“Are you mean?”
It’s not a question I’m asked often, so when the little girl with the cynical blue eyes asked, I knew I’d better give a straight answer.
“I don’t think so.”
“Are you nice? Are you nice to your kids? Do you ever smack their bottoms?”
I told her that I try to be nice to my four boys, but that sometimes moms and dads get angry and they do things and say things they regret. I hoped it was the answer she needed to hear.
A lot of the work I do for a local domestic violence agency is behind closed doors. I help write grants, prepare press releases and plan events. I also get to work with high school kids to produce a drama about teen dating violence and I speak to high school classes about healthy relationships.
But I’ve never had a face-to-face encounter with the youngest victims of domestic violence. Until today.
As their mom carried on an emotional conversation with their dad on an office phone, eight-year-old Blue Eyes and her little sister sat close by. I could tell that they were taking it all in, and taking on their mom’s pain.
I told the girls I’d find them a snack and, taking the hand of the littlest one, led them down the hall, out of earshot of their parents’ conversation. Grabbing a couple of containers of yogurt and some plastic spoons, we settled in a quiet room where I pulled out watercolor paints and paper.
Life just stinks sometimes, I’m thinking. People do mean things to one another, say things in the name of “love”, and then, when love goes sour, innocent people suffer. These little girls could be my own granddaughters, and as I watched them innocently painting and eating yogurt, my maternal instincts were primed to give their mom a lecture on how she should protect her children.
Then Blue Eyes began talking about her mom. Wise beyond her years, she told me that her mom was just 15 when she had her first child, and that she had an older brother and sister and a couple of younger ones – six kids in the family in all. She said she knew she wasn’t going to live with her daddy any more, but she missed him. She was supposed to spend today with him, but now that wasn’t going to happen. Tears spilled from her eyes.
She held up her painting. It was a drawing of herself holding her mom’s hand. “I love my Mom,” she said.
I don’t know what goes on behind closed doors in this little girl’s house, but it’s clear she has known her share of pain and heartache. And right now she’s in the path of her parents’ “train wreck”. I am not a counselor, just a mom who has had her own struggles and seen enough of others’ heartache. If I could talk with this little girl’s mother – to any mother who is dealing with a difficult relationship – there are a few things I would want to say:
- Be safe. Put your own health and safety and that of your children above everything else. Decide what you need to do and find a way to do it.
- Trust someone. Families have history and sometimes hold grudges or take sides when there’s conflict. If you don’t have a family member you can fully trust, allow yourself to trust a stranger who is interested in your welfare.
- Be honest. With yourself and with the person you decide to trust. The only way anyone can help you is if they have the facts – all of them.
- Accept help. If the person you trust offers you a chance to get counseling, to take classes, to find a job, accept those offers. You have to take positive actions to see positive changes.
- Stay single. After you leave this relationship, even if it’s abusive, there will be a void in your life. Don’t immediately try to find someone to fill that void. Take care of yourself and focus on your children for awhile. You’ll know when you’re ready for a new, healthy relationship.
- Open your eyes and ears. Consider what your kids see and hear while you’re in the midst of conflict. Try to protect them from it. They absorb and remember more than you realize, and may even act out on it as they grow older.
- Love yourself. You don’t deserve the pain that’s happening in your life, no matter how many bad choices you’ve made. You can change things. Don’t live in those past mistakes. Give yourself the chance to start over.
When I left Blue Eyes and her little sister today, they were hugging the bear and monkey our agency had given them the day they arrived on our doorstep. I hugged them both and said I’d see them around.
“Hey,” said the littlest one shyly as I turned to leave. “I like you.”
Tonight, I’m praying that tomorrow is a better day for these two and for all the innocent ones who must make their way in the aftermath of their parents’ messes. It’s time for their heartache to stop.