I’ve asked myself this question countless times.
Hell, I’ve asked her this question countless times.
I would ask her after each horrendous fight or a heartbreaking exchange. She’d be applying foundation to the bite marks on her shoulders or correcting her smeared mascara and I’d be staring at the floor, hurling inquisitions at her still pounding head.
I’d ask her on the way to school or after a basketball practice. She would stare straight ahead, offering the same excuses as she did the day before. With each well-rehearsed answer she’d glance in the rearview mirror, looking for someone to stand behind her. I would look out the window at the car next to us, wondering if the family in the four door Chevy had any idea what it was like cringe when the man of the house came home or jump at every loud noise or wish for divorce before you went to sleep.
There were days when I hated her as much as I hated him. It didn’t seem understandable, staying in a horrid, abusive and downright humiliating marriage. Her two children were at risk and begging her to leave, and yet she stayed. I thought she was cowardly and weak and embarrassing. I said she was humiliating and disturbing and inadequate.
I focused my anger and merciless intolerance on her. Mostly because, even at a young age completely naive to the dynamics of love or lust or anything in between, I knew she was the only one capable of change. He would forever be doomed to a shell of a man; trapped in a whirlwind of bipolar hatred and a sociopathic god complex.
He would never change. She could.
So, I hated her with the hopes it would make her want to.
Looking back I realize how horrible that is. Condemning her in the hope it would set her free. Now that I have a child of my own, I am better equipped to even attempt to understand what it was she was really going through. Now I know what it was that kept her in a relationship that hurt her and her children.
As a parent you constantly hope the best for your child. You hope that you’re doing the right thing and that they’ll get into a great school. You hope they’ll never experience pain or, when they inevitably do, they’ll recover. You hope they’ll find love, regardless of who that person is, and you hope they’ll find happiness. You hope they’ll be successful, regardless of what that means, and that they’ll create for themselves a life they’re happy to hang their pride on at the end of every day.
My mother hoped her children would have a loving father.
No one gets into a relationship knowing it will fail. When you make promises, especially ones that involve the words “forever” or “always” or “eternity”, you wholeheartedly believe you’ll keep them. My mother intended to keep hers, and she believed she owed those promises to her children. Especially when the memories of happiness were dangled in front of her like a carrot in front of horse.
Her hope of a better tomorrow or a renewed relationship or a partnership with the charming, enthralling gentleman that once shamelessly courted her, chained her to a life of torment. He would beat her, then suddenly transform himself into the Don Juan of old, promising what he once whispered in her ear or proclaimed in front of cherished family and friends.
He successfully harnessed her hope into a corner, subtly fixating her efforts on the perfect family for her children. Not the perfect life for her children.
Initially, looking back, I couldn’t tell you what inevitably changed her mind. The final encounter between her body and his rage was no different than any other. He yelled and screamed and hit and pushed and she cried and fell and picked up the pieces. All I know is that when she reemerged, the hope she once had, shifted. She no longer hoped for the perfect family, gathered around a Christmas tree or a Thanksgiving day table. She didn’t dream about her children coming home to one house, sleeping in their childhood bedrooms or reconvening for family camping trips.
It wasn’t until I held my child for the first time that I realized what had happened. It wasn’t that my mother suddenly started caring for her children or their well-being, she had just finally started to care for her own. She finally put herself first; a conscious decision that went against every maternal instinct or female bone in her body. Her hope was for a better life, not a better family.
Her hope, and the areas she could apply it, were free from the constraints of a status quo set by a horrible man. It was free to see something grander than the life she had been living.
And she was free to, for the first time in over 20 years, hope for herself.
We tell women that they need to care about everyone first. They need to put their children before themselves or their boyfriends or husbands or careers or insert socially accepted necessity here. We ask them to sacrifice themselves, then sit around scratching our heads, wondering why they sacrifice themselves.
My mother stayed because she saw herself as the slaughtered lamb, hanging onto the hope of a better day, a better life, a better family, for the sake of the children she sacrificed for.
And I fed into that mindset.
What if I would have known then what I know now? What if I would have told her that she was more? What if I focused on her, not on myself? What if I was the voice in her head that said “you deserve better” instead of “your kids deserve better”? What if I could have helped her realize that it truly is impossible to take care of others if you don’t first take care of yourself?
What if I would have helped her realize that being a mother doesn’t mean sacrificing yourself for your children? Instead, it means demanding everything for yourself so that you can give it to your children and, at times, walking away from everything so that you can give your children more.
I’ve asked myself that question countless times.