Emotional Abuse: Not as Obvious as You’d Think
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve written a series of posts about my experience with S’s birth and first few weeks of life.
Many people have commented about my ex’s behaviour. There were some clear signs that he was an abusive person, attempting to intimidate and control me. But while I was writing these posts, I also noticed some smaller, more subtle points, that many of us would not automatically think of as abusive or controlling. I thought it might be useful to collect all of these into a post, so as to illustrate the point that domestic and emotional abuse are not as obvious as one might think…
- The night before I went into labour, I was told “you’re being a dick again.” There was no further explanation of exactly what I had done that was so wrong; was it the falling asleep? The not eating dinner? The being ill? Whenever I was accused of being a dick, there was never any concrete explanation, this is what you did, this is how you avoid this happening again. There was no way to avoid it happening; it was not under my control.
- When my contractions stopped at the hospital, the inference was that I had deliberately stopped them, to be difficult. I was an inconvenience, as was the baby being born; he’d had to get a baby sitter, and needed to get back home. He rarely left his home when he wasn’t at work, because there he is the king of his castle, sitting about in his pants and having his children (and partner) tend to his every whim. Outside of the house, he was out of his comfort zone, and in the hospital people might notice what he was doing, so he was on his best behaviour; this was difficult for him. He wanted to go home as soon as he could, so I needed to get on and give birth.
- During the birth, I felt a lot of pressure not to make a fuss, not to make any noise, not to be the centre of attention and be a drama queen. Throughout my pregnancy I had been accused of over-reacting, attention seeking and being difficult. If I did that while I was in labour, he might up and leave and I’d have to go through this without him. Similarly with pain relief, it was made clear to me that I should go as far as I could without any drugs. I didn’t want drugs any way, but my changing my mind would not have gone down well. Afterwards he bragged to people that I had gotten to 10cm dilated without pain relief, as if this was somehow his achievement.
- When I asked him not to rub my back while was in labour, the response “why am I not allowed to touch you?!” made it sound as if I should be allowing him to touch me wherever, and however he wanted. This was a general theme of our relationship, that didn’t stop while I was in labour, or after the birth. I was grabbed, squeezed, pushed and punched (hard) whenever he felt like it. My body was not my own, and it was not for me to say where or when he could touch it.
- After the event, he told me that when I had a big contraction and the monitor lost S’s heartbeat, the midwife had not been in the room (other people tell me she was there). He had saved the day by pressing the button to call her, having seen that something was not right with me (the midwife pressed the call button to get assistance). He also told me my body had squeezed my baby so hard I had stopped her heartbeat (actually I just had a big contraction, and the monitor couldn’t pick up a heartbeat through the muscle of my uterus contracting) – this was playing on my insecurities about being a mother, being capable of looking after a child. I had often worried that I was simply “not built” to be a mother, and he played on this a lot.
- Throughout my labour, he was on the phone: to his mother, his babysitter, his sister, his friends, his boss. He was on Facebook and texting people. Before he had even cut the umbilical cord, he was on the phone to his mother rather than comforting me; I was not important.
- After the birth, he told me that when S’s head had first come out, the cord was around her neck and I had almost strangled her at that point by continuing to push. Nobody else recalls this; it was not in my notes, I do not recall the midwife asking me not to push so that she could untangle it. As far as I recall, once S’s head was out, her body was so small it just followed without any more contractions or pushing. Still, I was made to believe I had yet again almost killed my child before she was even born; I was that much of a bad mother.
- My being kept in hospital for so long was a major inconvenience. More than once I was told he was wasting his 2 weeks’ paternity leave. On the days he didn’t visit us, it was because his house had fallen into such a state while he’d spent “every waking minute” (from -12-4) in the hospital with me, instead of doing the housework (or rather, making his kids do it). It was my fault his house was a mess; his assumption had always been that I would have the baby, come home, and spend my days in his house being a good housewife. What he’d actually been doing, is going home and sleeping with his ex.
- When S was in NICU, it was no big deal. At least one of his other children had suffered with jaundice when they were born; yet again I was making mountains out of molehills, and attention seeking by crying.
- He refused to ever change S’s nappy or clothes; she often cried when she was disturbed like this, and he didn’t want her to associate him with crying. Instead, he stood over me and watched my every move, tutting that I was so awkward, telling me I’d done this wrong, or I should have used that. The nappy was too loose or too tight, didn’t I have one in a size that would fit her tiny frame? I should have put a different babygro on her, didn’t I have a cardigan that would fit her? I was wrapping her all wrong in the blanket; I should wrap her in two blankets so that she didn’t get cold; I was using two blankets overnight, wasn’t I? The concept of babies overheating and dying from SIDS clearly did not occur to him, and I was too scared not to do as I was told, so S was bundled up in so many layers and blankets you could barely tell there was a baby in there – until one day a nurse came to take her temperature and told me to remove a couple of layers. Obviously, the next time he came in, I was told off for that too. He knew more than the hospital staff; he had 6 kids and they were all fine. Put another blanket on her.
- Every time I wanted something from town, or from my house – nappies, clean clothes, baby wipes, cotton wool, toiletries – I was an inconvenience. I should have packed my hospital bag better, shouldn’t I (S was born 5 weeks early; the week before I’d gone into hospital I’d shown him, this is where I will keep my hospital bag, in case you ever need to know. He had laughed at me for having even started packing a bag yet).
- For the last few days we were in hospital, I was so down and miserable at being stuck there. My misery and exhaustion could not compete with his though; he was having to visit me in hospital every day. “how do you think it makes me feel, having to leave you both here every day?” What he didn’t add was “… so that I can go home and sleep with my ex…” which is what I later found out he had been up to.
- I was repeatedly told, throughout my pregnancy, and while we were trying to establish breastfeeding, that I wouldn’t be able to hack it. I had always said that I didn’t want to use formula, and intended to breastfeed for as long as I needed to. He used to tweak or bite my nipples often, and when I complained that he was hurting me, his response was “you’re far too sensitive, you’ll never be able to breastfeed.” When I started breastfeeding, he said I’d probably hack it for a couple of weeks, a month tops. I was incapable, see. Not cut out to be a mother, not a good mother, not fit to be a mother. Those words were never said at the time; they didn’t need to be, because every single part of my being a mother was undermined at every available opportunity. (incidentally, S is now 11 months old, and I am still breastfeeding her. So in your face, stupid ex.)
- He never once organised for someone to pick his kids up from school for him. This is an often-used passive-aggressive way of asserting control and making me feel guilty. His kids and lack of childcare were used on a regular basis throughout our relationship – inference being that if I were a good girlfriend/mother of his child, I would be in his house, looking after his kids 24/7 so that he could go out and do as he pleased, whenever he pleased. The last-minute texts in front of me to get someone to pick the kids up from school were designed to make me feel guilty, like a burden: you see, now I’m having to bother other people to do your job because you won’t just get up off your arse and come home. He usually tried to get me to make the requests on his behalf – I was, after all, the reason he wasn’t able to pick his children up from school himself, so I should organise the childcare.
- When we finally brought S home, I was obliged to dress her in the outfit he had bought, but the fact it was so big on her we had to roll the arms and legs right up, that was my fault. It was my fault S had been born early, my fault she was jaundiced, my fault she only weighed 5lb. Later on, when people commented that 5lb was a good weight for a baby who had been born 5 weeks early, he took all the credit, explaining that it was in his genes to have big babies, and he had looked after me so well (!) throughout my pregnancy, which was why S had been born so healthy. I’m not even joking; this was actually said.
- As we left the ward and walked S to the car, I was repeatedly told I was holding her wrong, I looked really uncomfortable holding her, she looked awkward, I was about to drop her, I wasn’t supporting her head. When we got out of the car at my house, I wasn’t allowed to carry her into the house in case I dropped her. Yet again this was telling me: you’re no good at this, you are not meant to be a mother, you are awkward with your child, you cannot be trusted to look after your child.
- I wasn’t allowed to spend my first night at home, even though realistically there was nothing wrong with the flat, and we would have been fine. The following night, when S and I did stay at home, my sister was drafted in to stay with us. The ex did not trust me to be alone with my own child.
- The first time S slept more than a few hours, I was told, “she would have always slept through if you had let her.” Never mind the fact she would have slept through, and probably died or been brain-damaged because of her level of jaundice; never mind the fact the doctors told me I must not let her go more than three hours without feeding. I had been deliberately stopping her from sleeping through the night. I’m sure he would have an absolute field day with our current sleeping arrangement.
I used to tell my midwife all the time: “I wish he’d just hit me, and then I’d know. Everything he did could have been taken another way; I might have been over-reacting; perhaps he’d just had a hard day. Perhaps I really was expecting too much, and not being supportive enough of his situation (a common complaint from him).
Throughout our relationship, before and during my pregnancy, he would move suddenly as if to hit me, and often came at me with a knife in the same way – but he never actually made contact. When I complained I didn’t like him doing it, I was told I was over-sensitive, couldn’t take a joke.
He knew that if he actually hit or cut me, I would know for sure that he was in the wrong, and that would give me what I needed to leave. So instead he made me permanently scared that he was going to hit me.
There were regular displays of his strength: he would hold me down, hug me a little too tight, perform pull-ups and lift weights in front of me. There were stories of having been set upon by two or three men, but having managed to fight them all off. A story of winning a fight against a couple of men who later notoriously kicked a young lad to death and went to prison. There was the time I woke in the middle of the night to find myself in a headlock because he was “dreaming he was being attacked.” And, of course, there were all the times he hit his children, or told me about having had to hit them. The fact he didn’t worry about his front door having no lock, because nobody would ever dare to come into his house. Stories of the times he’d woken up to find he was physically fighting with his wife (note: he was fighting with her, not beating the shit out of her). He told me about other times, when he’d had his wife by her neck against the wall, even when she was pregnant. I was terrified. She had deliberately antagonised him into doing it though; I would be ok if I didn’t deliberately antagonise him.
After I’d stopped seeing him, been to counselling, and felt stronger, I gave him a chance nobody thought I should give. I gave him the name and number of a lady who works for Splitz, and runs extended, long-term counselling sessions for perpetrators of domestic abuse. I told him that if he would sign up for the counselling, I would begin talking about his having regular access to S. He avoided the subject for a couple of weeks, before saying to me one day (while he was recording the conversation without my knowledge), “you make out like I hit you or something.” Because he hadn’t hit me, he’d done nothing wrong. I was doing my usual trick of over-reacting, making mountains out of molehills, lying.
Many women who are in horrible, abusive and controlling relationships will not have black eyes and bruises. They may never be physically attacked. That doesn’t mean they’re not living in hell. My ex didn’t need to hit me to keep me in my place; he had broken me mentally over a long period when I was very vulnerable. I did as I was told. What he hates about me now, is not that I have taken his daughter away from him; his actions have proved many times over just how little he cares for her. What bothers him is that he can no longer control me. I escaped, and he hates it.
Abuse damages in whatever form it takes and here at Many Small Voices we hope to gather the stories of those who have survived abuse into one resource to help and support those who are still victims. We also hope to support survivors through recovery once the abuse has stopped because the scars are still there and will remain forever. Support after abuse is just as important.
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