When Dave found out his wife was abusing their daughter, there was never any question that he would step up as a single father and make her safe. But it was far harder than he thought, and not necessarily in the ways you might expect.
Looking back, I’ve never been entirely sure why I married Carol. I think it’s probably because at the time we were both really dysfunctional, and I had this idea that maybe together we’d be greater than the sum of our parts.
I was pretty flaky in those days – as well as being an astonishingly heavy drinker I was also enthusiastically working my way through a cornucopoeia of exotic drugs most weekends, and my behaviour was erratic and unreliable. I would work a bit, then lose interest or get fired. I wasn’t exactly what you’d call ‘a catch’.
Carol was literally a con merchant. She ran various scams and cons – and when we were in our twenties, around the mid-eighties, none of the above mattered to us very much. We kind of found each other in a sea of misadventure and just connected. We were both pretty broken. And hey, it was fun for a while – so we got married.
PLANS FOR FAMILY
Once we were married it became almost an obsession of mine to have a child. Reflecting on that now, there’s no way we should have been thinking about taking care of a child – we couldn’t even take care of ourselves. But it became my primary focus – I think I thought it would be the thing that would straighten us out, make us grow up.
Carol wasn’t fussed one way or the other at the time. She basically said we could have one but I’d have to look after it because she didn’t want to. I mean, that should have told me something. But I ploughed ahead anyway.
And we were lucky. Carol got pregnant really quickly and I was thrilled. I mean, not thrilled enough to actually shape up and become more responsible, but thrilled enough to tell everyone in the pub every night how pleased I was.
By the time Nicola was born Carol pretty much hated her already
As the pregnancy wore on, she became more resentful. Said she’d been lumbered with one child already (me) and now she had another one coming and I was useless and I’d ruined her life. She was angry throughout her pregnancy. It wasn’t a great start.
It didn’t help either that the birth was really brutal, or that she nearly died giving birth to our daughter. By the time Nicola was born Carol pretty much hated her already.
HAZY BABY DAYS
If I’m really honest, I don’t remember much about Nicky’s early days. I don’t think it’s unusual for dads to find it hard to bond with tiny babies. I felt inadequate and uncertain about what to do, and I couldn’t feed her; Carol – slightly bizarrely – insisted on exclusively breast feeding. So I never got close to the baby, and life seemed for me to just be the same. I was out most nights, to avoid the rows at home about how useless I was. It was a toxic, ever-decreasing circle.
As Nicky grew up though I found myself more connected – when I was sober. And I knew without hesitation that I loved her more than I’d ever loved anything, including myself. But my lifestyle meant I wasn’t a great father in those days, and that probably explains why I missed so many of the signs that something was wrong.
Carol was abusing our daughter and it took me a while to realise it. Unexplained little bruises on her body, a gradual withdrawing of confidence, her silence around her mother…
It’s really hard to talk about this, so I’m going to be brief and matter-of-fact about it. Carol was abusing our daughter and it took me a while to realise it. Unexplained little bruises on her body, a gradual withdrawing of confidence, her silence around her mother, her resistance to being at home alone with her – one day it all just suddenly fell into place. And actually one day I caught her. She didn’t know I was there and I saw her bite our child on her arm – hard – because she wouldn’t eat her food. It’s something that will live with me forever. The worst thing was that Nicky didn’t even cry out. She just looked resigned, broken. I knew in that moment that this was not a one-off.
I am at least able to say now that this shock brought me to my senses. I realised that Carol wasn’t fit to care for Nicky and I needed to get her to somewhere safe. Almost overnight I threw in my drinking and cocaine use (which was no picnic, I can tell you) and got my shit together. I found that I was able to do it for my daughter, when all the time I hadn’t been able to do it for myself.
But I had no idea how hard the road ahead was going to be. This was the late eighties, and it was still really unusual for a man to be the primary carer. And I had to fight with everything I had – literally and figuratively – to make my child safe. I knew I had to get her away from Carol before something really bad happened.
The courts always favour the mother – even these days – and I ended up having to go through a gut-wrenching court fight, which included having to photograph my child’s injuries
I had some money in a trust from my family that I released – I had to pay my lawyer over £20,000 to fight the case, despite the overwhelming evidence that Carol was an unfit mother. And I lost everything I had. Whereas Carol got support from the state, default custody, and Legal Aid, I had basically no rights. The courts always favour the mother – even these days – and I ended up having to go through a gut-wrenching court fight, which included having to photograph my child’s injuries to prove Carol was unfit to be a parent. Why do people find it so hard to believe that women can be violent abusers too?
During that time Nicky – now seven years old – was still with her mother, and ended up bearing the brunt of her mother’s anger towards me. I secretly bought a pager so she could reach me if she needed help and told her to keep the number hidden from Carol. One night Carol was angry with her because she wouldn’t stop bouncing on the sofa and threw her out of the house, in the rain, with no shoes on. I will never forget picking her up that night, shivering and crying. How I didn’t kill Carol during those days actually is a miracle.
Eventually I won. There was never an option that I would give up, and Nicky came to live with me, I gained full custody. And social services allowed Carol supervised visitation rights. It should have felt like a victory but I had been so devastated. Both Nicky and I were on our knees, it was like we had to start from scratch.
LEARNING TO TRUST AGAIN
Once in a safe space, all the fear and anger she had pent up in her came out, and she was like a wild animal, her frustration and bitterness spilling out of her
Nicky was angry. Once in a safe space, all the fear and anger she had pent up in her came out, and she was like a wild animal, her frustration and bitterness spilling out of her like spitting logs on a hot fire. She was beside herself some days. When she used to lose herself in her anger and rage I used to just try and hold her gently, and just calm her down with calm, quiet words, keeping her safe. Just making sure I didn’t react, but taught her gentleness again. It was heart-breaking. But we got through it. Bit by bit.
There was so much that could have made this easier and one of those things would have been having the support network of other parents. But a single dad in those days was viewed with suspicion. The mums at the school gate wouldn’t talk to me, and the men were wary of me – maybe they thought I might chat up their wives. Maybe they just couldn’t relate to me – after all, most of them were out there, slaying the dragon, building careers. And I was picking up freelance work and being both mum and dad to my child. I just know I never felt more alone in my life than in those early days. It was unbelievably lonely.
…a single dad in those days was viewed with suspicion. The mums at the school gate wouldn’t talk to me, and the men were wary of me
It’s also hard not to be angry looking back. If a father had done a tenth of the things to his child that Carol did to Nicky, he’d have probably been banned from seeing her for life. It is still hard not to feel resentful about that.
But the story has a happy ending at least. Nicky has grown up and is managing okay. She has PTSD but has spent considerable time in counselling addressing that. And we are still close. She is wary of having her own kids and I can’t blame her for that. But I hope I get a chance to be a grandad, although time is passing and it seems unlikely.
On Father’s Day, give a little thought to all the dads out there who have stood up and been counted
There has been so much talk about whether dads can step up and be as good as mums when it comes to nurturing and I find that wholly patronising. Of course they can – but like everything, these things are on a case-by-case basis. Not every man will be great at this, and not every woman either, as I know only too well.
On Father’s Day, give a little thought to all the dads out there who have stood up and been counted, however tough it’s been. In the meantime I’m off down the pub – but this time not to drink myself silly and snort lines of coke off the bar – I’m having a sober Sunday lunch with my daughter, and I couldn’t be happier or more grateful about anything else in the whole wide world.
As told to Sam Harrington-Lowe
All names have been changed
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