It has been very cold in Athens during this past week. Reed has had snow days almost every day this week, then today, I had to pick him up from school because he was sick. When he left this morning, I was excited. I feel guilty for saying that, but I was so excited to have some free time. It was going to be his first weekend at his dad’s in a month, and Caleb was going to pick him up from his after school program, so I had made plans to go and see the movie Wild with my girlfriends. I have not been to a movie in a long time. I have not had a Friday night to myself in a long time. I have not had any time to myself in a long time. When I saw the school’s number on my phone, I knew it could only mean one thing. I told Caleb that Reed was sick, and that he would have to spend the weekend with me. Caleb could hear me sniffling. He got very quiet. I tried to stop sniffling, but I couldn’t help myself, and then, I said to him, “It’s just so hard to do it all by myself.” My voice broke. I cried to him because I had no one else to cry to. I cried to him because he’s Reed’s father, and no matter what happens between us, we’re in this together. I cried to him because I have spent a third of my life crying to him. And I guess I cried to him because I wanted him to say, “I know. Thank you for what you do. Thank you for raising our child alone.” But he didn’t. He didn’t say anything. And not saying anything was better than the time he screamed at me, “This is what you wanted. You got what you wanted.”
This is not what I wanted.
Being a single mom is not what I wanted.
I see a lot of other mothers talking about the snow days on Facebook. At one point, women were grumbling that it was cold and the school hadn’t cancelled school. I am always relieved when the superintendent doesn’t cancel school, but these other mothers brought up the poverty in the area, how many of these children might not have coats, and how the children could get frost bite. I felt guilty then for not being more compassionate, but something still nagged at me. I grew up in a town where sub-zero temperatures were the norm. The poverty rate was roughly the same as here, yet the schools were rarely cancelled due to cold. I don’t remember a child–no matter how poor–ever getting frost bite. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever heard a story of that happening anywhere in the country, and I thought about that. I thought, “Well, maybe they’re just not prepared here for this kind of cold.” But the truth is, that since I’ve been here, this cold is rather normal. I now live in a cold area of the country. So I thought about why these statements bothered me, and I realized that it was the implication that because someone is poor, they can’t take care of their children. It was the implication that working-class moms and dads would send their children to school without a coat. It was the implication that working-class moms and dads would let their children get frost bite rather than choose to keep the children at home. In my hometown, even the poorest kids made it to school safely, even on the cold days. Poor people can still take care of their children. Being poor does not necessarily equal being neglectful.
And then I remembered when I had Reed. Caleb and I were poor. I was on Medicaid. We were on food stamps. We also had WIC. And I had to sit through hours of patronizing parenting classes that told me how to take care of my child. These classes were so elementary that they literally told me things like, “You need to feed your baby.” And the women in the Department of Health and Welfare treated me with such disgust that I burned with shame. I would find ways to drop “I’m a student” into the conversation because I didn’t want them to think that poverty was the norm for me. I remember the shame I felt when I used my Food Stamps card at the store, how I would look for the shortest line possible, and how I would feel despair when someone got in line behind me, and how the cashiers sometimes eyeballed my purchases, as though I didn’t deserve to buy certain things.
I remembered when my father-in-law complained about people on Food Stamps and how they were all lazy and taking advantage of the system, and we had been on Food Stamps. I didn’t know if he had forgotten that, but again, I felt such shame. And this was at the same time that he asked his job to lay him off because unemployment benefits had been extended, and he was tired of working and wanted to benefit from 18 months of unemployment, and I wanted to say to him, “Really? We took advantage of the system?” But I didn’t.
Because of shame. Shame. Shame. Shame.
And I felt the same shame when I left Caleb. I felt shame for so many other reasons. I felt shame for being divorced. I felt shame for being a single mom. I felt shame for failing. I felt shame for having been abused. And I felt shame for being a bad mom.
I read the comments on my essay at Guernica. Guernica has a rather strict comment moderation policy, so they are largely positive, but I have seen comments elsewhere that attack my parenting, comments that question how I could have stayed in such a situation when I had a child? Comments that question how I could write about that situation now when Reed is guaranteed to read about it at some point? Comments that question how I could let my child spend any time at all with his father who abused me? There are so many questions. I read these questions, and I am at a loss as to how to answer them.
I want to answer these questions with a question. I want to ask, “Do you want to see me bleed?”
Because I bleed.
The truth is that all of these questions are valid. I was not a good parent when I was being abused. And I am so ashamed of that. I was not a good mom to my little boy. I was a bad mom. I don’t know if I can ever forgive myself for that. I don’t know if I can ever repair the damage that was done.
I know that I can never give him the childhood he deserved. I can never go back and give him that childhood. The damage is done.
And I don’t know why I couldn’t see it at the time. I don’t know why I thought it was better that his parents be together. I don’t know why I thought it was better that he live with his father. I don’t know why I thought it was better to expose him to tumult and chaos and despair than to break up our family and move on with just the two of us.
My mother was an orphan. Because of this, I grew up valuing my immediate family, valuing that I had both of my parents in my life. I also grew up feeling as though my family was in an ocean, that we were very isolated. My father’s father died when I was four. I only had one grandparent through most of my life. We rarely saw our extended family.
When I married Caleb, he became my family, and I didn’t believe on giving up on family. And I realize now that was so, so selfish of me. I was so scared of losing Caleb that I put Reed through something terrible. And I can never undo that.
After I left Caleb, I asked Reed what he remembered about us all living together. He said, “Daddy yelling, and Mommy crying.” Then he said, “I didn’t like it when Daddy yelled at you because the dogs climbed into bed with me.” Even our giant Labrador Retriever climbed into bed with him. They climbed into bed with him because they knew it was the only safe place in the house. Reed would hide in his room while Caleb was raging at me, and Reed’s room was the only safe place.
My sweet boy. How must that have felt to him?
And then he told me, “I didn’t like it when you and Daddy fought because, when you fought, you only had time for each other. You didn’t have time for me.”
And what can I say? There is no redemption at the end of this story. There is no redemption for me. There is no redemption for Caleb. And there is no redemption for Reed.
This story has already been told.
And all I can say now is that I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I failed my baby.
From now on, I’ll always have time for him.
That’s all I can say.
I was recently named the 2015 A Room of Her Own Foundation’s Courage Fellow. This fellowship was created by Michelle Wing, a survivor and writer herself. About the fellowship, she writes, “For me, the spirit of the fellowship truly is in its title: Courage. It takes tremendous courage to pick up the pieces of one’s life after being battered physically, emotionally and/or psychologically.” She also writes,”I hope the recipient of the Courage Fellowship discovers she is now part of a strong and committed group of women writers. I want her to know that AROHO women are sisters, not competitors. We gather together to learn from each other, to inspire one another.”
I am inspired. And honored. And so thankful to be a part of Michelle’s community.
Here is her story. Please take the time to read her amazing bio at the end. She is changing hurt to hope.
The Girl in the Hallway
The twelve hundred students in my high school spent each weekday on an expansive campus, stretched across a large tract of land, all enclosed to keep out the bitter cold of the Montana winters. One particular hallway, lined with lockers, was especially long. Filled with voices and the clanging of doors between bells, it became morgue-quiet once classes were in session.
One afternoon during my sophomore year, a teacher asked me to run an errand. I stepped around the corner to enter that hallway, expecting to hear only the echo of my own footsteps. Instead, I came upon a private scene now imprinted in my memory.
Two upperclass students, a boy and girl, stood at one of the lockers. The boy had drawn up to his full height, his words ringing out in an intimidating manner as he gestured wildly. The girl cowered in front of him, head down, holding her books. Without warning, he struck her full in the face.
There are so many things I could have done in response. If I had been very brave, I could have called out, then and there, made my presence known, said, “Stop it!” The girl would have known she was not, after all, invisible. But maybe that would have placed her (or me) in more jeopardy.
Or I could have very quietly and quickly gone to the principal’s office, the counselor’s office, which were very close by, and asked for intervention. Perhaps I didn’t do this because, like most teen-agers, I believed in that inviolate rule: Never tell the adults what is going on.
I didn’t know this girl. Being only a sophomore in a three-year high school, with so many students, I didn’t, couldn’t know everyone. But I saw where they were standing, the locker number. I could have waited for her later on, watched for her, and approached her privately, asked if she was alright, if she needed help, if she wanted to talk. I didn’t do that, either.
I did nothing. Worse than that – and this is what has stayed with me for all these years. Not what I did or didn’t do. But what I thought.
In that moment, when I saw the boy hit the girl, I did not think, “He’s an animal. What a jerk!” I did not think, “That poor girl. I wish I could help her.” I did not think, “No one deserves to be treated like that.”
I thought, “She is so stupid. I would never let anyone do that to me.”
Six years later, during my last year of college, I met a beautiful, charming man. He wooed me with his talents – a writer, an artist – and his sad story of a childhood of neglect. Shortly after we moved in together, he totaled my car. He wrote bad checks; he asked me to take out credit cards, then ran up debt. The lies piled higher. I struggled to keep us afloat financially while he was fired from jobs repeatedly for bursts of temper. At home he began breaking furniture, then throwing things. Plates smashed over my head, soup cans splashed against the walls, a door knob disappeared under his stomping foot as I attempted to leave the room. When he finally grabbed me by the shoulders and heaved me across the room, it came as no great surprise. Still, it took many more episodes before I found the strength and courage to leave.
I had no words for what happened to me. I blamed myself, and kept it a secret for years, struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, and even being re-victimized. Only when I began to write, to put my experiences into poetry, did I begin to find a way out of the quagmire.
I would never wish abuse on any woman. But I like to think that somehow, someway, everything has a purpose. I have taken my own trauma and turned it to good, working with other survivors, helping them to write their stories, to move towards healing. I try to pass this message on to all women, especially girls: No one deserves to be hurt.
I have never forgotten the girl in the hallway. I wish I could replay the scene, with who I am now, but of course, that is not possible. I can only hope that she, too, is safe and has found peace. May she forgive me for not being there when she needed someone. May I forgive myself.
Michelle Wing is a writer of poetry and creative nonfiction, and the author of “Body on the Wall” (poems) and co-editor of the anthology “Cry of the Nightbird: Writers Against Domestic Violence.” She is the founder of Changing Hurt to Hope: Writers Speak Out Against Domestic Violence, a program affiliated with YWCA Sonoma County, which began in 2010. Michelle lives in the country in Northern California with her wife and a menagerie. She is assisted in all her creative endeavors by her service dog Ripley. Find out more at http://www.michellewing.com and http://www.cryofthenightbird.com.