into
court, where my brother and I were forced to choose, so it seemed,
between our parents. Of course, my mother won, but did she ever
realise, I wonder, that it was, for her children, a Pyrrhic
victory? Even if my father did not feel repudiated by our loyalty
to her, he nonetheless became alienated.

Subsequently, my mother devoted herself to us and, although over
time two especially nice men were very smitten with her, she kept
her distance: once bitten, twice shy, perhaps. Or maybe, she feared
taking a tumble off the moral high ground, as she reckoned my
father had by embarking on a relationship with another woman.

Terrified that this woman might gain a hold on our affections
should we ever meet, my mother set about demonising both her and my
father and, so powerful and enduring was her antipathy that we did
not re-establish proper contact with our father until after she

My half-brother’s death notwithstanding, my parents’ marriage was
probably doomed not least because stepfamilies can come with
inbuilt self-destruct mechanisms. The adults, in seeking to meet
their own needs for love, sex, companionship and support, force on
children situations which ignore their own bereavement,
bewilderment, fear of the unknown and inevitable resentment towards
the cuckoos in their nest: the new partner and stepsiblings.

Despite the misery and crises, my parents never imagined that they
or us might need professional help and, although our custody went
before the courts, none was ever offered. Marital breakdown,
however acrimonious, is not generally viewed as hazardous, yet the
dangers are very real and often enduring, particularly for
children. The search for a new mate and father-figure can push
abandoned mothers into serial relationships with men who, wanting
something entirely different, at best see the children as an
encumbrance and, at worst, a real threat to themselves and own
potential offspring, as child injury and death statistics

Alison Taylor is a novelist and senior child care

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