A mother's love for her child is like nothing else in the world. It knows no law, no pity. It dares all things and crushes down remorselessly all that stands in its path.
Before they were ever born, my children saved my life.
When I go back in time and retrieve my memories from 35 years prior, the ‘day in May’ comes into focus. If you remember my story, I was miraculously rescued from a particularly violent afternoon by ‘Steel Magnolia’, a white-haired mother figure in my life who harbored me in her home for three days. (Un)incredible Hulk had nearly killed me that day and had certainly shattered and fractured my emotional insides.
Steel Magnolia was the triage in the aftermath of a life-altering experience. Soon, she put me on a plane to be greeted by North Star, my earthly mother.
My story of intimate partner violence reads like a textbook. There are stereotypes in life because people fit them often enough to be considered, well…stereotypical. You might say I fit the mold. I met the statistical criteria. If one was doing a scientific study on domestic violence, I was the evidence base to prove the hypothesis. In a sort of rehearsed dance, the cycle of abuse kept happening and I was numb to its affects.
Angst. Incident. Apology. Honeymoon. Angst. Incident. Apology. Honeymoon. Irritations. Aggravations. All wrong in every way. Recycle old fights. Make up new ones. Yell, scream, kick, punch, cuss, spit, strangle. Cry. Apologize. Honeymoon.
‘Incident’ sounds so innocuous. So virginal. So sterile and pleasantly non-violent.
For those 25% of us, it’s fresh every time we talk about it. It quickens our heart rate, and we still look for the bad guys (can often pick them out in a crowd); it was a big deal. Incident is code for the really bad stuff in a domestically violent relationship.
The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence offers statistics to be able to help you categorize the typical abuser, woman caught in a web of violence and many of the trends we wish to avoid, ignore or even choose not to see ourselves within them. Click here.
With that backdrop, it is a saying noteworthy and true: my children saved me.
I was 19 years old. Not pregnant. Not planning to be pregnant and yet my children saved me. One data point the stereotype didn’t figure into my experience was a fierce maternal instinct.
I come by my maternal instincts both by nurture and nature. Always intuitive, I learned early a sense of protection of those more vulnerable than myself. In high school, I rode a K-12th grade big yellow bus. The fifth-grade boys often got schooled by me when I caught them teasing and bullying kids younger than themselves. I was the oldest rider on that bus and I quickly became a School Marm of sorts— ruling the bullies with an iron fist. I had instincts. I held values that people shouldn’t be treated that way. I came on strong, yes, but the littlest kids loved me for it. The fifth graders — not so much.
Sadly, my instincts only served the underdog. Rarely, myself. When now at 19, I was the more vulnerable and less powerful party in a violent relationship, I thought myself to be invincible and fully capable to handle the beatings, the emotional onslaught; the circuitous path I was on— that looked more like a stereotypical cycle of abuse chart.
I thought I could handle it.
I thought I wanted to handle it.
I thought I loved him.
I thought he would change.
I certainly had no instincts of self-protection.
I certainly lacked a propensity to self-worth.
The day of my flight, I returned to my college dorm room to gather a few belongings to cram into a suitcase for the plane ride home. The rest, I would be leaving behind.
Un(incredible) Hulk had kept a thumb on where I was over that time frame of being harbored at Steel Magnolia’s home. He stalked me and staked me out so that when I went onto campus, walking up the lane to my cottage, he arrived. He pulled up in his little orange Pinto— to this day I despise pintos.
He pulled up beside me, windows down.
His mouth was running as much as the car engine.
It’s hard to explain to an audience who hasn’t experienced this kind of abuse the dynamics at play. If you have experienced it, you’ll probably be able to finish my sentences. Sappy apologies began the tirade of verbiage. Joking with me; trying to make me laugh. Certainly, feigning concern and sorrow at our abrupt and near imminent break up. Coaxing me to run away with him and leave it all behind. Promising a better life over the horizon, at the beach, in the mountains; over the rainbow. Asking for my whereabouts and my plans— reminding me we had a wedding planned, and future children named. Nearly begging me with false words of love and tears. ‘It’ was deep, if you know what I mean.
It’s as though he sat perched on my left shoulder like a taunting devil— my cousin, Secret Keeper— angel in disguise, on the other. She had driven me to campus and was watching the spectacle of me being lured back. Just three days prior, he had almost killed me. And there I was, riding on his fender, passenger car door open, living fast & free, hair blowing in the wind, his car gaining speed, laughing; listening to his excuses and his dreams to cart me away to a better life on minimum wage and a pinto for our ride. Promising my love, asking him to get better so we could be together. It runs through my mind like a major motion picture-- but neither of us were acting. This was real life.
Secret Keeper was anxious and on edge. She had seen this pattern in me more times than she could count. She was trying to be the School Marm, but I was a willing punching bag— a gullible soul— willing to relinquish all of myself for him, willing to sacrifice all of my dignity to him and willing to compromise my body and it’s safety because of him.
In one of the only good and sensible decisions I made for myself at age 19, something snapped. I knew I would not be running away with him. I knew I would not walk down an aisle toward him. I knew I would not bear his children or reside in near proximity to him. I would get on a plane for home and start toward the journey of healing and here’s why:
Maternal instincts, plain and simple.
in·stinct [instinct] NOUN
instinct (noun) · instincts (plural noun)
1. an innate, typically fixed pattern of behavior in animals in response to certain stimuli:
a natural or intuitive way of acting or thinking:
a natural propensity or skill of a specified kind:
the fact or quality of possessing innate behavior patterns:
1. imbued or filled with (a quality, especially a desirable one):
Before they were ever born, my children saved me.
I didn’t make a decision to leave my abusive fiancée for myself. I was never that strong. I never had the self-worth to believe I deserved more. I never thought I could not get along with 'that' for the rest of my life— though in my heartest of hearts I prayed to be released from it all.
The thing that empowered me was this: my children. The well-being and the fierce protection of my children was the only definitive and determining factor that I am no longer in an intimately violent relationship with Un(incredible) Hulk.
I looked at him square in the eyes— or over my left shoulder, as it were — and said,
“I don’t care what you do to me. I can handle it. But I will not let you do this to my kids. If you treat me this way, you will treat my kids this way and I cannot live with that. I will not let that happen.”
I jumped off the car fender, slammed the car door and stood in the middle of the street while he drove away. I sobbed. I would have stayed. I made a decision for my future babies.
My maternal instinct won the day. My mother bear already had claws and bared her teeth. I would take a bullet for my children, but I would not let my children take bullets for me because my esteem and my self-worth were so tanked and in the sewage of domestic violence. Just because I was tolerant to be a punching bag, my kids were not going to suffer that life as well. (see statistics here) "An earlier study found that approximately 35 percent of children in the United States between the ages of 14 and 17 have been exposed to intimate partner violence and that 40 percent of all child abuse victims report violence in the home between their parents (Finkelhor et al., 2009).
I’ve recently contemplated the first part of my last words to (Un)incredible Hulk. ‘I don’t care what you do to me’ — what angst that must have caused my Secret Keeper. What sorrow it must have brought my own mother that I valued her very flesh and blood — her youngest child— so little. How blind those who DID love and care for me must have thought me to be that I wouldn't run from danger and see my own worth. To them, I'm sorry. A million times over, I'm sorry.
Why did it take the potential and probable harm to my future children for me to end the relationship that pounded me with pain upon pain? Why couldn’t I see that I was someone else’s gift and joy? That I lived as someone else’s 'I love you to the moon and back' or 'I’m over the moon about you' and 'let me lasso the moon for you' kind of girl?
I think I’m still answering that question. A belief in one’s own worth and intrinsic value sometimes takes a lifetime.
But I never have, nor will I ever regret, or feel less in debt,
that my children saved me.
My deep love for them began so long ago. My deep love for them was the only stream of courage to bubble up from my soul when faced with a future of violence.
I think that’s why motherhood has always been this absolute sacred trust to me, this mystery of life upon life — this give and take of salvation and protection and intuition and sheer maternal instinct.
The day in May almost killed me.
Mother’s Day gave me my life back. To some, it might be a Hallmark holiday.
For me, this 'day in May', saved me.
To my four daughters, thank you.
Before I ever knew you, you reached across time and gave me the courage I needed. You were fearfully and wonderfully made.
Several years ago, my first son-in-law was coaching another son-in-law coming into the culture of our family. He simply said of me, "Don't poke the bear." I don't think anyone realized how high a compliment I took that simple piece of advice. Because for me, it echoed back to a conversation I had on the fender of a pinto a very long time ago. It hearkened me to remember my better, rather, by very best instincts.
My intuition runs deep. My maternal instincts give me the deepest love for my children--and that love saved my life.
Don't poke the bear!