After two years of being separated from the father of her 3 elementary-school-age children, Maureen felt she was making progress building a new life stable enough to withstand co-parenting with her ex. She had a wonderful boyfriend, and her parents, while reminding her regularly that divorce was a sin and a blot on the family reputation (“We have to live in this town.”), enjoyed time with the grandchildren enough to keep the disapproval within reason.
Maureen told her therapist, “The hardest part was realizing that for my parents, nothing my ex did or could do would ever justify my leaving. Even when he my broke my arm, they nursed me in their spare bedroom, and told everyone I tripped on the stairs.” She continued, “It’s not that they don’t love me and the kids. Their generation and their culture just doesn’t allow women to leave. You said to me when I started therapy, ‘So for your parents it would almost be better for you to die a Good Wife than to be a divorced woman who doesn’t live in fear?’ I realized it’s not about me, it’s just the way they think, and I don’t have the time or energy to try and change them.”
Then, Maureen’s sense that order was returning to her world took a tumble when her 9-year-old son returned with his two siblings from a weekend with Dad furiously angry. “Dad slapped me, hard, for no reason! I have a cut on my lip from him slapping me so hard. For NO REASON!”
Before she could react, the younger children yelled at him “You weren’t supposed to tell. You broke your promise!” What promise? Promised who? Damn him! Using the kids! She used her mom voice to calm them all down, and slowly the story emerged, but it was not the story she was expecting.
While her ex might be benefitting from the “don’t tell” arrangement, it was the children who agreed among themselves not to tell her anything about their time with Dad that might upset her. They had heard over the past two years of separation how furious and frustrated she became when Dad sent pages of complaints and accusations through the court-monitored computer communication messaging system, how she cried when he would call to talk to the children, landing a few well-placed curses before she could hand over the phone.
Maureen thought those emotional explosions were blips in the past. She had a good attorney now, was moving through Family Court, relied on the privacy of her local domestic violence support group to relieve her frustration and tears, and had a wonderful new man in her life. The children didn’t see it that way. She was the mom they depended on, and they also saw her as vulnerable, especially where Dad was concerned. They concluded they had a role in keeping home on an even keel by not bringing Dad into their safe haven. Quite a bit of responsibility for children, but they took it on without Maureen ever realizing what they were doing until Dad crossed an invisible line with that slap.
After Maureen realized what “don’t tell” was all about, she used some of the skills that therapy and conferring with other domestic violence survivors had taught her. She gathered the kids around the kitchen table, got some ice for her son’s lip, and made a little speech.
“Let’s take a minute and be sure everyone is ok before I decide what to do about the slap and Barry’s cut lip. Take a breath with me, and let’s count to 4 and blow it out.” The kids had been through this before and all recognized it was calm-down time.
“I want to thank you,” Maureen said, “for showing me how much you love me by protecting me from things you know would upset me, like some of the things Dad has done in the past. I really appreciate it. What I haven’t shared with you is how much better I am feeling, and that now I have grownups in my life who are helping me be a good mom, and to be happy.” She listed them for the children.
“Tonight, I want you to know that you don’t need to keep those secrets from me anymore. I am strong now and I can take it. I can help YOU deal with things your Dad does or doesn’t do, just as I can help you with school and friends. It’s time for you to know that you can just be kids again.”
For the next two hours, long after regular bedtime, Maureen heard a litany of “stuff Dad does that makes me so mad.” Hugs all around, and by the time Maureen went to bed, she had a lot to think about.
She shared the events of that evening with her therapist and the support group she trusted, and concluded “I have read in DV books like “Why Does He Do That?” [by Lundy Bancroft] how children grow up fast and step into adult responsibilities. I never looked at my kids that way, and it still amazes me how they were taking care of me in such a careful, under-the-radar way I never suspected they were doing it.”
What about the slap? Maureen’s lawyer responded to her text to his cell. He asked her to get a photo of the cut inside Barry’s lip and asked Maureen send him an e-mail with Barry’s description of what happened. The documentation of the incident turned out to be quite useful in negotiations with her ex’s attorney.