‘After a lifetime of abuse, the thought of fatherhood terrified me’

·5-min read
Tom Mitchelson, whose father was a domestic abuser, photographed at his home in Stoke Newington, north London, (Clara Molden)
Tom Mitchelson, whose father was a domestic abuser, photographed at his home in Stoke Newington, north London, (Clara Molden)

I knew — as much as I knew anything — that I wouldn’t have kids. I told myself that I needed to focus on work, that I wanted to be free to travel the world and take up any opportunities that arose. The real reason was that the thought of having a child overwhelmed me with sadness and I didn’t know why. This didn’t trouble me in my twenties. I spent my time trying to find my way in the world and thought of fatherhood as something staid, unfulfilled people did when they had run out of other ideas.

I enjoyed playing games with my friends’ kids. They liked me and I liked them too but as the decade wore on, I remained convinced that I wasn’t cut out for the role of a dad.

I mellowed in my thirties and when I met the woman who is now my partner, we fell in love with such intensity that I found myself all of a sudden wanting to lay down roots. And what better way to express love than to make something from it, so we decided to have a baby. It felt like a good decision but I resisted thinking of the reality, convinced that if I did, I’d go off the idea. I had a good reason for that.

Tom Mitchelson as a toddler with his late father (Tom Mitchelson / Evening Standard)
Tom Mitchelson as a toddler with his late father (Tom Mitchelson / Evening Standard)

I grew up in Essex with a dad who punched, kicked, and dragged my mum around the house by her hair. My older, triplet sisters and I would witness much of this abuse and the next day he would bring her tea and toast as if nothing had happened. It went on for years and my family never told a soul.

From the age of six I would sit on the stairs until late into the night listening to my dad’s volcanic rages, and once he became violent I would rush down and stand between my parents trying to calm things down. It didn’t usually work. I carried all this into adulthood. Aware of all that had happened but not seeing it for what it really was. I was confused, fearful, mistrusting and unable to clearly call out bad from good. I buried my painful past.

Without knowing it, I couldn’t separate the pain of my childhood from having a kid of my own.

It was such a mess I had no way of sorting it out, all I knew was that it hurt to think about, so I kept on running with my head down. To the outside world I was confident and at ease with myself and living in the moment but it was all an act — an act which required enormous energy to pull off.

Without knowing it, I couldn’t separate the pain of my childhood from having a kid of my own. It was almost an act of cruelty to bring someone into the world when life was so achingly hard. But when our son arrived, from the moment I first held him, feeling his tiny body and seeing the innocence in his eyes, I felt the responsibility I now had and was determined not to let him down.

I threw myself full-on into fatherhood and to my surprise discovered I knew what he needed: all the things I hadn’t had. This delicate, vulnerable person looked to me in the purest way possible. I understood I needed to be a better version of myself, and I resolved that this little boy’s life would be different.

I loved him but hadn’t got to know him yet. As he grew, I knew he was mine and I was his. A whole new world of feelings was discovered and by the time he learned to laugh I couldn’t stop thinking of ways to make it happen.

I played with him, fed him and cuddled him at night. I gave him the clearest of boundaries so he knew how safe and loved he was and I listened to him, explaining our life, our decisions and the world around. I wanted him to feel heard and valued right from the moment he came to be.

All of this felt like it came naturally to me. I shunned the books and baby manuals because I knew no one would be better at knowing what my son needed than me. I felt it with every bone in my body and it calmed me, grounded me and delighted me all at once. It softened my suspicious nature too because I knew how pure the world could be.

I could see my younger self in him and in that moment, I understood my life very differently.

It was through him that I gained a different perspective of my own past. I could see his innocence and purity, and by the time he was four I began asking myself, “what if he had seen all that I had seen? What if what had happened to me, happened to him?” It would terrify him, traumatise him, break him too. It would make him vulnerable and he wouldn’t know which way to turn. He would be open to manipulation. It was then that I could see my younger self in him. And in that moment, I understood my life very differently.

My dad’s behaviour had hurt me more than I had ever known and nothing with the teacher had been my fault. I began to face up to the traumas of my life. I thought about my childhood, crying for my mum, my sisters and myself.

Book: Don't Ask Me About My Dad by Tom Mitchelson (Tom Mitchelson)
Book: Don't Ask Me About My Dad by Tom Mitchelson (Tom Mitchelson)

Understanding who I really was, where I had come from and speaking the truth about what had gone on for the first time, I felt the knots in my back untie, my voice changed, becoming slower and deeper. I stood up taller and the chains of the past fell away.

My little boy helped me to do that, and in doing so I became a better father, in turn helping him. I wouldn’t run from anything anymore and by confronting my vulnerabilities I felt a new kind of strength. It was my love for him, and his love for me, that opened my eyes. And through him I slowly repaired myself.

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