This is a guest post by a survivor, ‘Ava,’ who sent me one of the most inspiring and encouraging stories I’ve heard in a long time. It’s also a painful story, but it demonstrates that conditions can improve dramatically sometimes. So keep on fighting for a life of freedom and love – it is your birthright.
This story is, of course, posted with Ava’s permission. Identifying information has been removed from her account. Ava chose the photographs.
This story is about how I almost lost my three boys’ hearts and how I have been able to be reunited with them, and now enjoy a warm and loving relationship with them.
First of all, I am a mother of four. I have three sons and a daughter. All are currently still school-aged, ranging from grade school through high school.
Like so many women before me, I didn’t know that I was in an abusive relationship until I was pregnant with my second son (there was a several-year age gap between my second and third child). I just thought my husband had a bad temper, as his moods could vary very quickly. After the birth of my second son, the abuse escalated to where I literally ran into a shelter to receive help.
At that point the fear of losing my two young boys was too terrifying to even consider leaving. My husband also told me explicitly he would not only make sure I lost the boys if I tried to leave him, but that he would teach them to hate me. I believed him – for good reason, as you’ll see.
We lived in my husband’s hometown where his prominent family also lived, and I felt I wouldn’t stand a chance in court if I left him; I was pretty unknown and had little to no local support network outside of his family, while he was well-respected as a favorite educator in the community and held leadership roles in church. Instead, I decided to try to set boundaries, gently confronting him about his behaviors. And for a time (even though I knew and believed the data that said he was unlikely to change) things got better. After that two-year stint of escalated abusiveness, things seemed to mellow out a lot.
I started a business and began to build a support network, quite deliberately made of many women. I started my own bank account, trying to create as much independence for myself as I could–but very carefully, under the guise of my business. I think I knew that I needed to have an escape eventually.
After seeing improved behaviors from him, with just little outbursts that felt more like normal anger, I began to believe maybe he had made some of those bigger changes. I was still a bit aloof, as my PTSD symptoms had lessened but not disappeared. My emotional barriers bothered him, and he began to beg for me to let them down, using that time also as an opportunity to say that he really felt strongly that we should have another baby. I was very hesitant as I knew that would make me most vulnerable, but I did long to have a daughter and prayed that she would make her appearance.
Our third son was born healthy and happy, and life was going well. I still ran my business, I had a huge support network, and we found out about fifteen months later that I was expecting again—and we finally had our daughter. I really thought we might be able to make it. Life seemed really good for about five months after her birth.
Then he started to get coercive about sex, and as I withdrew from what he wanted (it was pretty twisted to me) he started to have an affair and he started to drink, and all the abuse flooded in. My PTSD symptoms from the first intense two-year period came rushing back, as his violent verbal and physical outbursts ruled life once more.
It wasn’t until he shoved me while I was holding our baby girl that I decided I needed to leave. It still took me several more months to determine to file for divorce, and another year for the divorce to be complete. All that time the abuse was rampant, but this time I had more knowledge and a huge local support system to lean into.
Although by some miracle I did get full legal custody of my children (one point I would not voluntarily budge on due to his abusiveness), I did agree to a 50/50 living arrangement (this is how I secured legal custody) in order to avoid deeper abuse and conflict towards me; and the kids did love and want to be with their dad as much as they wanted to be with me.
Unfortunately, his alcoholism and abusiveness began to find a target in our oldest child, and even with multiple CPS cases opened (with other witnesses, not myself, calling), and some confirmed cases for abuse and neglect, I could not change the status quo in family court. CPS tried to force me to change the custody; but even with so much evidence of his bad behavior, the court awarded him not only a continuance of 50/50 custody, but canceled child support due to his DUI — a hit and run with our children in the car — that caused him to lose his job as an educator. The judge literally told me to “stop wasting court time.”
During this time, with these ‘wins’ bolstering his confidence that he was untouchable, my ex-husband made good on his promise to teach my kids to hate me. My older two boys (who were large in stature), ages 12 and 13 at the time, became horribly disrespectful toward me, mimicking his verbal abuse, and my oldest at one point even choked me, leaving bruises on my face and body. I had to determine whether or not to call the police (I chose to, after a week deliberating). My at-the-time five-year-old son was even screaming at me regularly how much he hated me, using words and terms far outside his normal ability, echoing his father words.
I thought my relationship with my boys was going to be completely lost. My boys, whom I had loved so warmly and had such a sweet relationship with before the divorce, suddenly saw me — as one therapist said – “as the devil incarnate.” I had been abused by my ex and the legal system and professionals — I didn’t know if I could bear the abuse from my own children. I almost agreed to let my oldest two go live permanently with their father, as I was afraid of them. My daughter was too young to understand, and was the only one who wasn’t angry with me. My boys hated me. I didn’t know what to do or whom to turn to.
I paid out of pocket for private therapy to learn new parenting skills. I had started school just before I separated from my ex-husband to become a therapist myself — hoping to learn how to help all of us come through things. Between my own therapy and what I learned in school, and through my practicum/internships, I began to use new skills that helped transform my home life. Some of the skill I practiced were as a simple as expressing love daily to my kids in one of three ways, through verbal expression, physical affection, or written words. My little ones responded immediately to that warmth, but it took months for my older sons to begin to warm toward me at all.
I remember the day my oldest son, who hadn’t said anything loving toward me for over a year, finally said “I love you too” after I said it one night. I had to stifle my tears as I left his room and I went out and wept.
It was not easy to recover my relationship with my boys. It took many months of expressing love with no return, and lots of deep breaths (changing my response patterns and having self awareness of my own triggers). It took so much self-control and a complete overhaul of my parenting. I went from being the passive parent (because my ex-husband had been so controlling, there was no need or room for me to take a different approach) to learning how to become an authoritative parent — using some tools and skills from a course called ‘The Parent Project’ — to help me establish more stability at home. It was the hardest thing to persevere through, but it has paid off in such a big way.
Now my oldest son this year didn’t mind when I chaperoned a school trip, and even will sit and talk to me about his friends, plans, and hopes for the future. He gives me hugs and helps me often without asking. My second oldest is always expressing love and asking for time together now — driving lessons and enjoying a show together nightly are his regular requests. He sent me a text after a special family vacation, thanking me and noting how much work I must have put into it. My third son will often turn to me when his anxiety and fear gets overwhelming, and he texts me regularly, “I love you,” and will tell me regularly that I am “the best” mom. My daughter has three big brothers who love and protect her, while encouraging her to have a voice and speak up for herself.
I don’t take any of this for granted. It is night and day different now. I feel like the warmth I had with them when they were small cuddly boys has returned in a more mature way. I look forward to my time with them and feel excited about all of our futures.
This is all such a miracle. I went from watching my kids freefalling into an ugly abyss before, into now feeling that I can protect their hearts and create a safe space, even though I only have them fifty percent of the time. We have made so many fun memories and new traditions together.
They know they can share their joys and pains of being around their dad, and I will be compassionate but not hurtful about their dad, whom they love. They turned to me this last fall when he became drunk and abusive with them, and I was able to stand up for them in a new way that helped them know I loved them, without adding to their fear that they would lose their dad. My ex married his affair partner and they can be hurtful through texts and emails, but I have learned to only respond to what is absolutely necessary, keeping things light and cordial and giving them little to harass me with.
It’s not been easy–but now I get to help other parents find hope as I work as a parent-coach and therapist who specializes in working with divorced parents. I feel more hope and joy than I ever thought possible.
Thank you for letting me share my story. I hope it encourages others who are experiencing anger, hatred, and even violence from their children — that things can heal. Please know there are so many tools out there to help you recover your relationship with your family. I work with people who are recovering important relationships decades after an abuser tore them apart. No matter how much time has passed, I see and believe it is possible to recover your relationships with your children.
And an epiliogue from Lundy: I heard again recently from Ava, and she has just been granted her full licensure as a mental health professional. This is a huge accomplishment for anyone, but it’s especially impressive for someone who has walked the kind of gauntlet that Ave has. Her children have many reasons to be deeply proud of her.