My Great Life Now
By Diane Buehler
It was never meant to become a story transitioning from a marriage to becoming a single mom on welfare with four small children to teaching middle school and finally becoming a college instructor. Whatever the case, the real story to tell would be one of survival. It is one of hardship and struggles, then overcoming them. Nevertheless, the survival of our experiences build character and hone the skill it takes to weather the no-so-smart decisions in life.
After meeting in college, he quickly informed me that my dream as a broadcast journalist would not be conducive to building a family. Because I had already fallen madly in love, I blindly agreed. Children is what I would have while he worked hard supporting us. I talked myself into this without questioning him and without recognizing the strength inside me. I had seen his violent temper on several occasions before walking down the aisle, but not to worry! I would help him change and help him work through it.
But the years took a toll. After having a first child, the happiness was still not there. Maybe having a second child would bring our family closer together. And another. And another. Year after year went by. I was convinced that it was me that needed to change. I tried everything. And when he wasn’t happy, I would find him hovering over me with anger that would send me begging for my life. His anger had words that described me as “a no good wife” who would not listen. I was a “Jezebel” as he so often reminded me. I was described as much more than could be written on this page, not to mention the flailing objects during his anger that sent me frantically looking to make sure my children were safe.
This is when it began, clicking inside me, that if my children were not safe then it was time to start giving up my dream of a “family” that I so desperately wanted. But after each episode, his remorse would win out. I would find the good again and forgive him. After all, this was the man that I loved. Peace was worth having and forgiving him provided that. Once the tension started building again, I knew it was a matter of time that we would be afraid again. Everything I did was done carefully and with thought so that he would not be triggered.
A counselor once said, “What is the worst evil-staying with him or leaving? Both will be hard, but what is the best thing to do?” Five years passed after hearing those words and a total of eleven years with this man. I was now thirty-five years old and I finally began to discover that I could not change him, nor could I please him. Walking on eggshells wears a person down. Hearing degrading names for all of those years wore me down. It was impossible to continue protecting my children from his physical intimidation and his unpredictable temper.
Finally, when he had an injury on the job, he quit working. He told us to take food from the church and that we would figure it out later on what to do about the rent. Two weeks before the rent was due, I asked him to let me go to work. While our youngest was five months old and the oldest seven, he said, “Sure, go right ahead, but first find a babysitter.” Even though he was home, he was very concerned about working on a car in our garage and was not available to help or solve any problems with me. It was evident he did not care about us, and it took his injury to see it.
After taking a long look at the fear he had instilled in all of us, I decided to very carefully bow out of this marriage. I needed a plan. I needed to be sure of what to do for fear of my husband’s reaction and of the unknown. I knew there were no guarantees, but I had to try. I made an appointment with a Social and Welfare counselor and told him my story. I had a Bachelor’s degree, but had not worked in eleven years. I did tell him we owned a small house in Washington State and had rented it out while we were temporarily in California. He informed me to head back to my small little house up north and apply for state help until I could get on my feet and support my four children on my own. This was a foreign idea to me and I never imagined I would come to this point in my life. But there was no time. I was dying from fear and my children were not safe. They could not predict when Dad would swoop then up in his big arms again and trade a hug for a violent hit across their bodies. Everything was unpredictable. This is the way we lived for many years and it had to stop. The domestic violence counseling showed me that there is a cycle of violence and the only way to stop it is to get away from the situation.
The road into the welfare system is made of many forms, lines, and people with stories who get into the system and stay in the system. I was afraid of what would become of all of us. My little five-month-old, my two-year-old, eight and nine-year-old had their little eyes watching me. Not being able to put it all together, they followed my lead as little ducks follow their mother. When their daddy left, they just knew it was quieter and safer in the house. There was no more fear. My oldest son finally emerged from his long-standing depression and these little people felt like smiling again. Although leaving my husband mentally and in my heart took time, the physical separation remained until he sought counseling on controlling his anger. But the days turned into weeks and months where he had not initiated help. After I received three months of domestic violence counseling, just as a prisoner of war, I then realized I was truly a prisoner of my husband and his control. After two years of waiting for him to help himself, I finally gave up. That dream was a delusion and letting go and filing for divorce was a much-needed decision of growth for me.
It took time to realize he had no interest in seeing his children, nor paying toward any financial support. Now on welfare, no child support, and not having worked since college, my four little children needed something more. I needed something more than welfare, the lost and defeatedness of blaming myself, and the lost feeling of not knowing what to do. Doing something was better than doing nothing. I talked to the Welfare Department and asked them to help advise me which way to turn. The food stamps and $700 a month was not enough. I knew one of us parents needed to be a role model, a hard worker, a problem solver. My children were not going to watch both parents unemployed and situations preventing success in life. I once had dreams and I knew I could have them again. Welfare advised me to work a minimum wage job and they would contribute to childcare costs. That way in several years they would help me get out of the system. Or I could enroll in the college near me, take out school loans, earn my graduate degree, a teaching certificate, and begin working full time within one year.
I knew I must make the best decision for all of us. There were no easy answers or solutions and I wanted so badly for someone to swoop down and rescue me. People would often ask, “How do you do it? A single mom of four?” What was not so evident were the rare visits by their father; the children were with me every day of every week. The frustration and loneliness I felt was more overwhelming than I felt I could deal with. There was absolutely no one that could tell me how to deal with learning to be independent again and how to be the sole caretaker of my family. I knew that I must deal with the mourning of my broken family by facing my fears and that is exactly what I did.
Eventually the decision to attend college to become a teacher would cost me in large school loans. But the importance of being a mom who worked hard and a mom who saw obstacles as challenges was more important than drowning in pity and taking my children down with me.
An interview with a professor of the intensive college program I was to apply to left me answering to his doubt of whether I could actually succeed, “Do you know that no one with the magnitude of a situation such as yours has ever made it through our program?” I responded by telling him that the decision had already been made. If he could just trust me enough, I would emerge into that person I used to be before my confidence was seared by the years of abuse. I felt like a racehorse at the starting gate. If only I could be given the chance.
Several days later, the news arrived. I was to begin the program in summer. The loans would go through and there was no turning back. Food stamps would soon be a thing of the past. My children would see our lives turned around by the end of the year.
Sadly, it meant getting all of them off to daycare for the first time. But keeping my keeping my eyes on the goal, I trudged ahead with me every hour a week schedule with student teaching, classes, essays, and a thesis to write. Late nights found my kids sound asleep and Mom typing on an old computer from a pawnshop. I finally realized the loving support I had from my daughter after she drew me a funny faced picture with sweet words, “Keep going, Mommy. You are doing fine.” That picture was the first thing my eyes opened to every early morning that year. On Friday nights, we would watch a movie as all the children climbed up on the couch with me-a gathering time to get reacquainted after a busy week of school for all of us.
As we watched fall turn into winter, the busy weeks finally passed. It was now spring; my thesis and classes were coming to a close, as we were now given instructions on how to find our first teaching jobs. Enthusiastically, we got busy sending out applications, which alone seemed to be a full-time job; the advice to us was to take the first job off and be willing to move out of state. I could not imagine myself moving my children all alone to an unfamiliar city and state. Nevertheless, it meant getting off welfare! It meant obtaining something on my own and nudging my children to notice what it meant to go after something in life.
Not too soon after applications were sent out, I was offered an interview from a Nevada school district. They had flown to Spokane, Washington to interview the naive and newly graduated students. Excited and yet fearful, I darted off to a second hand store to buy a business suit for this newfound opportunity. Was it really happening? Was this the world I dreamed of while standing in line for food stamps or while writing papers until the wee hours of the morning?
The call came approximately two weeks later, “Is this Diane?”
My heart stopped as I suspected this might be the long-awaited job offer, “Yes, this is she.”
“We would like to offer you a position in Las Vegas, Nevada if you would be interested.”
Would I be interested? Trying to contain my enthusiasm, I replied. “Why, yes, I will consider your offer.”
Consider? I was starving for rewards from all of my efforts. I quickly and graciously accepted. Within a week, I flew down to Las Vegas to secure a place for my children. An old high school friend picked me up from the airport and shuttled me down the famous strip. The lights! The enormity of it all! What a drastic change this would be for all of us. Could we handle it? I would have to trust in myself that I had instilled enough strength into my children that they might resist the fast paced life we were to now face.
In a very short time, our boxes were packed and within a few weeks my children and I were headed south with a U Haul and my old Plymouth lagging behind. With a family friend helping, I delivered my children and our small number of belongings to Las Vegas, Nevada.
Although still frightened, I was strong enough to risk something better. The initial risk was to create a better life rather than living the life of fear we once knew. The risk of student loans gave me hope in a future. The risk of a career in a big city only gave me more determination. I had no choice now but to see myself with a new self-image, and that new image enabled me to work a second job as an Instructor at the community college for many years to come.
The moment I chose to get away from the abusive relationship, I was no longer “stupid” as he had called me so many times. I gave myself the gift of returning to my old self as I once was in my early twenties. And the second I arrived in Las Vegas, I sat down and wrote the government a big thank you letter. The combination of the Welfare Department, the Domestic Violence counselors, God, and all the others who heard my pain totaled the pieces to a puzzle that healed a family and gave them hope.
Diane Buehler lives in Gilbert, Az and is currently a middle school teacher. She obtained her Master’s degree and teaching certificate in Spokane, WA. She loves to write from her personal experiences, and uses them in her fiction writing as well.
For more writing and questions, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org