Sunday, July 22, 2012

Listening to My Heart: How Much Involvement Should an Abuser Have in Their Child’s Life?

“Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart.”
~Carl Jung

I’ve struggled for months to write this part of my story.  I finally realized I didn’t need to know all the answers to write this post.  I only needed to write it.
So this is how the story goes.

I married my abuser for my son.  I didn’t know he was an abuser at the time.  I hardly knew him at all.  We had worked together for a year.  We had dined together at restaurants, toured the streets of Prague, hiked around Czech Raj and danced at the nightclubs in Hradec Kralove.  But as with most relationships, I could not predict how cohabitating and raising a child together would be.  I only wanted a father for my son. 
And now I struggle every day with determining the level of involvement that father should have in my son’s life. 

How much involvement should an abuser have in their child’s life?  There is no easy answer, and there certainly is not just one answer. 
One of my fears when separating from my husband was how it would affect my son.   But at first, the thought of my ex having any contact with my son scared the hell out of me.  After my ex began his Anger Management program, I allowed my ex to visit with my son in public while I was present.  I was hesitant, but I needed to see with my own eyes the interaction between my son and his dad.  During the next visit my ex had my son alone for the day, but brought him home at night.  As my trust slowly strengthened, my son spent the weekend with his dad and stayed at our neighbors’ house.  

Let me be clear.  This was not easy.  But as per our agreement, my ex was allowed to visit my son every other weekend.  With each visit I was confronted with tightness in my chest and queasiness in my stomach.  Each visit I was a bundle of nerves thinking of the myriad of possible outcomes.  I realize that much of the anxiety and worry was manufactured in my head.  But please know that as I stood on that Florida beach on my wedding day in front of our families seven years ago, the thought of being assaulted by my soon-to-be-husband never ran through my mind.  Once a previously unimaginable assault is perpetrated by your best friend and lover, your reality is irreversibly and significantly altered.  What could I possibly believe was true?  What was real and what was imagined?  I had no idea anymore.  And I still don’t.
The first time my son was to spend the weekend with his dad alone, I agreed to allow his dad to pick him up from school.  I dutifully left the booster seat and a bag of clothes in my son’s classroom.  My ex was to fly in and head straight to my son’s school from the airport.  This whole prospect scared me. I had no idea what evil plan may lay in my ex’s mind.  I tried to have faith that everything would be okay.  But as Ronald Reagan was fond of saying, “Trust, but verify.” 

I called my ex shortly after he was to pick up my son from school.  No answer.  I waited 10 minutes and tried again.  No answer.  I tried to reassure myself that maybe his cellphone had died.  Maybe he left his phone on the plane.  Maybe my ex was just being an asshole and purposely not answering.  But because I could no longer trust reality, I imagined the possibility that my ex had kidnapped my son and at that very minute was headed to the airport for a flight to England.  Or heaven forbid, worse.  These negative thoughts made me nauseous. Because how could I without a doubt know what was realistic anymore?  And how could I live if something happened to my son?
I realize there are those who would say, “Now, Donna, that’s just crazy talk.  You worry too much.”  Yes, maybe.  But maybe not.  How am I supposed to know anymore?  My world has been turned upside down.

After a torturous 40 minutes, my ex finally answered the phone.  The two of them had gone through the school’s book fair, and my ex had supposedly left his phone in the car.    
As time passed, his dad’s visits became less frequent.  A month would go by.  Two months.  Three months.   Each time I was initiating his visits.  “Hey, your son asked about you.”  “Hey, your son’s piano recital is soon, and he asked if you were going to be there.” And “his birthday party is coming up.  Do plan on being there?” 

The most heart wrenching occasion I called his dad about visiting was last summer. 
My son became obsessed with building a “gerbil house.”  At the time my son was fascinated with “inventions” and drawing building plans.  He had drawn up “plans” for the design of a five story gerbil house complete with bathtub, lights, and a motor-driven treadmill.  We spent an afternoon in the garage rummaging through the toolbox and reviewing tools we might need to build the gerbil house.  He then insisted we take a trip to the local Home Depot to research possible materials we would need to build this gerbil house.  We examined wiring, tile, plumbing, carpeting, roof tile, and plywood.  We spoke with the man in the lumber department about the best way to install the floors and how thick the plywood should be.

I knew what was coming next.  Eventually, he would want to actually build this crazy, five-story gerbil house.   And as independent and mechanically inclined as I like to think I am, I was not relishing the idea of using a saw or other power tools I might need for this project.  Hammer, yes.  Electric drill, yes.  Electric circular saw, no.  Besides, I didn’t even own any electric saws much less felt comfortable using one.
I thought this would be an excellent father and son project.  So, I called his dad.

I’m not sure why I bothered.  Sadly, his dad wasn’t interested.  His dad said, “No.”  I could not believe it.  I knew his dad was a jerk, but to pass up an opportunity building a woodworking project with his seven year old son was inconceivable.  But he did.
His disinterest bothered me more than I thought.  I was astonished.  I was disheartened.  What kind of dad doesn’t want to hang out with his son in the garage hammering and sawing all day?  It blew my mind.  Then it broke my heart.  Much to my surprise and disgust, I cried. 

I cried for the little boy who was the most precious thing in my life.  I cried for the sweet, innocent boy who didn’t have a mean bone in his body and did not deserve any of this.  I cried for the boy with a beautiful soul and big heart that deserved a hell of a better dad than the one he was stuck with.  And maybe I cried a little for myself that day because I had let my son down by marrying his stupid, selfish dad.
But life goes on.  So I dried my tears and reviewed my options.  Ask a male co-worker to help my son build his dream gerbil house?  Too awkward.  Build it myself?  Definitely not safe.  Ask my brother who lived four and half hours away?  Nah, he had a six month old son at home.  Ask my dad?  My dad was 70, retired, and has some health issues, but he had power tools and knows how to use them.  Hmmm, it just might work.  But would he be willing?  I wasn’t sure, so I gave my ol’ dad a call. 

Being retired and on his own, my dad was delighted to be needed and acted like a little boy before Christmas.  The next weekend he happily drove the four hours from his house to ours with the trunk of his car full of power tools and various electric saws.  He was more than happy to have a project to work on and to be of some use to his grandson.  My dad, my son and I spent the weekend measuring, sawing, and hammering my son’s gerbil house.  My son directed my dad and I on building the house, measured and marked the wood, and learned to hammer a nail.  By Sunday, we had built my son’s five story gerbil house to his specifications.  And the weekend was as much a bonding experience between my dad and I as it was for my son and his grandfather.

These days my son’s dad visits maybe once every two or three months which I think is just fine.  I am still a bit anxious during these visits, but I try to have faith and not worry.

Over the past year, I have learned much about acceptance.  Where I was once forcing the visits to happen, I now accept I cannot control my son’s relationship with his dad.  I cannot force his dad to visit.  I cannot force his dad to care.  I cannot force my son and his dad’s relationship to be perfect.  The best I can do is to observe my son and listen to my heart.  And while my son does not specifically talk about his dad or his feelings, he does not exhibit any signs that he is frightened to see his dad.  And he does not express any sadness or loneliness to live his life hanging out with just his old mom.  Instead he joyfully explains to me his “inventions” and “gerbil house plans.”  He excitedly informs me what Hermione, Ron and Harry are up to in his current Harry Potter book.   He looks to me when he asks, “How is lightening made, Mom?” and “Where do bald eagles live?”
So I will continue listening to my son and opening my heart allowing it to guide me.  

And as I open my heart in the quiet of the night after my son is in bed, this is what it reveals. “My son is healthy, happy, learning and thriving just fine without his dad.”  And that is all a parent can ask. <3

1 comment:

  1. Beautiful. Incredible that you can so eloquently express how you came to a place of acceptance and came to a comfortable place where you could let go of your need to have that relationship be a certain way. Your son is so lucky to have such a loving and present mother.