Estey: Coming Up for Air

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Please note: This piece describes experiences with grief, postpartum mental health, and domestic violence.

I left my husband for the last time in 2019.  

We had met a decade earlier, fallen in love, gotten married, and had our first daughter. I was 25 –– most of my peers weren’t having babies yet. 

When I returned to my full-time job, my daughter refused to take a bottle at daycare and began nursing all night every night to make up for it. I decided to quit my job. I wasn’t bringing much money home after daycare and commuting expenses anyway. 

As every first-time parent knows, you tend to learn as you go –– and I had no one to help me chart the course of motherhood –– no one to help me navigate the muddy waters of parenting. My husband didn’t pull his weight. I shouldered all our parenting responsibilities –– 24/7/365. I never once slept in for more than seven years. 

My own mother died when I was 10 and my father wasn’t exactly sprinting to support me. I had extended family who cheered me on through texts and phone calls, but even taking an occasional nap was off the table. No one ever came to me and said, “Here, give me the baby for an hour.”

The realization hit hard: I would be taking care of this baby alone. 

I was raised as a Christian Scientist, trained to fully commit to marriage –– and to treat anything that ails you with prayer and hard work. The faith dictates you can’t leave a marriage, except in cases of abuse. Even then, the suggestion was that abusers could be healed by appealing to God for help. If something couldn’t be fixed, as a Christian Scientist, I defaulted to blaming myself –– I thought I hadn’t prayed the right way. 

My father rarely spoke to me about my mother’s death; nothing in the church’s teachings provided guidance for dealing with grief. Christian Scientists believe death is an illusion and that loved ones are still present spiritually, so there’s no need to mourn. But refusing to acknowledge the pain didn’t prevent it from existing –– if anything, it only made the weight of the loss harder to carry. 

Now, after all these years of feeling lonely in my grief, here I was on the other end of the circle of life, raising my child –– alone. 

Even after our second daughter was born, my husband took a decidedly backseat to parenting. But he kept a tight hold on everything else: He had absolute control over our finances, frequent fits of anger, and didn’t allow me to make any decisions. I wasn’t permitted to weigh in on who we were friends with. I couldn’t visit local family members on holidays without enduring weeks of circular arguments. I couldn’t even put my hair up without him ridiculing me. He forbade our kids from doing any sports or classes. And I often had to rush home from play dates to make sure the house was spotless and dinner was on the table by 4 p.m., when he arrived home from work. It was exhausting and unattainable.   

Still, I thought my marriage was normal, ordinary even. And when I started to consider maybe there were a few cracks forming, I thought our relationship could be remedied, healed. 

I thought maybe, just maybe, I could fix my husband. 

So I launched my campaign. I convinced him to go to anger management classes. We joined a fundamentalist Christian church for a little while to see if that would help. I thought if other men could pray with him and tell him to treat me with kindness, maybe that would make a difference. I left him and came back –– with my daughters –– more than once. Finally, I decided to make an appointment with a marriage counselor. 

After our first session, the counselor called me the next day, presenting me with the very clear conclusion she had arrived at after our first 45 minutes together: I was being abused, she said, and started pointing me to various domestic violence organizations. 

Questions started pinballing around my mind: Wasn’t marriage supposed to be difficult? Had I just not worked hard enough to fix things?

“Are you sure?” I asked. “It doesn’t feel that bad.”

She was sure.

Outside our home, my husband was kind –– everyone loved him. And he had been careful: He’d always stopped short of getting physical with me. I frantically tried to grapple with what felt like a very gray area: If I didn’t have any visible wounds, was it really abuse? 

But as I peeled back all the invisible layers, the fog cleared: I was a prisoner in my own life. 

I started coming to terms with my new reality, while many of the people around me, including my father, discounted it: They didn’t believe I was being abused. In some ways, I got it –– even I’d had to dig deep to understand. Plus, no one can see emotional wounds at first glance.

For more than a year, as I navigated a divorce, I just got through each day any way I could –– and took CBD to fall asleep each night. It was the only way I could calm down enough to rest. 

In every free moment I had, I was working. 

It was the definition of survival mode –– a seemingly endless hustle and grind. But I never gave myself permission to fall apart. After all, I had to make sure my daughters weathered this storm, and I was the only captain equipped to steer the ship. 

I was working six part-time jobs –– most of which consisted of writing and search engine optimization (SEO) marketing. The pandemic had set in and I was doing all my work from home. Schools were closed and I had no childcare so both kids were underfoot, except during three short visitation periods with their dad each week.

Nevertheless, I had (and still have) a figure-it-out, never-give-up spirit that propelled me forward. While my youngest daughter napped and my oldest daughter video chatted with her friends, I robotically cranked out hundreds of blog posts per month. I had successfully freed myself of an abusive marriage and chosen to abandon my religious upbringing, but the push to keep a lid on my box of individual struggles at work hadn’t dissipated. I didn’t want to leave any room for anyone to question my professional performance.

Each week, I never knew if child support would come through –– it was terrifying at first. Despite having cobbled together some sources of income, I was running on financial fumes. I qualified for food stamps and found the LIFE program at Family Promise Metrowest, which provides financial counseling, support, and rental subsidies to families with kids. With this help, I avoided homelessness, which is unfortunately more than many single mothers can say.  

Then, slowly but surely, I got my sea legs. 

I moved into a new apartment just a quarter of a mile from my previous home, but a lifetime away from so many bad memories. In early 2021, I secured a full-time role drafting proposals for an infrastructure consulting firm, and by the end of that year, I had moved on to an even better full-time marketing position at another company. 

I’ve achieved financial freedom: I’m debt-free and I’ve built up a six-month emergency fund. I have a partner, extended family, and friends who make me feel safe and loved. 

With each day I have more clarity that I did the right thing. I was drowning but now I’m coming up for air –– now I’m the one making the decisions. And when there’s a week where the child support payment doesn’t show up, I’m able to shrug and move on, knowing a delay will no longer break me.

But trauma lingers, and healing takes time. Old habits –– especially the ones I developed to survive and stay afloat –– die hard. 

I still feel that familiar, trauma-induced aversion to idleness whenever there’s a moment of lag time between work projects. I have to force myself to sit in the breathing room I now thankfully have. 

In my opinion, everyone struggles with mental health; it’s a topic that’s relevant to anyone. Yet, it’s hard to really go there with colleagues. Personal challenges have caused me to miss business trips last minute and use all my paid time off in one go. I’ve had my commitment to a company questioned when I put my family before my job. 

No one wants to look weak or needy at work. But the perfect worker bee simply doesn’t exist. We all know being professional and in control 100% of the time is nonsense, yet we still have such a hard time keeping it real with one another.

I try to lead in my own way. I check in on my colleagues. I ask them how they are and wait for their honest response. Those connections mean something –– we all need that support. 

All it took was one person –– a marriage counselor who had known me for 45 minutes –– to see what I was going through and help me change course. If I can be that one person for someone else –– if I can prevent someone from suffering as much as I have –– I’ll be fulfilling what is now my life mission.

As humans, we often have a resistance to vulnerability, but there’s no connection –– and certainly no community –– without it.

Read more about this series, We're All Human: Mental Health Stories From Real Professionals.

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