“Does Mommy abuse me?”
I was about ten years old and had been fighting this sharp pain of conflict in my chest for some time. It consisted of what felt like butterflies on fire, clamoring to escape but with no known exit.
I didn’t look like what abused children were supposed to look like. I had a place to sleep. I had food. I wore untattered clothing. For these reasons, I second-guessed what my body was desperately trying to tell me.
But I knew that my family wasn’t like those on television or the well-to-do ones that I saw at school with both mommies and daddies.
Something wasn’t right.
As I stood in front of my aunt, asking her this question that I could no longer contain within me, she knelt down. She was silent with watered eyes. My aunt had been the mother figure in my life, my one sense of love and stability. My aunt’s words mattered to me, which was something she took as the most important responsibility of her life.
“If I told on your mommy… I don’t know what would happen to you or where you would go. I will keep you safe.”
This would remain with me well into adulthood, coming back to show me the pain in her words and the lessons needing to be unearthed.
While I was playing in my mother’s living room sometime in 1999, I pointed to a faded black and white photograph of two women smiling next to each other, one clearly older than the other. I knew who everyone else was sprawled out across the fireplace, but not them. They were nameless.
“Mommy, who is that?”
My mother, whose reactions were often unpredictable, walked over and stood behind me with her hands on her hips, “That’s your grandmother and great grandmother.”
Understanding that my great-grandmother was likely gone due to her age, I was confused why I didn’t at least know my grandmother because all the kids in my second-grade class had grandmothers.
“But why don’t I know my grandma?”
My mother paused.
“You don’t know your grandmother, because she killed herself when I was a baby.”
As time went on, my mother would slip out new facts about her own mother’s suicide and the tragic childhood that resulted.
Her mother was “hysteric.”
“It” happened right next to the crib.
The community blamed my infant mother for being a “bad baby” and causing the suicide.
She would share these new revelations either right before or in moments of what I used to firmly believe were demonic possessions. Her eyes would become dark and her mouth would utter words like that of a possessed character in a horror film.
Beyond living in a constant state of fear when I was around her, my mother didn’t want much to do with me. She often spouted words of hatred towards children and would remind me at least once a week about how she wanted an abortion.
The only sense of relief my mother had was when she worked.
She bragged about how she refused bedrest while in her final trimester of pregnancy. This was after warnings from her doctor that it would result in premature birth, which ultimately happened six weeks before I was set to arrive.
She boasted about how she went right back to work, leaving me with extended family from the very beginning of my life.
Work was her escape.
It let her temporarily suspend what her trauma had taught her from the mere age of six months old: being a mother was a weakness and she had to escape it at all costs.
Even as a young girl, I recognized the opposing forces that were my mother and my aunt.
My “aunt” was actually a cousin that had been raised in close proximity to my mother. They had a sibling-like relationship; however, I would later learn that their lives, though antithetical, told a complex and devastating story.
Stepping up from the moment news broke of my mother’s pregnancy, my aunt vowed to fill the gaps that my mother would not. She promised that she would care for me—a plea to my mother to keep me.
My mother was absent, my aunt was present.
My mother was abrasive, my aunt was gentle.
My mother despised having a child, my aunt yearned for it.
My aunt was truly the mother I never had.
Little did I know that I was the very same for her, but instead, as a daughter.
Nights when my own mother had proven herself unsafe, my aunt would take me with her to job. She worked at the local juvenile shelter. While the other children were asleep in their bunk beds, she would make out a bed on the couch next to her desk.
She was well-respected by her supervisors and even the very juveniles that had somehow found themselves at the shelter. It was often because their families kicked them out, sometimes on a whim.
My aunt never spoke poorly about any of them, if anything, she spoke about them as equals and deserving of love. She’d tell me that “no one deserves to be abandoned.”
Unlike my mother, my aunt’s work was not her escape, it was a way to make up for what she had lost.
One night, she was taken to the side by a coworker to talk about a new juvenile that had been placed in the facility. It was a young girl who looked about my age.
My aunt, a soft-spoken woman of very few words, sat down at her desk with eyes staring painfully at the young girl’s door.
“That baby, that little girl…she’s only nine … she’s pregnant.”
My aunt’s hand curled up around her lips as her eyes watered.
“She’s all alone. No one wants her.”
I sat next to her, watching her utter those words, but I noticed she wasn’t talking to me. She was talking to some invisible presence that I could not see. She was not there in the room with me, she was in what seemed like a different time and place. Not there.
Months had passed, but soon a broadly built man with a five o’clock shadow, probably in his mid to late thirties, started to visit my aunt for weeks at a time.
They called themselves cousins.
He was lighthearted, funny and often volunteered to play board games with me when I was there. I would tell my aunt how much I liked him, and how he reminded me so much of her.
Many years later, close to my college graduation, the same man and his wife came to Thanksgiving dinner for the very first time.
Before everyone started to eat, the man stood up and looked at my aunt who had just finished taking the final pie out of the oven.
“Happy Thanksgiving, Mom.”
My aunt, with eyes watering, responded, “Happy Thanksgiving, Son.”
I remember how any remnants of tension that were present in that tiny apartment had dissipated the moment this truth was shared. Though I only knew bits and pieces of my aunt’s story at the time, it didn’t matter. What mattered was that a mother and son were reunited at last.
I soon learned that my aunt had two children when she was a young girl. One born when she was under the age of sixteen.
It was a daughter.
Without much say and familial pressure of maintaining appearances within their community, my aunt’s infant daughter was taken from her and placed in a private adoption to never be seen again.
Not too long after, she became pregnant with her son and, as a result, was kicked out of her high school.
The toll that the private adoption had on her mental health was severe. With all of her might, she begged those with power over her to let the baby be close.
She didn’t want to abandon him.
By grace, her parents had found relatives who were willing to adopt him. The only condition was that she was to never tell him that he was her son, but cousins.
Without any other choice, she agreed.
For many years, I did not connect my mother and aunt’s stories. It wasn’t until I began embarking on my own self-healing journey that I realized how they were each very much a product of the times, of women’s place in society and their rights.
During my grandmother’s time in the 1950s, married women were simply expected to have babies and live the rest of their lives as housewives. Pregnancy was just a fact of life and was to be cherished. Contraception of any kind was taboo and safe abortions were out of the question. This was long before Roe v. Wade.
There wasn’t a name for postpartum anxiety, depression or psychosis, which made the woman who had any negative view of pregnancy appear unappreciative, mad, unstable.
If your husband became too concerned by your non-jubilant reaction to your baby, a doctor would prescribe medication to numb you, to silence you.
Motherhood was enslavement.
As with my grandmother, she believed the only way out was death.
My aunt’s reality, as many barely adolescent girls in the early 1960s will attest, was quite the opposite.
Becoming an unwed teenage mother was social suicide for the girls’ family back in that day, so it was to be well-hidden. Some families would force their daughters to wear tight girdles and loosen their clothing through alterations over the course of the following nine months. This was dangerous because if a school official believed a female student was pregnant, they could be expelled. It also wasn’t uncommon for the young fathers’ parents to deem the young mothers as sexual deviants.
Because of these risks, it was often safer to keep it a secret.
These young girls had no autonomy and were treated as property of their parents. Also before Roe, they had no decision-making power as to how they were to live out their pregnancies, nor that of their own unborn children. Sometimes it would result in these girls being pulled from school before their wombs were too big and forcing marriage upon them. Other times they would be taken to a maternity home.
Parents would send their teenage daughters to religiously affiliated facilities far from home, many times they were states away, to live out the rest of their pregnancy. Some girls didn’t see their parents again until after they had given birth. Some not at all.
What was almost always certain was that when you went into labor, you’d be put to sleep and wake up in a cold white hospital room with an empty belly and empty arms.
Your baby would be gone.
From there, you were told to forget about your pregnancy and move on.
As if you hadn’t been robbed of your child.
Most days, these stories are often at the forefront of my mind. Sometimes I miss how I used to be young and naive, easily dichotomizing them into two distinct worlds.
My mother as an evil force and my aunt as a benevolent light.
In reality, both of their lives tell the dark history of women’s rights in my country, the United States. When I see the ongoing political debates over women’s bodies and their autonomy, the sharp pain of butterflies on fire that I felt frequently as a little girl returns. I find myself thinking about how many stories of women’s battles remain buried and untold, and at times, it brings me to my knees. Women cannot afford to keep secrets, because the past is close behind.