“Just remember, you’re not alone,” Ms. M said as she cradled the eighteen-year-old college freshman girl, looking past the watery wells of her eyes. For a moment, she calmed the girl’s trembling as she embraced this young woman and tried to ease her fear. Ms. M’s heartbeat traveled every inch of her, and she moved her mouth, “Are you okay?” The girl wasn’t, but Ms. M brought her relief. The end of her question lingered as she waited for the girl to calm down. The girl’s breath caught between her mouth and lungs, unsure in which direction it was most needed. Ms. M offered the space for her words and her feelings until the girl finally confessed, “I-I-I had an abortion.” Ms. M didn’t press her but only offered her shoulder for the girl to shed her tears. Ms. M worked for a community college’s athletic department, and most of the attending students called her “mom.” She recognized that comforting this girl was something life had prepared her for because she had found herself in a similar situation but made a different decision.
Ms. M’s Puerto Rican mother and Dominican father lived in New York City. After marrying, they moved into, decorated, and burrowed into a place, building a tight, warm space. They hung framed prints on the walls and filled their rooms with memories. Her mother continued in her role as a traditional housewife: cooking, washing dishes, floors, and clothes, and caring for the children. Her mother’s education ended around third grade because the responsibilities at home were far more important than seeking an education. Nonetheless, Ms. M viewed her mother like a queen, a small woman who loomed large, and to her she looked like an intelligent empress from a fairy tale. Her mother managed the home, and her father took Ms. M and her siblings to cultural events around the city to expose them to the world.
And so, after Ms. M turned eighteen years old, she found herself confessing her unplanned pregnancy to her mother. Her chest was tight with the anticipation of her mother’s response. She waited for her mother to speak and cursed what felt like a dramatic pause. She couldn’t find an easy way to talk about this hard topic. She watched the panic curve over her mother’s face as her own followed, but her mother finally spoke.
“I support you.”
Ms. M sat quietly watching her mother, thankful this was the mother she knew and loved. On the other hand, her boyfriend’s mother offered a different kind of support, the phone number to the local Planned Parenthood to schedule an abortion. Ms. M and her boyfriend decided to keep the baby. In choosing to keep the baby, she would be choosing to stay in the Bronx and pause her college ambitions. Despite all of her hopes for a different path than her parents, she softened to the idea of motherhood and family life and let her mother teach her about household management.
Ms. M graduated from high school and gave birth to her son weeks before her nineteenth birthday. She and her boyfriend were best friends, and he was her safe place. They made it a point to acknowledge that beyond life’s messes, they would always be with each other first and foremost. Ms. M attended college and earned her associate’s degree. After adjusting to life as a mother and partner, Ms. M and her boyfriend decided to make their relationship permanent and married. Shortly after, Ms. M found herself studying the rose-colored lips of her newborn daughter. They took out a mortgage and built their dream. Ms. M prided herself on the fact she was not a teen mom statistic. She finished high school, earned a two-year degree, had two healthy children by the same father, and that man remained by her side—they were a team.
Then he changed—the way desperate people fighting an internal battle and hiding the truth change. He didn’t change from who he was but exposed his demons to Ms. M. He replicated the toxic and abusive past to his wife, and like most wives, Ms. M tried her best to shield her children from his demons. But only that could remain buried for so long. He turned vicious, irritable, withdrawn, and unkind. He didn’t stay that way—he got worse. He became someone Ms. M couldn’t even like in a casual way, much less the romantic love they shared for years. Then she saw it. His collapsing and self-destruction. She had known her husband for years, and his rage, his hatred toward her, was alarming and dangerous. Most of her husband’s rage had been invisible. His words, manipulation, and infidelity didn’t leave bruises or red marks. Ms. M sat and looked out her home’s window. She tried not to allow her current surroundings to distract her from envisioning her family. She reminded herself she must keep the family together. She couldn’t make a drastic decision based on isolated incidents and decided to give him another opportunity to change and be the dad and husband she knew him to be. Her kids deserved to be raised in a two-parent household. Though his outbursts and actions weren’t ideal, she would do what many women have done for generations. She’d make their marriage work losing herself in the process. No other option. She was stuck.
Every time he walked into the house, she jumped. She constantly checked to make sure she wouldn’t agitate him, something she’d never done before. But she felt she was her children’s only protection. Most nights, she’d lay awake for hours replaying the day. She realized that weeks of her husband’s angry words toward her caused her depression. He arrived home one night in a rage. His voice grew louder as he spoke and paced back and forth before he turned to leave their home, releasing an angry yell as he punched a wall.
After that incident, she sat and looked out her kitchen window. She tried not to let her current situation distract her. Her disappointment as a wife seemed to cover her like a weighted blanket. She often thought about how to improve her situation. Still, she continued taking his brutal words until she curled up on the floor, sobbing in secret.
Desperate to keep her family whole, she found an almost primal strength and focused on her role as a mother, dedicating her time to her children and their extra-curricular activities. She obsessed over whether or not she was a good mother. She felt like she was failing, but she achieved what looked like a normal life, with her daughter an active participant in basketball. Like her husband, their daughter had an athletic gift. She was a talented basketball player, and the sport strengthened the bond between her husband and daughter.
Ms. M invested herself into her daughter’s basketball—she attended the practices and the games. She often misses the sounds of sneakers screeching down the court as the coach yells plays. She became her daughter’s photographer, and this was the distraction she craved from the turmoil of her marriage. She could ignore the infidelity and the daily verbal and emotional abuse. In many ways, she felt stuck and powerless to control it. He manipulated her and offered gifts to stay married or to keep his control over her. Ms. M checked out of her marriage in every area but legally. As Ms. M. realized, decline is difficult to measure, especially when she was in the midst of it.
At that moment, she knew no one would else could rescue her. Yes, she lost a part of herself because she had evolved over the years of abuse, but she was still her. The moment her husband wrapped his hands around her neck, she realized that she could not condone his way of living. With that, a stream of thoughts flooded her mind. Her chest tightened as she watched her thoughts settle her body.
He hated her. It was clear, but one thing was abundantly clear—she stopped caring. He made her feel like a piece of shit, so she shifted her focus from her husband to her ailing mother. For years, she fought for her marriage, trying to avoid the “broken family” label for her children. But in the process, she failed to acknowledge the dynamic was already cracked.
At night, she’d sit in bed and say to herself, “I can do this,” over and over until she could picture herself leaving him. She stopped wanting to go home, instead wanting to be somewhere safe, and that was with her ailing mother. Despite her mother’s health, her mother was safe. She was stronger there. She didn’t want to go home. She still cried at night and slept too little. She tried not to think about his hands around her neck. Most of the time, she could succeed in that goal. Then, a shock of reality hammered her. She felt like she was choking on her own life, drowning in it. Her home didn’t feel safe. She was no longer in love with this cruel man.
In the meantime, her mother’s health had quickly deteriorated. Before she knew it, her husband stood in front of her. She was accustomed to his random advances and manipulation to initiate sex, and she tried not to feel intimidated when he began talking. “I’m moving out,” he said. This wasn’t surprising because, for the past several years, it was as though Ms. M was living with an unpredictable roommate. His declaration of moving was like a perfect storm after years of marriage, panic attacks, taking care of the house and children, and carpooling, all while her husband cheated with several women. It became a montage of routine desperation, and when she closed her eyes, she saw him leaving. He had become a cold animal, like an alien. How could she in her soul live this awful way anymore?
Her husband moved out on a warm spring day in May and moved in with another woman. Ms. M shifted her focus to her sick mother and almost didn’t want to see what was happening. She couldn’t bear the possibility of her mother leaving her because her voice was comforting. Her mother’s voice carried no trace of pain or self-pity, carrying only the softness Ms. M remembered from when she told her mom about her unplanned pregnancy. Ms. M breathed her mother’s love like oxygen. Her mother sustained her.
Once he moved out, her goals mostly involved maintaining normalcy and stability, but those would never be her husband’s. She had no choice but to adjust to her husband’s absence. From May until December, she did everything to keep the home going: mowed the yard and shoveled snow from the sidewalks. Her husband left, but he wasn’t gone. He stalked and threatened her. She took what was left of her normalcy and wrapped herself in it. When she was home with her children, everything was normal. But outside, her life was filled with chaotic uncertainty and fear with her estranged husband.
She stuck to her routine in the Bronx. Work, home, and repeat. Dishes in the dishwasher, yard mowed, basketball practice and games. She kept pace as she always had until that summer when she visited her mother in a quiet room. Her mother had aged, with yellowed eyes and arms too heavy to move. She was awake when Ms. M sat next to her, watching her labor to inhale a breath. She put her hand on her mother as they exchanged looks. There was much to say, and at the same time, Ms. M felt like she had already said everything. There was only one truth—her mother was toward the end and would not recover. She was going to miss the rest of Ms. M’s and her grandchildren’s lives.
Ms. M stayed with her mother until she fell asleep, leaving in the humid New York night air and driving back home, where her children waited. Upon entering her home, she ambled to her sofa in the living room, pressed her palms to her eyes, released a choking sob, lowered herself to her knees and remembered her childhood. She wasn’t ready for her mother to go, especially with her recent separation. Her children approached her, and she wrapped her arms around them both, burying her face in them. She’d been present for her children, but she’d needed someone to hold her, be there for her. She needed a mother too. Her children rarely saw her cry. Her tears meant admitting defeat, and she fought for years to avoid that feeling. But, at this specific moment, her body and mind surrendered, and she couldn’t stop crying.
It hurt to live after her mother’s death. It just did. It hurt to walk down her hallway to open the fridge. It hurt to get dressed, shower, or brush her teeth. She studied her children and saw her mother’s features—only deepening the loss. Her mother’s loss added to her grief and loneliness. She realized life was short. If she died, she wanted to be remembered for something more than being married to a controlling and manipulative man. She must rediscover herself.
Losing her mother intensified her sense that there was no time to sit around and ponder about her life. So, Ms. M transitioned into a new chapter. She emptied two closets—her mother’s and her estranged husband’s. Just like that, life moved on to a new beginning, in a new phase of life. For the first time, she was unhooked from any wifely obligation, and her children were adults. Her son earned a bachelor’s degree in sports management, while her daughter sought a business degree. In hindsight, her children need her less and less than they once did, or so she thought.
“Mom,” her daughter said with tears streaming down her cheeks, “I’m gay.” Ms. M hugged her daughter and wiped away her tears, “I know, baby,” she replied, “I was waiting for you.” If she were honest, Ms. M knew her daughter’s orientation, and she was unsurprised by her daughter’s admission. Her daughter’s face exposed her relief as Ms. M hugged her daughter and replayed her mother’s phrase, “I support you.”
Not long after her daughter’s confession, her daughter’s girlfriend, a first-generation American born to Jamaican immigrants found herself kicked out of her home. “Don’t worry,” Ms. M said, “You can stay with me. We’ll figure it out.” And with that, Ms. M found a new child, and she was more than eager to make good on this opportunity she’d been handed. For the first time in a long time, she felt like she was doing something meaningful, directly impacting the lives of her children and their significant others while finding herself. Yes, her situation drained her, but it gave her everything she needed to push forward to a more independent and fulfilling life.
With the addition of a new child to love, she realized motherhood was her motivator. The act dictated her movements, decisions, the rhythm of her days. Her children gave her life. Although her children are adults, she remembers them as babies—these tiny beings entrusted to her. She lost hours watching them breathe as she rocked them to sleep. She loved her children passionately, including her new bonus daughter.
Tossing her hair a little and releasing the pain, Ms. M could picture the version she aspired to be; an attractive middle-aged woman with black hair and dark eyes with tan skin. Rebuilding her life with confidence and independence, she has made it her new mission to empower women to escape their abuse. She knows first-hand there is life and light outside of a toxic marriage. Slowly, she has become more outward and social, more willing to open herself to the opportunity to connect to others.
When the young eighteen-year-old college girl approached her in tears, confessing to an abortion she had, Ms. M offered comfort versus judgment. She understood the desire to be held in a time of grief. So, she sat with the young girl quietly and waited for her to calm down. “I was alone when it happened,” the girl said.
Ms. M gasped, “I wished I had known. I would have gone with you.” It wasn’t her place to judge. The pain Ms. M endured couldn’t turn her away from this girl. She didn’t want to.
They looked at each other, knowing their next step wouldn’t be easy—it never would be. There was a new chapter beginning for both women. Ms. M felt a tear slither down the side of her face as she pulled the girl in closer to her. The young woman pressed her cheek against her chest. Ms. M breathed out. This was her—a broken woman made whole again through helping other broken women. It was a good place for her to start.
Kayla Branstetter is an English professor for Crowder College, a mother, writer, artist, and photographer from Missouri. She holds a MALS degree in Art, Literature, and Culture from the University of Denver. Her creative nonfiction, poetry, art, fiction, and photography have appeared in the following publictions: New Plains Review, The Kansas City Star, Grand Dame Literary Journal, Humans of the World, New Reader Magazine, The Write Launch, the Crowder Quill, Light & Space 'All Women' exhibit, Light & Space "Abstract" exhibit, The Human Family--Human Rights Festival, The Paragon Press-Echo: Journal of Creative Nonfiction, 805+, High Shelf Press, The Esthetic Apostle, the gyara journal, Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review, Buringword Literary Journal, The Poet's Choice, The Sheepshead Review, and a former contributing writer to a regional magazine Ozark Hills and Hollows. Recently, her art pieces, 'Life's Dance' and "Aurora" were featured in exhibitions for M.A.D.S a contemporary art gallery in Milan, Italy. She has received an art award from Rome, Italy and in 2022, received another art award from Italy. She is currently working on her first book.