It’s a never-ending cycle of trauma
We hear a lot about the struggles of single motherhood and the horrors of deadbeat dads, but what about the good dads who love their children very much, but only get to see them every second weekend? This is what it’s like:
I have my children and everything slots into place. Everything feels right. They’re sleeping under my roof, under my protection. I feel like an eagle guarding his nest beneath his wing. I could achieve anything. I feel larger than life.
Everything I do reaffirms what I always knew: I’m a great dad. I make them a picnic and take them to the park; I catch them when they fall; I put plasters on their knees and wipe away their tears. We draw pictures; we play schools and doctors; we build cities out of Lego. I read them a bedtime story, turn out the light, sit outside the door as they settle with their teddy bears. They fall asleep safe in the knowledge that they’re loved.
Sunday arrives. We’re on the clock today – the countdown to them going home. When they ask why I don’t live with mummy, I tell them that sometimes mummies and daddies can’t live together anymore, and as mummy owned the house, daddy had to leave. I don’t tell them the truth: that mummy abused daddy for ten years, and even though he told everyone what was happening, they all sided with her; they believed the lies she told; and the only reason he can see his children is that he had to fight her through the courts to get two days out of every fourteen, leaving him emotionally and psychologically crushed.
They tell me stories about what is going on at home – things that mummy has said and done. She’s going to try to take away my time at Christmas, they say. Looks like she’s breaching the court order, again. But in order to enforce the order, I have to pay to hire a lawyer to take her back to court, and I can’t afford that. So I have to pretend it’s okay, that she’s doing nothing wrong. Don’t worry about it, my dears. It’s okay. We’ll celebrate Christmas when we can.
‘But why can’t we see you?’ my daughter asks me. ‘It’s not fair.’
‘It is what it is,’ I say. I can’t tell her that this is mummy’s doing, that she’s doing it to punish me for leaving. I can’t tell them that mummy uses them as weapons because she knows that the best way to hurt me is through controlling my access to them.
Times ticks on, too fast. I start to get nervous: my abuser is coming to my doorstep. What nonsense is going to happy today? What will she accuse me of next? I don’t want my children to go, but I can’t let them know how much it hurts. I paint on a happy face. I’m fun daddy. No, my heart’s not breaking. This is totally normal. It’s fine that I see you four days a month. No problem at all.
‘Oh, you know you were going to take us to that special place next time we’re here?’ says my daughter. ‘Well, mummy is going to take us there instead.’
Oh. She found out I was going, so she got in there first. She took it from me. Again. I’m not allowed to have anything.
I spend the last hour hugging my kids. We sit on the sofa and watch TV, their bags packed, but I don’t see anything on the screen. All I can see are my children.
The doorbell rings. They jump up excitedly. They forget to look back as they run out to greet her. I hand over their things, tell my abuser any pertinent handover information, give my children a hug, and close the door. I don’t watch them loaded into the car; I don’t stand to wave them goodbye. That’s just too painful.
Inside, I run myself a bath and start to tidy up. Relief that there was no problem at the handover, and that I survived another encounter with the monster, is mingled with grief. The dolls go back on the beds; the drawings in the drawer; pyjamas into the laundry bin. I wipe away my own tears and get into the bath. I stare at the tiles and I lie there for an hour, two hours. I’m drained. Spent.
Then begins the long haul. Do they miss me as much as I miss them? What are they doing today? What am I missing out on? Their bedroom stands empty. I don’t open the door to the playroom. There is an absence in my home as there is an absence in my life. Nothing feels right. Nothing feels as it should. I try to forget, but all I can think about is when I next see my children again.
‘Two days out of fourteen,’ I tell people. ‘It’s so hard. It’s so unfair.’
‘Well, you should be happy you get every other weekend,’ they say. ‘That’s normal for men.’
‘It might be normal,’ I reply. ‘It doesn’t make it right. It doesn’t mean it’s not excruciating.’
I count down the days. So many days, with nothing in between. I live my life on tenterhooks: when is the next manipulation going to come? The next solicitor letter? The next accusation? What is going to be the next bullshit I have to wade through? What’s the next emotional blackmail I’m going to be subjected to? Will I survive it?
Paranoia – justified paranoia – runs through my head. ‘Oh, I forgot you were having them at Christmas, and I’ve booked all sorts of lovely things for them, and they’re so excited about going to them. You don’t want to disappoint them, do you? They’ll be so upset if you take these things away from them. You’ll ruin their Christmas.’
‘You knew I had them when you booked these things. You know what the court order says.’
‘Don’t ruin their Christmas. They’ll be so upset that you won’t let them go to these wonderful things I’ve booked. They’ll blame you for it.’
After eleven days of waiting, I start to get excited: I’m seeing my children tomorrow! But my anxiety grows. It’s been so long, what’s this weekend going to be like? Will my children have changed? Can I cope with all the problems that crop up? I’m so out of practice – I’ve spent two weeks living as a bachelor and I have to become a full-time single parent again, albeit for two days only. Why am I so nervous? I know I’m a good dad. I know I can cope. So why am I doubting myself?
They’re coming later today. I tidy up, get out their toys, do some shopping. It’s four hours away, but I can’t focus on anything else.
Three hours. I’m dreading the handover. I’m dreading seeing my abuser again, standing on my doorstep. What has she written in the handover book? Will it be some comment attacking me again for something I haven’t done? Accusing me of being something I’m not? Will it simply be two words long, a curt, dismissive snap?
Two hours. I feel nauseous. The excitement is getting buried beneath the fear. I check there is space on my phone for the recording. Yep. All set.
One hour. I pace from room to room. Is everything ready? Can I keep it all together?
The doorbell. I switch on the recorder and slip my phone into my pocket, force a smile onto my face as I open the door. I’m greeted by a scowl from my abuser, but my children leap into my arms. ‘Make sure they clean their teeth,’ she says. Always a criticism; always a passive-aggressive questioning of my parenting ability. They always brush their teeth at mine. Always. Why even bring it up?
‘Say goodbye to mummy, children,’ I reply.
‘We need to talk about Christmas,’ she says.
‘Email me.’ I don’t add: Like it says in the court order. All communication must be by email, in order to protect me from these manipulations and ambushes on my doorstep.
We go in. The fear is gone, and so has the doubt, as sudden as flicking a switch. I beam from ear to ear. I’m so happy.
I save the audio file and then listen to all the things my children have been up to. Everything feels right again. Everything feels where it should be. I am a dad again, and I am a bloody good dad.
I put them to bed, happy and loved. And begin the countdown to when they leave again, a mere 48-hours after they arrived.
This is what it’s like as a weekend dad. It’s a never-ending cycle of trauma – of grief, excitement, love and fear. When your ex and co-parent is also your abuser, it’s even worse. My abuser comes to my home twice every fortnight. She stands on the threshold of my new life. She never lets me go.
This is what it’s like as a weekend dad.