I said “no” to my ex the other day. She sent me a string of nasty texts, but couldn’t hurt me directly. So instead, she took it out on my children.
Abusers use any means at their disposal to control, coerce, belittle, humiliate, degrade and damage you. They know that your children present a weak spot in your defences, because you’re normal, and you love your children, and you’d do anything to protect them from harm. They exploit this vulnerability to take advantage of you, because unlike you, they have no compunction about causing their children harm, so long as it facilitates its aim of punishing you.
My abuser weaponised the children before she was even pregnant. When we were trying for a baby, she told me that if I didn’t get her pregnant, she’d end the relationship. Once our daughter was born, she told me that if I didn’t like the way she was treating me, I knew where the door was, but she’d get custody because ‘the courts always side with the mother and my parents can afford better lawyers than you.’
When she was pregnant with our son and I was offered a job, she told me she would abort our baby if I accepted it. If I asked her to give the children a bath, she told me I had to do it or she’d leave them unattended in the bathtub. When I made plans to see friends, she told me she would go out and leave the children home alone, forcing me to cancel.
The children were a means to control me: to keep me jobless; to isolate me; to force me to remain in a situation where I was being abused; to coerce me into doing every night feed for five years, every bedtime and almost all the baths; household chores; pay for everything; do anything she wanted me to do. My children were a means to turn me into a slave.
But it was worse than that. She used them to damage me emotionally as well, trying to break me down to make her feel good. Abusers are so painfully insecure, they live in a dichotomy of win/lose. If their victim is happy, that means the abuser is unhappy. If the victim is loved, it means the abuser is unloved. If the victim is successful, or popular, or liked, it means the abuser is a failure. And they can’t allow that.
That’s why they abuse. The more they push you down, the more they raise themselves up. So undermining you with your children; threatening your children; telling your children lies about you; making your children lie to you; and turning your children against you, are how they feel good. By the end, I was circling the drain, clinging on by my fingertips, and still it wasn’t enough. She wouldn’t be happy until I was broken, so she pried those fingers loose one by one.
After I was removed from my home for my own safety – after the victim is forced to flee in the night, and as a man, generally without the children – my abuser, as all abusers, gained a new weapon: she could control access my children, and therefore continue to control me, punish me, and thereby make herself feel good, even though I was no longer physically within her reach.
The abuse doesn’t end when you leave – it just takes on a new form.
You will see them four hours per week, at times that are convenient to me, in locations chosen by me, and only under conditions that I impose, otherwise you will not see them, despite having parental responsibility and an entitlement to 50% of their time. It has nothing to do with their welfare and everything to do with punishing you for leaving.
No, you can’t have them 50% of holidays. You will have the crumbs that are left over around the plans I have made.
No, you can’t see them on their birthdays. No, they can’t speak to you on the phone. No, I will not share the handovers – you will collect them and return them.
Of course, I took her to court – her whole family, really – and lost, because she was overwhelmingly right: the courts do side with the mother, and her multimillionaire parents could indeed afford better lawyers than me. But I secured every other weekend – four nights a month, as though that is fair to the children – and 50% of holidays. And that drives her insane.
She doesn’t like being told what to do. She doesn’t like that I have rights. So she continues to use the children to control, chipping away a few hours here and there, because that means she has escaped anybody else’s control and can remain in the seat of power.
She texts me when I have the children to ‘remind’ me of things I already do anyway and to provide information I’m already aware of – ‘make sure they clean their teeth, I want them to have a hair wash, their party is at 2, don’t forget I’m picking them up at 4’ – all so that she can disturb what little time I have with them and continue to exert a modicum of control.
She accepts invitations to every party they’re invited to, even if they barely know the person, to disrupt my weekends. She tries to book clubs in my time, and throws a hissy fit when when I refuse to take them – texts, emails, threats, solicitors letters – and employs emotional blackmail, saying the kids will be damaged by not going to these things, even though they don’t want to go.
She took away my Father’s Day by arranging my son’s birthday party on that day, inviting everybody in his class, and then saying, ‘Oh, sorry, I forgot. But it’s done now, and he’ll be so upset if we cancel.’ Even though she was breaking the court order, what could I do? If I insisted on my rights, she would tell my son he couldn’t have a birthday party because daddy wouldn’t let him.
If you’re prepared to use your children to hurt the other parent, court orders aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.
The last bugbear between me and my abuser, the last major element of control she exerted over my life, was my daughter’s dance lessons. Midday on a Saturday, right in the middle of the only day I have the children midnight to midnight, three towns away, meaning we could never go out for the day, go away for the weekend, go anywhere, really, without having to hurry back for handover.
Every time the term would end, she’d book the next. If she didn’t want to take her, because she had plans for Saturday, that was fine; but if I ever dared not take her, boy, was I in for trouble.
I took my daughter to dance lessons for two years. For the past six months, she has been saying she doesn’t want to go. Of course she doesn’t; she sees me so rarely, she doesn’t want to waste three hours of a Saturday doing something she doesn’t particularly enjoy.
I knew it would cause a ruckus, but I waited until the end of term, and told my abuser I would no longer take my daughter to dance class. My weekends with the children will now be my weekends with the children, as I am entitled to.
Cue the behavioural explosion, the nastiness, the manipulation, the threats, because she doesn’t want to give up the last major weapon in her arsenal to control my life. It’s made worse by the realisation of her own impotence: she can’t make me do things anymore. I have escaped her control. If life is a win-lose dichotomy, then she well and truly lost this one. So I was prepared for the nastiness.
I wasn’t prepared for her to take it out on my daughter. Because she couldn’t hurt me, control me, coerce me; because she could no longer make me her lapdog; she exploded on her.
She is being punished by my abuser – her own mother – because I won’t take her to dance class anymore. She is being punished by my ex’s entire family, because I won’t take her to dance class anymore. They can’t punish me, so they are punishing my daughter by proxy.
She is bearing the brunt of my abuser’s rage, alone, behind closed doors, in a house with no witnesses, and I know exactly how frightening that can be. There is nothing I can do to protect her.
My daughter is six.
The reality of having children with an abuser is that they will be harmed. My actions in protecting myself from controlling and coercive behaviour means my children will suffer as a consequence. So all I can do is offer them a safe place on my weekends, shower them with the love and affection they don’t receive at home, and pray that this is the last time they are caught in the crossfire.
A forlorn hope: I just have to be there to pick up the pieces, trust in their resilience, and pray that she doesn’t traumatise them as much as she traumatised me.