Mama, can I ask you something?
It was less than an hour after she got home from an overnight with x. That means it could be anything. Really: anything. The only sure thing is it would almost certainly involve something untrue about me.
Sometimes she doesn’t ask until hours later. Or even a day or two after the visit. When it happens this soon after drop off, at least I know right away to steel my face against any honest reaction to his lies and ridiculousness that might flash across my face.
She’s so attentive and perceptive. In order to hold my line of not bad-mouthing him, or betraying the truth of him before she’s ready to figure it out herself, I have to gently bite the insides of my cheeks, so lightly you can’t see it from the outside, and play a soft, silent mantra in my head of keep a straight face, stay warm and open, keep a straight face, stay warm and open.
Do you have old lady hair and you dye it and are lying to me about it?
X has been telling her I have tons of gray hair for months now. So has his sister, my daughter’s tia.
I’m almost fifty. I don’t have much gray hair.
But here’s the thing: that’s an unimportant fact.
I’m old. And I’m not. My ‘small’ amount of gray hair says nothing about me.
It’s genetics. It’s pure dumb luck that I have so few gray hairs that my hair dresser doesn’t even account for them.
(It’s an interesting side note that both x and his sister have so, so much more gray hair than me. And are four and nearly ten years older than me.)
Another pertinent fact? My hair is the most natural it’s been in fifteen years. Thank you, COVID and the ‘new normal’.
I went to get my hair done in the small window of time salons were open in my area and the woman I went to bleached a few sections and added purple to them. That’s the only color she added. First, she cut off about eight inches, at my request, to remove the previously dyed portions of my hair that were ragged and dry from all that time not going to the salon.
I’ve been dying my hair most of my adult life. I dye my hair because I love unnatural hair colors. When the state shut down and I already hadn’t had my hair done in months, I toyed with the idea of going full gray if I liked the color I ended up with (I do – it’s a fine silver color), but I don’t have enough gray. Not yet.
My current old lady hair, as I’ve discovered recently since it’s out in full glory, is just a drab version of my natural color with a few silver stands sprinkled throughout.
Again: not really important. Says nothing about me or who I am or how good of a person I am.
But for x, anything he can say about me that might make my daughter mistrust me is a win.
So, there we were, less than an hour back home: mama, can I ask you something?
I kind of chuckled when she asked.
I didn’t even ask where that came from.
I knew. I didn’t have to be told.
No, baby, this is my regular hair. Except for the purple, of course.
She squinted and looked at me and exhaled loudly out of frustration.
No. I mean. Do you have old lady hair and you lie about it?
I showed her my hair. I reminded her that she was with me at the salon.
She grunted and clenched her fists and wiggled in her seat.
I asked her why she thought that.
Daddy said it. Said you dye it and lie to me.
I invited her to look in the spot near the back of my crown where I think I have the most gray right now.
She closed her eyes tightly and put her fingers in her ears.
Mama! No! Stop!
I paused and waited.
Her face was scrunched up tight and her head was swaying gently side to side.
Her fingers were still in her ears.
I’ve been listening to a book about parenting that is all about listening and just letting kids expel whatever emotions they have instead of trying to fix it.
It’s helped me immensely with letting go of making sure I clarify. In helping me just help her through.
I counted my breaths.
I looked at her little face, closed up and tight and I longed to just make it all better. Make her dad stop lying to her. Make her see that the truth operates independent of him.
She pulled her fingers out of her ears and said, frustrated, can we just stop talking about it?
Yea, bubba. We can. Of course.
She got up and left the room and then came back in to the dining room less than a minute later and sat back down at the table with me.
We continued with the puzzle we were doing. We laughed about other things. She burped and I acted like the whole room smelled awful because of it.
She made fake fart noises and I played along.
About ten minutes later, she asked to play Guess Who.
Later that night and again the next day, she brought it up.
Each time, I just invited her to see what was true and real.
Even days later, I showed her when I found a ‘new’ gray hair near my temple. She pulled it out and inspected it.
I told her I might be an old lady but my hair isn’t very gray yet. Said I don’t know why daddy would say that – it’s kind of silly.
What struck me that first afternoon, though, and has stayed with me since, is that I had a front row seat for a very physical representation of the cognitive dissonance that’s a cornerstone of emotional/psychological abuse. I saw that painful confusion and the human brain’s inability to process it when it involves someone you love very much and the reconciling of two opposing truths.
If she believes him, I’m a liar. If she believes me, and what’s right in front her (the truth, the facts, clearly seen), then he’s a liar. And what’s more, he’s a liar trying to make her think her mom’s the liar.
That child – the one who loves both her mother and her father, deeply – would rather not hear anything at all than have to wrestle with one of those conflicting things having to be true.
I was in that state for a long time. Almost eight years.
It’s hard to describe to people how it is that you know, somewhere deep inside, that what is happening is not ok, but still, and yet, somehow…. you stay and pretend to everyone, especially yourself, that all is well and ok.
Seeing my lovely child scrunch up in obvious pain and, literally, plug her ears to avoid hearing the truth – seeing her act that out was the most jarring and painful and striking image for me of how I was for so long. Of what must have been happening inside of me for all those years.
I loved x. Deeply. I now believe that he did not (& cannot) love me (or anyone else).
I was honest and faithful and believed him that he was, too.
The life I thought we had built was everything to me.
Even when the truth was in front of me, I did a grown-up version of plugging my ears and ending the conversation. For as long as my brain and body would let me.
I believed he was a good father. And so even beyond a mountain of evidence, it took another mountain before I could admit that he’s not. That he never has been.
I spent more than three years, fingers pushed hard into my ear drums, telling my friends and family that we could fix this mess. That we loved each other and he was trying.
To face the truth was more than my brain could handle. Until it was ready.
Watching her do that, seeing her enact outwardly what so many of us do internally through the abuse, gave me another layer of compassion for myself.
I had to block it out until I was stronger than the pain. Until I was ready to bear it fully.
It also reminded me why it’s so important to support her and let her find the truth at her own pace.
I already know, deep in my bones, that it’s not an option to speak poorly of him to her. That it causes children to feel badly about themselves. And puts a wedge between you and your child – placing them in that position hurts them far more than it could ever help.
It doesn’t matter how much he doesn’t deserve kindness and discretion. She does. So I walk the fine line between not speaking negatively about him but also not gaslighting her. Helping her see truth and ask questions of her own reality and perceptions that help her build trust in herself.
Saying yes to her request to stop talking about it, though, is also giving her what so many of my friends gave to me.
Time. Space. Someone to go to when it all seemed too much.
I didn’t need or want someone to tell me what do. Deep inside I knew it was all so very wrong. And yet I felt paralyzed. I couldn’t act yet and would have shut down if anyone insisted I did.
I would have plugged my ears and screamed, internally, to stop talking.
When you’re in it, the lies keep coming but, individually, they feel surmountable. They feel less painful than facing the truth head-on (or you tell yourself they do).
This particular lie to her has stuck with me, also, because of the ridiculousness of it and the way it can be easily disproven.
That’s the thing about this particular kind of abuse: the lies are sometimes big but mostly they are very small and odd.
The small ones are the ones that keep us ensnared.
There were lots of lies that made sense – where I could see why x would lie about it: cheating, more cheating, hiding new guitars when I needed money for utilities and diapers, buying used iPads from women he flirted with online so he could tell her that he just really needed a Rita hug.
But so, so many of them were small and I couldn’t see through to why he would lie: where that free bike came from and who it was for, why he said the ice chest was free when I could easily see in the message he paid twenty dollars for it and it’s his twenty dollars to spend, why he would take twenty or thirty pictures arm in arm with a female friend of a friend outside of a bar after a show and then have that friend send them to him but then swear there was nothing there and I was overreacting if I was bothered at all by it and I must be insecure to even ask him why he would do that.
What it took me months and months of freedom to see is that the little lies are where the real control and abuse is for folks who mess with minds. We remain off balance. We remain focused on the why instead of the what: what he did, what we should do, what’s the fastest way to get out.
The small lies are what clog the gears of our brains and threaten to lock the whole machine up. We can not make sense of them. And so we plug our ears and force our brains to look over in another direction to stop the pain of that confusion.
Of that dissonance. A word whose root is in the mismatch of sounds, in a disagreement of sounds.
As though truth is a sound and abusers just start clanging on the drums of our brains until we cry uncle somewhere deep, deep inside to make the painful noise stop.
It’s a game they love, an effective tool, and a way to get reactions to later call us crazy all wrapped up in one.
It’s a terrifying place to be – like the ground itself is unreliable.
I can see, in a new way, why me just being there with her, for her, to talk to, to stop talking to when she cries uncle, is more important than any lesson on truth and boundaries.
(Boundaries matter, a lot, for us all – particularly for children like mine. But support and anchoring mean more in the moments of overwhelming confusion, though, than I can even express).
With my daughter, I can pay forward the grace and weight of being anchored that my closest friends gave me for years before I left and also in every day after when I still had one finger in an ear, trying my best to not hear the whole truth.
I can just be with her. Honor the truth. But also honor her truth. Her pain.
Give a little sana, sana to the pain in her brain on days like that.
She’s with him tonight. I have no idea what questions she’ll come home with tomorrow.
I will listen.
And I will talk when needed, but only until she needs me to stop. And then I will listen more and hold her close for as long as she lets me.
I will hold her through the fear-filled rage surges that always follow these visits. Kiss her forehead and remind her that I love her and am on her side no matter what she has to say about me over there.
Validate reality and the hardness of the ground even when it feels like it may be floating out from under her.
I know the pain of your brain threatening to burn up or shut down because the world you’re in isn’t one you can allow yourself to see full-on and front-facing.
Mama’s here when you’re ready, sweetie.
And even when you’re not.
Silence can be our bridge through. I won’t push you, I’ll just stand here with you and hold you steady for as long as it takes to feel safe again.