My struggle with low self-esteem begins and ends with me. However, there were other people who either knowingly, or unintentionally, had an impact on how I felt about myself as a woman. I made mistakes and I had to recognize and change before I could be the person that I had imagined a great lady to be. Not that I’m a great lady now, I’m just not being abused and I surround myself with people who love and respect me.
I’ve heard it said that we are all a product of our times and in so many ways that is true. My mother did not work when I was a child. She cleaned house, went to teas and did volunteer work. I thought she was the model of feminine humanity. She was beautiful in an ordinary sort of way. A little like Mary Tyler Moore. She had thoughts of her own and since my father traveled a lot, she was forced to think for herself, but she wasn’t allowed to let anyone know.
By the time I was ready for my first bra, women were burning them. Talk about confusion.
My mother believed that women were as good as men, and they had the power to persuade. She would say, “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” I guess she learned that from my grandmother because the truth was that the hand that controlled the money ruled the world. My mother had survived in her world by playing a role, where charm and grace made the world comfortable enough. Yes, there was a lot of hypocrisy, but she would say, “You can believe anything that you want to, but don’t tell anyone. You won’t change their minds and you will be talked about.” She was right, but I just couldn’t live with pretending to be someone I wasn’t. As the sexual revolution steamed forth, I told my mother that I didn’t want to burn my bra because without it I looked flat chested. On the other hand, I didn’t want to be pressed into a mold that chopped off parts of me. I refused to take home economics and a cooking instrument was to me what a crucifix was to Dracula. My father used to say, “How do you ever expect to catch a husband if you don’t know how to cook?”
I replied, “Mama says men are after only one thing, and it isn’t cooking. So if they aren’t worried about cooking, neither am I.” My father didn’t know what to say. He had grown up in a world where men thought that “Father Knows Best” because mother kept him in the dark. My parents didn’t want me to have sex before marriage, because men didn’t marry women unless they “held out” and they wanted me to cook as a door prize or something. I was very confused about it all.
One day I said, “Mama, if a woman doesn’t get married, but just dates, does she have to do what a man tells her?” My mother gave it some thought and said, “Well if the man doesn’t put a ring on her finger, I guess she doesn’t have to do anything he tells her.” I decided then and there that screwing around and buying my own rings was the way to go. Unfortunately, my family life changed before I had an opportunity to buy lunch for myself, much less anything else.
My parents divorced within a year after I finished High School, and my freedom ended with their marriage. I had to take low-paying jobs, and put up with a lot of stupid men just to put gas in my car. I even had one man insist that I go get his breakfast. He was too hung over. I told him that if I had wanted to get his breakfast I would have gone to work at the restaurant. They paid minimum wage too.
Neither of my parents ever said anything directly but I felt that they both thought it was time for me to be out on my own and the way to do that was to find a man who could support me. Both my parents had new loves in their lives, and my objections were getting in the way of the enjoyment that they felt they had never had from life.
I had my educational sights set on a career, but I was in love with a man who didn’t love me. The night Liam told me he was to marry another woman; I made up my mind to get out. One man was as good as another. I was wrong, but I married Bolton “Bolt” Richards anyway. He was a young, Army captain, and he seemed quiet and kind.
Like a switch, the kindness and gentleness evaporated. Within three months, Bolt was beating me and calling me a whore who was leeching off of him. All of these things he would blame on his drinking. I don’t think I ever believed that the brutality was caused completely by the drinking. However, I had no place to go and in a year I was pregnant. I called Liam, the man whom I had loved for so long. We talked like old friends and he made me feel strong and capable. He got me a job in a large law firm and gave me the money for an abortion. I just couldn’t have Bolt’s child. I hated him, and I was damned sure not going to allow him to be the father of my child.
Two more years passed, and my husband announced that he was leaving the Army to take a civilian job. He wanted a house and a pool and all the trappings of success. I didn’t care. I had learned to smile and nod, living as if someone else were going through the abuse. No matter what Bolt said to me, I knew that another man love me, even if he was married. Liam had discovered that his marriage wasn’t working as well as he had hoped, and he kept promising to get out, but he never did.
Liam was a partner in the firm where I worked and while I didn’t work directly for him, we had our special moments. One day, I came to work with a poorly disguised black eye and bruises where Bolt had grabbed me and slung me around the house. Liam told me that I had to get away immediately and deal with the legalities in time.
Leaving the office with Liam that day was the safest I had ever felt. He had told his partner that he had gotten a call from a first-class client in North Georgia and he needed me to go along with him.
Liam and I spent three days in North Carolina and when we returned, we had drafted divorce papers and Bolt was served. I was in hiding. A woman who had taught me in High School told me that I could live in her cabin in the country. She and her husband lived only about a mile up the road, and she and I could drive into town together every day. I snapped at the chance. Things were finally looking up when I missed my period.
When Bolt found out about the pregnancy, he was Prince Charming waiting to take me back and live happily ever after with “our” baby in our castle. By then, I had learned from my previous abortion that I didn’t want to go through that again. Abortion was just another tool that Bolt had used to degrade me, and I bought into it. Still, I knew that Bolt would never be my child’s father.
I told Bolt that I was going to go through with the divorce and the pregnancy. He became enraged and slammed me against a wall. I wore turtle necks for six weeks to cover the bruises around my neck. I just put it behind me and kept working at the law firm. Liam and I saw less and less of each other. I had become friends with one of the other attorneys in the firm and he treated me like an older brother.
My boss told me that things would be just fine if I married my friend. I wasn’t about to do that, but I was going to have a hard time on a secretary’s pay with a child to raise.
When my baby boy was born, I promised him that he would never live in a house of horrors, filled with screams and tears. By the time my son was two, he was asking why we never saw a “Daddy”. I told him that we hadn’t found one good enough for him yet, but we would keep looking.
In time, we found the perfect husband and father. He encouraged me to go back to college and he and my son had their “guy nights” watching hunting and fishing shows on TV while I was in school.
After what seemed to be an eternity, I graduated with a degree in marketing. I didn’t work for a number of years. Being loved by the most wonderful man in the world and teaching my son to grow into a true gentleman was all that I needed.
Just as we were getting ready for Kindergarten, my son fell ill with meningitis and within a week, he was dead. My husband didn’t know how to comfort me. How do you comfort a corpse? I wanted to be with my son and if he was dead, I wanted to be dead too. Somehow, my husband held on while I was swept up in grief.
Time does heal, but not quickly. About the time I had learned to live again, my husband found that he had terminal cancer. This time I was going with him! Who would I be without him? He said that I would be the brave woman that he fell in love with. That my compassion would pave the way to a brighter future and our love would last forever. His death hurt, but I discovered that he was right. I was worthy of a loving man and I had become a woman who would demand it.
This true story is shared with us by Lynn Hamilton*. The author’s real name, and all other names in this story, have been replaced with pseudonyms in order to protect their identities.