I heard a shriek escape my newborn son's mouth as I slammed the door. His sweet face erupted into tears of fear. Overcome by emotion I couldn't control, I yelled out the door as his father drove off for the bar in a rage. When had I become my mother?
My innocent baby boy, barely a month out of the womb, wasn't safe anymore. I didn't know how to protect him from our volatile lives. I rushed to his side on the couch where I had set him down. "I'm so sorry, baby. I'm so sorry. I'm sorry," I cried as I rocked him, shedding heavy tears of my own. "I'm so, so sorry."
I am sure my nerves calmed down. I likely offered him my breast for comfort. His father likely came back home apologetic. And I lulled myself into a false sense of hope that things might change.
When I finally left two years later, I lost everything. My car, the house I lived in, my personal items, my clothes. What I missed the most was holding my son, knowing I could comfort him with the milk that flowed out of my body. When I finally decided to draw firm boundaries with my ex, he weaned our son, and I thought again of the psychological damage my baby would suffer because his father would not change.
I felt a deep sense of grief over losing my connection to my baby. Even though he was already two years old, he was still my baby boy. I couldn't stop crying and I wondered how he was coping with all of this, so far away from the safety I once provided him.
The next time I saw him, he seemed traumatized and much more delicate. My baby boy, the sweet and loving child with the most beautiful curly hair I'd ever seen, seemed afraid. His eyes had once glistened with joy, but now their shine had dulled. I feared the damage was irreversible.
I had returned to the house where his father had caused me so much pain because I couldn't find shelter anywhere else. In the hallway, my baby reached out his hand to touch my breast, signaling that he wanted to nurse, but in his eyes, I saw confusion. It was as if he thought he shouldn't reach for the comfort I had once offered him with the milk my body made just for him. When I offered my breast, his father screamed in rage at me. "No! You're not going to force him to breastfeed! No!"
His father screamed that he had worked too hard to wean my son and wasn't going to go through that again. I saw my son struggle with the choice, and ultimately, he decided not to nurse. Devastated at the outcome, yet trying to follow my son's lead, I held him close to my chest instead.
My ex would later ask me to stay with the children while he was at work, and to my surprise, my son would ask for "milkie leches." Often, he would only hold onto my breast or put his face on my chest to snuggle. Sometimes, he would latch on. I saw him so infrequently that I knew it was impossible to start over. I knew it was impossible for me to give him the comfort he wanted and needed, and I was heartbroken at how this had all played out.
"You're telling me I can't see my children, because he's the one who controls that?" I asked the officer standing in front of me.
"If he doesn't want you here, then no, you can't come here," he replied, referring to my ex.
"The police told me that I couldn't go to their house. Why can't I see my children?" I vented to friends and cried into my pillow at night. When I couldn't sleep, I sang the lullabies I used to sing to my children at bedtime. It was bittersweet to sing into an empty room and remember that, until I left my ex, I sang to my children every single night while I held them both. I wondered if they missed me. I wondered how they were sleeping. I wondered if they were coping okay, because I knew their father wasn't the best at creating emotional safety. I kissed the pillow beside me and told my children from a distance how much I loved and missed them. And I wondered what I had to do to get people in power to believe that my ex was manipulating the system, pitting the police and CPS against me so that they blamed me.
People like to believe these stories are rare.
They like to believe that the police and the government agencies are here to protect and defend good, honest people just like them. But the truth is, these stories are heartbreakingly common. At the core, the system is infected with misogyny, victim-blaming, and an erroneous belief that all things are equal, even in cases of abuse.
"Using your power against someone else is the very definition of abuse." When the third CPS case worker I talked to said this to me, I held in my tears of relief until I made it to my car. As I collapsed inside my car, parked on the side of the building, I thought, "Finally. Somebody in the system believes me." I cried heavy tears for a solid hour, because so few people in the system had seen and validated my reality, and offered to help me, as he had.
There is an inherent imbalance of power in cases of abuse. An abusive person knows the power they have over their victim and uses it to their full advantage. They will not give up that power easily, and will deny any wrongdoing when confronted about their behavior. The people and institutions around them will enable their abuse of the victim to continue. And in doing so, they reinforce the idea the abuser plants in the victim's head that they deserved to be treated this way, that the abuse is their fault, and that they brought it on themselves somehow.
The "justice system," in its rush to be "impartial," will deny that the power imbalance has any weight in the situation.
This is where they go severely wrong. And this is where they create trauma instead of healing.
I begged and pleaded for years with my ex to see the enormous amounts of power he had over me. Every time I pointed out the power imbalance, he denied that reality. Once, though, he momentarily apologized for not adding me to the bank accounts and for not putting me on any of the leases where I lived with him. I told him, "That gives me no rental history and no financial ability to leave if I wanted to and you know it."
"I didn't realize that," he said. Then he continued to use his power against me. He made no attempt whatsoever to add me to any lease and made a half-hearted attempt to add me to his bank account after I spent three years fighting for it. He still had legal control over my car. I still had no cell phone and no way to reach anyone if I wanted or needed help. "Too little, too late. You know what you're doing. Don't pretend you don't."
When I finally had the financial ability to leave, I bounced around from place to place, unsure of where I would be staying or how I would make things right with my children. And I prayed that I could make things right quickly.
One morning, as I opened my eyes while lying on a hotel bed, I had an idea to streamline the process of leaving an abusive partner for good. Almost everyone cites the grim statistics about domestic violence without addressing the underlying problems behind the statistics. I'd heard before that it takes an average of six to nine tries before a victim leaves for good, and that this time is the most dangerous time because it can end in the victim's death. And every time I heard this statistic, it was framed as the victim's problem because they choose to stay. This is a subtle framing, but oftentimes, when people cite these statistics, they will not address how the abuser has done everything possible to keep the victim in a metaphorical prison.
In my experience, when someone has you under their complete control, you are isolated from a community that could help you. You are cut off from financial resources you need to make a clean exit. You are also traumatized beyond belief, and conditioned by your abuser to think that no one will believe you or help you. You are convinced people will judge you and are afraid and embarrassed to reach out. You are completely disempowered, because your abuser has worked diligently to take every ounce of power you had. To do the work of both healing and regaining stability in housing, work, and legal issues is an enormous load to carry alone.
When you are trying to leave an abusive partner with little to no financial, social, or institutional power, you are digging yourself out from under enormous mounds of dirt with a tea spoon. And that should not be the case.
As anyone who has been in my shoes knows, these situations are urgent and stressful as it is. The speed at which victims can access services is often slow as molasses and there is so much conflicting information that it's easy to be confused about where to go or what to do. It is easy to become overwhelmed by information overload, especially when that information does not apply to your situation, and you've wasted valuable time getting nowhere.
Connecting to resources quickly and easily is crucial, because it can sometimes mean the difference between life or death. The infrastructure many government agencies use is ancient, by modern standards. It is also clear from interacting with said agencies that they have little to no streamlined communication system between agencies and case workers. The first time I went to the CPS office, in fact, I didn't even have any idea where to go, because there was no signage and no clear direction. They still used a landline phone system for clients to request entry into their offices. I found myself frustrated at the inefficient system of communication. I am sure that, like me, other victims of domestic violence cannot afford to wait on a slow track to nowhere. Their lives may very well depend on clear and effective communication that may not be available to them.
Ever since I left my ex and started navigating this complicated system, I wanted to change things. I wanted to design a way to connect agencies so that things could be done faster. I wanted this inefficient system to stop inflicting more trauma on people who are already traumatized.
I wrote down my thoughts and saved them for a later date. I got dressed, and tried to move on. I prayed that I'd get on my feet quickly enough to breathe easy and be with my children soon. And as I packed up my things to move on to my next destination, I thought of my children and of all the people around me who might benefit from my idea.
"Deep breath. I can do this," I'd tell myself.
As it turned out, that magical day still isn't here, and I am still not where I wanted to be. I'm exhausted and burned out, and I miss my children every day. But I am still hoping to dedicate my life to creating change for the people who need it.
Since I'm not a programmer or network administrator by trade, and since I still haven't quite stabilized, I shelved my idea until I could acquire some expertise in the field. I've come to the conclusion that I cannot wait anymore, and so, this post is a little different from my usual stories.
This one comes with a call to action.
If you have programming or system networking expertise, and would like to help me bring my idea to life, please get in touch with me.
I'm in a much better place than I was, and I am taking a leap of faith by putting this out there. I know there are multiple problems here, and I know this will be an expansive project. I know it will take a lot of time and effort to fully realize, and I'm okay with that. I just want to start figuring out solutions.
Simply put, I don't want other people to suffer the way my children and I have. This is too important to save for another day, so even though it's a bit scary to do this, I am putting this call out there in hopes that I can make a positive difference in the lives of others.
If you'd like to help, hit the button below to start a conversation.
And thank you in advance.
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