The promise that I would soon see my newborn's face was the only reason I didn't call it quits in the throes of a difficult labor. Every push seemed pointless, his body seemingly refusing to enter the world despite my best efforts. With my knees by my shoulders and an oxygen mask on my face, I stared down my midwife, who was promising he was right there if I could just give it my all one. last. time. and focus on what my baby would look like. So I put my chin to my chest, gripped the back of my thighs, and willed my son out of my body. The midwife placed him on my chest. Exhausted, I looked down to finally catch a glimpse of my son's face. But I didn't see my son.
I saw Him.
I haven't seen Him in close to 10 years, and I haven't spoken with Him in close to eight. I can usually keep Him buried in the corners of my mind — the man who physically, emotionally, and verbally abused me for the better part of my youth — but my son's large eyes looked like his; those soft cheeks took on the shape of his face when he was subdued, apologetic, contrite after another violent outburst.
And in an instant, and even though I had no reason to believe he even knew I was pregnant, my abuser was in the delivery room with me. Again.
I had never planned on becoming a parent. In fact, I was adamant motherhood wasn't the path for me. Numerous reasons contributed to that initial decision, not the least of which was the fear that I'd perpetuate a vicious and violent cycle. But I met a man who redefined love for me in a way that was healing, and hopeful, and before I knew it my plans were changing.
When I found out I was pregnant I didn't fear that cycle of abuse continuing, but considered it to be the start of a new beginning; a chance for me to start a new chapter. One He would never, ever, be able to touch.
But I saw Him immediately after my first son was born, too; I already knew those perfect, long eyelashes. Still, the unmistakeable likeness didn't fill me with such confused longing as it did when my second child arrived. Perhaps it was the manner in which my first son was born: he was a twin until we endured a fetal loss at 19 weeks and, as a result of that loss and the numerous complications that followed, entered this world surrounded by a team of physicians and specialists. The doctors and nurses who swept my son away to check his breathing seconds after he was born pushed Him to the back of the room, and when the physician delivered the remains of the diminished twin, it felt like He was ushered out of the room altogether.
During my pregnancy I would imagine, with excruciating frequency, what He was doing, where He was living, whether He was lonely or happy or sad or regretful.
Maybe I knew that this would be the last time I risked feeling the shock of seeing His face — I knew that my second child was going to be my last. Never again would I look into the face of a person I created and see flickers and traces and flashes of someone else for the first time — an image soon overwritten by the love and knowledge of my children as their own people. And so this feeling, this sense that He was with me at a moment of intense vulnerability and pain and power and triumph, was a feeling I knew I would never have to experience again.
During my pregnancy I would imagine, with excruciating frequency, what He was doing, where He was living, whether He was lonely or happy or sad or regretful. Becoming a parent gave me an innate sense of longing for a relationship that did never, could never, and would never exist. At night I would lay my hands softly on my ever-expanding belly, close my eyes, and concoct an alternate reality where I could share how excited I was about the impending birth of another child; the chance to be a mom again; the opportunity to watch my miracle baby grow into a big brother. I would allow myself to imagine the moment when He would meet my son, hold him in his arms, and promise to teach him a myriad of things I knew I couldn't.
That will never happen. Even if He was part of my life I could never, would never, leave my children with Him. He isn't safe, and my sons wouldn't be safe around him. But when I was pregnant, that pining seemed to manifest into something so close to tangible I could almost hold it in my arms and squeeze it into being.
And when I finally did hold my son in my arms — my perfect, innocent, beautiful son — I knew that moment of euphoria was the closest I was ever going to get to feeling like the man who hurt me with such reckless abandon — who has left me battered and bruised long after the cuts have healed and the malefic blacks and blues and purples and greens of his "love" have vanished — was capable of being the man I needed him to be when I was a child. Becoming a parent forces you to confront pieces of your past, but it also gives a reason to move on past them.
It's also a reminder of what I have known my entire life: the people we love can be bad people.
My son is 4 months old now, and I still see Him sometimes in the smiles and scrunched up expressions. Even with my baby's blue eyes and longer face, He reappears in a dimple here or a soft sigh there. And while it's been difficult reconciling the fact that my abuser and my baby look so similar, especially when I'm wading in a sea of postpartum hormones and sleep deprivation, it's also a reminder of what I have known my entire life: the people we love can be bad people. Abusers are not the Evil Men we've been taught to fear; easy to spot and without an inkling of likability or a single redeemable quality. My abuser was volatile, jealous, manipulative, controlling, narcissistic, toxic, violent, and abusive, yes, but He was also outgoing, personable, protective, and at times incredibly generous. He was easy to love.
And even when I'm at my most exhausted, whether it was that moment in the delivery room seconds after giving birth or just last night, breastfeeding my sweet son at 3:00 a.m., I know that when I see Him in my son's eyes or crooked smile I'm not really seeing Him, but the parts of him I loved; the pieces of him that were good; the attributes that made cameos in a lifetime of mistreatment but never stuck around long enough to be worthy of note. And that's why it hurts — I'm seeing a person I love who doesn't actually exist.
When I look at my baby's sweet face I'm seeing my aching hope for someone better; someone who could have loved me the way I loved them. And if I look at my son long enough, and sit in the pain that follows the flash of a memory resurfaced, I always land on the realization that precisely because that someone is no longer in my life, my sons have a chance.
I know the cycle stops with me, and a new circle is just beginning. One with a brand-new person to love. One with a brand-new life. One not with the Him I sometimes see, but with the him I waited for close to 10 months to see; ached to see; pushed and strained and willed myself to see.
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, call 911 or the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1(800) 799-SAFE (7233) or visit thehotline.org.