I reached out to Georgia a couple of years ago after reading a moving post on her blog titled Trigger Warning: Safe Space For Haint?. In many of my own posts, I’m searching for answers. I think it’s clear that sometimes, there are no easy answers. Georgia’s story is different from mine, so she’s looking for different answers. Here, she writes movingly again, and in the process, provides a complex and nuanced view of how abuse stories can vary and easy answers are often elusive.
The man who I had to get a restraining order against wants custody of our children.
The man who smashed most of the windows out of my Jeep? He wants physical custody of our children, the children I have been raising as a single mother for eight out of the thirteen years since I became a mother.
And I have considered giving them to him, temporarily, while I finish my PhD.
This consideration stands in contrast with everything that I have told myself I am—a woman against odds, a woman who is fearsome enough to manage and do it all, who will never acquiesce.
And this consideration goes against the comfortable narrative that abusers are always abusers, that violence is an innate and inalterable aspect of a violent someone’s way of being in the world.
Let me qualify this by saying that my former husband never was a batterer. Capital A Abusers, I think, are a different sort of thing. His violence came in two separate and somewhat isolated instances, both of which were likely related to prescription drugs. I don’t fully understand his brain chemistry, but I know the one time he went under anesthesia, he woke up swinging and nearly knocked out a nurse. Otherwise? Not once did he ever hit me, and our children have never even been spanked.
Let me also qualify this by saying that my former husband’s devotion to domesticity far surpasses my own. He is the one who woke early to feed the children a hot breakfast, eggs and grits or pancakes from scratch, and take them to school. He was the one who made dinner most nights, who was trained as a fine dining chef and won more than one regional award for his Sunday brunches. He is the one who swept and scrubbed our floors, who enjoyed folding the towels while watching the news after we’d put the children to bed. And I was the partner who was supposed to wind up the breadwinner.
It’s been years now since he smashed those windows, years more since the restraining order, and he is sober and apparently grounded and sane. Already with our joint custody, and with my living out of state, the children stay with him three or four months a year.
So daily I’m left asking myself: what’s the greater violence? His violence, or the lack of resources with which I have tried to raise my children?
Never mind for a minute the personal violence. Never mind the day the police took him off in handcuffs for having drugs and an illegal weapon in our apartment. Never mind that night he smashed out my windows and overdosed on pills and rum, or the morning after when he was taken off on a stretcher and the officer turned to me to say, “be glad all that broken glass wasn’t your broken face.” Of course those two days were tragic as they sound, and I’m glad things happened while the children were at school or asleep, glad that I was able to somewhat shield them.
What about the violence that is poverty?
I wish I had the sort of support system that made it easy for me to say, “this was all for the best, and I am so free.” But I am not free. The work I need to do to get my children out of poverty is the same work that makes it impossible for me to be the mother I want to be.
When they were younger, I worked full time and went to graduate school full time, and we still needed food stamps. There was a year we were homeless, doubled up with family friends or family. There was a year I worked two jobs and barely made rent. There was a year that, though I was finally, happily, making too much to qualify for food stamps anymore, my childcare costs were so high that our nanny was bringing us boxes from the food pantry.
Now, I am a full time PhD student. I am an editor, an instructor, a writer. I pick up whatever extra work I can manage, often to the detriment of my parenting as well as to my ability to do good work. I feel always on the precipice of some impossible crisis, always suspended between faith and despair. The car is broken down, the phones are cut off, the pantry is often ramen, red beans and rice. Let’s not even talk about my FICO score. My rent for so many years has been equal to my income. My rent right now is higher than my stipend check.
I don’t mean this to be a litany of how hard shit can be, particularly not for me who is possibly not far from an exit. I didn’t grow up poor—my family was what I’d call blue collar comfortable—but I did grow up abused, and when I escaped my childhood situation I was convinced that freedom was worth any cost.
I still believe freedom from violence and abuse is worth any cost, but the years have tempered the brazenness of that determination in me. I’m not sure I know anymore what I mean when I say the word “free.”
Poverty’s daily, grating deprivation is its own sort of violence, a systemic violence, and it stunts countless lives—particularly the lives of children who grow up in it. I don’t mean this as an indictment of poor families. I mean this as an indictment of a system that, because it refuses to value the work of caregiving, pushes so many full-time caregivers into poverty.
I still don’t know what to tell my ex about custody. I’m glad now that after years of stalemate and hostility, we seem able to have those conversations that need having re: what’s truly best for the kids. But, all our limitations accounted for, I have no idea what that is.
Guest Author Bio: Georgia Pearle is a doctoral teaching fellow in Creative Writing and Literature at the University of Houston as well as a nonfiction editor for Gulf Coast. She was a finalist for the 2014 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award from Poets and Writers. She recently began blogging again at georgiapearle.wordpress.com, and you can find her on Twitter @georgiapearle.