As 39-year-old Natalya Rahayu recounted the abusive and humiliating four-year relationship that she endured with her former partner — the very one that resulted in her becoming a single mother to a precocious four-year-old girl today — the scene of a motor collision hit-and-run unfolding in slow motion came to mind and I realised that it is a fitting metaphor for her harrowing experience.
John (not his real name) was Natalya’s former flame and just like a speeding car, he zipped back into her life and took whatever he wanted.
Whenever he couldn’t get his way, he responded with violence, from frequent sharp smacks to the back of her head, to the eye injury which he inflicted in a drunken rage, to the miscarriage that Natalya went through after John delivered a vicious kick to her belly.
More insidious was the mental abuse that he laid on her — calling her names, severing her ties with her family in order to isolate her, using money as emotional manipulation — all designed to slowly wear her down to a shadow of her former self.
Today, while Natalya has freed herself from that toxic relationship, recent actions by John (he stopped paying court-mandated child maintenance and fled the country) have left her stranded and bewildered, anxious about what her future with her 4-year-old daughter Amelia would hold.
Right place, right time?
Looking back, Natalya will tell you that her decision to get back together with John was shaped by a confluence of significant life events.
That year, the deaths of her father and aunt triggered an urgent reevaluation of her priorities in life. Her first act of reform was to end her eight-year marriage to an American naval officer. Natalya gave several reasons for the divorce, chief among which was that he constantly blamed her for their childless state.
Thankfully, his self-centred perspective did not extend to the court-ordered divorce settlement payout, which Natalya said, was quite substantial.
That, together with the inheritance from her late father, meant that the newly-single Natalya arrived back in Singapore armed with two things: a fresh mandate to seek her own happiness and a lot of money.
Perhaps John was in the right place at the right time, and very quickly, the two managed to rekindle their relationship.
From Natalya’s recollection, the couple’s honeymoon period was an excessive melange of drinking, bar expenses, and restaurant meals. And it lasted only eight months.
Not so coincidentally, that was also when Natalya’s funds dried up.
Soon, the cracks started to appear — quickly and without warning — in their relationship.
A violent and abusive streak
Natalya recalled that they were on the way home in a taxi after a night out with friends (for drinks, of course).
“He was just rambling on and putting me down, telling me [about] how I left someone out in a conversation. And I didn't include that person in and, you know, how disgusting I was for doing that.”
Natalya, who was in the front seat, turned back and told John to “shut up”.
Immediately without warning, he smacked her.
When Natalya punched his arm in defence, he retaliated with an even harder punch to her leg.
“I was just like, ‘Oh my god, this guy is hitting me!’ You know, to this extent!” Natalya recalled.
That display of aggression in the taxi was just the beginning of a violent and abusive streak that started to emerge.
Two days later, when Natalya responded with a flat “No” to a request for money from John, he slapped her so hard that she fell and started bleeding from her private parts.
The couple found out subsequently that Natalya had been pregnant — for the very first time in her life. Even as Natalya struggled to make sense of the jumble of emotions she was feeling, there was a stubborn glimmer of hope that she could actually become a mother one day.
But even that was quickly extinguished by a blanket of depression which enveloped her persistently for five months as she poured herself into work.
“I think I loved him more than myself.”
Over the years, John would swing between being a decent partner and one prone to drunken bursts of violence. However, it never occurred to Natalya that she should leave even though he was like a tinderbox ready to ignite at the slightest provocation.
She loved him too much to let go, she reasoned.
“I think I loved him more than myself.”
But as it turned out, she could let him go in the end, because there was someone whom Natalya loved even more: Amelia.
From the day that Amelia came into the world on March 29, 2017, she was never harassed by her father, who chose instead to direct his rage and bullying at Natalya.
However, Natalya believed that it was only a matter of time before her daughter faced the same fate and the protective mother wasn’t going to allow that to happen.
The final straw came during an argument between the couple. Natalya no longer remembers the issue that triggered the fight but she recalled, with clarity, John pushing her down to the floor. He then got on top of Natalya and started slapping her.
Suddenly, one-year-old Amelia, who had been crawling on the floor up to that point, sat up and delivered a piercing scream.
“I turned and I saw her and she was just screaming. She was just sitting there — she's one, she didn't know anything — but she was just terrified! That look in her face, she was terrified!”
John froze upon hearing the scream that came from his daughter’s lips. Natalya immediately got up, grabbed Amelia, and left the house.
It was saving Amelia that convinced Natalya of her need to free herself.
“I loved Amelia more than I loved him. And I just couldn't do that to the person that I loved. I needed to save her from this.”
“And that's why I always call her my saviour. She saved me,” said Natalya with a smile.
Moving on with a bit of help and support
Rebuilding a family as a single parent is a mammoth task, piling the responsibilities of two people onto one, and typically with half the financial resources. In other words, many single parents have to do more with much less.
Feelings of loneliness, inadequacy, and fear can be very overwhelming and bring a person to the end of their tether, as Natalya realised in end 2018 when she attempted to end both her and her daughter’s lives.
You probably wouldn't be reading this story if Amelia did not wake up in time to give her mother the most radiant smile, which convinced Natalya to abort her plan.
Natalya also began to experience multiple organ failure when she was pregnant with Amelia in 2016.
By the time Amelia came into the world in 2017, her mother had only 25 per cent of her kidney function. Last year, it dropped to 9 per cent, forcing Natalya to start dialysis.
Three times a week, she has to be painfully (“The needles are like straws!”) hooked up to machines which perform the filtration duty that her kidneys can’t.
Despite the setbacks and her seemingly bad lot in life, Natalya maintains a disposition more sunny than an April afternoon and appreciates the small things in life — things which are often overlooked by others.
One of the most memorable moments during our chat involved Natalya gushing over her medical social worker who facilitated her application for financial assistance.
“But she was just doing her job,” I thought to myself at first, only to feel a sense of shame after realising how much I regularly take for granted.
Natalya let on that she wasn’t like this two years ago. Her transformation and renewed outlook in life can only be credited to the Daughters of Tomorrow, an organisation which supports and empowers women from low-income families in Singapore.
“If I wasn't in this community. I don't know what I would do. Dialysis, single mom, with no family support, no support from [Amelia’s] father, and a kid with medical issues and everything. I don't know how I could have handled this.”
Natalya sought the organisation’s help after she decided not to end her life in 2018. Over the years, her experience with Daughters of Tomorrow has come full circle — first being supported as a beneficiary, then helping out as an intern, and now, offering support to other women in need as a full-time employee.
Her experience as a trauma survivor is helpful when she needs to counsel or guide someone facing a similar situation. Clearly, Natalya relishes her work. Her eyes lit up when she talked about the different support groups that she facilitates like talk therapy, divorce support groups, and writing support groups.
But as she announced with unironic exuberance, “I love it! I love my job!” I realised what was the most valuable gift this community of women gave Natalya.
It was meaning. It was the chance to take that senseless trauma from her past and turn it into something useful, and in the process, give it meaning.
Later that day, long after we left the cafe where Natalya poured out her life story to me, she sent over a photo of her sonogram featuring the tiny foetus which would one day become Natalya's joy and purpose, along with this message:
"I hope [my story] gives other women hope to a better & brighter life ahead. There is life after trauma."
Thanks to this sponsored article by the Alliance for Action to Strengthen Marriages and Family Relationships, this writer had the opportunity to be inspired. Top images courtesy of Natalya Rahayu.