“Then I’ll ask Mum”

By my 6th birthday I had become aware of something that made me different from my brother and sisters, in fact from all other children with whom I could compare myself. And as a shy child I hated being different.

There was a thin straight line straight down my front to near my navel, mysteriously white and slightly ridged: it seemed to me there was a piece of white string caught under my skin. Just as mystifyingly, four pairs of white pock-marks straddled this line. There were two other pockmarks further out. This little constellation had always been there, yet it seemed alien.

With my father overworked and often away, I would ask my mother what “it” was. Her answer was always brief, terse and did not make sense to me: I had been “a little bit sick” and she would explain more “sometime”. Or, even more terrifyingly, “the doctor did that because you were a little bit sick”. My younger siblings and I sometimes had “off days”, and the measles had recently swept through our young bodies, but none of us had come out with stars and a stripe!

During 1951 my family migrated to Australia after my father responded to a challenge to provide Christian care and guidance to thousands of immigrants settling in the one of the Australia’s eastern states. So for several years my parents’ modest family home became a short-term lodging place for a steady stream of arriving young settlers.

It was not unreasonable that a succession of these guests helped my hard-pressed mother bath her four children, aged 6 and younger. It was then I discovered and was repeatedly reminded of what it is like to feel exposed and naked.

“What happened to you there?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then I’ll ask your mother.”

I imagine my harried mother handled these inquiries with a cursory mention of my projectile vomiting during my second week after birth, and that the scar was from the operation that remedied this. This explanation would have satisfied the fleeting curiosity of our passers-through.

Mum never gave me a satisfying answer to my questions about my scar.  How I have longed for her to sit me down, talk with me and take the time to answer all my questions, or to have woven what she knew into one-to-one interactions, as do others who write on the web.  But my mother (and I still love her dearly) would only talk about my scar-story to other adults, leaving me with a racing heart and feeling confused.  Only in recent time have I been able to piece together the elements of her own traumatic branding by my first frightening sickness (pyloric stenosis), the very real prospect of losing her first baby, and the rather primitive surgery and hospital regime that remedied my disease.  Mum had to weather all this very soon after some very hard personal and war years before my birth in 1945.   I have grown to understand and feel for my Mum, but sadly, only in recent years and long after her passing from this world.
Reflecting on the dawn-time of my conscious memory, I cannot remember anything earlier about my unusual belly.  I have recently learnt that self-consciousness tends to develop when children reach school age.

There are several sunny photos of me up to the age of 6, looking relaxed in the home-made swimming costume Mum made for all her children.  Curiously, straps frame my scar, although the poor photo resolution doesn’t show this.  After the age of 6 the photos show a change: I’m now wearing a special high-cut outfit (still home-made), or swimming shorts that I tugged up way too high – and which was never captured on film!  Later I just folded my arms a lot.  Check out the two photos with my February 4 blog.

Summer holidays - I'm second from right, with the oversize shorts

Enjoying a Sydney summer with my sibs (I'm on the right)

In another blog entry I will describe the ongoing effects on me of my traumatised mother’s stone-walling. Mum probably never realised that she triggered many of the symptoms and struggles of PTSD in me. I have only recently learnt to understand and manage these.

I am grateful that I have been able to accept and forgive my parents’ scarring of my life, something that has been much more painful and damaging than the little white constellation over my stomach ever was to me.

But in researching the background to my story I have discovered that far more trauma than is generally recognised has been caused by infant surgery, especially as this was often done in less developed and enlightened times. This trauma is complex, and apart from affecting the survivors themselves, it may also damage their parents and siblings.

Often it is better to leave matters of the sub-conscious well alone, but I am one of several people I know whose whole life has been affected by post-traumatic stress arising from the surgery they had early in life. We have kept most of it hidden, but the signs are clear and not always underground!

I’m exploring the issues raised by this chapter of my journey with several people – and anybody else who may be interested. Make a comment below or send me a message.

2 thoughts on ““Then I’ll ask Mum”

  1. Wendy

    What clear writing. What a compelling story. I appreciate that you address the complexities of your experience. Your voice is important to many of us coping with the aftermath of infant surgery without anesthesia. Thanks for your bravery in conveying your vision. Just one point about self-consciousness. Yes, school children may all develop self-consciousness for some developmental reason, but I think those of us who are scarred and shamed by this fact may feel a double or triple dose.

    1. Fred Vanderbom Post author

      I fully agree. Apart from the conscious memories we all have, those who have been traumatised in infancy by abuse, old-style surgery or other damaging experiences usually won’t consciously remember these events but find that they have been scored into their psyche in ways that may well cause considerable turbulence in their later life. They get (as you say) “a double or triple dose”. I’m grateful that this is becoming better and more widely recognised.


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