Three weeks before the second anniversary of what I am now calling Love and Hope Day – my first day intentionally free from abuse in my own home – x no showed to court and my life suddenly became my own and my child was given the gift of an indefinite amount of time to heal.
Five days after that, x very much showed up to child support court and had a lot to say about why he shouldn’t pay so much for his child’s care.
He lied – despicable, repugnant lies – about what he contributes to his older child’s care (spoiler: it’s nothing beyond court ordered healthcare coverage, so if he even said a dollar he’s lying). He fought the numbers on the phone with the DCSS attorney the day before and then again that same day and then showed up to court full of lies that made me grimace and made me sick to my stomach.
The man has no shame. None.
No moral compass.
(The fact that this still has any power to surprise me is a whole other matter.)
The fact that he could show up, with such fervor, to child support court after no-showing custody court and doing nothing to regain visitations with our daughter was both nauseating and heartbreaking.
Validating, too, but the kind of validation none of us want, not really.
If any of his family or friends can know this one little detail and still excuse him – still enable and entertain his false victim story – then they have the emotional-blood of his children and all the women he has abused and will abuse on their hands.
He showed up to try to not pay for his child.
He no showed to be able to see her.
Hearing his voice, in real time, spew such vile lies still activates something deep inside of me. The part of me that stayed engaged so long with him – the one that seeks truth and justice and kept thinking I could get through to him to see how delusional, untrue and damaging his version of reality was to everyone around him.
The me that thought he could learn to move the lens aside and see that he hurts people. Like he would be devastated and want to change.
The me who didn’t yet know he enjoys hurting people and then pretending he doesn’t.
I had messaged his ex-wife to tell her the lies he told about their child. Someone to commiserate with who knows that once you think you know how low he’ll go, he’ll find a new strata to fall into and shock you. The only other person to know so well the expanse between the dad he pretends to be and the dad he really is in real life.
She offered to write something for the court but I didn’t need it. They hear these lies all day every day and stick with the math.
I had a nightmare the night after support court. It was like an emotional hangover.
That first night after child support court, where I fully expected him to no show, made me weak inside again. Briefly. Tickled that old indignation but also softly kicked the fear, the repulsion. Reactivated, momentarily, the terror.
A few days after that, I had a bad dream. Not a full nightmare. Like a watered down ripple of the first night’s hangover.
I ran into him near the customer service desk in the back of a store that was exactly like the Mervyn’s of my childhood. The same counter in the back of the store that I was taken to when I wandered away from my mom.
Danny Devito was sitting at a desk behind the counter. x was leaning against a wall a good twenty feet behind me, around a corner where the restroom could be found. Danny was x’s friend and started ranting at me about how I was stealing his child from him and I was a bitter bitch and everyone knows what a great dad he is and blah blah blah.
x was leaning against that wall smirking at me. So pleased. So proud to have fooled folks. Even more pleased to see me squirm. Never happier than when someone else will spew his lies and do the hurting for him. That’s power. And he loves power.
Dream-Mervyn’s-Me picked up a heavy wood paper sorter and threw it like a frisbee to clock Devito in the head. Unlike in real life, my aim was perfect and his head bounced back and then forward and there was the sound of his quick cry and then I heard the tray thud on the floor.
The second I heard that thud, my whole body panicked and I began to worry that this one violent act would mean I’d lose custody. Dream-me panicked. Big time. My whole body frozen-and-yet-still-shaking-at-the-same-time kind of panic.
x goaded me and now he would take V and she would lose all the calm I’ve fought so hard for her to have and all the sanity and reality I’ve taught her to recognize.
This all flashed through dream-me’s mind in the time it took to see x smirking and nodding his head triumphantly now that he’d made me react – something I haven’t done in years.
Something my new life is completely free from.
I’d fucked up and I might lose everything.
I woke up.
The fear of losing her is too big for me to even dream through.
The thought of x raising her – alternating between doing it negligently and doing it abusively – was too much for even my dreaming mind to try to handle.
I was awake for a while thinking about that fear in that dream. And also laughing that it was Danny Devito.
Year two bad dreams are markedly more funny – and less overtly terrifying – than year one dreams.
I’ll take it. However healing comes, I’ll take it.
A few days later, I got news that a close friend’s niece had died by suicide weeks earlier.
I drank too much that night. Without even realizing it. Thinking of my friend’s pain at losing someone she loved so much.
At twenty-two, I had decided not to have children after watching a friend’s parents try to live through the devastation of their son’s death by suicide.
My friend’s niece also had a son herself. Nine.
I wanted to go to the service. To support my friend, L, but I worried that the deep fears this death was triggering would be too much for me.
Those of us who are in court battles with abusive ‘co’parents, spend lots of our quiet moments willfully not thinking about what would happen if we died. It’s incredibly hard to fight for our children’s well-being and endure the abuse in order to protect them. But it’s even harder to face what will happen to them if we are no longer around to fight.
This friend, though. She’s family.
We’ve been hit or miss in the last two years as her life has had lots of its own losses and landmarks and struggles (and I’ve been consumed with parenting and court and work). But when I first started to find the smallest bits of info about x’s lies, she was my safe house.
At the time, she lived less than an hour away and my daughter and I spent many of our weekends between 2016 and 2019 hiding out in her living room, swimming in her pool, meeting up with her for banjo festivals and downtown strolls and flea markets and festivals.
L would just tell me to drive up and we’d go out for Mexican food and talk and she’d anchor me – never pressure me to run (sometimes even, looking back, giving x almost as many excuses as me) but always recognizing that what I was in was untenable and way too hard.
One of the things I most regret about not giving up on x even a few months earlier than I did was a beach night I spent with L and another sister-friend to help distract L from the sadness of her mother recently passing.
It started out ok, but x (as they all do) did something that evening to go against what he had promised me about watching the dogs and our daughter (even though he already lived apart and I hadn’t trusted him alone in my apartment until that night) and I fell apart at dinner when I found out.
Ugly cries. At a restaurant.
Both friends had to try to comfort me while also reminding me that I couldn’t keep being surprised when he would act the way he’d been acting for three years now by that point.
I have felt a lot of shame about that night.
While in it, I could instantly hear x’s voice tell me how selfish and emotional I am.
I made it about me, I thought.
His voice was saying those words in my head the whole next day.
So fucking selfish. Shit. Think about someone else, FFS.
I knew nothing at that time about trauma bonding or why it felt like my limbs would fall off of my body when I decided I really needed to just cut him off and end it.
All I knew is I hijacked a good evening over my drama.
My own fears weren’t going to keep me from showing up for the service even if my friend didn’t notice in the crowd or in the midst of her pain, though.
This is where I can show that I do appreciate and understand. A chance to give back and show my love.
I prepared to make the six hour round trip drive in one day and asked my aunt if my daughter could stay with her. My aunt and my daughter share a love for all things sugar and my aunt has gotten into decorating cookies- the kind you see in magazines and on Instagram. Beautiful cookies. Made with sugar. Something I knew V would love. And time with my aunt would be a great way for her to spend the day while I was away.
On the drive down I thought how fortunate I am now – that I got to make this decision without a battle from x. Without a barrage of attack messages before and after.
I got to weigh out what I thought was best – for me and my daughter – and then do it. Something I didn’t have the luxury of doing just a few months ago.
I felt grateful.
I thought about that debilitating fear of loving something as much as I love my child and then losing her in my lifetime. I felt, for the first time ever, an extension of the radical acceptance that has carried me through the last two years extend out to that fear.
The fear is there. But I have to let it float untethered from me. I gave up the choice to not lose her the minute I decided to have her. Poof. My heart cracked open and that fear is just part of what laces that love.
I don’t get one without the other.
I dropped V off at my aunt’s house and made my way to the service.
The first person I saw was the grieving mother, as she walked a straight line away from the service.
We hugged. I said those too-small words about being so sorry and she went on – away from the building – and I imagined not only that she didn’t want to stand and take those condolences from everyone but that also her legs and her arms and all of her being was probably demanding motion. Like an ancestral need to try to outrun or outwalk sorrow.
After the service, I hugged my friend and when she saw me, her shoulders fell and she began to sob and as we embraced, I could feel her trembling stomach, heaving with cries, and I knew showing up was the right thing. If only for that hug.
When I went to pick up my daughter later that afternoon, I got to sit and talk to my aunt for a couple of hours. I don’t know the last time we did that. In the old days, we used to talk on the phone for hours sometimes.
It felt good.
At one point early on in our conversation, as we were talking about me maybe coming down to visit for a little longer visit in October, I said that I suddenly had more flexibility in my schedule.
My aunt got serious and then said ‘It’s still sad, though’.
I looked at her like she thought I had said the earth was flat and she had to remind me it was round.
‘Um. Yeah. I know. It is.’
My family has, overall, been very detached from everything in my life these last two years. My aunt seems very uncomfortable every time any of it comes up and I can’t really know if it’s because she doesn’t really believe it was that bad or if it’s something totally different and has more to do with her own pains or traumas in life. I can’t know because she will change the subject and doesn’t really want to talk about it.
At some point, a while later that afternoon, she made some joke to V about getting spanked (because she doesn’t) and my little girl just said ‘no – only daddy does that’. My aunt tried to shift the joke to something even less likely for me to do and said ‘you mean she doesn’t throw water bottles at you?’
My child looked at her so matter-of-factly and said, ‘no – only Daddy does that’.
My aunt’s eyes got big for just a split second and then she seemed geared to change the subject.
I said to V, ‘but he didn’t mean to hit your face, right? He said he was throwing it at your hand, am I right?’.
She said ‘ yep’ and then started talking about cookies.
I looked at my aunt – my eyes so serious – and mouthed ‘yes, it’s like that’.
It’s a wearing weight to carry the disbelief of folks in general, but when your family (and/or friends) do it, it brings up whatever old stories your family tells about you and then the weight just feels so old and heavy and useless.
They can say you’re too rigid or you are too emotional or too liberal or loosey-goosey or whatever. None of that has anything to do with your child’s reality and the danger of letting her other parent spin her and hurt her and turn her inside out.
You know this. You KNOW this.
It is sad. So fucking sad.
But also necessary for this child in front of you to grow up ok in this world. To grow up whole and healthy.
It’s a kind of sad that is the only path for children like mine. The only healthy path.
About an hour into the long drive home that night, unprompted, V said, ‘You know what mama? I think maybe Daddy wasn’t meant to be a daddy.’
My heart both soared and cracked anew in that moment.
This is the feeling you and parents like you come to understand as the best case scenario. One in which your children see the truth for the truth.
A truth you wish they never had to learn.
‘What makes you think that, bub?’
‘Well. He’s half good and half bad.’
“Do you know which half you’ll get when you see him?’
“No. That’s scary.’
For mothers like me (parents like me), those moments are ones awash in a mix of pride and sadness and outrage.
I am proud . Of her. And of the work I’ve done with her to not take ownership of his abuse while never saying anything disparaging about him.
I’m sad. Of course I’m unbelievably sad, still, that what I hoped for her and who I thought her dad was were smoke and mirrors – illusions, holograms, fantasy. The kind of lies that fill true crime podcasts and late night news programs.
So sad. A sadness that I don’t ever think will not be deep in my bones when I think about choosing her and choosing to be a mom.
Outraged. That she has to know this stuff at this age. That I have to gently help her through this parentage she has.
That just the other week I shared memories with her of all of us on the couch we were getting rid of because she started to cry, deeply, over no longer having the couch we had when daddy lived with us. I had to spin positive about things that cause me great pain, still, and help her through her loss even though talking about those moments is like spoon feeding myself jagged pebbles.
Outraged that people still believe that he’s a good dad. Might think I’m just bitter. Don’t get that I can be overjoyed at the last court’s ruling and also, at the same time, be crushed by the reality of it.
It is sad. Not just still. Always.
If you think I don’t know that then you don’t know me or what I’ve been through in the last two years. What my child has been through.
On night 731 – as I marked two years free and the journey these seven hundred plus days has been – we ate cake for dinner. I ordered a delicious chocolate and caramel cake from a local bakery and it was waiting on the front porch when we got home that evening.
It had a quote from the chapter book we’re currently working through at bedtime these days, Flora and Ulysses.
Do not hope; instead observe.
This is a sentiment that kids like mine have to take to heart. Not so much the don’t hope part but definitely the observe part.
Dear child, don’t let hope take the place of observe.
I cut her a piece that just said hope.
I guess maybe I would change the saying to Don’t just hope; also observe.
731 days ago, I took a step drenched entirely in hope: hope for a better life, hope for a life free from gaslighting and attacks and blame; hope for better health and less confusion.
I hoped that I could give my child a better life by dismantling her family than the one she could have if I kept killing myself trying to preserve that family.
Every step of the last two years has been a step in the direction of hope.
Every single one.
One doesn’t get a lawyer and show up to court twelve times in two years and leverage their 401k without hope.
Hope someone will listen.
Hope someone will care.
Hope that what I can do will be enough to give her a steadier childhood than her older sibling had.
Hope that the tools I can give her will make her strong and clear enough to know that whatever her parents do (or don’t do) is their own failing and not her fault.
Hope that what is is not all there is for her – hope that I can make a better life for her.
Six days after the two year mark, I will have the first check in with my child’s therapist since she started back in therapy almost three months earlier.
Her therapist, who first saw her when she was barely five years old, will say to me: I just don’t know what our treatment goals should be – she’s so confident and assured and her attachment to you is so secure. She’s not hesitant and afraid anymore.
She’ll tell me that I’m giving her all the tools and that her feelings about her dad seem far less scary and emotional to her and that she mostly fears for him now. Instead of fearing him.
That her mourning of her old family is contained and makes sense to her.
These three months of calm and steady will be showing that they are what was needed.
A professional who knows my child will say that what I have done has made a difference. A profoundly positive difference.
On that day, I will think again about hope. About all of my hopes – those flipsides of fear where we put what we can do ahead of what we can’t . . . when we put what we want to happen ahead of what we don’t want to happen.
I will consciously recognize how, in so many ways, I have done what she needed.
What I feared I may never be able to do.
I’ve made a world for her where she can be ok.
She can be ok.
On day 731, I don’t know this yet.
Only I do.
I can see it.
In her. In our life.
It’s right there to be noticed.
No matter what anyone else thinks, I know.
It’s why when someone tells me it’s still sad I bristle.
It’s why when someone makes a sideways statement about me ‘winning’ sole custody I want to be able to stare a hole into their ignorant head.
It’s why I raise my daughter how I do no matter who in my family may think more discipline would fix it.
I know it.
So on day 731, we eat cake for dinner.
And V knows it’s Love and Hope Day.
When we celebrate love in all the places we have it and honor hope for all that we want for ourselves and those we love.
That’s all she needs to know.
Two years out is even better than I could have imagined.
I tell those lost in the first year that sometimes you can’t imagine the opening that happens seemingly out of nowhere that gives you access to a sky full of fresh air, but the only way to get there is to move forward, smartly, in the direction of hope.
It’s still sad.
Still sad in big ways. Still hard in even bigger ones.
But beautiful – the way that watching hope take form and take on weight and breath can feel like the weight of many worlds and countless generations being lifted from your shoulders.