As unbelievable as it may sound, I did not think I was a battered wife. In less than 5 years of marriage, I knew that my marriage wasn’t normal – at least not by outside standards. Oh sure, he hit me once in a while, but there were never any visible bruises or broken bones. And sure, he got mad quickly and frequently. But I just excused him as being moody or temperamental. The name-calling, the hair pulling, the constant humiliation and threats—I didn’t see any of those things as his fault. If I were truly a victim of domestic violence, I’d know it. Quite simply, I didn’t think I fit the ‘demographic’.
My new normal took some getting used to. I was not raised to cower. I was raised to think for myself and to assert myself. I was 23 when my first child was born, and for some reason I thought that would be a turning point and we would suddenly be in the land of normal. It turns out that wasn’t the case. His control became a little tighter and the demands became a little greater. The expectations gradually grew, and I accepted them, thus cementing my normal.
Over the years my brood increased. With the kids, I was genuinely happy. Even though I knew that our family life was abnormal, I found ways to embrace certain unique qualities of it. My husband wasn’t around 24 hours a day—he had a job as a fire-fighter. During those hours I tried to establish routines that were fun and relaxing and allowed all of us to just be our quirky little selves.
As time marched on though, life as we knew it really did get harder and harder to live. The control was irrational and unbearable. Things had also come to a point wherein there really was no way to satisfy my husband any more. For a very long time he had been somewhat predictable and whether I liked it or not, I could usually find a way to know what he wanted and do what was expected. In the last few years his expectations became more erratic and unattainable. I was afraid and anxious most of the time.
For my kids, the only truly predictable thing is that whatever they wanted most was likely to either be broken, taken away or not happen. We lived a life of feast or famine—things would be euphorically good for a few days, then crumble down in a way that usually ended in fear.
Finally, after nearly twenty-six years of this kind of normal, we left. On the day that we fed, the house had been filled with anger and fear. A threat had been made. He left to run an errand and I called a friend for help. As fast as humanly possible, we packed her car to overflowing with clothes and essentials. My five kids and I left the home they’d been born in and grown up in. It was the last time any of them ever saw that house. It was the last morning they ever saw their father’s face. It was the last time they ever saw their creek or redwoods. It was the end of their normal as they had always known it.
Our great exodus took place on May 28, 2006. For the first two years we lived in Domestic Violence shelters and transitional housing. We jumped into the welfare system and made it out the other side. I worked two part time jobs until finding a secure full time job and my kids went from being homeschoolers to latchkey kids. In April of 2008 we set up house in a real-life bona fide house. We didn’t own it, but we did it the way ‘normal’ people do it. I learned a lot about myself and started with very small baby steps towards understanding abuse and domestic violence.
As a group and as individuals we have all had our fair share of therapy. Each of us has handled the trauma of our past differently. For myself, personally, I hate to let anger be a part of my life. It destroys my spirit. I struggle with depression and to let anger take over is like a cancer to my soul. I have adopted the attitude of indifference toward my ex-husband.
When we left, my oldest three kids were fifteen, ten and eight, and they had enough memories of terror to last them a lifetime. My youngest two were six and one, and have very few solid memories. Just before turning fourteen, my middle son had questions stemming from the curiosity of a boy having grown up without his father. Sure, he’d heard the stories, but that didn’t diminish his need to understand the other half of who he was. So Joe called his father. Within a week, they had agreed to meet.
I had my first and only conversation with my ex-husband to set up a meeting place for him and Joe. The older kids got wind of this as well and even though they had never missed their father, they were insistent on coming along for at least a little while. We agreed to meet at a local shopping mall and I was a nervous wreck. But looking back, it was definitely the most healing thing I have ever done.
My first thought when I saw him was that he was much smaller than I remember him being. In my mind he always filled whatever space he was in. He had been big, strong, loud…scary. Here at the mall, seven years after leaving him, he was rather small and deflated…so diminished. My nerves vanished.
We found a place to sit after he awkwardly said hello to his four oldest children. They responded with strong, clear hellos, but that was it. They watched him talk with their younger brother and then had nothing more to say to him. They texted each other, spoke with each other, laughed a bit—but they completely dismissed their father. After a while I decided he wasn’t the threat I had been worried about, let Joe know that I had turned his phone tracker on and then agreed to pick him back up at the mall in a couple of hours. For everyone except Joe, there was immediate closure and release of fear and anger. For the first time we felt as though we could move on.
Joe, however, spent the next year struggling with repressed memories and nightmares. A good therapist has been able to help him work through a lot of the garbage and Joe’s football coaches have made themselves available to just love and encourage Joe to be the best young man he can be.
We have been lucky to live in a community with many resources, and have tried to make the most of them as both recipients of services as well as to participate on the other end by helping others who have been in similar situations. As the head of my family, I discuss with the children (who now range in age from nine to twenty-four) how we can give back and help others in need. My oldest daughter and I partnered up a few years ago giving talks in local high schools on just what domestic violence is and how to recognize the signs and what to do about it. My second daughter has volunteered in a local hospital. She also has a knack for finding people who need love and security and bringing them into our family.
Since the day we left our old life behind, my goal has been twofold– give my kids a normal life, and make certain that our experience isn’t wasted. Well, I think I’m just about there—and you know what? If we were to compare ourselves to other normal families, I’m not sure that we’d measure up as normal! We do live in a traditional neighborhood with sidewalks and a park nearby. I’m in the process of actually buying a house, we have all the trappings inside our home that would indicate that we’ve ‘arrived’ and we do the extracurricular things that families with kids do.
At special times like holidays, I take a moment and ask them if they all feel like we’re finally normal. A couple of years ago the answer was almost, but not quite there. Last year, finally, the answer was yes. I asked why and they couldn’t give specific examples of what normal was. I asked why they felt so normal then, and you know what they said? Because they were finally safe and they were happy. And that’s it for my family—in the land of normal, we are safe and we are happy. Everything else is just incidental. This? This is a normal I can live with.
This article is appearing under a pseudonym and some of the identifying details have been altered.