One balmy evening much like any other toward the end of my daughter’s senior year in high school, she and I were sitting cross-legged on the living room floor having a mother/daughter heart-to-heart about her blooming first romance. I was puzzled (and somewhat concerned) about why she had chosen as her love interest a particular young man with whom she had very little in common. Her reply was brief and to the point as she said, “I just needed to feel that Daddy didn’t own me.” At first, I had trouble taking those words in and questioned her further about what she meant.
She got very quiet, and with tears starting to spill, asked me to remember a day several years earlier when her dad had been treating me with a great deal of disdain. She overheard me say, almost jokingly, that if I didn’t know better I might wonder if there was another woman in the picture. I barely recalled the incident, so routine was his dismissive treatment toward me. But she went on to tell me she had wanted to shout out that, yes, there was another woman in the picture and that she was it.
With that, my heart, mind, and soul stood still… bracing with dread for what I feared might be coming. Some ugly truth was being revealed that would shine a light on what had happened to my relationship with my husband, and more importantly, what I feared my precious daughter might have been enduring for who knew how long.
The impossible had happened. We sat for hours that night while she recalled what had been pent up inside since she was fourteen – the details of how her father “set her up” one night and then the next day tried to molest her. She said she had eaten some chocolate ice cream after dinner and a little was on her lips when she fell asleep on the couch. She was awakened when her father came over and kissed her awake, licking off the ice cream as he did so, and telling her that they could have secrets that “your mother doesn’t need to know about.” The next day when they were alone in the house, he came up behind her as she was doing the dishes and he touched her intimately, saying that she would enjoy what was to come. She jumped away so quickly that it almost knocked him over, and to this day I believe it was her strong reaction that discouraged him from approaching her physically again in that way, although there were many incidents of what I now understand to be “emotional molestation” when they were alone together in the form of discussing personal sexual issues, making personal comments about her body, making inappropriate comments about her friends, and so on.
The pillars of my world were shattered. By the end of the evening she and I had both cried our eyes out. I literally felt like a knife had been stabbed into my very being, and that the pillars of my world, imperfect though it had been, were crumbling under me. But as painful as it was for me, I knew in my heart that it was equally relieving to her to finally talk about what had happened. I was grateful beyond words to be able to help her shoulder what had, for four long years, been hers alone to carry.
We made several decisions that night. One was to never let him be a wedge between us again, and that whatever he told one of us we would share with the other, forever dis-empowering him from pitting us against each other as he had done so many times before. We would take a little while to consider our options and then make a plan, but the one thing were not going to do was pretend nothing had happened.
Given his unstable emotional condition, distorted thinking, and penchant for guns, we had to weigh the value of confronting him versus finding another way to safety. We would seek professional advice from several sources knowing we weren’t alone in this situation and that thousands of women have been in similar and even much worse situations than we were. We would reach out to trusted friends and family for support. We would remind ourselves and each other that we would not take on a victim mentality, but hold firmly to the fact that we were strong and whole – something that could not be eroded. We would refuse to pay the price for the travesties of another. We would rejoice in the glass half full, grateful for the instant reaction she displayed when her father approached her, a reaction that discouraged further advances. That night we only brushed on these themes; it has been just over five years since that balmy evening. Since then we have come a long way and the road has not been easy.
A lasting shadow: how could I have missed the clues? I had known for a long time that my relationship with my husband was flawed. Intimacy between us had been non-existent for several years to the point we each had our own bedrooms. He blamed it on the medications he took for a very serious medical condition. I blamed myself for gaining weight, spending too much time at work, and being fatigued from caregiving for my elderly mother. But what I didn’t take note of, as our relationship became more distant, was the methodical way he wedged himself between my daughter and me, whispering to her that I would be angry over the most trivial things, telling her I would disapprove of her, twisting my words and motives in a way that garnered her trust, creating discord so that he could step in and play the hero.
In short, I now see that he systematically tried to make himself the center of her universe. The one other thing I noticed was his treatment of her which seemed to change overnight, from making her his little princess, constant companion and confidant, to taunting, mocking, and ridiculing her in the guise of innocent teasing. I remember pleading with him to treat her the way he would want other men to treat her, but always got a retort about staying out of their relationship. I chalked it up to his inability to handle teenage behavior in a positive way. In hindsight I believe his behavior toward her changed as a result of her rejection of him, and that he was behaving like a scorned lover in the sickest sense.
I am still tempted to yearn for an answer as to “why” my husband and my daughter’s father, whom we both adored in our early years as a family, fell apart on us. And I sometimes wonder if I had seen and recognized the clues early on for what they were, whether I could have done anything to help us avoid what happened. Most tormenting at times is the knowledge that my dear daughter was afraid in her own home while I stood by, completely ignorant of it to the point that I told a relative I would never leave my husband because I was sure my daughter would choose to go with him.
Moving forward my wonderful daughter graduated from a fine university with honors and is living a happy, healthy life as a young adult. She has a lovely new romance in her life and many long-time friends. I have legally separated from her father who now lives in another state, and I am building a life full of friends and fulfilling activity. Neither of us has seen him in over a year. My shattered world is being pieced back together, starting with a counselor’s confirmation just days after I first learned of what had transpired – that I had done the most important thing of all: I believed my daughter’s every word when she poured out her heart that fateful day, and immediately began steps to healing. Now I am learning to forgive, not the behavior which was so damaging, but the inexplicable human frailty at the root of it.