“I know, I know. Mommy is scary,” my ex told our daughter as I cried on the floor screaming for him to leave me alone.
She was 4 at the time and, like many times before, scared of what was going on around her. My ex was physically, emotionally and mentally abusive. Seconds before he was dragging me across the floor by my hair, screaming that he was going to throw me out in the cold without a coat or shoes while my daughter watched. But according to him, it was my reaction that scared our daughter.
This wasn’t the first time he had done this. He had been telling her that my pleas to stop were scary from the first time I cried in front of her. Our daughter was conditioned at this point to be more afraid of my reaction to his abuse than she was of him. And it had a profound effect on my relationship with her.
I didn’t realize just how profound the effect was until I gave birth to my third child, another girl, a few years ago. Being in a healthy relationship has enabled me to foster a secure attachment with my new child. We have lots of stress-free time to play and connect, and she trusts I’ll always be available for her if she needs me.
My older daughter didn’t have any of that. My energy was — for the most part — all used up on survival when she was little, and I rarely had any left to foster a connection. Sure, we had moments here and there where we truly bonded. Little pockets of freedom to be mother and daughter, without fear that our laughter would bother him, or me worrying how the rent would be paid or how I’d get to the food bank because he took off with all the money again.
But she doesn’t remember any of that. Not the good, not the bad. Not even the moments in between. She doesn’t remember her father and me living together at all.
Or at least, that’s what she’s always told me. But as we watch my youngest grow, I wonder if some of the memories are being revived. Does she remember watching me cry on the floor? Or having police officers ask her questions? Or my being emotionally cold — even to her — because feeling anything made surviving too hard?
“Did you love me like that when I was little?” she asked one day as I played on the floor with her sister. I answered that of course I did, but the truth is I don’t know. I don’t think I was capable at the time. My focus was on surviving, and I didn’t have as much to give. I know I loved her, but it was a different kind of love.
That’s the truth I can’t tell her. I wish I could explain it all. I don’t want to leave her thinking that I didn’t love her based on fragmented memories of the years I was with her father. I don’t want her believing it was at all her fault. But I can’t tell her anything about the abuse because my ex would take me to court in a heartbeat if I ever said anything negative about him to her — no matter how true.
I struggle to keep quiet as I watch her deal with depression, low self-esteem and anxiety. These are all potentially after-effects of the trauma from her early years. I know because they are effects I am still living with myself. Only I have answers. I want nothing more than to give her answers. For the truth to fill the cracks in our relationship and bond us together, still scarred but strong and whole.
We play a game together once a week, and during that time it’s as if nothing ever happened to us. I’m trying to make up for lost time, to repair the parts of us she forgot were broken, hoping she doesn’t remember before I have the strength and courage to tell her everything. Someday, I tell myself, he will no longer hold our bond hostage. Someday we will be free.
If you or anyone you know may be experiencing emotional or physical abuse, please don’t hesitate to contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 (SAFE).