October is Domestic Violence (DV) Awareness month and I’ve been reflecting on all the women I know or have known impacted by DV. Friends I never expected to fall into such situations, acquaintances or colleagues struggling to leave their abusive partners, and of course even women in my own family – my mom, my aunts and my cousins.
We are an immigrant family. My parents migrated to the US from India in the early 1970s. I joined my family when I was 9-years-old, arriving in Chicago on a cold February day, oblivious to how my world was about to change. To say my parents’ marriage was tumultuous is putting it mildly. The home I grew up in was filled with yelling and violence (though my dad never laid a hand on my mom). The violence manifested through my dad throwing himself against the walls and cruel words at my mom. All the while he threatened to harm himself with knives and other tools. My siblings and I spent many evenings hiding under my older sister’s bed or in her closet, waiting for the noise to subside.
After one of these fights, my mom had had enough. On a bright but cold winter morning, I watched her from the bedroom window as she walked away from the house, suitcase in hand. A day or two later, she returned, accompanied by her older brother who had convinced her to return and make the marriage work. Years later when I was in college, I would try to persuade her to leave, assure her she could make it on her own with support from me and my siblings. She refused, saying she couldn’t do it, and I didn’t understand why.
My mom was not alone in this kind of situation. She had sisters and cousins who had it worse. One of my aunts remains married to a man who has never held a job and continues to abuse her. Another aunt was married to a man who would come home drunk and use her and the kids as punching bags. She only escaped him when he died. I also recall overhearing my aunts and uncles discussing a cousin who left her abusive husband and judging her for failing at the marriage.
As a child I often felt like I was leading two lives, as do many immigrant children. There was my home life, where I spoke Urdu, ate Indian food, dressed in Indian clothes, and tolerated my dad’s anger and paranoia. And there was my life outside my home where I laughed and played with friends, ate pizza when I was allowed to visit friends’ homes, and had crushes on boys. Looking back, I realize my mom and aunts were likely also feeling as if they were leading two different lives.
My mom was lucky enough to have a professional job outside the home for several years. Her joy and autonomy were clouded by her guilt of working thanks to my dad’s frequent tantrums when she went to work, and the responsibility of taking care of her family in a foreign country. Many of my aunts did not have the luxury of a job because their husbands wouldn’t allow it. My mom and aunts did not feel entirely comfortable speaking English, though they were fluent. They didn’t frequently make friends with women outside of the Indian Muslim community. My mom had a few friends at work, but they stayed that way – her work friends. She didn’t socialize with them outside of work, and I’m certain none of them knew what her life was like with my dad.
Being an immigrant kid growing up in America was not easy, but it likely did not compare to an immigrant adult living in an abusive relationship. Children by nature are resilient; they assimilate and learn to figure out what works and what doesn’t in order to get by. I imagine it wasn’t so simple for my mom, who left her parents and some siblings to come to a country where she didn’t have a solid grasp on the language or the culture. She arrived with three kids in tow, in search of a better life and more opportunities. Instead, she found herself isolated and stuck in a situation from which she could not easily remove herself.
When I was younger, I didn’t understand my mom’s choice to stay with my dad. I judged her and for many years I was angry at her. But as an adult, I have had friends who stayed in abusive situations for way longer than I would have liked them to, despite having a support system and resources available. My mom certainly did not have the support of her brothers or other family had she wanted to leave. I’m not sure my mom would even know where to look for outside resources to help her had she decided to leave. Also as an adult, I realize that my dad was struggling with mental health issues. Recently when I told him about a friend who is divorcing her husband because he was physically abusive, he commented that he just didn’t understand men who did that. The irony of his comment was not lost on me though it was clearly lost on him.
Looking back on my mom’s and aunts’ situations, I’m not surprised they didn’t leave their husbands. But today I’m grateful that immigrant and non-immigrant women alike are living in a society where abusive relationships are less tolerated. I am grateful that we have external resources through organizations, like InStepp, to support women like my mom, aunts, and friends in not only leaving their partners but also in finding their way after surviving abuse. I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to support such organizations in any small way that I can. And, I look forward to a world where there is absolutely no tolerance for domestic abuse or rather a world where it doesn’t even exist.