Last year I watched my mum (and her marriage) fall apart. I watched her cry hysterically, I watched her have panic attacks about the future, I watched her throw things in anger and frustration and I watched her self-confidence plummet. I tried as best I could to help her keep herself afloat in this horrible sea of sadness she was feeling, but some days I was sure there were holes in our life raft. And why did I have to watch her go through this? Because my step-father (repeatedly) cheated on her.
When I was 5 years old, my mum introduced me to the new man in her life. I wasn’t pleased. He led a complicated life that came with children and an angry ex-wife. My mum seemed to push her way through these relationship obstacles with such finesse. She wanted this relationship to work, and so she worked hard for it. And she achieved success: my mum married my step-father and actually got his children to warm to her. She helped me feel better about the situation too. They even had kids together. We were a modern family that worked. That fairy tale was short-lived.
By the time I reached my mid-teens I started noticing that my mum’s entire personality was changing. She had always been a strong, successful and independent woman but those qualities were fading. She no longer took things head-on and with a smile. Instead she was timid, unsure of herself, and guarded. Her relationship with my step-father had changed. They were no longer equals. He was dominating her, controlling her, attacking her.
At that time, my step-father had started taking a keen interest in another culture (though I won’t mention which). He started language classes once a week. No big deal; just a hobby. But then the language classes turned into “intensive weekend workshops”. Next he announced a solo overseas trip to said country. He said he needed the trip because he was stressed and made an excuse that he wanted to backpack but knew my mum was a hotel kind of traveller. I could see the desperation in my mum’s eyes; I could hear it in her voice during the midnight fights with my step-father about his trip. She was fighting for their marriage. He was cold and manipulative.
I asked my mum several times about my step-father cheating on her. Though she denied it, her face told me my suspicions were right. I said I heard her crying at night. I said she had changed, but not for the better. I said she should leave him if he was hurting her so much. She hugged me tightly and I felt her shaking with sobs. She didn’t mention it again and she didn’t leave him. But she continued to silently break down.
I couldn’t understand why she stayed. He came home and gloated about his trip – parading photos of him with various random women. Then he went on more trips and came back to gloat more. I watched my mum walk away without saying a thing. I wanted to scream at her (and more so him) but I was just a teenager. I couldn’t make my mum leave him. It was her choice to make. But she didn’t make the right choice. And she wouldn’t for another six years.
Last year, my mum hit an all-time low. My step-father’s infidelities (yes, plural), and his denial of them, had torn her apart. She was just a shell of the mum I used know. She couldn’t work (and she’d always loved work), she couldn’t sleep, she didn’t eat and she didn’t talk. I was terrified. I thought I’d lose her. I thought I’d wake up to find she’d killed herself. In fact, she nearly did. I think that’s what brought her back. Somewhere deep within her, she knew she was a fighter. And so she fought.
She fought until he admitted them all. He did. His advice: get over it. Her advice: GET OUT!
I got my mum back. She had pulled herself out of the grave he’d dug her. She’d realised she wasn’t crazy like he said she was. She realised she didn’t hallucinate the phone calls from his girlfriends telling her to leave the house, to leave her children because she was an unfit mother (she definitely wasn’t!). She realised she didn’t have to put up with his lies about not sleeping with the foreign exchange university student (who he met on a dating site) that he’d brought into our house. She realised she wouldn’t be herself again until he was out of her life.
This year was the first time I’ve seen my mum truly smile in a very long time. It wasn’t forced, and it wasn’t a mask for pain. It was real, it was beautiful and it was because my youngest sister said, “Mummy, I like that you don’t cry anymore”.
Have you ever had to watch someone you love go through a hard time?