Once bitten, twice shy

Having had his child taken from him, Steve Collins is reluctant to risk another broken heart.

Like many, I left childhood wounded. I had a deep-rooted sense of worthlessness. I criticised myself without mercy. I chose cold, critical, rejecting women and tried to get them to love me. I believed She could only love me if I sacrificed my self. I abused alcohol and other drugs. I would not trust, expecting betrayal. All rather droll, looking back.

Suddenly, through no choice of my own, I became a Father in my mid-twenties. The way I experienced the world changed dramatically. My daughter was born into my arms. After an hour or so, I quietly held her. She looked deeply into my eyes. Never again will I doubt whether new-borns can focus... she saw me. Wonder of wonders, she loved me. She has continued to love me, no matter what. I felt loved, at last and for the first time. Nothing has changed about that over the past fourteen years.

My wife went to work pretty much immediately. I stayed with the baby. Living in the red-neck bushland of Southern Tasmania, I did not know the word "househusband". Yet the first time I heard the term it fitted. I found out later I was known locally as "the man with the sick wife". This was the only plausible explanation that could explain a man hanging nappies out and caring for new-borns.

Birth, the event leading to Fatherhood is lightly spoken of as a 'miracle' - and it is. At last, I felt loved. I had never known this before. My life changed. I learnt that I could be loved. I slowly found more love. My children showed me how.

My children's mother and I separated. At least, she told me to "fuck off" in enough different ways that I did, eventually. Looking back, I see I made the same mistake many men make. When I left her house, I also left my three sons and my daughter. I awoke from a drunken stupor many months later and realised that my children were no longer with me. I missed them dreadfully. They were gone. I had lost them. Difficult to comprehend, I did not realise this simple consequence of leaving her.

Although the pain that hit me then has never left, I have learnt to cope. If I had my time again, I would tell her when she told me to leave: "no you go... leave the children here." A fantasy.

My sons have returned to live with me at times, thank God. I have been a single Dad to my eldest son these past three years, and more recently my middle son moved in. There has been so much of my daughter's life I have missed.

I fell in love with a woman who has two children. We were to be wed on 26/12/96. I wrote in May 1996 that she and I were doing really well in loving each other and our children.

Six months later I was jilted. We had that typical second-marriage argument. She wanted more children and I did not. I focussed on the fact that she knew I had had a vasectomy when we met and was thus being unreasonable expecting me to have an expensive surgical procedure in the hope of impregnating her. She experienced this as me saying "she was not good enough to be the mother of my children", never mind that I was not saying that at all. This bone was gnawed dry, and the scab picked, to no avail.

Listening to a radio program about family I realised that for me the core issue was neither surgery nor good enough parenting. Rather, the children I have now taught me I was loveable. They loved me then and now, as I do them. Being without them is simply a constant wounding hurt. I am now reconciled to that fact. My world is no longer full of bitter revengeful fantasies toward the woman who caused me this pain by taking them away. Yet, the wound remains.

I realised that, if I had a child with this new woman, and if that child were taken from me also, then I doubted I could stand it. I doubted my heart could bear being broken that way again. For a long time I could not talk of this with her. It seemed so negative, so doom filled. The issue of having children continued 'round and 'round, with no resolution. Finally I found the courage to tell her my fear of being heart-broken through separation. I suggestion a possible solution: if she would sign a legal 'pre-nuptial' document, giving me custody of any children we had if we ever separated, then I would have both surgery and children with her. She was outraged. She refused. We did not argue this point again. I look back with huge relief.

I also have compassion toward those of us separated from loved ones. So often I allowed my pain to hurt those I loved. I am reminded of a Leunig prayer:

We struggle, we grow weary, we are exhausted, we are distressed, we despair. We fall down. We give up, we let go, we cry. We are empty. We grow calm. We wait quietly, we are ready.

A shy truth arrives. Arrives from within and without and is born, simple and clear. Born to our emptiness. And for this we can give thanks.

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