There is so much I need to say to you, because you are a sister to me. In a new way, now. We share a fear of seeing anger in a man’s eyes. We share a fear of those we love being hurt, and hurting those we love. We share a fear of hurting. This love is beyond friendship. We are betrayed. I want to hold you. I want to make myself safe for you. Always, you can cling to me.
For hours, I have walked my floors and washed my hands with tears. You are precious to me. I have known you since your daughter was a baby. With you, I have loved her and watched her grow. Both of you are family to me. I know I said it all wrong yesterday. You left and I thought and thought about how I should have said what I owe it to you and your beautiful daughter to say. Yesterday, I was surprised by what you told me. I was reminded of my history, and I tangled the two. I spoke in sticky webs. Today, I have paced, cried, and vowed to untangle my story from yours. I am putting it to paper.
Here it is.
Fact One: Your husband is hurting your child. He is hitting her. He is kicking her. He is shouting at her, belittling her, destroying her every day.
You believe you are on top of it, though. At the end of each day, you try to reverse any damage. You tell her how wonderful she is. How beautiful. How smart. You say words at her that are the glorious truth of her existence. You tell her he doesn’t mean it when he hurts her. That’s just how he is. He can’t help it. Look at how he was raised.
Fact Two: You are hurting her, too. Every time you try to reverse the damage with words, you reinforce it. Why? Because you let the damage happen in the first place. You choose not to stop it. Every time you tell her that he doesn’t mean it, or that he can’t help hurting her, you are hurting her just as much as your husband is. Maybe worse.
Why? Because someone has to be to blame. If you say it is not him, that means it is either you or her. Since she is the one he is hurting, she will believe it is her. Until she grows up. Then, one horrible day, she will realize it is you. You should have stopped it. Because, when you say that he can’t help himself, you are saying you believe he will never stop hurting her. That he can’t stop hurting her. And you keep him around and let him hurt her. That makes it your fault.
Fact Three: You never knew that you would abuse your child.
You don’t accept what I’m saying.
You do accept what I’m saying.
You hate yourself.
You hate me.
You feel betrayed.
Why am I saying this? This is not your fault.
How could this be happening?
I can tell you. It is real. It is absolutely real. You are hurting your child. You never meant to do it. But you are doing it. And it is happening because, like your daughter, you are also a victim. You know it is true. She is not the only one he tears down. She is not the only one he holds hostage with the fear of that anger in his eyes.
I am so, so sorry.
You feel confused. You don’t know what to do. You packed his bags and met him at the door one night. Told him you wanted him to leave. Things had to change. Somehow, he stayed. Somehow, you let him stay.
You feel angry. Why is he still there? You want him to leave. You want him to make this easy. He could just get out. Why doesn’t he?
You feel guilty. If you turn him out, you’re giving up. And hasn’t he had a hard enough time of life already? You are his partner. You made a commitment. You need to keep your family together.
You feel sad.
Fact Four: You want him to change.
If you police him, if you always watch, if you’re there, if you never let your guard down, you can keep her safe. You can keep her safe and keep your family together. You tell yourself this. You can force him to change. He’ll see the light. With attention, firmness and patience, he’ll see the light. He’ll change. Right?
Fact Five: You will never change him. He may someday choose to change himself. He may not. As long as you are taking responsibility for his actions by policing him, he will not change. Ever. Except maybe to grow angrier when the restraints start to chafe. And when that happens, he still will not leave. He will cling. He will hurt your daughter. He will continue to tear you down and talk you to the floor where you will lay sobbing because you believe that this is your fault.
Fact Six: It is not your fault.
You did not turn him into an abuser. No one, I repeat, no one, turned him into an abuser. He chose it for himself.
At first, he may not have meant to, or even realized it was happening, but he chose to let it happen again. He chose to become what he has become. Every time he hurts your child, he chooses to. Every time he hurts you, he chooses to. He is the only person in this world who can change his choices.
If the day comes, you can support him as he embarks on that journey, but you cannot start him on the journey other than to pack his bags and put him out on a path. Even then, you cannot choose what path he will take.
Do not confuse this with Fact Two. You are making your own choices. You are allowing him access to you and your child. There are other choices you can make. They are scary, difficult choices, and you are afraid to make them, but they are choices, and you are the only one who can make them. You cannot choose his path, but you can choose yours.
You told me that he will never get help. You expressed that you don’t believe he will ever change. It is unlikely that he will ever stop being an abuser.
You are right. Abusers are like any other addict. They are searching for something to take them away from what they see inside themselves. They are hiding from pain. He is doing it by creating fear and pain for you and your daughter. He is doing it because changing means taking a long, hard look at himself. He doesn’t want to do that.
He is afraid.
I am afraid, too. For the last four years, I have been on my own journey. You may not want to accept my other facts, but accept this.
Fact Seven: I am an almost-abuser. I choose every day not to abuse my child.
Some days, it is difficult for me not to hurt him, but I still walk away.
Some days, I want to hit him on the head. I see myself slapping him, taking his wiry body down to the ground, screaming in his face that he is a worthless pile of shit.
But I don’t. I choose not to repeat what my parents did to me.
Some days, when he sasses me, I hate him. I want to hurt him I want to kick him repeatedly and shake him and shout until he makes himself small and scarce, like I did. Until he learns to respect me, dammit. I want him to feel all the hurt and rage I have inside. I want him to know that I have had enough crap in my life, I shouldn’t have to take shit from my own child.
But I choose not to.
You told your daughter your husband can’t help it. Look at how his parents treated him. He doesn’t mean what he says. He doesn’t mean to hurt her.
Guess what. Fact Seven: He means it, and he can help it.
I know because I mean it, and I can help it.
My dad kicked the shit out of me and my mom shredded my spirit with words.
My mom told me my dad didn’t mean it.
My mom told me she didn’t mean it.
They meant it.
Every thought I have in my head, every word, every imagined strike–I mean it. I want my child to hurt because I hurt, and I can’t hurt him without meaning it. I get angry, really angry, and I really, really mean it.
Your husband means it. Your daughter knows it. And telling her otherwise doesn’t do any of you any good.
Here’s the difference between me and your spouse: I keep it all in my head.
I made a choice not to pay forward my childhood. I’m not perfect. I’m still vicious with words on occasion. But I am vigilant, and I continue seeking help outside my home because I can never let myself become what your husband has allowed himself to become. Never.
Fact Eight: You may not have the power to change him, but you can change the situation. You can end this.
You are afraid that if you proceed with divorce, he will be granted joint custody. You are waiting until you can prove without a doubt that he should never be around your child. By the time you get that evidence, it will be too late. What you are waiting for is further damage. What you are allowing is further pain. The thing is, you don’t have to wait. You can get started right now. Get a lawyer. Find a social worker. Talk to a professional. Get your daughter in therapy. Be proactive. Have her help so you both know you are working toward an end to the nightmare her life has become, not clinging to an unsafe hope. It is terrifying, but you can do this. It’s up to you.
Remember Fact Two? Here it is again: You are hurting her, too. I wish I could tell you that you can reverse the damage, but you can’t. That damage is done. But you can help your daughter find a new strength to heal. You can fortify her battered self image and prevent her from seeking her value outside herself, which she will surely do if you continue to keep her in a situation where she is being told in no uncertain terms that her value is little to none. Here’s what you do.
Stop the cycle. Stop it right here, right now. Get him out of there or get her out of there. Get yourself out of there. Do it because you are worth it and she is worth it and make sure you tell her so. Do it even though it’s hard. Let her know it is so, so hard. Let her know you love her dad, and he does love her, but what he’s doing is not okay. It will never be okay. And you are never going to let him do it again. Take him to court, fight the good fight. Hold her. Cry together. But don’t miss your chance. This is your one chance. You can stay and hope and destroy yourself by being a helicopter wife and mom. You can keep him around and let your daughter believe that life is like a Disney movie and it will all work out in the end as long as the woman waits and is patient no matter how sad and hurt she is. Or you can stand up, remember how amazing and beautiful and strong you are, and lead by example.
This is it. This is critical. You will never be offered a chance like this again. You feel burned, but you can rise from these ashes. She will follow you. Or she will stay with you, rolled in soot, and allow herself to be controlled by a man who uses fear as a weapon. And, no matter what words you say, she will know that you chose to stay with him. Because she loves you and trusts you and you are her world, she will learn from you that it is normal and right to stay with a man who hurts her. And when she grows up, she may find a new man to hurt her. She may let a new man hurt her children. She may not make the choice not to be an abuser. She may remember that it’s normal for your kids to make you angry and it’s normal to hurt their minds and bodies when they do.
So, Fact Nine. Are you ready? Brace yourself. Here it is: You are already leading by example–the example of your actions.
Finally, and this one is the hardest, because no matter what, when it comes right down to it, you love your baby more than you love yourself. You really want this not to be true because it puts you in the worst kind of position. You are going to have to do many, many things you would rather not do. You are going to have to pack your husband’s bags, meet him at the door, and tell him you won’t take care of him anymore. He is an adult. Your daughter is a child. She needs you more. He is not taking care of her in the right way, which means you are the only one who can. It’s possible he may change. It’s possible you will be able to co-create a safe space for your child together. Right now, though, he has to go somewhere else to accomplish that task, because he cannot do it from within the home. Home is easy for him. He rules it with fear. Think it through now. You are hopping all over the place to be a barrier between him and your daughter. He doesn’t have to lift a finger, let alone challenge himself. He knows you are going to keep things nice and easy for him. You are going to keep him happy. If he’s happy, he doesn’t hurt anyone, does he?
You know you can’t always be there to intervene. You can’t serve him in every way he likes to be served. You have your own needs, such as sleep or using the restroom. At some point, they will have to be met. It is inevitable that he will strike again, possibly even while you are watching.
Here I would like to tell you some words the world owes you: It is okay for you to separate your husband from the rest of your family. And it is okay for you to feel guilty and sad and angry and hurt and confused. My dear, it is absolutely, wholly and beautifully okay to love him deeply through this whole process. Sit down and allow yourself to truly feel those feelings.
I will remind you that you are amazing. You are kind. You are brave. You are strong. You can do this. You will do this. It will hurt, and you will be sad, but you will never regret it because, Fact Ten:
Your daughter wants you to save her.
Bio: Shawna Ayoub Ainslie writes on issues of race, place and survivorship. Most recently, her essay “Why I Passed for White” was published in Medium’s The Archipelago (https://medium.com/the-archipelago/why-i-passed-for-white-71cecdd88ed1). Her work has also been featured in Amy Gigi Alexander’s Stories of Good (https://honeyquill.com/2014/11/24/the-magic-of-carpet-rides/), and is upcoming in wherever: an out of place journal. Find Shawna on Twitter: https://twitter.com/shawnamawna