I was eight weeks pregnant with my second child when my husband hit me.
To be fair, he told me that he would kill me while he throttled my neck, and once I broke free I tried desperately to fight back. Then he hit me. Open hand right across the face, so hard it felt like a punch.
We were about to go to sleep, but I decided to tease him about his weird habit of having the pillow a certain way on the bed. After a few verbal digs about his undiagnosed OCD, I tossed it off the bed as a joke. I thought he would laugh. I was wrong.
As he plopped down on the bed, seemingly as shocked as I was about what had just happened, I ran out into my living room and collapsed on the couch. I cupped my searing left cheek in my hand as I sobbed, muffling my mouth with the other so not to wake my daughter.
I eyed the phone on the table, but every time I got up to dial the police, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Not because I didn’t want him to pay for what he had done to me, and not because I didn’t think it was the right thing to do—but because I didn’t know if that was the best choice.
I’d left my job has a high-powered marketing director to stay home with my children and follow my husband and his transient job around the country, which left me dependent on him for an income. I had no bank account. The car was in his name. I was pregnant, for God’s sake. I’d be taking my children out of their upper-middle-class lifestyle, dumping them into my old childhood bedroom in the home I vowed I’d never return to. A home full of my own painful memories of abuse, my teen years spent trying to figure out a way to get out and never come back. Going home would feel like a failure—or at least, another one.
I thought about driving the 1,000 miles to my mom’s house that night, but I didn’t even know what I would say. How I’d found myself—a smart, beautiful, graduate school-educated woman pregnant with her second child—in a marriage to an abusive husband. Just like her.
Why did I toss his pillow on the ground? If I’d just stopped…it was so stupid. It didn’t take long for the self-blame to start. He’d been stressed about work, a new job and city where we all knew no one. My pregnancy had been a surprise and a challenging one, with days full of migraines and evenings spent in bed, leaving him to care for our oldest after long, grueling days.
Even though he’d never hit me before, I never felt as though he really loved me. His abusive words slapped me just as hard as his hands did that night, each critique of my poor performance as a stay-at-home mom cutting me down to make him feel better about his own perpetual unhappiness. I imagine that’s how it started with my own mother, too—my dad spewing his own brand of emotional abuse at her and at us. I never actually saw him hit her, but neither did my daughter. Who knew what happened to her behind closed bedroom doors?
I ran through every possible scenario that involved me leaving, and none of them made sense. I felt helpless, idiotic, and completely paralyzed by shame.
A few hours after he hit me, I stormed into our bedroom where he was sleeping and screamed at him, my voice slowly going hoarse from repeating the same words: “You piece of shit. You hit your pregnant wife. You piece of fucking shit.” He lay there, almost catatonic.
The next morning he apologized, his face pale and flat. He promised to get therapy. And I believed him. He’d never done it before. And how could someone do something like that and then break a promise? I should have stopped at “how could someone do something like that?” but I was in love, or I thought I was in love. Really, I believed I’d have one over on him—a sort of “Get Out of Jail Free Card,” almost literally on his part—and somehow I thought that upper hand might serve me well later on.
Later, I took a photo of my eye with my cellphone, the skin around it still swollen, the whites streaked with popped red veins. “Never forget,” I said to myself as I snapped the shot. And I didn’t. I knew at that point I’d leave him someday, and that I’d know when the time was right. But it wasn’t then.
For months, I did my best to carry on while no therapy appointments were made, no grand apologetic gestures were offered. The memory of that night surfaced in our almost daily arguments. They escalated to yelling and name-calling, but never over the edge he’d crossed that one night. “It was a weird side effect of the cold medicine,” he told me once. “If you hadn’t pushed me…” he said another time. “Abusive husband?!” he’d laugh.
With the distance of time, I slowly lost my power, the gravity of the event getting lighter and lighter until it didn’t seem like a big deal even to me. But I felt like a phony; on the outside, a strong woman raising strong daughters, and yet secretly married to a man who I’d castrate with my own bare hands if my girls ended up with anyone like him.
Then I got pregnant again, the result of the once-every-few-months sexual encounter we would have after a bunch of drinks and a night of my mom’s free babysitting. I felt sick, not from the pregnancy hormones now coursing through my body for a third time but because I knew I’d just pretty much killed my chances of ever leaving.
A single mom with two kids is kind of sexy, I thought, with the option of adding more kids still a possibility. A blended family could be sort of sweet. But a single mom with three kids is like a death sentence, the extra child just enough to make any more kids seem terribly overwhelming.
And a terminated pregnancy just wasn’t an option. My husband’s own religious guilt was enough to rail against even the thought of an abortion, not to mention my own fragility and guilt that I’d somehow be punishing my unborn child for my own poor judgment in staying.
Secretly, I was a little hopeful, believing there was a reason for this baby. I decided that if I was going to make it through the pregnancy, I needed to stop flogging myself with embarrassment. So I harnessed the last bit of power I had from that night and used it to plan my exit strategy.
I went back to work, which was easier than expected thanks to friends still in the business who took my unexplained pleas for an income very seriously. I saved and stockpiled. I schemed. And every time I felt like bringing that night up again in a fight, I imagined the look on his face when I told him I was finally leaving.
I stayed with him for five more years before I could finally bring myself to leave. Yes, five loveless, lonely, but quiet years, mostly due to my own complacency and learned ability to compromise for my kids’ sake and our safety.
But I did leave, my confidence fueled by a growing intolerance for the emotional abuse and neglect and its toll on my ability to be a good mother. People in my life who showed me the possibility of what could be: the friend leaving her own bad relationship and making it through unscathed; the children of a divorced family member, happier than they were when their parents were married; the therapist who looked me straight in the eye and told me that I could survive in this one life I have or I could live it.
I chose living. Finally.
The weight of being a single mom to three children is nothing compared to the shame and guilt I carried on my shoulders, the years I stayed making it heavier and heavier for me to carry. But finally giving myself permission to be angry with him without feeling bad, finally realizing that I was not responsible no matter what he said or I said or anyone else said, gave me the ability to put all that shame where it belonged. On him.
We’re divorced now. Our relationship is barely cordial. Last year he lunged at me with his fist and threatened to kill me again. I didn’t call the police that Halloween night, while my children happily waited outside to trick-or-treat. But I did file a police report the next day, and I made sure he knew about it.
He sees the kids twice a month in his house where he lives with his young new girlfriend. I live alone with my children, dating selectively but hopefully.
It took me many years to realize that it wasn’t about me. Or Janay Palmer. Or any woman who’s ever been hit. It’s about the man who somehow thinks it’s ever OK, and a society that still thinks she must have done something to deserve it. That she pushed him a little too far. That she tossed his pillow on the ground. That she screamed in his face and lunged at him.
And if I hadn’t, if she hadn’t, we could all continue to think that these men aren’t just bad people.
But that’s exactly what they are.
Really, really bad.