I didn’t have a stammer when I started school. It was a small school in rural Ireland in the 1960s, and most teachers used corporal punishment. I remember the fear of being summoned to the teacher’s desk if I misspelled something or solved a maths problem incorrectly. I tried so hard not to do anything wrong, but I think some of them just enjoyed inflicting violence on us. One teacher would send me to the ditch outside to find a stick to be beaten with.
I still cry when I think about that school. When my stammer developed, I thought people would start being kinder to me, but they weren’t. Instead it opened me up to horrendous bullying. Stammering can be a genetic thing that gets switched on if we have bad experiences, I later found out. But that doesn’t describe how much it hampered my life, and I still stammer badly when I am stressed.
I didn’t have much protection or support at home. I was an only child, and when I was born, in 1956, my father was 62 and my mother 42. They had been matched in marriage in the ’50s, when matchmaking was still common in Ireland. My father was often unwell and died from cancer when I was in school. My mother also had many health problems, and I became her caretaker after my father’s death. That also left its mark, as I developed intense anxiety about my own health.
I married in my mid-twenties, and my husband moved into my mother’s house with us. When I had my own child, my son was my delight. My late husband had been a laborer, working very hard for very little money, and we both vowed that our son would have a good education and a good life. We gave him a lot of encouragement, and he has done well, teaching math and business in a secondary school.
While married and raising my son, I continued to care for my mother full-time. Adult children will, of course, want to help their parents occasionally, but I felt coerced into providing 24-hour care at the expense of my freedom, my mental and physical health, and any prospect of a career for myself.
I warned my son that I would never allow him to be a caregiver for me. Everyone should be able to follow their own path in life, but in the Ireland of my youth, children were seen as the possessions of their parents.
Twenty years after the birth of my son, when I was in my forties, I was still caring for my mother in that same house. It felt like a cage from which I had no way out. I know now that I was completely burnt out. I had started to burn dinners. I dreaded getting out of bed every morning.
My first job was to empty and clean my mother’s commode. I used to stand outside her bedroom door and wonder how I was going to face it. After that, it was a full day of endless caregiving and housework. Once my son started school, I wanted to work part-time but never had the freedom. I was told that God had sent me into the world to be my mother’s caretaker. By that time, I was 46 and my mother 88, and I no longer believed in God.
I knew I wanted to do something with my life. The Ireland around me was slowly moving forward; I could see that young women were living a different life from the one I had been forced into. And I could see that I was getting older and had achieved nothing.
Everyone should be able to follow their own path in life, but in the Ireland of my youth, children were seen as the possessions of their parents.
I decided to move my mother to a care home and apply to university. There were fierce objections in my parish, especially from health care providers. Some women my age treated me like an outcast and made me feel like a disgrace, and some still hold it against me.
I also found that as a parentified child and long-term caregiver, I kept trying to please people, to say yes, and to look after everyone else instead of myself. If a stranger dropped something in the street, I would run and pick it up for them. When visitors called in, as was the habit in rural Ireland, I would always cook for them even though I had very little myself. When someone was having a hard time, I would always listen and spend time trying to help them.
I do believe, of course, in helping people. But I did it because I thought that God would reward me, while in reality I was just uneducated and vulnerable and people were taking advantage of me. In college, I started to learn how to mix with people, and I don’t allow myself to be taken advantage of anymore.