“No, Mom, I don’t want to go,” my daughter said from the backseat. “The boys always make me the monster and they run away from me.”
“Yeah, boys do that sometimes, I guess it’s something you’ll have to get used to.”
“Boys being mean to me?”
“No, I mean, kind of. Some boys like to tease girls…” what the fuck was I saying? Was I seriously telling my seven-year-old daughter, who just a few weeks ago had been chased and tackled by three boys on the playground, that this is behavior she’d just have to get used to? “…but some boys don’t. But if there’s ever a boy teasing you or doing something you don’t like, you tell him ‘no,’ and if he doesn’t stop, walk away and tell an adult.”
I grew up in the bra-snapping culture. I grew up believing that if a boy teased me in front of his friends, but acted sweet in private, he liked me. Like, like-liked me. I clung to those seconds of nectar while I endured the tears and frustration of teasing and aloofness in front of his friends. Nice boys soon bored me. I wanted the chase, the constant guessing, the drama of heartache and revelry of new-found love—all in one, short, week.
Some sort of shift happened in my early 20s. The nice words only came in public, and the mean gestures, sneers, and verbal punches came in the night, slinking out of dark corners, left to haunt me for days. Boyfriends would bring flowers, take me out to dinner, but not without opinions on what I chose to wear beforehand, how I embarrassed them with my social awkwardness during the ride home, and was too needy and given a cold shoulder after sex. I tried harder, for years I tried, to be someone worthy of full-time affection, not just a placeholder at parties and in bed.
“Do you have anything you want to say to Stephanie?” my therapist asked the father of my then one-year-old daughter.
He nodded, and mumbled, “I’m sorry for ruining your pregnancy.” The therapist’s eyebrows raised with a smile, proud of our progress. Of course a few weeks later he told me he was lying, but I still believed his sincerity when he said nice things then.
I saw three therapists for a while. I talked about the emotional abuse for three hours a week until I couldn’t say his name anymore. I didn’t understand how someone could be nice, charming, and in my mind adored by everyone, but threw snide comments at me often, sometimes as soon as people left the room. Sometimes with just a look. During my pregnancy, I was too needy, manipulative for trying to rope him in by keeping the baby, and too “big.” I wasn’t his type. He’d never love me. My kid would grow to hate me for bringing her into a broken home. For her first six months, I was too fat, lazy, and didn’t cook well enough. “You sit in this place all day, you never go out, and the grout is still dirty in the bathroom,” he’d say. He’d come home and make loud kissing noises all over his daughter’s head and talk in baby voices, then put her down and look me up and down, asking if I’d even showered that day, commenting on how gross I looked.
“I think if we took a happy, educated person with a career they enjoyed and active life off the street, brought them in here, sat them in a chair, and told them the things you’ve heard over the last two years, it would destroy them,” a therapist told me. “They’d be in the same position as you.”
I stand in that room sometimes, looking at myself, slouched over, trying not to cry, crumbling and smoothing out a tissue until its fibers were like silk. My eyes had circles under them. I’d been kicked out of my home with my seven-month-old daughter. I’d been homeless, and lived in a shelter. I’d battled him in court, when he tried to convince the judge I was an unfit mother because of depression, and won. I’d worked a landscaping job all summer that’d turned my body into a muscular, bronzed, size six. I’d started school, staying up at night in our subsidized two-bedroom apartment to work through online classes. But I had to face the person who’d destroyed my confidence four days a week to exchange our daughter. In his presence, I became that isolated girl on the couch he’d sneered at. I cowered. I let his comments about my bad parenting eat at me for days, crying to therapists about them.
Half a decade later, it still happens, though not as much. I don’t talk to him on the phone anymore. I don’t respond to strings of texts. I’ve moved us 500 miles away to begin a new life, minus his regular manipulation for us both, and outpouring of hatred towards me. He still tells me I’m selfish, that no one’s ever going to love me, that people are only friends with me because our daughter’s so great, when none of those are true. No, just the opposite is true.
This is something I’ve had to get used to. This is something I’ve worked at for years to overcome. This is something I hide in shame and disappointment. No matter how well I do, my kid’s dad will always be there to cut me down. Always.
I have stopped getting anxious whenever I see him call or email, but my heart still races. I’ll never trust him. His comments still get to me sometimes. I’ve become my own therapist. I question my motivations, educate myself on his empty threats of court action, then give myself permission to be who I am once again. Tell myself I’m okay. I’m enough. I’ve even reached a point where I don’t need affection and attention from a male for reassurance. For the first time in maybe my whole life, I don’t have a crush on anyone, and I’m at peace with that. I even prefer it.
My daughter’s inherited my boy-crazy gene, though. Over Valentine’s Day, she made a special card for a boy in her kindergarten class she was convinced she had “true love” with, and they were going to get married. He was one of the boys who tackled her. She’d felt the same way about the boy who’d turned her into an imaginary monster and ran away. I see her disappointment with such empathy, and give her a hug when we get to the house. “I’m so sorry, honey. Some boys do that,” I said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s true. You’re not really a monster, are you? Do you have green skin and slimy claws?” She laughs, says “No, Mom” and runs into the house, the conversation forgotten by the time she goes inside. I hope she holds on to it a little, somewhere deep down, and that every time I tell her, it sticks a little more. Those are the words I want her to keep.
Hear Stephanie Land in The Mamalode Podcast, Episode 1, from March 2016