When you become a mother, received wisdom (not to mention excruciating personal experience) tells us our pain threshold is taken to the limit. We stretch, tear, push and, by and large, we cope with it. If, like me, you were unable to take the conventional route and had a sun-roof baby, you are sliced open and the ensuing and subsequent pain is often strong enough to require strong opiates to alleviate it. I can’t compare it to the agonising pain of those with debilitating chronic conditions or the full body assault of cancer, nor would I choose to. I can only imagine the kinds of pain so many have to endure (and without a tiny dependent human to lessen the suffering or the knowledge that the pain will only be temporary). In any case, most would agree that once you have children, you have a greater threshold for pain. You’ve gone through labour (or major abdominal surgery), you may even have chosen to do so more than once. You can take what the world throws at you. It can’t be worse than childbirth, right?
There is a pain threshold, however, which, for most of us, moves the other way once we become mothers. The same is probably true for many fathers, although perhaps in a less visceral way. I am talking about emotional pain. What once I could bear stoically, has become unbearable. What once made me wince reduces me to a sobbing mess.
I recently read a book by an extremely successful author renowned for presenting moral dilemmas, posing questions for which there is no obvious ‘right’ answer. Her books often – but not always – have a significant twist in the resolution of the dilemma. I was tucking into this novel, which involved a teenager trying to get to the bottom of an event in her past, when I reached the denouement. It stopped me in my tracks. Hidden behind the clever prose was an act of such horror it makes me sick to recall it even now. The teenager had been brutally beaten to death as a toddler. All the characters – except one ‘medium’ – were dead. I could barely read the description of the medium and the narrator finding the broken bones of her tiny body.
Sometimes, when I lie awake at night, the memory of this story comes back to me. I was so unprepared for the revelation and the very idea of it makes me recoil. It hurts too much to think about it.
This is just one example of how my emotional pain threshold has weakened. It takes me next to nothing to reach the tipping point. I have to censor myself when I read a newspaper or watch the news – I am extra careful as to what articles I click on. I don’t really like the expression ‘triggering’ but it seems that anything that involves the neglect or abuse of small children – particularly those close to mine in age – has the effect of triggering all those feelings of disgust, fear, anger, shock, horror. I don’t want to know about the parents who shook their baby so hard they ended up brain damaged. Or those who deliberately overfed their toddler salt. I still have nightmares about the film Precious. I know the stories that become wider public knowledge are the tip of the iceberg. I know that every night there are children who go to bed in fear, hungry, neglected, beaten, abused, alone.
I can’t comprehend such behaviour. I look at my two girls – perfect angels and the source of unimaginable joy but also often annoying, whingey, loud, demanding, violent (we’re talking the toddler here, the five year old knows better than that now), infuriating, defiant, rude, wilful, pigheaded – and I still can’t see how you can go from the worst possible behaviour a child could have to violence, to abuse. Thinking about it hurts me.
I knew all these things were awful before I had children, of course I did, and working in a regional newspaper I often had a more intimate understanding of some of the truly awful things people will do to each other. It was often sickening. But I could ‘bear’ it. It didn’t provoke a physical response in the same way it does now – a gut-wrenching twist. Nausea. A physical ache. A visceral need to know where my children are RIGHT NOW.
Many years ago, I remember having a debate about capital punishment in an English class when I was in my early teens. My teacher (who I slightly idolised) told us, eyes shining with passion, that she believed the Yorkshire Ripper should have been put to death. I rather think she fancied doing the job herself. She had two young children and lived in the area he prowled. Her maternal instinct to protect was working in overdrive.
It makes me wonder, though, does that visceral pain ever go? Does my mother still cry at the thought of losing her babies (now in their 30s) when there is some horror in the news? Can she tolerate tales of evil against the small and vulnerable? Does it soften and you become able to cope, once more, with the prospect of the unimaginable? Most parents, when surveyed, would save their children ahead of their spouse in a disaster. Is that still the case when your children are grown? Would my mum leave my dad to make his own way out of a fire while rushing to the upstairs room to rescue me? The idea seems slightly bizarre (and is obviously not a very likely scenario) but the question fascinates me. It’s an instinct which colours much of what we do, many of the decisions we make, whether they be political, professional or personal. My children are always in the background when I take any decision which affects my life. It’s hard to imagine a time when they might not be.
Whether my pain threshold eventually raises or remains weak and fragile, is irrelevant really. I can choose to protect myself from that physical hurt by not reading horror stories but far more important I can protect my children so that they do not become victims of all the awful things out there. I am obviously not talking about wrapping them up in cotton wool, I hope they have the full range of life experiences including some which will involve disappointment or even pain. But it is my job to protect them. To advocate for them. To make sure that they are always loved, always safe, always fed, always warm. I know my children will have that. I also know there are many, many children for whom that is not the case. I think I need to do my part to protect them too. It hurts me to think about children drowning as they flee wartorn homes. Children being forced themselves to commit atrocities. Children seeing things they should never see. Children never knowing what it is to be loved. Someone needs to care for them. If not me, then who? Everyone has a job to protect the most vulnerable. I hope I can find a way to make sure I am doing more than just looking inward to my own family but also looking outward to those who desperately need someone not just to hurt on their behalf but to do something to help.