Why a happy childhood can make you an unhappy adult

Why a happy childhood can make you an unhappy adult

Rachel says her childhood was free of death, divorce and financial hardship

Rachel says her childhood was free of death, divorce and financial hardship

Was yours a happy upbringing Not many can say this, but I am one of those rare people who had a perfect childhood.

I had two young, funny, happily married parents, a lovely younger sister, and an extended family who lived close by.

We lived in a beautiful house in a leafy suburb where we could ride bicycles and play outside. Although we went to a good private school, we weren’t spoilt with material possessions or fancy holidays; our only extra-curricular activity was Brownies.

Yet our lives were full of sunshine, pets and happiness. It was the best possible start to life. Or was it

Kirsty Young recently commented that
happiness is not the be-all and end-all for her children. ‘I don’t want
my children to be “happy”’, she said in a Radio Times interview. ‘They
will be bloody lucky if they glimpse it now and again. I want them to be
content and have self-worth.’

Kirsty’s words caused a stir. A
mother who doesn’t want her children to be happy But I think she is
right: a happy childhood isn’t always the best preparation for a
successful and enjoyable adult life.

My childhood was untouched by death,
divorce or financial hardship. Maybe my parents did have worries — if
so, they hid them from us. I never knew any different.

Divorce was uncommon in the Seventies
and unheard of in my family, and my classmates tended to have very
similar domestic arrangements to mine: a hard-working, well-paid father
and a stay-at-home mother. Real life, as I knew it, was easy, sunny and

But when I reached my teens, I started to realise there was a different side to life — and it scared me. While other girls turned 16 and
started to go clubbing, I was doing jigsaws at home. School was full of
gossip about boys and illicit drinking, while I was playing with my
Barbies and writing stories.

Happy memories: Rachel's childhood home near Sheffield

Happy memories: Rachel's childhood home near Sheffield

Rachel aged three with her hobby horse

Rachel aged eleven

Rachel aged three with her hobby horse (left) and aged eleven (right)

I found life outside the safety of
home frightening and depressing. I didn’t want to be like the other
girls, and I wanted them to go back to the way they had been before. Life moved on again as I started at Liverpool University, just 70 miles from home, but it might as well have been on the moon.

The day my father left me at the halls of residence was the worst day I’d ever known. It was weeks before I stopped crying myself to sleep. Other students were enjoying their new-found independence, while I was mentally running through what I was missing at home.

Homesickness was the first problem I had ever faced, and the force of it shocked me. I put on a brave face in public, but inside I was howling. Slowly I became good friends with students whose formative experiences had been quite the opposite of mine.

While other girls turned 16 and
started to go clubbing, I was doing jigsaws at home.

Divorce, poverty, bipolar disorder, adoption, abandonment, suicide attempts: they had experienced them all. Most of them had been to comprehensive schools, and I was the first private school girl they had ever met. They were as surprised by my charmed life as I was by their hardship.

But when graduation rolled around, I started to panic. I’d realised by then that university was still a kind of childhood. I’d spent the holidays at home, always slotting straight back into my ‘child’ role.

Now, though, I was officially an adult. Terrified by this prospect, I decided to study for a PhD. At the same time, I started a relationship with an older man, who I married eight years later. Real relationships with real boys never happened for me. I grew up with a sister and went to a girls’ school: the only male I ever spoke to was my father.

I had good male friends at university but never thought of them as potential romantic partners: they were lovely but, essentially, silly boys. I had one boyfriend in my final year at university, but I spent most of our time together moping about missing my family. Not surprisingly, it didn’t last.

Rachel age 21 with pet dog Horace shortly before she met husband Anthony

Rachel age 21 with pet dog Horace shortly before she met husband Anthony

At 52, Anthony was 30 years my senior, and I was besotted. A clever and successful man, he offered me reliability and security. Did he also offer me a way to recapture my childhood idyll I put this question to child clinical psychologist Dr Angharad Rudkin.

‘I wonder if you felt that only an older man would truly be able to take care of you and understand your every need in the way that your mother did’ she suggests. ‘Maturity can be more comforting than the often quite selfish and naive approach of younger men.’

Within months, I had moved in to Anthony’s waterfront apartment in London where we lived in domestic bliss. Our age gap surprised others, but it worked for us — and continues to do so 18 years and two children later.

It also solved the thorny problem of work: if I was ill-equipped for a relationship, I was even less prepared for a job. My only career ‘ambitions’ were vague imaginings — the main one being that I would somehow magically become a best-selling writer.

I put this to Angharad. According to her, lack of ambition isn’t uncommon in people with blissfully happy childhoods. ‘If a child has had the great fortune to have an unchallenging upbringing, they won’t have an enormously strong desire to be something or achieve something because they’re content with who they are,’ she says.

I found life outside the safety of
home frightening and depressing. I didn’t want to be like the other

When I did finally get a university teaching job, I was 29. Anthony felt it was important for me to make a career and name for myself. I knew he was right, but I could not have been less interested. Unsurprisingly, it was a disaster. I found myself surrounded by people who were fiercely ambitious, competing for status and rewards, staying up until 3am to work — and expecting me to do likewise.

This was unlike anything I had ever experienced. As someone who had always been cherished simply for being me, I was sickened to find that my human value was linked to ‘presenteeism’ and productivity.
After too many work-avoidance fantasies about crashing my car into a bus, I resigned at the age of 31.

Of course, this isn’t to say that everyone whose childhood was ber-happy will fail to succeed in adult life. Comedienne Jenny Eclair had what she describes as an ‘Enid Blyton-esque’ childhood, and broadcaster and writer Andrew Collins bucked the misery memoir trend and turned his super-happy childhood into a bestseller, Where Did It All Go Right

My own experience, though, is that having an expectation of success without any drive to succeed is a recipe for disappointment. Good things had always happened to me — so fame and fortune would land in my lap. I would be a millionaire by the age of 30. All I had to do was say the word.
Even now, it shocks me that this has never happened. When I walk past the beautiful houses in town, I know they are mine by rights — but someone else is living in them.

On my last birthday, I felt some horror that I had reached 40 and had so little on my CV and in the bank. At the same time, though, I have no urge to do anything about it. Instead, I am still waiting for the endless riches that will eventually descend upon me, simply because I am marvellous.

Now Anthony and I have children of our own — William is nine, Matilda seven — I find myself thinking more than ever about happy childhoods. Finally I feel driven: driven to give them the best childhood I can. But do I want it to be as happy as mine In one way, I do. I want them to grow up basking in the sunshine of untroubled childhood bliss while they can.

But in another way, this would be setting them up for hurt. The world is a different place from when I was a child. Anthony was married before, so our children have to be fully versed in the tricky ways of half-siblings and step-families.

They also know they will have to work hard if they want to succeed, because we don’t have the means to provide them with a feather bed to fall back on. All we can do is love them unconditionally and, like Kirsty Young, hope they will grow up contented and with self-worth. In the long term, these qualities might just be more useful to them than the memory of childhood paradise lost.