I just finished watching MAID on Netflix, and I cannot stop thinking about it. Not just because it was extremely well written and the acting was incredible, but because this show so closely mirrored my own life growing up. My mom was Alex and I was Maddy.
When people look at me today, they see someone who has lived a privileged life. I played sports growing up, had great friends, and went to University.
What people don’t see is the young mom who had to fight against all odds to create that life for her daughter. My mom and I were victims of domestic abuse, and here is our story.
My mom had me just after high school, when she was 20. She was scared and single. She didn’t have an 18 month maternity leave and a partner to help her navigate the early days of motherhood. Instead, she had a colicky baby and shared an apartment with her siblings. She had a minimum wage job at a factory, and subsidized daycare at the opposite end of the city. She would wake up at the crack of dawn, and take me to the park outside of our apartment building and push me on the swings every morning before we had to catch the 6am bus, just so we could have some time together. She would take the bus to the end of the line, drop me off at daycare, then take the bus back to pick me up eleven hours later when she was finished work. We’d come home, she’d cook us dinner, then she’d play with me until it was my bedtime. Once I was asleep, she’d do the dishes, clean, do laundry, and chug a 2 Litre carton of milk. She was 104 pounds, chronically exhausted, but determined to make a life for us.
Shortly after my second birthday, my mom met someone. He was tall, (blonde), and handsome. He was on her baseball team, and he was charming. He had a good career, drove his own car, and was great with kids. We both liked him right away.
Two years after dating, when I turned 4, we moved away from the city to a beautiful small town in northern Ontario, and they got married. I got to be the flower girl, and I remember picking out a beautiful pink taffeta dress (with very itchy crinoline.) I was pretty disappointed about the grey patent leather shoes I had to wear, but was thrilled to have my hair professionally styled (with tons of hairspray, hello 80’s!) I remember my mom looked stunning. I was used to seeing her wearing jeans and t-shirts, so to see her dressed in a long white lace dress with pearls and pink lipstick was quite the transformation. It felt like a fairy tale, in those early days.
Eventually, the pink taffeta and lace dresses were packed up into boxes and placed into the basement of our new big house that backed onto a creek. When my mom tried to put the pink lipstick on again, she was accused of trying to look pretty for another man, so she quickly wiped it off.
After the wedding, my mom started her own house-cleaning business. Our weekends were filled with hockey, baseball, and social events.
My mom gave all of the money she earned cleaning houses to my step-dad. She wasn’t good with money, he said. He took away her bank card.
We went camping during the summer, and he taught me how to fish. I made him cards for father’s day and thanked him for being “The Best Dad Ever.”
He rationed our toilet paper: two squares for a #1, and four squares for a #2. My bath water could only be 3 inches deep. If I left my bedroom light on, I was grounded. I was only six.
He took us for boat rides, and he taught me how to waterski.
He yelled, and he belittled.
He laughed and gave us hugs.
He convinced my mom her family was toxic. Her friends too.
He complimented other women’s bodies.
He called my mom a slut when she wore fitted shirts.
One night, while I was asleep in the back of the car, he drove down a dark, secluded country road and threatened to kill her if she ever tried to leave.
A week later, when he was at work, she packed up our bags and we jumped in the car and drove away. We arrived in a small town two hours away, and stayed with some friends until we were able to get our own apartment. I started grade one at a new school. I was sad to leave our beautiful house by the creek, but even at that young age, I could sense the feeling of freedom in being away from him. I was relieved to have it just be me and my mom again.
Then, the phone calls started. Late nights of my mom crying on the phone, nervously twisting the cord around her fingers. “Do you promise?” She asked. And that’s when I knew we were moving back.
And guess what? Things were different.
For approximately two weeks.
We spent the next five years in that beautiful northern town, and week by week my mom’s confidence was stripped away. I sensed things were bad, but I was mostly shielded from what went on behind closed doors. I could hear the muffled yelling, and I could see my mom’s tear-streaked face, but I still played hockey and had sleepovers with friends.
I still had birthday parties, and got presents and new clothes.
I just had no idea that my mom had to hide bits and pieces of her own money to try and save up for them.
I remember whispering to my mom one night as she put me to bed, “How come I love you more than I love Dad?” I was filled with guilt, just asking the question. She told me not to worry, and that it was completely normal to feel that way. Her and I were a team, and we shared a bond because I came from her body.
I went to bed feeling safe and loved. She always made sure I felt that way.
One afternoon, in sixth grade, I remember coming home from school and seeing my mom sitting on the couch. She never sat. She was always cleaning, cooking, or doing something. I could tell she had been crying. I went up to her and I said, “You and dad are splitting up, aren’t you?” She started bawling. Through heaving sobs she told me she didn’t want to rip me away from my friends, and the life we had built.
I remember wrapping my arms around her and saying, “Let’s go. It will be an adventure. I could use a change anyway.” She sobbed even harder.
She told me years later that it was in that moment that I gave her the strength to finally leave, once and for all.
Over the weeks that followed, it’s a bit of a blur. I remember having a gigantic photocopy machine in our dining room as she frantically went through his files, documenting and copying everything, before we planned our escape. He was out of town for the weekend, and we had to move fast. She didn’t have any access to their bank accounts, and wanted to gather anything and everything she could, in preparation for the future legal battles she knew she’d have.
That night, she came into my room and woke me up. “We have to go. Fast.” She whispered. I sleepily put on my running shoes, and grabbed my jacket. Her friend was waiting in a getaway car in our driveway. It was 2am.
We went back to her friend's place, and when I woke up the next morning there was a strange woman with a clipboard in the driveway. She introduced herself as Sandra. She was a social worker, and my mom and I would be going with her. We loaded up her trunk with our bags, and climbed into the back of her tan cololured sedan, and drove away from that beautiful northern town.
“Where are we going?” I asked my mom, once we were on the road. “We’re going to a women’s shelter. He won’t be able to find us this time. We’ll be safe there.” She later told me that she had a strong feeling he was going to come and kill us that night. Her intuition told her “get out” so she did.
We drove an hour and a half away to a small little town with seemingly no trees and no lakes. We pulled up to a red brick Victorian house, and went through a security gate around the back. Once inside, my mom and I were led to our room. I remember the wnidows were small, with bars on them. “Is that really necessary?” I thought to myself. I took the top bunk.
In the weeks that followed, I remember going to group therapy sessions, and meeting other kids at the shelter. Everyone seemed worse off than my mom and I. Some of the women had visible bruises, all of them avoided eye contact and held their heads low.
I remember feeling like we didn’t belong there. That we didn’t have it that bad. At least he didn’t hit us, right? That’s when I learned the name for the type of abuse we had suffered: emotional. I learned about the warning signs, and the tactics used. That’s when I understood why my mom wouldn’t even talk to him on the phone: he could so easily manipulate her to come back, just like he did the first time.
As the weeks went by, I became more and more comfortable in our boring new town. I could see my mom coming back to life, and I was excited to be on an adventure again: just the two of us.
We’d get weekly allowances at the shelter, and we’d always take our change and go for a walk over to Tim Horton’s. Along the way, we’d stop into The Brick and walk up and down the aisles looking at furniture. We’d plan what our dream home would look like. “Ohh, what about this table?” I’d suggest, and my mom would pick out chairs to match.
We’d keep walking, and talking, and daydreaming about all of the things we were going to do together, now that we were free and didn’t have to worry about how much toilet paper we used, or what clothing we could wear.
We didn’t stay at the shelter for very long. Eventually, my mom got put on social assistance and began cleaning houses again. It was hard for her to find someone that would rent an apartment to a single mom on welfare, but she eventually found us a brand new basement apartment in a good part of town. I loved that apartment. We only had one mattress, so she slept on the floor for the first little while, and gave me my own bed. I was going into grade seven that fall, and I decorated my room with trinkets I found at the dollar store.
This truly was our new beginning, and we never looked back. We put one foot in front of the other, and my mom worked her ass off: cleaning houses, bartending, and working in factories. She went to therapy, exercised, and read books on how to raise a teenager.
She met a kind man, fell in love, and stayed with him for the next 20 years until they eventually went their separate ways.
Now? She lives with me and my husband and our two kids. We retired her at the age of 50, and now she’s a full time Nana to our kids. She rollerblades with them, builds them skating rinks in our backyard, and pushes her bed against the wall in her room so they can have “Nana sleepovers.”
She always says she regrets not being able to spend more time with me when she was a single mom at twenty, so now is her chance to do it over again.
Seeing my mom with my kids is the most beautiful part of my life. My mom is my best friend, and is the strongest person I’ve ever met. I’m thankful for her every day.
If you, or anyone you know is a victim of domestic violence, please reach out when it feels safe to do so. Listed below are some resources: