by Kerry Stewart-Haynes.
Why is it that our little girls are still getting the idea that ‘growing up’ is only about meeting Mr. wonderful; having ‘x’ amount of preciously perfect babes and living happily ever after without so much as a pebble to ripple the sea of tranquillity?
Because this girl ~ now all growed up ~ didn’t foresee in my wildest dreams the ride I’ve been on in the last 15 years. Not that I’d change a thing. Really. It’s only a mistake if you don’t learn a lesson from it, right? And I have three deliciously crazy little men; I’ve learned a thing or two about myself (and other mysterious creatures) and I’m stronger than I ever imagined. Stronger when it counts. Although in many ways my journey is more rich and rewarding than any storybook, it’s certainly not the fairytale I imagined from the time I was old enough to watch my reflection as I sweetly mouthed my first ‘I do’.
Fifteen years ago I met a bully. Only he didn’t look like a bully. He was awkward and shy and painfully non-confrontational. When he hugged me and whispered sweet nothings in my ear he certainly didn’t sound like a bully. By the time he proposed to me six years later, I’d read the warning signs but perhaps the fear of solitude renders one dyslexic, so I said ‘yes’. He proposed to me overlooking magnificent Sydney Harbour and I had a pretty ruby rock on my finger screaming SOMEBODY LOVES ME so I waved the ‘issues’ away. Cos really, although I’d sometimes described our relationship as toxic, he just didn’t seem like a bully.
But as I sat in a lonely courtroom this time a week ago fighting for the protection of our children I sure as hell knew it.
I guess I have to be honest and admit that I’d always wondered why women ~ smart women (and yeah, I guess I’ve got enough of a brain going on that I’d count myself amongst those ranks) ~ stay in crappy marriages. Or even, for that matter, get themselves into that situation in the first place. The truth is that emotional abuse does not start with a bang. It’s more like a whimper really. Ever so slowly until you lose sight of the spirited girl you used to be and your confidence has been drained away to a shallow little puddle of self-doubt, guilt and confusion. I haven’t even decided yet whether it’s a deliberate tactic on the part of the abuser, or if it’s an inbuilt system of manipulation. A preconditioned mechanism of control. Either way, I didn’t see it coming.
Two and a half years ago, I decided that if I couldn’t show my boys an example of a happy loving marriage; I’d show them a Mother who had the strength to get out of a bad situation. I didn’t wish my ex-husband any ill well; nor did I wish him well. I simply didn’t care anymore and it was such a relief to feel so wonderfully indifferent. Silently triumphant, I felt as if I had taken back control of my life.
Growth is a painfully slow process at times and even though I’m very good at talking the tough talk; my walk is often more a hapless meander. Whilst I’d physically taken a giant leap away from his control, emotionally I was still tagging along behind. Sons need their father (or, at least, sound male role models) so when he’d ring at whim asking to see the boys, I’d alter our plans to accommodate his wishes. And then he’d cancel. Because of the nature of his occupation (airline pilot), sometimes he’d have the boys but tell me I must remain ‘on call’ too in case he was called to work (which strangely happened more often than I ever recall it happening during our marriage). Although I was no longer living under the same roof as this person, in many ways I was still a puppet jumping this way and that as he pulled the strings. Initially, visits with his sons were frequent but erratic. Since he moved to Melbourne a year ago, they’ve reduced considerably, sometimes just one night every two months.
Several weeks ago my ex-husband had advised me of his intention to take the boys to Melbourne for 7 days during this September school holidays. It was NOT a request but a statement. My response was clear and simple. No. Ever the diplomat (I can’t help but point out that I am exactly as they describe ‘Libran’ in all of your zodiac books), I suggested alternatives and was advised that the issue was not open to negotiation. If I didn’t comply, I’d be taken to court.
When I received a letter from his solicitor describing me as ‘inflexible’ and ‘unreasonable’ I felt like I’d been kicked fairly and squarely in the guts. When I received a knock on my door on the evening of Monday 5th September and was confronted by a stranger wielding court documents for attendance that Friday, I forgot all about my guts and something in me changed. My own personal call to arms.
I have always claimed that my ex-husband goes into extreme denial when confronted with personal distress and the fact that in his affidavit he failed to mention that our eldest child has cerebral palsy/life threatening epilepsy (if not treated urgently)/ and an intellectual impairment confirmed it not just to me but to a legal audience. I could fill a book (or a wad of paper forming my submission in response) with reasons as to why I consider such a visitation inappropriate at this stage but the moral of this story will remain the same even if I omit all the details. In his affidavit he got my birth-date wrong; ticked the ‘Aboriginal or Torres Strai Islander’box; was way out on our legal separation date and several other details which in the big scheme of things don’t matter a great deal. However, I know this man like the back of my hand and, because he lacks the ability to vocalise, this was a private little message "You’re so ‘nothing’ that I can’t even remember your birthday".
This time last week I caught the train into the big city. I’ve never had a panic attack but guessed that the impulses I was feeling to run-up-out-anywhere-screaming-arms-flailing-tongue-lolling-puking-in-sheer-terror may have been close to my very first. Fortunately, I saved myself the immense embarrassment and managed to keep my bottom glued to the seat; press my good clothes neatly into place every now and then and when I arrived at Roma Street Station, I stood; tucked my large handbag which doubled as a briefcase under my arm and marched on down to the Brisbane Magistrates Court. A brief meeting with my solicitor; barrister. Advised that neither my ex-husband (was not surprised by this) nor his solicitor will be attending. Instead a lamb was sent to the slaughter … a young solicitor with pimples and looking oh-so-awkward in his sharp suit. Our case was called. Brief statement by my barrister; his solicitor; presiding Magistrate read the documents; asked the lamb to the slaughter if he concedes that there is more to this case than was presented by his client; then without any further fuss concludes by saying that regardless of any health considerations she would have deemed the children ‘age inappropriate’ for such a journey. As a final comment, the Magistrate did wish to make reference to the father’s statement that the mother was ‘over-protective’ and advised that whether or not this comment was founded, under the circumstances she would consider my behaviour ‘perfectly understandable’.
And in that final comment there is victory for me. Because that final comment stripped away from my ex-husband his most deadly weapon against me … my own yearning ~ every mother’s yearning ~ to be doing a ‘good job’.
Really, once the wheels were in motion, I think this was a situation that got way-too-big way-too-fast for my ex to stop. He was feeling bossy one day so went to his solicitor and griped ‘This woman isn’t letting me see my kids’. I’m tipping he didn’t think it would hurt to leave out all the other stuff because I’d crumble under the weight and humiliation of being branded ‘inflexible’ in that first letter. Because, once upon a time, that’s all it would have taken. Then when his solicitor called him and said it was time to take it further, it was too late to add ‘oh by the way, I forgot to tell you a few things …’. It’s my belief that his solicitor was none the wiser until he received my affidavit in response the afternoon before the hearing and was so miffed that he’d been denied knowledge of vital details he sent a junior representative to take the heat. Whatever.
This post isn’t just to tell you about my day in court or to gloat (because the only ‘victory’ here is of a personal nature … when all is said and done, one parent taking another to court will ultimately hurt the children). As best I can in just a few paragraphs, it’s to offer you an extremely abbreviated version of my path out of an emotionally abusive marriage and perhaps to give hope to the millions of sad-eyed women who are in similar situations, whether they’ve yet admitted it to themselves or are just wondering why they feel so shut off from the rest of the world; wondering how the hell they went from being that bright girl with a head full of dreams to a reflection they barely recognise. Because, make no mistake, this need for control ~ for one or the other to be ‘top dog’ ~ runs through the core of so many relationships without us even realising its devastation. That neurotic friend of yours (you know the one … married to wonderfully funny and friend-to-all Jack or Bob or Bruce … who becomes just a little on edge when her husband is nearby … unsure of herself … ) she needs you to listen and believe and understand her. And if ~ and hopefully when ~ that little mouse decides to roar, instead of standing by judgementally asking ‘What’s got up her bum all of a sudden?’ perhaps we can consider the possibility of the very private battle she has waged to get to that point.
All other things aside, after years of having the role I hold most dear to my heart ~ that of Mother ~ questioned and slandered, I feel vindicated. There’s a new confidence. A precious wonderful delicious freedom. I finally called the bully’s bluff … not out of a desire to once and for all be ‘top dog’ myself … but out of a place of love and what I believe to be the best interests of my boys.
That ‘hapless meander’ isn’t quite a march yet … but at least I’m getting close to hitting my full stride.
**Certain details I would love to share with you have been omitted … not just to save Alison having to edit such a long post but because there is further legal action ahead in the next few weeks and I’m keeping vital information close to my chest right now**