(Content Warning for Partner Violence and descriptions of abuse)
When I scroll through social media and see friends dedicating a post to their parents celebrating their 25th or 30th wedding anniversary, I can’t help but wonder how that would feel like. Neither can I relate to girls saying they hope to end up married to someone who loves their mother as much as their father does.
My childhood memories mainly consist of two things. Firstly, me growing up hoping that my mother gets a divorce from my father. And secondly, me knowing that I never want to end up married to a man like him.
In fact, hidden somewhere in my closet is a copy of a half-filled divorce application that my mother never seemed to complete.
The beginning of my childhood was not too bad, though I don’t remember much about it. I think I have unconsciously blocked some of the memories out, and what I do remember are less than pleasant. But I do remember things being relatively normal. I grew up working class and we couldn’t afford our own home until I started school. That changed when my father landed another job that paid him better, and our family went through upward mobility. We could afford short trips to Malaysia. We could afford to eat out.
Things were looking better – or so I thought.
He was always on his laptop and like any child, whenever he wasn’t around, I thought he was working. And so did my mother and brothers. And then came that fateful day. I came back home from school one day and my mother looked restless and helpless. I remember placing my backpack on the floor, and together with my eight-year-old brother asked her what was wrong. Even as a young girl, I knew it wasn’t something small – I had never seen my mother that upset.
“Your father has a mistress!” my mother blurted out. Eleven-year-old me couldn’t fully grasp the idea of what a mistress was, but I could understand what was going on. I assumed my mother was at her wit’s end and emotionally unstable when she found out. She started to tell me everything. How my father forgot his phone when he left the house and how her intuition moved her to check his phone. It was then she found his text messages to a woman he met online. It didn’t make things better when we found out he had been financially supporting his mistress.
It was no surprise that their marriage was on the rocks since the revelation. All I remembered after was the hours of shouting and fighting. Initially, my brothers and I would attempt to stop them from fighting but it would be of no use. My father was usually a silent man. He barely spoke much to anyone but when he raised his voice I would get scared. I could remember the terrified look on my mother’s face as he shouted at her. I saw him raising his hand but I ran away and hid in my room to avoid seeing what happened next. His temper would flare up at the smallest of things and my mother, unfortunately, had to take the brunt of it.
I dreaded going home since then. I hated going home because the nights would be filled with the shouting from my parents – mostly my father and the crying of my mother. Once, I remembered the fight was so bad that my mother took my brothers and me to the airport in the middle of the night, where we stayed overnight. I remembered looking at the aeroplanes that were ready to take flight and wishing I could just jump on board one with my mother and brothers, and go far away from where my father was.
It wasn’t just the affair that took a toll on my mother. There were no visible bruises that I could see on my mother’s body. But I knew that the abuse my father had inflicted was not always physical, but constant emotional and mental abuse. My mother, who was once bubbly and happy, was crying her eyes out every night as my dad would lash out and shout at her. He would call her names and ironically, call her a useless wife. She became quiet and withdrew herself from people. It was obvious she wasn’t happy and that broke my heart the most. Things became worse when she started falling ill and was hospitalised. I overheard her phone conversation with my aunt about my father being angry that she wasn’t able to fulfil his ‘sexual desires’ due to her failing health. Being forced to have intercourse with my father was taking a toll on her body as well.
When I was slightly older, she would come to me and asked if I would be fine if she seeks a divorce. I would tell her over and over that her children would support her if that was what she wanted. By then, I barely spoke much to my father and for me, it didn’t matter anymore if he was around or not. She never went through with it, however, probably due to the fact that she was not financially stable and didn’t want us to grow up without a father around.
Over time, while I empathised with my mother and what she was going through, I also guiltily started resenting my mother for staying with him. I could never understand her at that time. Wasn’t it clear that staying in the marriage was causing more harm to her children?
Religion became a solace for her. I watched as my mother turned to religion for comfort. She began to seek comfort in the Quran, in religious classes and I had never seen her pray as much before. As I grew older, I realised how turning to religion as a coping mechanism could also get problematic. Religious preachers would preach about how wives would end up in hell for not being ‘good’ wives. Sure, there were one or two occasions when the preacher would ‘advise’ husbands not to beat their wives, but most of the preaching would revolve around being a good wife, and how a wife would never end up in heaven if her husband was not happy with her. There was a lot of religious manipulation and guilt enforced on the woman, a lot of narration preached blamed women for failed marriages, yet very few gave support for those trying to escape abusive marriages.
It was painful to watch as my mother internalise this, probably trying to find a solution to her problems without realising how much damage such ideologies was causing her. She was praying her problems away – and it seemed as if her prayers were answered when my father ‘realised his mistakes’ and turned to religion himself and started to repent, but that was only the start of more emotional and mental abuse.
My father started to be home more often. I saw him praying more and my mother seemed to be happy that her husband was changing. I, on the other hand, was not as convinced. I was, and still, don’t know what was the turning point for him and my brothers and I were expected to live normally. There was no talk about what happened over the few years as if nothing happened at all.
Saturday mornings consisted of our parents dragging us to the mosque for sermons. This only lasted for a while before it stopped. And while I was happy not to have to wake up early in the morning to hear religious lectures, I noticed my father growing to be more conservative. He began to exert control over my mother and me. The most obvious that made me notice the change in his behaviour was when he began forbidding my mother from wearing any colour but black. My mother was donned often in black abayas with a long hijab, even during festive occasions such as Hari Raya. I could only imagine how she felt, watching her sister dressed in colourful baju kurungs while she was trapped in the demands of her husband. This only stopped two years ago when I started working and buying her colourful baju kurungs with my own money.
While his coercive and controlling behaviour might have mellowed since then, it was obvious the years of such abuse had taken its toll on everyone in the family. My father and I don’t talk as much, he’s still very conservative in his thinking and together with the years of resentment of his actions that I have kept inside, we get into fights more often than have a civil conversation.
But what was obvious was how it affected my personal relationships. I feared to be in relationships and when I did get into them, it was never healthy. My first relationship was with someone four years older. We were in public when he first slapped me. And just like my father, he was manipulative as well as mentally and emotionally abusive. It didn’t take me long to get out of the relationship, but it made me realise as much as I knew I didn’t want to end up with a man like my father, never having confronted what had happened growing up, I was struggling to understand what a healthy relationship was like. I often felt like I had to put on a front when it came to dating. I could never be honest with the guys I’ve met. My last relationship was with someone who came from an affluent and prestigious family, I could never be honest with my experience growing up with my own family, and that was unhealthy on its own. In fact, my relationship with him was in a way unhealthy in some aspects—I was blamed for moving on despite being broken up with. Luckily by then, I knew it was unhealthy and I decided to cut ties for the sake of my mental well-being.
Being a child of intimate partner violence, I had to learn on my own what a healthy relationship should be like. I’m now in my mid-twenties and I can say that while I’m still learning, I am much more sure of what a relationship free of toxic behaviour should be like. While I am slowly accepting that my relationship with my father will never be mended, I can work on building happier and healthier relationships, whether platonically or romantically, with other people. I’m now able to check for toxic behaviours in other people and in myself as well.
Healing will take time but until then, I am lucky to say that I have a strong support network of wonderful people I call friends.
Leila is pursuing her Masters degree in NUS and produces documentaries occasionally. A proud mum of three cats, she is also involved in intra-faith and women’s right spaces in her free time.
Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu