A Waterford woman gives a first-hand account of the many faces of domestic violence, how it destroyed her and devastated her children
WHEN Laura* first met her now ex-partner, she was a teenager and fell head-long into a relationship which would last for 13 years.
“He treated me like I was his world. He was so devoted to me, and I actually felt real love.” When he began disrespecting her occasionally, she dismissed it. “I had never really had boyfriends so I thought this was ok and that it wasn’t always going to be a fairy tale.”
Very slowly, the disrespect became commonplace and with it came verbal abuse. “It became more controlling.” He would convince Laura to cancel plans with friends as he had planned something special. ” I see now that it was just a control tactic, something to reel me in closer and closer. “
Laura was together with her partner for less than a year when she discovered that they were expecting a baby. “I wanted a family for my child. I wanted to give my child what I had growing up. I thought that by staying with my partner that I was choosing a family and making the right choice for my child because I really did have such a good childhood. I thought that I couldn’t give that to my child on my own.”
Initially the violent episodes were completely unexpected but as time passed, the tell-tale signs began to be there. “I started to feel it building and I would try to avoid it.” Laura began to avoid people on the street, understanding that her partner did not want her speaking to others, in case she said something that made him look bad. “It became a process of overthinking and I was mentally abusing myself because I was trying to stay 10 steps ahead of myself. I started walking away from people and he would stop and have the conversation instead. The abuse I would get for that was less than the abuse I would get if I spoke and the wrong words came out.”
Jealousy became apparent very quickly between her partner and her son. “He didn’t like that I gave my son more attention than I gave him.” When Laura’s son was three, her partner physically assaulted her for the first time. Her son shouted, “Don’t you hurt my Mammy.”
“He pushed my son on the bed and walked out of the house. I thought ‘What have I done? What have I let into my home? What have I let into my child’s life?’”
Her partner was always sorry and because of that, the severity of the situation was diluted. “His apologies were always these big grand gestures.” During her second pregnancy, Laura was subjected to a torrent of psychological abuse which destroyed her happiness during that pregnancy and, in her own words, “tortured her.” I thought ‘What am I doing bringing up a child in this world. He isn’t a good Dad, I’m failing as a mother clearly’. I just felt miserable.”
Not long after, Laura became pregnant for the third time and her mental health and resolve plummeted. “That’s it now, he owns me.”
Having never had a fixed career, Laura was aware that she was financially reliant on her partner. Her chances of raising the children without him were, she felt, next to impossible with her limited independence. “He would let me know that nobody was ever going to want me again. He would abuse me to the point where I felt I was nothing.”
Over time, Laura’s partner chipped away at the things and the people that she enjoyed. With a barely five-month-old baby, and her partner now not working, Laura found herself taking a gruelling job with extremely long hours, just to make ends meet.
“I used to go to work at 10am, finishing at 1am. I was always really stressed. My break was used to collect the kids from the person who had them to drop them to the next person to mind them. I gave them baths or showers, fed them, got them in their pyjamas and I would collect these kids at one o’clock in the morning to bring them home.” This attempt at independence, however, was rewarded by a succession of punches one evening after work. “I never fought back, I just went more and more into myself. I put a shield up and pretended it wasn’t happening.”
Laura tried not to fight back, thinking that one parent fighting was better than two parents fighting but it wasn’t long before her eldest son began fighting back on her behalf. “He thought that I couldn’t defend myself. My partner became verbally abusive and eventually physically abusive to my eldest son.”
Code of silence
A code of silence became common in their household and although Laura now knew that her son was also on the receiving end of that abuse, they did not speak of it. “That makes me feel very guilty because I should have been the one who protected him and I didn’t. I should have been the parent and I wasn’t.”
These incidents were always followed by a showing of love or a gift and a sense of remorse so Laura did not recognise her situation for what it ultimately was. “I just thought that he hated me because I stopped him from being the person he wants to be by getting pregnant from a young age.” She turned to his family for help and none was given.
“His Dad would tell me that he wouldn’t do it again that he will deal with it.”
Despite these repeated ordeals, a loyalty to her partner and a deep sense of love for him was still present. “I was with the man who was the father of my kids. I was in a family environment, I wanted that for my kids. I didn’t want to be a single mam. He was the person I genuinely loved so that is probably why I condoned a lot.”
The triggers, which were initially easy to spot, became countless “like his t-shirt he wanted to wear for work not being washed, meaning he had to wear a different one. It would be a certain type of socks for training not being washed, which would kick him off.” Laura’s partner drove into her car, he repeatedly punched the dashboard of the car until it caved in, one event swiftly following another. “I remember praying for the airbag to pop because if it did, he would stop punching.”
“He made a habit of coming into work to check if I was there, to see if I was really finished at certain times or if I was even there.” Laura’s manager at work recognised the signs and offered to send her home if work was too much but at home there was no release. With her mental health at an all-time low, Laura left her job.
“He had both me and him convinced that he did nothing wrong. I started to believe the lies and believed that I was going slowly crazy. I know it’s really strange for someone else to think this but I really believed everything he told me. I started to hate the word sorry because the word sorry gave him a pass to do it again. I genuinely loved him, genuinely loved that person, I thought that I could fix him and help him to be the person I thought was inside him.”
Impact on children
When her eldest son began a pattern of crying in school and punching the walls, Laura realised that her children were being affected, despite her attempts to protect them. “He stopped eating during the day and over-eating at night. He started hiding the wrappers under his bed. He was trying to fill something inside with food, hoping it would go away.” At the same time, her second son was exhibiting a lot of anger and was referred to a child psychologist. “The psychologist handed me a piece of paper and said, ‘I want you to call this number.’ I thought it was a further assessment but the paper said ‘Oasis House’. I told the psychologist that I wasn’t in that kind of relationship to need help and she said ‘I think you are and it’s really affecting your child.’”
Laura began to live in fear of her life, that one day her partner would take it and she would be leaving her children behind. “I walked the roads at 5am one night, just to get away, I was so afraid he was going to kill me.” On foot of a concern raised by a neighbour, the Gardaí and TUSLA were called.
“In my head, I thought I will be sent into that Oasis House place, somebody will take my children, he will get my children and he will tell everyone that I’m crazy. At one point, I felt my only two options were to leave here in a body bag or leave here for a mental home, I felt there was no third option.”
The day Laura left followed a day spent at the beach as a family. “He told me he would drown me in front of my children if I opened my mouth about what he did. He said, ‘You don’t think I’ll do it but I’ll drown you here and now.’ That night I said goodnight to the boys thinking I would never see them again. I prayed that night that if I was killed in my sleep that my boys wouldn’t forget me and they would know how much I loved them. I promised myself that if I woke up the next day that I would definitely leave. With the help of the Gardaí, Oasis House and family, I did.”
* We have changed the woman’s name to protect her identity