October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. The Ms. Blog will be publishing a series of posts detailing the impact of domestic violence, including personal essays and more, throughout the month.
The moment I knew I had to escape.
It was 3 am. I gripped the cool steering wheel with trembling fingers and white knuckles. “Mommy I’m hungry.” My eyes got cloudy, “Go to sleep. You’ll get breakfast when you wake up.” My oldest daughter rested her head on a pillow made out of a blue jean jacket. My 15-month-old twins slept soundlessly in their car seats. The streetlight outside the car window reflected in my youngest daughter’s tears, “I’m cold. I wanna go home.”
I took off my jacket and blanketed her with it before rubbing my bruised arms to try to warm myself.
“I want daddy,” she moaned with the insistence one would expect from a 4-year-old. For years I was afraid to go because I thought he’d hurt me more. I worried that leaving would hurt my kids or leave them struggling because my husband was our family’s provider and, despite his issues, he tried to be a good father.
I realized how badly he was failing at fatherhood when my 4-year-old daughter walked in on him attacking me. He had broken the bed and covered my arms with bruises as he assaulted me. When her father saw her terrified face in the doorway, he stopped and cradled her in his arms. She clutched her teddy bear and sobbed into his chest as he said, “It’s OK. We were playing.”
Wiping my damp cheeks I lied, “Yeah. Mommy and daddy were wrestling.”
When he put her down gently and left the room she handed me her teddy bear. She looked calm, as if this situation was natural and normal, “Be nice mommy. Don’t want daddy to spank you no more.”
In that moment, I saw my marriage for the horror story it was. I saw the damage it was doing to my kids. I realized how we were failing them with the messages we never knew we were sending them. His abuse, my feeble attempts at hiding it and making excuses for his actions were teaching my kids a lesson I never wanted them to learn.
They were getting the message that domestic violence was OK. That it was even normal. Nothing anyone says or does should be an invitation for abuse.
Realizing the horrific mistake I was making by remaining in this situation, and seeing how it was effecting my child, let me know this had to stop. If not for me, for the four beautiful little people that I given birth to. Suddenly, my broken heart filled with determination. The bruises, the broken nose, all the pain I struggled to hide from my kids was clear to them. I was only fooling myself when I believed that I was the only one affected by my ex-husbands violence.
The middle-class lifestyle, the cruises, the gifts, none of it was worth the price of my kids’ innocence being shattered and their minds clouded with the acceptance of abuse.
He refused to leave, so I had to. I took only what we needed most. That was how I ended up where I was that night: myself and four kids in a van with nearly everything we owned, and no real plan for the future. My 4-year-old daughter was cold, hungry and mad that her new house had four wheels.
I comforted her with a hopeful lie, “Maybe, we’ll get to go home again real soon. Get some rest.”
She drifted to sleep, but I couldn’t. I had no money, very little gas and no food, so I needed a survival plan. Digging through my glove compartment I came across a flyer that a police officer had handed me awhile ago. It had helpful resources for domestic violence victims. It was my last hope and my first destination in the morning.
I was lucky enough to find an organization that fed us, and helped me get a restraining order to remove my ex from our house so my children could return home where they had food and beds waiting for them. It was a happy ending of sorts. We sought counseling, got the help we needed and moved on.
I got out before my kids were scarred too deeply by domestic violence. Sadly, millions of kids are not as fortunate as mine. According to Safe Horizon, a victim services agency:
- More than 3 million children witness domestic violence in their households annually.
- Children who live in homes where there is domestic violence also struggle with abuse and/or neglect at very high rates (30 to 60 percent).
- Children are more likely to intervene when they witness violence against a parent, which can put a child at risk for injury or death.
- Girls who witness domestic violence are more likely to be abused as teens and adults.
- Boys who witness domestic violence are more likely to one day become the abusers of their partners and/or their future children, thus continuing the cycle of violence for generations unless someone breaks the cycle and gets help.
Just like my daughter was in danger of learning a toxic acceptance of abuse before I got her help, millions of children receive the message that violence is OK from parents who don’t realize they are sending it on a daily basis. The best way to stop the cycle of violence is to leave violent situations and get help for yourself and your kids. Seek counseling to help children unlearn violence and find more positive ways of dealing with anger so that negative and abusive patters don’t get repeated.
If you find yourself in an abusive situation, get out, get safe and get help. The life you save in doing that could be your own, or the life of your child.
There are helpful resources online, in most phone directories and on my website that can assist you.
Photo via Shutterstock