It broke me
Our support worker reiterated to Children’s Services that my wife wasn’t capable of looking after the children on her own due to multiple acts of negligence and abuse. I spoke to the social worker Sandi on the phone and told her all of my wife’s history – leaving the children unattended in the bathtub, sending them off with strangers, cutting the ends of their fingers when trimming their nails, letting them run into the sea fully-clothed in October so they had to be rescued by a fisherman, threatening to take them away from me if I ever left her, pushing my daughter over on a coast path, trying to cover up the injuries caused by my mother-in-law’s dog and father-in-law’s assault, emotionally abusing them, ignoring them when they were ill or crying, abandoning all night-time responsibilities, using them in a sick power game against me – everything I thought made her an obviously unsuitable mother.
But when I asked Sandi to find me somewhere else to live – somewhere with the children – she told me that wasn’t her department, it could take weeks, and had I considered the impact of taking the children away from their home and their mother?
‘Yeah, but I can’t exactly leave them here with her, can I? I’m the primary carer. She’s never properly put them to bed. She’s never got up in the night to see to them – she sleeps right through. 9pm to 8am, I’ve been a single parent the past five years. I look after them when they’re ill, when I’m ill. It was seven months before she changed a nappy. It was a year before I could leave her alone with them for an hour. She leaves the room if they cry and won’t come back until they’ve stopped. I can’t leave my children in this situation.’
I was desperately scrambling to think up a workable solution. If we couldn’t continue under the same roof, one of us had to leave. If I left, I would want to take the children with me, for which I’d need her permission, and if she didn’t give it, it would end up in court and get ugly and there’d be no way back. If she left, on the other hand, moved in with one of her parents, and got the help she needed, she could continue to visit the house every day, under certain conditions, and we’d review the situation in a few months. This would allow us both to see the children every day, provide them with stability and continuity, give her a chance to get proper treatment, and leave the door open for a reconciliation somewhere down the line.
Even after all she did to me – the violence, the manipulation, the theft, the blackmail – I wanted to give her that chance. I was desperate to give her that chance. But it had to have safeguards built in to protect me and my children from her behaviour.
When I put these two options to her over the phone, she asked me to grant the third option – I give her another chance, we all stay together as before, and she promised not to do it again. Which wasn’t really an option.
Later that evening, I saw a post on Facebook that read, ‘Mummies can’t just walk away from their children like daddies can – let’s hear it for all the mummies.’
I spent the evening in an empty house, my wife and children at my mother-in-law’s, and a nagging suspicion in the back of my mind.
Day 41 of the Lockdown
When my wife returned the following morning to continue our discussion, without supervision this time, I started by telling her that I wanted to meet the real her.
‘Remove the mask,’ I said. ‘Remove the artifice. Be honest with me about what you really think and what you really feel, because I’m not sure I’ve ever known you. Tell me the truth, not what you think I want to hear.’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ she said.
‘Sure, you don’t,’ I said. ‘Right. Yesterday we spoke about the past. Today we need to speak about the future.’
‘I promise I’ll do anything to make it work.’
‘Okay, then,’ I said. ‘Get rid of the dog.’
The dog had been a major bone of contention between us. All the pets, really. My wife was obsessed with buying animals for a short thrill, after which she neglected to look after them and left me to do everything. And I’m not talking a few animals – we had fish, chickens, guinea pigs, a hamster, a cat and a dog. She treated the pets as possessions, not living, feeling creatures.
A few months before the lockdown, I wanted to take our 22-year-old cat to the vet because I could count every rib from the other side of the room, he was struggling even to stand, and he was clearly in pain.
‘No,’ said my wife. ‘He’s my cat, and I want him to die of natural causes.’
‘He’s our cat, he’s in pain and he’s dying,’ I said. ‘I’ve made an appointment with the vet.’
‘Well, I won’t let you use my car. It’s my car that my dad bought for me and I don’t want you using it anymore.’
‘Okay. I’ll take my car. But you’re blocking me in. Can you move it?’
‘Where are your keys?’
‘Come on, where are they?’
‘I don’t know. You’ll have to find them.’
‘Are you going to help me?’
When I left, she told me that if I didn’t bring the cat back with me, I shouldn’t ever bother coming home.
‘We have to do what’s in his best interests,’ I said. ‘If the vet says he’s in pain and the kindest thing is to put him to sleep, do you really want to make him suffer until the end?’
‘If you don’t bring him back, don’t bother coming home.’
So that day, when my wife said she’d do anything to make our marriage work, I knew exactly what I wanted as a first step.
‘Get rid of the dog,’ I said.
It wasn’t that I didn’t love him, but with two young children, we couldn’t devote the time and energy to give him the attention and exercise that he needed, and I thought it would be kinder to him to give him to a family that would look after him properly. I was the only one who fed him, walked him, played with him and picked up his mess. In any case, my wife had also promised to rehome him if we tried for a second baby, a promise she reneged upon as soon as she became pregnant.
‘How about I promise to walk him every day that I’m not busy doing something else?’
‘You’re busy every day. You said you’d do anything. Get rid of the dog.’
She thought about it a moment, and then said, ‘Okay, last offer, I’ll get rid of the fish.’
‘The fish?’ I said. ‘The one solitary fish that’s only still alive because I feed it?’
‘Yeah, I’ll get rid of the fish.’
I just shook my head, appalled.
‘It’s taken you thirty seconds to go from “I’ll do anything” to “I’ll get rid of the fish.” Thirty seconds. I guess that shows how much you’re prepared to work on this. Have you thought any more about the two options I gave you?’
‘They’re no good for me,’ she said. ‘My parents would never let you live here without me. They don’t think it’s fair that I move out, because you should be the one taking the blame for ending this.’
‘It’s not about blame. Think about what’s in the children’s best interests – the least disruption; two parents who they see every day; remaining in their own home. And you getting the help you need.’
‘Over my dead body. We’ll never let you steal the house.’
‘I’m not trying to steal the house,’ I said. ‘I’m trying to do what’s best for everyone.’
‘Well I’m not moving out.’
‘Then I will be leaving,’ I said. ‘And I’ll need your permission to take the children with me.’
‘Well you can’t have it,’ she said. ‘I’ll never give you permission. You’ll never take my children from me – my parents will never let you.’
She stormed upstairs, packed a suitcase full of clothes for her and the children, and left to go back to her mother’s.
That’s when I realised I’d been played.
My mother-in-law hadn’t taken the children to give my wife and me time to talk – she’d taken them to keep them.