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Free From Family
Maria A.
headshot

Names have been changed.

My mom, who is Nigerian, raised me as a single parent in New York City. I have three older brothers who moved out when I was young. Jack got kicked out; Brian went to college; and Gabriel left to live with his father. I was close with Gabriel because he seemed to understand how I felt. Brian was harsh, trying to be some sort of father figure to me, and Jack was always doing drugs and getting in trouble.

By the time I was 6, it was just my mother and me. She worked long hours as a salesperson, and that meant leaving me home alone until 10 at night. During the summer I would cook myself ramen noodles and French fries in the microwave. During the school year, I ate at school.

But I never got used to it. If I heard noises, I thought it was the boogeyman coming to kill me or a horrible monster wanting to eat me. A lot of times I wanted to go to a neighbor’s, but I didn’t want my mom to get in trouble for leaving me at home.

When I told her how scared I was in the house alone, she told me, “You just have to deal with it,” or “That’s life.” But I knew even as a child that it didn’t have to be my life: She made it my life.

She also slapped me. At first it was just for stupid things like not washing the dishes or not calling her. The hitting wasn’t that harsh, at first. The yelling and the name-calling were worse. She used to call me “stupid,” “dumbass,” and “good-for-nothing-child.” It was like having my own personal bully waiting for me at home.

Getting hit was normal in an African family, I learned from movies and other Africans I knew. But then when I was around 8, it got worse. My mom started dating and getting dumped. She also switched jobs and started losing friends. She also told me that there was something specific she was angry at me about.

Terrible Accusation

My mother told me that my father, who I’d never met, gave her money to abort me because he didn’t want me. She didn’t get the abortion, and he left her. She blamed me for driving him away. She said I ruined her relationship.

That left me broken-hearted and guilty. Even though she was mean to me, I pitied her. I was the direct cause of her misery. That left me wondering, Did I deserve all this abuse? Was my father right to want to abort me?

The beatings got harder, with belts and hangers, and often there was no reason. I didn’t tell anyone, because I hoped that underneath all that anger was a kind and gentle mother.

Despite the pain she caused me, I loved her. Who else was there to love? That was depressing, knowing she was the only one I had. It was depressing saying “I love you” when I wasn’t sure I did.

I felt like no one understood me. I kept to myself. Other relationships, including with friends, seemed impossible if I couldn’t even have a relationship with my own mom.

My mother was disciplinary on top of being angry and abusive. She even kicked Jack, her favorite kid, out of the house to teach him a lesson. He had gotten into trouble and dropped out of high school.

Happy Family

One day when I was 8, I was alone in the house, as usual. Jack knocked on the door and asked to come in. Her rule was I wasn’t to let anyone in the house. He was no exception.

“Please open the door. I just want to take a shower,” Jack said.

“You know what Mommy would do if she found out.”

“Please,” he begged.

He was my brother; I let him in. He smelled like a homeless guy because he was a homeless guy. He took his shower, and then he left, making me promise I wouldn’t tell our mom. After she came home, looking exhausted and miserable, she called me into the bathroom.

“Who took a shower like this?” she asked.

There was water all over the floor, hair on the shower curtain, and soap everywhere.

“I did,” I lied.

“Where did all the hair come from?”

“I was giving myself a haircut before taking a shower.”

She knew I was lying and started yelling, “Why did you let him in?” “How could you be so careless?” “Why are you so stupid?” “You’re just a good for nothing idiot!”

Her eyes looked like they were about to pop out of their sockets. Then she got a belt and started with her new ritual. She had done this once before, five months earlier. She made me strip, lie on the living room table on my stomach, and keep my hands on my head.

She beat me with a belt, and then switched to a curtain rod. That broke, and she got a hanger, broke it, and got another one. This kept going for about half an hour, until she was finally tired and my body was covered in bruises.

The next day my brother came over when she was home and they laughed together about how I lied to protect him and how stupid that was. They didn’t talk about her beating me, but I think he knew. But he kept laughing with her.

image by YC-Art Dept

I’d always been the quiet, good girl but at that moment I wanted to shout, throw a tantrum. I wanted to not care. I wanted them to suffer the pain I felt, to sense the tears that I tried to hold back.

But strange as it sounds, another part of me was happy that they were happy. They’d stopped talking after he went to jail, but now they were laughing and talking. Despite it all, I still liked when they seemed like a happy family.

The Black Van

Soon after I turned 10, in the 4th grade, my teacher saw marks on my arms and asked how I got them. I said nothing, and my teacher sent me to my guidance counselor. I told him the truth. The counselor said that nothing would happen, that my mom wouldn’t get in trouble.

A few weeks after that, when I got home from school there was a black van in front of my apartment building. Upstairs, two men and a lady were knocking on my door. My mom wasn’t home.

They explained that they were from Children’s Protective Services (CPS) and that they were there to help me. They tried to call my mom and got voicemail. Then they took me to the police station near my apartment. I acted like I didn’t care. But beneath my mask I was hurt and scared. Why wasn’t she picking up? Who were all these people? Where was I going? Would I see her again?

I fell asleep in the black van and woke up in the garage of a massive glass building. Inside everything looked clean, and then I saw all the children. Children crying and yelling to leave, children who looked all beat up and afraid. Walking through them all felt so sad. It was like walking through a bunch of me.

A lady doctor checked my body, counting up all the bruises, to make sure I wasn’t permanently damaged. I spent two nights there, in a room with other girls, crying about how they wanted to go home with their mommies and daddies.

Home to Home

Honestly, I sort of liked it there. It was clean, the adults were nice, and I wasn’t alone.

Early the next morning I was sent to live with a Spanish family. They had a dog and a girl who was younger than me. I was the “big sis.” I loved it. I quickly felt like I belonged and I made friends. The foster mom said I could call my real mom if I ever missed her.

I never called her. Part of me was scared she’d scream at me as usual, but part of me didn’t call because I wanted her to suffer. I wanted her to see how I felt: guilty. Guilt connects my mom and me powerfully.

I was having the time of my life. I wasn’t alone at home anymore, they had lots of games, I was playing the guitar, and they were getting ready to enroll me in school. Then my foster mother said that CPS called, saying I had to pack up.

The CPS van took me back home. My mom and Jack were waiting for me. They explained that the judge had to decide if it was safe to live with my mom or not. If I wanted to come home, I had to write a letter explaining why I wanted to live with my mom. I could’ve said that I wanted to go back to the other family.

I didn’t write the letter for three days. I wasn’t only thinking about how my decision would affect me. I was thinking about my whole family. About how it would hurt my mom if I chose another family. About how I’d feel that thing I always feel, guilt, for leaving.

On that third day, my mother and my brothers and I watched the news together. Nobody talked much. My mom is usually loud and angry, but that night she laughed at things we said. We looked like a family, acted like a family, talked like a family. The family love was in the air. We were all happy. I was happy.

Gabriel came and gave me the pen and paper to write the letter to the judge. I was 10 years old, and this letter would shape the rest of my life.

I chose to stay where the beatings happened, where I was left alone, where my “family” grew up and mostly left.

I wrote some stuff about how you shouldn’t split a family up, that this is my home, I love my mom and brothers, I’m happy at home. But that’s not how I felt. I felt hurt, alone, scared. I just wanted to vanish.

Why Did I Write It?

Why did I write that letter? I’m still not sure. The different parts of me have different answers.

Was it because I loved her? I wasn’t sure what love meant. Was it because I was scared she would beat me that night if I chose to go? She would’ve probably yelled and not beaten me. She stopped beating me after I returned, most likely because a lady from CPS popped up once a month to make sure I was OK.

Was it because I didn’t want to break her heart any more? If I could have picked the foster family without hurting my mom’s feelings, I would have. Was it that I believed I was the cause of all my family’s trouble and deserved to suffer? Or did that one happy moment watching the news make me optimistic?

I think I mostly hoped for more nights like that one watching the 10 o’clock news.

I stayed with my mom and Gabriel for a year and then my mom went back to live in Nigeria, and now I live with my aunt. She’s a better guardian than my mother, but I don’t feel like part of her family. I talk to my mom on the phone once in a while.

Just Free

I think my mom’s abuse and neglect has made me more careful about who I trust and more aware that anything could happen to anyone. But through all of it, I’m here. I get good grades. I don’t stay out late, smoke, or drink. I survived. Because of who?

No one. No one is my inspiration or the person I want to be when I grow up. I get good grades so I can get into college and be away from everyone. I’m not taking a lesson from this experience to do a better job raising my daughter, because I don’t want a family.

I do the right things, being an honor student, not doing drugs, or going to parties because I don’t want anyone controlling me the way she controlled me. I don’t want someone telling me what I’m doing is wrong all the time. I do the right things so no one will notice me. I do what I have to do in order to be free. Not rich, or powerful, or part of a loving family or living in a big house. Just free.

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(FCYU-2015-07-12)

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