Lord forgive me, I’ve been runningBeyonce, Freedom
running blind in truth
I’ma rain, I’ma rain on this bitter love
Tell the sweet I’m new
No longing for the moonlightThe Kills, Future Starts Slow
No longing for the sun
No longer will I curse the bad I’ve done
If there’s a time when the feelings gone, I want to feel it.
I had just picked V up from school and we were on the freeway driving home. She started with, ‘mama, do you remember when daddy’ and then she paused. She pulled her arm back and fake punched the car door four or five times. Then she said, ‘you know – did that to our car?’.
‘Of course, baby. I remember. Were you just thinking about that?’
‘Do you miss seeing daddy?’
Then she said, ‘I’m still upset about preschool graduation, though. There were cupcakes! And I didn’t get any. Daddy didn’t even take me.’
Because my child feels safe talking to me about pretty much anything, I can often see the wheels turning as she works through this life she has – this daddy-but-no-daddy family.
I can watch the mental steps she takes to make sense of it all that look so much like exactly what lots of us get told to do to help break the trauma bond: remind yourself of reality; list the things they did that hurt you that are the opposite of love; remind yourself that whatever romanticized version you have of that person is false.
Last year was the first holiday season she didn’t see him or his family at all. I’ve been attentive to the times she seems more sensitive. When her emotions seem to spill over and the thing triggering it seems small.
Right before Thanksgiving, she asked me if other people ever have daddies like hers. I talked to her about my biological dad ( a garden variety addict who just couldn’t be consistent or parental), about a friend who was raised by a dad almost identical to x, about the kids of the people I’m in parenting groups with who are in the midst of what she used to be in the midst of only a year ago.
Right before her birthday she mentioned getting presents from her tia and her daddy. I had to tell her that none of them had contacted me and hadn’t asked what she wanted.
In this free year, she’s had spells where the tears come more easily. Where I can see the sadness bubbling over when it’s easier to contain them. Having to brush her teeth. Not being able to wear just a tank top to school when it’s 48 degrees. When the legos won’t pull apart easily.
Mostly, though, she’s been steady and level. In a way I haven’t seen in her ever. The people closest to us – who have seen her regularly through the last few years – comment on it.
The same way that physically creating space between me and x allowed my body to exit fight/flight/freeze mode, this new custody situation has allowed her body to find a new, normal, healthy baseline.
There were so many other things to process after our court date last August that solidified my sole legal and physical custody and cut off visitation completely that I lost track almost immediately of what the old schedule was. It was practically Thanksgiving Day before I remembered that it wasn’t my year in our old order. And then I realized that I could do whatever I wanted for Christmas Day instead of having to be at a certain place at a certain time for pickup and drop off.
It wasn’t until the day after Christmas that I realized it was his year to have her birthday, too. The one thing he fought for tooth and nail in that first mediation since he knew how important that day was to me.
There have been so many days, hours, moments that I got to have with her that I would not have had but for a judge who saw through the facade and paid attention.
There are hard times. I have held her as she sobbed and wondered why daddy isn’t around and I have to remind her that it’s up to him and out of our control.
Hard, hard times when her emotions still roil her whole body and she does not understand why her family looks different than so many others around her.
When the missing of the fun daddy overshadows the reality of how those last two years were and she longs to go eat candy and watch movies with him. When she says maybe he didn’t really mean to hit her with that water bottle. When she says maybe he can learn to be better. When she tries on a story that is a different daddy and then reminds herself midstream of who he really was to her.
I haven’t written nearly as much in the last year and a big part of that is that the healing we now have the luxury of doing is consuming.
I am lucky to have the space to do it now, but it is tiring and painful and messy.
Just last weekend I had another dream where I had to show up to hand V over to x. He laughed at a small mistake I made and I slipped and called him a piece of shit in front of dream-V.
I don’t wake up in cold sweats from these dreams anymore. But they shake me somewhere very deep.
Having had this peace, if we are flung back into visitation, it will be so hard to go into the same survival mode that got me through it those first two years. I have a visceral reaction to the thought of resuming a schedule like we used to have – one where all of my days were about helping her process and come back to level before she was shook up again.
I’m not just surviving anymore.
I feel a trust in myself that even exceeds what I had before x. I have so much more grace for myself than I have had in any other time in my life. I make mistakes. But I don’t beat myself up for them. And neither does anyone else.
I have, more than ever over the last year, drawn a circle around myself that holds out the folks – family or not – who tear me down.
I’ve been thinking (and reading and listening) a lot about generational trauma and how I can save V and myself from more of it. I listened to Galit Atlas say, in a podcast, that what cannot be changed or accepted must be mourned or we will repeat those things over and over.
I have been mourning so, so much in the last year.
Not just the family I thought I created, but the one I thought I came from. I have been unable to avoid seeing the lines from childhood that stretch right up to those years I kept trying to pretend that x was anything but abusive. I have been mourning the family I thought I had. And also mourning the future time I would have had with them before seeing how much some of that time with them breaks me (and will teach my daughter things I don’t want her ever to learn in that way).
So much mourning.
Not just the love that was so real for me and not for x, but also the love I thought, even in those early days after ending it, that he had for his children.
Not just the years lost (for me and V) to trauma and triage, but the decades I lost to not trusting myself sooner (even before x) so that I could land at this place in my life faster and with fewer trips and falls.
I have a window now into dynamics like the one I left and I feel, sometimes, like I have x-ray vision to cut through the clutter of situations and see the structure beneath that I used to miss. Some of what I’m currently writing is using that vision to cut through the noise and try to find solutions.
I’ve had time to do volunteer work – however minimal – to help pass Piqui’s Law here in California and it all feels like a lovely kind of forward motion when so much of healing feels like you are always circling back in on yourself and in danger of closing yourself all the way into a beautifully isolated kind of safety and quiet.
A year ago today, I popped champagne on my rooftop and toasted to being released to my own self for the first time in almost a decade.
Two days ago, I cleared my schedule and ditched work to drive to Sacramento and sit in the room where the Senate Judiciary Committee would vote on Piqui’s Law. I listened, in person, to Ana Estevez speak of her son and felt the chills roll up my arms that only happen in that particular way when you are in the room with such raw emotion.
I promised myself, one year ago today, that I would use this freedom from constant court proceedings – the freedom from constantly bandaging up new traumas for me and my daughter – to fight for other children and parents. That I would do what I could to make my story less of a unicorn.
Over this last year, I can be hard on myself that I should be doing more. But, with that, too, I give myself grace. Being a truly fulltime mom while working a fulltime job and healing from so much pain is a lot of work. On the daily.
Sitting in that hearing room in the state capital was everything to me at this moment in my life. I stood up and gave my name and support where two years ago I may have been afraid to do that. I posed for a picture with a Senator and the key Piqui folks, while another mama who showed up to give support stood by and just watched as we took that photo so that she doesn’t get punished in court for publicly speaking out about family court problems.
I could stand there and smile, arm in arm with a representative of the Center for Judicial Excellence and the key Piqui folks, because I am untethered, currently, and don’t have to fear repercussions for being public about failings in family court.
I did not do much. I showed up. I said my name and testified as a domestic abuse survivor and protective parent.
But it was a lot. For me. For my soul.
Last night, I popped another bottle on the rooftop and toasted to the me who is free to choose how she lives in a way she wasn’t free to do for a very long time. The me who can use her voice to try to save other children and parents from what Piqui and Ana have lived.
To the me who doesn’t feel lonely. Who, as Elizabeth Gilbert has said, lives with myself instead of by myself.
To the woman who no longer explains herself to people hellbent on believing lies.
Who draws a line, no matter how sad, between herself and family who don’t really understand how to love and support.
I toasted last night, because tonight is Friday Movie Night aka Slumber Party Night – a tradition started only weeks after x’s overnight visits began because V would throw a fit and try not to go and it was one of the routines I added, per her therapist’s advice, to help her feel more connected to me right before those visits so she would maybe fight less when it was time to go with x.
It worked for a while.
The tradition is now a thing apart from being a bandaid for a custody wound that was reopened three weekends a month for years. It is just a thing we do and something V looks forward to all week.
So I celebrated early and then tonight, on the true one year mark, I will fall asleep next to V, as she does that hoarse kid-snore she still hasn’t grown out of and I drift off to the sound of her breathing. Both of us probably out before ten pm because I am old and she is a born Golden Girl.
I feel sorry for the people – x and his family – who don’t know V anymore. Who probably never did. She’s a funny, sensitive, fiery little weirdo who loves princesses and basketball and ballet and dinosaurs. Who makes up songs and lipsyncs pop songs before falling to sleep. Who says she hates writing but stays up late writing books about hungry colors. Who struggles to release the trauma when it surfaces but who recovers quickly and is learning how to forgive herself for those moments. Who is learning to not allow friends to stay friends if they make her feel bad just for laughs from other kids.
I don’t like the word forgiveness for abusive situations. I understand the concept of it being for yourself but I can’t ever forgive x for choosing, over and over, to hurt me and V (and everyone else he hurts). I can, however, accept what happened and find ways to make sense of how it has affected me so I can move on and heal and help my child heal.
Acceptance to me feels a lot like what Galit Atlas calls mourning.
I accept the truth and find ways to let it pass through to another level, so it is not locked in my body and played out over and over and over.
Days like Wednesday in that hearing room bring me closer to being able to heal and accept the two years I spent being abused (and watching my child be abused) by orders of the court.
I have accepted – that alternate version of forgiveness – the abuse I endured while in the relationship. For the life I brought my daughter into so ignorantly.
I have not come anywhere close to forgiving our systems for allowing – pretty much sanctioning – x’s abuse of both of us for so long after I thought it would finally end.
I don’t regret what I went through while with x. I can’t unwish it – I’ve said this many times before – if I had seen x for who he is sooner, I would not know this child I adore.
It is like asking to me to unwish being born. Once alive, it is my body’s imperative to live. Once she was born, I had to make peace with whatever brought her to me or I have to face a life where I never knew her.
But I can and do unwish the two years after leaving that were so unnecessarily traumatic.
That time was far more damaging, even though only two years, than the almost eight years in the relationship.
Many parents face a decade or more of that. By orders of the court. With no one in their lives truly understanding the pain and damage of each and every week. Have to endure it until a judge finally sees or, very often, until their kids age out.
I understand how rare it is for a mom like me to have been given this freedom after only two years. I do. And I hope to take this razor-sharp vision I know have – this laser focused sight for the skeleton beneath the distraction of flesh and clothes – to fight for more children to be free of abuse – for children to have a parent free from abuse who can truly parent them – fully and without damage.
Cheers to being free as soon as you leave abuse. To freeing your children from abuse by leaving the abuser.
Cheers to the space to heal the wounds and end the cycles.
Cheers to more messy healing and tons of grace.
Cheers to laws that save all the children.
Cheers to mamas like Ana who take their pain and funnel it into a love that saves other children’s lives. Who open their ribcages over and over so that people will understand what is at stake.
Cheers to stopping trauma – for ourselves, for our children and for all the other children yet to grow up, whether we know them or not.