Flesh of My Flesh: On Motherhood and Survival
By Liz Howard
The minute the doctor put my newborn on my chest, I knew I was going to lose him. I had expected this feeling throughout my pregnancy; I had found comfort in knowing that he was safely nestled inside of me where no one could get to him, comfort in always knowing where he was, but I knew that I would eventually birth him into disaster. I would set my hands on my stomach and press against his teeny feet and whisper, “I’m going to get us out of this,” but I was always anticipating the awful emptiness that would follow his first cries, and I’d been right. They cut his cord and swaddled him and settled him into my arms and everyone around me was filled with so much joy, but as I laid there marveling at his squashed nose and his tiny lips I knew I’d lost something. When I cried then, the tears were disguised as maternal bliss, but they were really terror that he was now exposed to the world. They were really anger at myself for letting him separate from me in this way, for letting him become something that could be taken from me.
When my son was born, I was 20 years old, in an abusive marriage, and preparing to begin a Master’s degree in two months. To say that I didn’t anticipate any of these details in my visions of motherhood would be an obvious statement to the point of absurdity; the reality, though, was that I hadn’t anticipated motherhood at all. At 17, I had been diagnosed with PCOS (Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome), a hormonal disorder which can make conceiving very difficult. In fact, the doctors had told me exactly that: conceiving would be very difficult, maybe impossible. At 17, my response had essentially been “whatever.” I didn’t really want to have children and even if I did eventually want to, I’d assumed that would be decades away. I had no idea that I would find myself pregnant less than three years later. I also had no idea that I would rush into a teenage marriage with the first boy I met in college, and no idea that marriage would become violent the very month that I became pregnant.
The month after I turned 20, I had started my junior year of college and I had stopped getting my period. I was immediately convinced I was pregnant, but because we had only had unprotected sex exactly once and because he was a tyrant, my (at the time) husband insisted that we weren’t and refused to allow me to get a pregnancy test. The phrase “refused to allow me to get a pregnancy test” seems impossibly strange to me, single and autonomous woman, now, but at the time I had no car, no driver’s license, and no access to our bank accounts. This terrifying man controlled my life and so when he said “no pregnancy test,” it meant no pregnancy test. I waited for weeks documenting every detail of my then-suspected pregnancy in a small maroon journal I kept with me at all times and still have now. I would wake up each morning and record in exact detail the appearance of the bumps on my areolas, the particular smell that had prompted my nausea, the weird mucousy feeling in my mouth. With my husband refusing to accept the pregnancy and my family effectively cut off as a result of my husband’s influence, this little journal was the only place I could share these details.
After weeks of this, and a convincingly late period, my now-ex agreed to a pregnancy test. We purchased one, my very first one, and as soon as we got home I headed to the bathroom to confirm what I felt I knew at my core. Before I got a chance to read the result myself, my husband was in the bathroom, at my side, staring at the screen. It had been less than three minutes, but it was pretty clear that there was only one pink line on the test. “I’m sorry,” he’d said stoically, and then he’d gone to throw the test in the garbage. “Wait!” I’d screamed, and as he brought the test back under the light, it was there, so faint, barely noticeable unless you were desperate for it to be there: a second pink line. The rush I felt in that moment was some mix of euphoria and panic and disbelief and validation, and although my ex spent the next two hours glued to his computer Googling “false positives,” by the next day I had taken another test and the line grew even stronger.
It was about three weeks later when my husband first attacked me. The marriage (about four months along by then) and the relationship (less than two years along total by then) had always been toxic, terrifying in its own way, but this was the first time he had ever physically attacked me. I don’t remember what we were fighting about, but I remember clearly that he was yelling at me from down the hall as I stood next to our bedroom door. Without responding, I’d gone into the bedroom and shut and locked the bedroom door behind. Minutes later, as I was lying in our bed, my husband burst through the door, having taken the doorknob off with a screwdriver. He charged at me, grabbed my cellphone, threw it across the room, tore the blanket off me, and began choking me. Incoherently, he was yelling, “You’re going to hurt yourself! You’re going to hurt yourself!” while he strangled me. My memory is blurred, almost blank, between that moment and the moment I was in the bathroom, on the floor, curled up next to the tub and he was behind me asking me what was wrong. What I remember in that frame is my sheer panic and desperation, realizing that I was trapped; I was only just 20, in college, pregnant, and married to a man who had just attacked me.
The months of my pregnancy continued in very much the same way. Every few weeks, there would be another episode. He would grab and twist my arm if I tried to walk away from him, shove my stomach when I tried to walk past him, choke me if we were arguing. Every time, I knew it had to be the last time, but it never was. Every time, I made plans to leave him, but I never did. I didn’t know how to leave my husband or the father of my unborn child, and I didn’t have anyone to lean on. I knew that it was statistically common for domestic violence to start when victims became pregnant, but I didn’t know what that meant for me. When I would visit my doctors they would take me back into the room with the little butterfly stickers on the ceiling and I would lie back and they would say, “Is anyone hurting you at home?” and I would say “No” and then they would let my husband back. Eventually they stopped asking.
In March, a professor I’d been close with emailed me to let me know that my university was beginning a brand new accelerated Master’s program that would enable rising seniors to begin taking Master’s classes and that in conversations about the program among faculty, my name had repeatedly come up as a nomination. I was currently working toward my Bachelor’s degree in English, but I was also receiving constant, daily pressure from my ex and his traditionalist Christian family to drop out of school and become a "proper mother"—pressure that was beginning to stick. At the time, I was about six months pregnant and the closer I got to my son’s due date, the more fear and guilt I let in about what kind of mother I would be. After a lot of fighting and some discussing, my husband and I made a deal: If I got into the program, I would go to grad school. If I didn’t, I would drop out altogether. It gives me literal and severe chills to imagine what my life would have been if I did not get accepted, but, as my own mother would say, “by the grace of God,” I did. At 20 years old and eight months pregnant, I was accepted into grad school.
My son was born the following month, in June. He was several weeks late, for which I was frankly grateful, because I’d only finished my semester a few weeks earlier. The labor was bad in the way that all labors are bad, I suppose, in that my body was actively splitting itself apart from my vagina up; I was in labor for 25 hours, 17 unmedicated, and I chewed my way through about 5 cups of ice chips before it was finally time to push. I was hurting and anxious to meet him, but in addition to that perhaps more typical labor pain and anticipation, looming over me was a horrible dread. I knew that what had begun a day earlier wasn’t something I could stop now, and soon the moment would come when someone else could hold him in their hands. I knew that this sweet innocent thing I’d created and sheltered for months was going to come out of me and that it would make the situation he was being born into all the more real and my need to get out of it all the more immediate; I also knew that in the midst of that, this same little life would become a weapon to be used against me and that this weaponization would make leaving that much harder.
After my son was born, the nature of my marriage did not change. In fact, if anything, the abuse became worse and more volatile. As I’d suspected, my son became a game piece to my ex who realized he could leave with my son as a cruelty much more stabbing than anything physical he could do to me. He framed me as a terrible mother because I was taking classes, mostly online, in my son’s first few months. He would scoop my son up and shout things like “he doesn’t want you” at me as he took him away. If I cried, he would scream at me to stop crying because I would “upset the baby.” Often, he would simply ask what was wrong with me. For a long time, I believed all of this was the truth. I felt horrible, heavy guilt every time I sat down to write a paper or tried to distract my son for 20 minutes with a baby swing or infant gym so that I could get a little reading done. I accepted that unlike the bond between babies and “good mothers,” my son did not have a bond with me because I was abandoning him for my own selfish purposes. I pulled further and further away, locking myself in my room to work or locking myself in the bath to cry, partially because I believed that I was somehow bad for my son and partially because I needed to get away from my husband. Eventually, I recognized that I had slipped into pretty severe depression.
One of the major breaking points for me was the day my husband called the police on me. I had been up late, alone, crying in my living room while my ex slept in our room with our son, and I made a decision to reach out to someone. I downloaded an app that very simply offered someone to talk to, and I chatted for a bit with an anonymous user about what I was experiencing. Eventually, I was able to fall asleep. The next morning, I told my husband that I’d been feeling isolated, scared even, and I’d talked to someone. I told him I wanted to take our son to my mother’s house and have some time apart. Within minutes, he was trying to push me out the door, insisting that we needed to go to the hospital because I was suicidal. When I tried to argue that I wasn’t, he called the police. When he called, he’d said it was a “domestic dispute” and then he’d left the front door of our apartment wide open until they arrived.
Two police officers entered my apartment and I, a nervous giggler, was immediately yelled at for laughing. One of the cops walked my husband, holding my son, down the hallway toward the bathroom, and the other cop took me into the kitchen. I very quickly explained that my husband was convinced I was suicidal but I wasn’t. The cop, who had no doubt been expecting a more explosive “domestic dispute” and who had also no doubt been influenced by the fact that I was a young white woman, was quick to change his tone and demeanor toward me. Down the hall, I heard my husband ask, “Can she take the baby if she’s suicidal?” I didn’t tell the police that my husband was hurting me. If they’d asked, I would’ve said no.
When the police left, my husband shut the door, turned on me, and in a tone more malicious than I’d known was possible he whispered “I will make your life a living hell.”
The rest of the events of that day are a nauseous blur. At some point, I’d packed the car. At some point, my husband was next to the packed car begging me to stay and submit to him. At some point, my father-in-law was there, towering above me as I had a hand on the front doorknob, saying “I have a hard time believing you’re being abused” and “I wouldn’t cross that state line if I were you.” At some point, I unpacked the car. At some point, I was back in bed with my husband and my son, and I didn’t see how this would ever end.
Although that day was not my last with my husband, nor did it mark the end of the abuse, which continued for another year and a half, it made me more resolute than ever that this would not be my life. That day had happened toward the end of the first year of my Master’s program, right before my graduation for my undergraduate degree. By then, I had gotten a driver’s license, and I had at least one degree. Already, I had a better chance at stability.
The second year of my Master’s program, and simultaneously the second year of my son’s life, was radically different than the first. In that year, I met people who gave me strength. In that year, I began to tell people the truth. I began to make plans to leave this abusive situation. In that year, particularly in the wake of the call to the police and my subsequent newfound dedication to changing my life and my son’s life, I also began to be the mother I had wanted to and believed I would be. The abuse did not stop; there were still violent attacks and gross manipulation, but I felt like I was beginning to come out of a dense haze and I began to breathe a little easier. I started to savor moments alone with my son. The two of us would dance gleefully in the living room, swinging and spinning along with the music like we were whole in the way we had been when he was still safely encased in my womb. We would take walks and visit parks and bake cookies. We made friends and we visited them. It was simple, but it felt freeing; it felt like I was beginning to break away from my husband’s control, and as I did I was restoring my lost connection with my son.
That summer, I graduated with my Master’s degree, and I knew it could not be taken from me. I got a job. We moved into Philadelphia, a result of my begging, which put me closer to the people who felt safe. I began to make clear and concrete plans to leave my husband. I began to approach the topic with him and when he exploded in response, I braced for it, and I recovered. Every little shift felt like a physical lightening, and every time things became lighter, I felt more and more like myself. With each small victory, my bond with my son grew stronger. Soon he was crying for me, something he had never previously done unless he was hungry. Soon he was clinging to me at bedtime. These steps were small, and progress was slow, but I clung to any little hope, and I could see that things were finally changing.
Last January, just over one year ago, my husband finally moved out. This transition was overwhelmingly bittersweet. I could not believe that I was finally breaking away from this man who had traumatized and brutalized me for years. At the same time, I felt that old gnawing feeling return—in a lot of ways, this felt like a loss of my son, like the thing I’d been bracing for since his birth. The despair I felt the first time my ex husband drove away with my son and I returned home to an empty apartment, to an empty bed, is indescribable. I’d wailed in a way that felt and sounded inhuman, and I’d felt like I was never going to feel whole again. For a long time, months even, I wondered if I’d made a horrible decision; I wondered if it would’ve been better to stay with my abuser just so that I could be with my son full-time.
The months that followed my ex-husband leaving were painful and difficult for innumerable reasons; financially, I was drowning. I had thousands of dollars in credit card debt, ten times that in student loans, and an income that very barely covered the bills that required I pay with a checking account. I was constantly scrambling to stay afloat and pleading for help. In a lot of ways I was also not ready for single motherhood. Although I had developed a much closer relationship with my son, one that felt much more like what I’d wanted for motherhood, the number of things I had to handle on my own was often simply too much. I was working nonstop for half of the week and had my son the other half. I typically had to pick from an unending list of tasks which necessities would actually get accomplished; I could grade papers, but that meant my dishes would sit growing creepy smells in the sink for another few days. I could stay up late to fold the laundry but it would mean another day I didn’t get washed. The cliché about not having enough hours in the day was suddenly a devastating truth in my life. Worse, on the days I didn’t have my son, I was despondent; I had entered a depression matched only by those first few months after my son was born.
Over time, I have adapted in small ways to my new lifestyle as a single mom. There are still weeks where dishes stack up to alarming heights and I get to Friday and realize my hair hasn’t been washed (or brushed, sometimes) in a week, but I have mostly worked out schedules that keep my house in order and my body relatively clean. I have gained a bit more financial stability, although money is still a source of stress and struggle. Most importantly, my relationship with my son has completely transformed. Free (in most ways) from my ex-husband terrorizing my life, I am able to parent as I always wanted to.
My house is most often filled with laughter, and the love between my son and I is a visible, visceral thing. We still dance in the living room. We still bake and take walks and meet friends. But now, every day we are together, there is also an ease in our home that was not there before. Now we have pizza nights and movie nights and there are spills without screaming and there are tough days without fear. My current custody agreement has allotted me Monday through Friday with my son, and although the weekends are difficult, even searing and seemingly impossible at times, I am managing and sometimes even allowing myself to appreciate the little breaks. I no longer struggle with horrible guilt and fear that I am a terrible mother. For the most part, I have come to recognize that I am a great mother. I have come to recognize that I suffered overwhelming, unfair cruelties, and that those unfair cruelties often meant I was not able to be the mother I wanted to be, but I have forgiven myself for the hours I was locked away for my own safety and sanity. I have forgiven myself for the memories of my son’s infancy that are mostly a blur because I know that I was doing what I needed to do for us.
When I look at my son now, I think about everything that he and I have accomplished together and I know that he doesn’t know the extent of what we suffered and overcame, and I hope that he never really does, but I know. I don’t believe my parenting struggles have been ‘solved’; I know that terrible tantrums in which he finally has learned to say he hates me are coming. I know that every holiday without him will be painful, maybe less and less so, and I know with every year that passes I will imagine how different it could be if he was solely mine. But what truly shapes my motherhood now is that we survived. I survived being a 20-year-old mother. I survived an abusive marriage. I survived leaving that marriage and becoming a single mother at 23. Somehow, when rent is due, I’ve been able to pay it. Somehow, Santa Claus left toys for my son to open on Christmas morning. Somehow, the two of us can nestle up on the couch together and watch Disney movies, and there’s no heaviness hanging over us. I do not think motherhood is going to be easy, but I do know now that I can at least survive it.
Liz Howard is a queer single mom living in Philadelphia with her troublesome three-year-old & very loud beagle. She has work in: Split Lip Magazine, Cosmonauts Avenue, FIVE:2:ONE, Hypertrophic Literary, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @Mother_Faulkner.