|"Shades of Gray" from Michelle DuPuis|
Our bathroom is 11-year-old Faith’s confessional. The combination of warm running water, steam, and the familiar smell of Suave Strawberry shampoo mingled with Johnson’s Baby Bath unhinge my youngest daughter’s emotions. The shower curtain, drawn between us like a confessional screen, provides just enough privacy to unlock her inhibitions. The warmth and security of the steam blanket wrapped around her often extracts long, pent up thoughts and fears from the darker corners of her mind and shoos them out into the open where I can help her turn them over and make sense of them.
Our ritual starts with me running her bath or shower and asking her to go upstairs for her robe and pajamas. She returns and closes the door behind her. After she’s settled cozily beneath a blanket of bubbles in the tub or has pulled the shower curtain and warmed up, she’ll often call for me to return. We’ve had some of our most important conversations in this sanctuary.
On a recent Sunday night, there was another installment in our running sessions, one that I was not prepared for.
On a recent Sunday night, there was another installment in our running sessions, one that I was not prepared for.
“Can I talk to you about something?”
“Of course, Sweetie. Always.”
“Mom, last time, in the summer, I talked to Ryan. He’s a really good person to talk to about this stuff. I trust him and he… he knows.”
I was caught off guard. Not many of my daughter’s conversations begin with reference to her 29-year-old step brother, Mike’s oldest son and my former stepson.
At a loss for words, I waited, knowing that she was summoning her thoughts and feelings to the surface.
“He told me not to tell you because you’d probably call Children’s Protective Services again or something and get dad and Wanda in trouble. He said it was okay and not a big deal and dad didn’t mean it. He said it happened to him too when he was a little kid.”
My heart was caught in my throat. I could barely breathe.
I was glad for the curtain between us. I didn’t want Faith to see the apprehension in my face. I worried that she might not have continued if she had.
“Ryan said, when he was a kid, dad scared him too. He used to get super mad….like, remember? When Dad yelled ‘Shut your face, Faith! Shut your face!’ And I didn’t even know who he was? Well, like that.”
“What happened that Ryan said you shouldn’t tell me, Faith?”
The story, like a pent up stream of water, came gushing out.
“Well, when I was getting ready for Gospel Christmas last night, and I thought I looked cute. I had on my leggings and this cute shirt and top. But then Wanda came in. She didn’t even knock. I don’t like it mom, when she barges into my room. All she says is ‘it’s just me, don’t mind me,’ but sometimes she just says nothing. Even when I’m in the shower. I don’t like it, mom. It makes me uncomfortable.”
This was another subject I’d need to get back to with Faith. For the time being, I steered her back to the story about her outfit, and Gospel Christmas.
“What happened after you got dressed?”
“Wanda hated my outfit. Like usual. She said I looked ‘weird.’ She got me jeans and a tee shirt, and Mom, it was Gospel Christmas. I wanted to dress up for once. It’s the holidays, and at night, and downtown. I don’t get to get dressed up that much and I liked what I picked. It wasn’t weird. But oh no, Wanda had to tell me it was ugly. I’m so tired of her telling me what to wear! Why does she always care about how I look so much?”
Faith was fuming. She was not timid or crying. She was definitely mad.
“Then, I slammed my drawers when she went downstairs. Then, dad stomped up the stairs REALLY loud and fast, like when he gets super mad. He ran into my room and I was scared mom... he was scary. He slapped my face. Mom, I know I probably shouldn’t have acted so mad at Wanda. I was having a temper. I was having a meltdown. But dad was so mad, and he just slapped me right on my face.”
Mike had hit the children before. About a year ago I got a call from then 16-year-old Claire, telling me through sobs that her dad had spanked her after she had an argument with Wanda. It had resulted from another yelling match between them, this time about an upper ear piercing Claire had not gotten permission for. I’d called both my lawyer and our family counselor immediately. They both asked the same thing: “Did she call the police and is there any bruising?” No, and no. Again, they both said if there are no bruises, and the child did not call the police, there was nothing that could be done. I made a mental note for future reference.
I hadn’t noticed any bruises on Faith’s face, but I’d double check after the shower.
“How hard did he slap you, Faith?”
“Not hard. It wasn’t hard mom, it was just a slap. But Mom, isn’t that not okay? I don’t want to be one of those kids who gets abused. God, Mom, it sounds so weird to say now, ‘my dad hit me.’ I shouldn’t have acted so mad mom, but he didn’t just talk to me. A parent should act like a parent, you know, like talk to their kid about it.”
The last time Faith and I had a long conversation about parenting, I tried to give her some tools to use to make sense of the different parenting styles she’s encountered. I used my sister-in-law as an example of how a good parent, who is firm but constructive and loving, handles discipline with her young boys. She and her husband never lose their temper and would never hit or scream at their kids, no matter how stressful the situation. They are always in control of their actions, no matter how carried away the boys might get. When my kids have felt bad before, and come clean to me about things said in the heat of frustration and anger at their dad’s house, I’ve asked them - “Do you think Katie or Brian would ever scream at Evan to ‘shut your face’? The last time Emma just laughed in understanding of the absurdity that such good parents would do such a thing.
Last December their stepmother’s mother, Grandma Crater, had dropped the kids off to Noah at the mall by the airport. Noah had noticed that she was driving her daughter’s car, and asked me later, “Doesn’t she have a breathalyzer in her car? I don’t think she can drive another car.” We had driven to the beach that weekend with the kids and they openly dished on the matter, which appropriately ended up with an open Child Protective Services case and interviews with the kids. Their dad and Wanda had accused the kids of lying about feeling afraid and disallowed them (attempted to, anyways) from talking to me at all about Wanda’s family. I had taken the opportunity to use my sister-in-law and her husband again as parenting examples in discussions with my kids about this matter.
“Can you imagine Katie and Brian saying that their kids were lying about seeing liquor bottles in the front seat? Or that the breathalyzer was just for asthma?” They just laughed. It was nice to realize that my kids were now old enough to see through most of the BS without any help. I knew it stung Mike and Wanda because they rarely missed an opportunity to accuse me of fabricating stories, and their radio silence on this matter with me was surely due to the file sitting somewhere in a CPS office with their names on it.
“Faith, I’m so sorry, Honey. But you’re right -- it’s not okay for him to slap you, even if it isn’t hard.”
In the past, Mike had made a big show of telling Ryan, and then later our son Jackson, that it’s never alright to hit a girl. (I’d taken it farther and told all my kids - “Don’t ever hit anyone”). Yet here he was, a 50-plus years old, 6’3, 230 lbs., breaking his only cardinal rule again. He slapped our 11-year-old daughter right before taking the family to “Gospel Christmas.” It seemed like an episode of a really bad Afternoon Special about child abuse.
“Ryan said, it happened to him too. He said, when he was little, Dad poked him in the chest, like this” —she poked her head outside the shower curtain and pantomimed an angry, tightlipped face, bugged out eyes, and motioned a stiff, repetitive jab to the chest and throat.
“He said dad poked him so hard, he at first felt like he couldn’t breathe. Then, dad saw he might have hurt him, and he felt bad. He said he told him he was sorry, and hugged him and asked if he was okay.”
I was temporarily at a loss for words.
“But mom, Dad didn’t say anything like that to me. I was so mad. I was crying. I was crying and crying like crazy. But dad didn’t act like anything happened after that! He just acted normal. Not mad, not sad... like nothing even happened. He ALWAYS does that! I don’t get it!”
Her anger had bubbled over and Faith was now crying. Tears were flowing as she stood in the shower, warm water pummeling her from above. I knew what she was talking about. I’d written down all my dreams, in a journal, when I was married to her dad. They reflected what happened in my life with him. Mike, in my experience, lacked the ability to know or acknowledge when he’d done something wrong. To this day, I always wondered how he could do what he’d done to our family and marriage back then, and just seem to forget. Or worse yet, he’d ended up blaming me for how I’d reacted to what he’d done. When I made him move out, he’d been angry with me too. He’d told me how selfish I was. He was two people, A Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde character -- a jovial, loving father one minute -- a swearing, angry, monster who could barely restrain himself the next.
I used to think (hope?) that it was just me. Either I overreacted to his temper, or I’d done something that deserved that level of anger. I hoped that he had since matured, and having gotten away from me as his wife, he wouldn’t lose his temper anymore. Apparently, I was wrong, and my kids are stuck dealing with it.
I remembered something else Faith had said.
“Faith, what happened in the summer that you told Ryan about and he told you not to tell me?”
“Well, I was so scared of dad back then too. I took a nap one day, you know, during softball, when I was on that team at State. I woke up too late, and I was really tired, and dad was mad. He was so mad. He told me to hurry up, I was late for softball practice, and he pushed my face.”
She’d turned off the shower, wrapped up in a towel and showed me her open hand, fingers splayed straight and her arm locked, exaggeratedly stiff. Again, her face was imitating a mask of seething anger. I’d seen that face a long time ago myself, on my ex husband when he was frustrated with me. Faith was sobbing now.
“Mom, I don’t know what to do. Dad acts like it’s nothing. Ryan told me not to tell you. Most of the time, dad is nice. Before he’s been nice, anyway. But mom, he’s not my dad anymore. I just don’t even want him to be my dad anymore.”
We sat together on the edge of the tub. I held her shoulders as they shook. I worried about what to do next. The last time I took Claire to the counselor and called my lawyer, it didn’t sound like there was any way I could stop what I knew was going on at the other house. If I said anything, I might be accused by my ex and the kids step mom that I was, to use a few of their favorite phrases -- “stirring things up,” “just trying to make us look bad,” and “trying to make yourself look good.” If I confronted Mike, I was afraid that it would make things actually worse for the kids based on past experience. A few years ago I’d urged Faith and Jackson to speak to their grade school counselor. They were upset with some things going on at their other house and they kept saying that they want to live with Noah and me. I’d told them to talk to her about the issues at their other house because she would listen and document the problems. Instead, the counselor called their dad, without them knowing, and asked him to come to the school that day. The kids walked into her office and saw him sitting there. She proceeded to tell him what the kids had told her about Wanda, and how their step mom treated them and talked to them. Mike told the counselor he didn’t know it was that bad, that he’d talk to Wanda and things would change. Jackson and Faith told me when they got home that day, the first thing Mike did was tell Wanda that the kids had been talking about her to the school counselor. She was furious. They held a family meeting later that night, and their dad cried and told them he didn’t want them to someday move out, like Ryan had when he’d gone to live with his Grandma as a teen. My kids didn’t want to hurt their dad. They didn’t want to anger Wanda. Wanda and their dad told them that if they moved in to live with their mom, they would leave their school, and neighborhood, sports teams and friends. They were told not to go the counselor again.
“Faith, you have to help me so I can help our family.”
She nodded weakly. I could tell she was exhausted. Spent.
“Faith, I know you don’t want to get your dad in trouble. I know you are not that comfortable talking to a counselor, but honey, it’s to help your dad too. You have to think of how telling the truth can fix things. It’s not being mean to your dad. It’s not ‘telling on him.’ He shouldn’t hit. You know that. He’s the one who says that even. Dads shouldn’t hit girls; not anyone. YOU shouldn’t have to worry he’s going to hit at all when he’s mad. It’s not okay. I need you to talk to our counselor with me. He knows your dad. He will want to help him. He remembers what we talked about with Claire last year when she moved out. You can’t be afraid right now about hurting your dad’s feelings, or getting in trouble with Wanda. Let’s at least meet him and he can give us some advice. Maybe he’ll know what to do.”
I was also exhausted. My kids were not in immediate physical danger that I knew of, but how close was the breaking point? Things were not getting better. The fact was, Mike was having a hard time staying appropriate and in control of himself. His “Jekyll” character was still simmering just beneath the surface, and I’d be a bad parent if I waited for a bruising or a call to the police by one of the kids. I would need to take another look at what it would take to get temporary custody.
Faith was limp. She leaned against me.
“Mom? I just want him to be away somewhere. Put away. Where he can’t touch me or see me or talk to me. I want to tell him how I feel. I want to just tell him how mad I am but not be afraid.”
My 11 year old daughter was saying what I’d thought but never been able to say, almost exactly
10 years ago, when our family first fell apart because of Mike’s lack of restraint and control. Would my 13 year old son follow in his father’s footsteps? With all the empty sermons his dad had spewed about not hitting girls, my tender, smart, loving son had told me recently that when his step mom had grabbed his arm, and he’d knocked her hand off of him, he’d told her, “Don’t touch me.” He said she was furious. “Then I’ll just have your dad touch you,” she said to him. After telling me this story, he added: “If Wanda ever does try to hit me, I’m going to punch her in the face.” And with venom I’d never seen in Jackson’s calm blue eyes, little he belted a tight fisted punch into the air in our kitchen.
“No. Jackson, I don’t care WHAT the circumstances, or HOW mad you are. You don’t ever hit anyone.”
“I don’t care. I’m going to hit her if she hits me.”
“Jackson, if you hit Wanda, YOU will be the one in trouble. You are bigger now. You are a teenager. If you hurt or hit someone, it is called ‘assault,’ and you could go to Juvenile jail or have a record. Or, worse yet, really hurt Wanda. You cannot EVER hit. Violence is not the answer.”
“Mom. I don‘t care. She makes me so mad. It’d be worth it.”
I called the counselor to set an appointment the following day. As much as I worry about putting at risk the trust my kids put in me when they confide in me, I cannot stand by and not do take action to protect them, and maybe even Wanda and Mike, in the long run.