We all have “If only’s”

Our family in 1957

This blog comes from a family context.  Once in a while my siblings and our partners get together for a few days of “time out” and catching up with each other from where we live, scattered all over Australia and New Zealand.  As always, I discovered a few new things, which I have found both painful and reassuring.

My sister’s eldest son was born almost 40 years ago, and he was affected by lung problems which kept him in hospital for his first months.  Having had surgery as a baby, I remember my nephew’s troubled arrival well as a very stressful and emotion-charged time.  But what I had not realised was that even then, in the early 70’s, my sister and her firstborn were separated (as I was in a different time and place) for weeks by the New Zealand hospital’s policy on infection control.

Not only that.  My sister found that the pediatrician responsible for my baby nephew’s medical management had been a good friend of hers during their years together in university in Hobart, Tasmania.  But despite this he was aloof and uncommunicative because of his “professional relationship” with my sister’s infant son.  My sister was surprised and peeved about this pretentious snootishness which she had not expected, especially in this egalitarian and relaxed part of the world.

Again I found myself hearing again and again the patronising and unhelpful attitude of so many general and pediatric doctors (judging by the reports on the web) to the parents of babies with pyloric stenosis and no doubt other dangerous conditions.

The third significant thing I have discovered is that we brothers and sisters have all realised certain things about our parents which I too discovered only in recent years.  Our mother was seriously stressed for many years for a list reasons: most notably, a very long engagement, the War, too many children born over too few years, and migration with inadequate support.  My father was insufficiently sensitive to this, my maternal grandparents were very concerned about this, and in those times nobody talked about their home and family troubles, and certainly not to the children.  Besides this, our parents’ multi-facetted stressors meant we were deprived (as arguably most people were and still are) of many aspects of good parenting and ideal personal development.

I have written about my parents’ closedness here several times, and this has affected me.  For one, my infant pyloric stenosis and surgery were kept in a barred book.  My weight chart and other records were destroyed.  We all had to learn to get on with life.

Mum and baby kept apart; aloof doctors, stressed parents affecting their children’s future: these three elements would horrify many people today, but they were the norm in the years I grew up, and all-too-often still are.

Most hospital policies are now more sensitive to the holistic needs of little patients and their parents.  Many (but far from all) doctors are more aware of the dimensions of their work other than the narrowly medical and scientific.  Many parents are more open with their children, more ready to deal with their questions, and more aware of the need to interact and work with their children to give them the best possible start in life.

My siblings and I have also reflected on the fact that it’s taken us 60 or so years to “discover” and share some of these things about our parents, and that in our case it’s nearly 20 years since they died.

How sad!  We never felt free to challenge them and have wanted to “protect” their memory, just as they believed they were “protecting” us from painful information, in some cases about traumatic events that had quietly scarred and otherwise affected us for life.

It’s also very sad for me to realise that compared with many parents ours were regarded as excellent people: aware, educated, sensitive, with a servant heart, sincere Christians without any really bad skeletons in their closet, people with a lifelong commitment to the help and support other people.  How many of our parents are recognised as this?

As said, I feel both pain and reassurance.  Pain when I think of how far we each fall short of who and what we could be, in ourselves and for others.  Reassured by the fact that despite the hazards and pain, most of us are still able to link up, grow and function as well as we do.

2 thoughts on “We all have “If only’s”

  1. Roey

    This required spectacular courage. I’m not sure what else to say right now, but wow…thought-builder. Thank you, Fred.

  2. Fred Vanderbom Post author

    I ask myself too, Where’s the dividing line between foolhardiness and courage? Facing my demons publicly is my personal way of “coming out”, and I have been greatly helped by others doing this both publicly and privately over the same unusually deep-seated and complex issue, early surgery.


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