Home > Education, Family, Love, Social Justice > I dream the world for you

I dream the world for you

Oh, sweet child born into poverty and abuse,

I have a story to tell you.

It’s a story about me, but it’s also a story about you.

My mom was twenty years old when her then-future husband–my dad–tried giving her away before their wedding.

She stuck with it. She stuck with him. Back then, she believed she had the power to change him. She would win him over with her love, her cooking, and her tender, joyous care for the children she would bring him.


Shortly after I was born (not quite nine months after they married), she wrote in my baby book how much she and my dad needed me. I would, finally, unite them.

My first memories are of hearing her scream as he beat her, threw her, and threw things at her. They are of her trying to protect me and my younger siblings from a similar fate, and sometimes succeeding.

She was my shelter for as long as she could be.

We moved to Northern California my first grade year. My godmother had pleaded with her not to go, or to leave me and my siblings in Oregon if my mom felt personally responsible to join my dad in California. My mom took us all, because she was, she knew, destined to be the best wife and mom the world had ever seen. She still believed she had the power to make my dad see it.

Far away from the safety net my godparents provided, my mom broke. The abuse-sized boulder they’d helped her carry was too much for her to carry alone.

She began to abuse my siblings and me. Later, she would tell me, “I thought if I became mean like your dad, maybe it wouldn’t hurt me anymore, maybe I could live that way. But it didn’t work like that.”

We moved back to Oregon the summer before I started second grade.

My dad traveled with the military. While away, he would send postcards, shoes, and miscellaneous gifts.

He was really nice when he was gone.

I was in third or fourth grade when my mom locked him out of the house. He pounded, screamed, and threatened to be let back in; she screamed back that he could not hurt her anymore.

She was wrong, of course.

I was in fourth or fifth grade when my mom and dad met in court to finalize their divorce. I’d arrived prepared to testify that I didn’t want my dad to have any custody of me and my siblings.

I loved him, but he terrified me. I meant to tell the judge that, but then my dad started crying.

He was crying because of me.

I was hurting him.

I changed my tune. My mom’s lawyer, Bill, took me out to the hallway. He asked me if I really wanted my dad to share custody with my mom. “No, no, no!” I told him. “I don’t, but it’s hard and scary and sad to see how I’m hurting his feelings.”

“It’s an act,” Bill told me gently. “What he wants is power, and how he gets it is by pretending he doesn’t have it.”

I understood and was comforted, until I sat down in the courtroom again and Bill’s words got jumbled in my head. His squishy lots of words were confusing compared to my dad’s unambiguous tears.

The court split custody upon my apparent request, a fact I remembered every time my dad hurt my siblings and me during a visit afterward.

It was my fault.

Sometimes he’d come over to the house to talk to Mom. I only found out later that those “talks” were rape. She could choose between rape and receiving child support, or neither … until the day, at long last, that the state began garnishing my dad’s wages.

Me, at age of testimony

Me, at age of testimony

Predators saw my mom’s vulnerability and repeatedly sought out my family. It wasn’t an accident; like the Oklahoma police officer who raped women from marginalized communities less likely to be heard, these predators knew my mom’s weakness was their strength.

I testified in front of one such predator before I’d even reached junior high.

My mom tried to find work that would pay her more than the cost of child care for her four children. She went through a string of such care while working night shift at the local cannery, from which she’d routinely return covered in bruises, but found little “care” was involved at the rates she could afford.

She quit her job at the cannery when she learned the care always brought their boyfriends. Given the choice between working to barely afford the worst childcare and her kids’ safety, she chose her kids.

She took courses at the community college, hoping to attain better wages through education. She earned higher than a 3.8 GPA despite her constant distress at trying to keep her family fed, clothed, and sheltered with her extremely limited resources and virtually non-existent support. She ended up mostly providing for us by selling at her garage sales items she’d culled from others’ Dumpsters.

“Get an education,” she told me and my siblings constantly. “That’s how you escape this horror.”

As those around us alternately teased her for her scattermindedness and admonished her for her poor choices, I wondered: How can you have so much and give so little? Feel so little?

mom n d lightMy mom was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia. Later, she died of cancer when her first grandchild–my first child–was only five months old.

She died not a victim but a survivor. Given loads of lemons, she made the jumbo-est damned glass of lemonade she could.

But, wait. Didn’t I say this was my story?

It is.

As a child, your story is by law bound together with your parents’ stories.

The violence my mom endured, I endured.

The poverty my mom endured, I endured.

The lack of safety and access to resources my mom endured, I endured. 

As a child looking at my mom’s life, I felt I was seeing my own future telescoped for me.

My mom couldn’t protect me. No one tried protecting her; instead, even the purportedly bleedingest of nearby hearts judged and mocked her for what they described as her failings.

My mom, the worthiest person in my life, was unworthy by others’ standards. I, bound to her, was unworthy.

Sometimes I feared my dad would kill me. Others, I prayed he would.

I dreamed of killing myself. When I was fourteen, I actually tried. I swallowed a bottle of my mom’s pills and waited several minutes for peace, only making myself throw up the pills after I imagined my mom finding me dead. That thought horrified me more than the thought of continued abuse and turmoil courtesy my “good” parent.

I completed high school in three years. I split my third year between a high school International Baccalaureate program and a community college.

Adults around me called me precocious. I thought they were deluded, to look at my life and see “precocious” instead of “trying to escape hell.”

My grades were okay. “Okay” was the best I could muster in my struggle to survive … and to decide whether I really even wanted to keep going.

I half-lived stuck in fight or flight mode, always flying-away, having no vision of anything kind enough to fly-toward.

I flew-away through college, and saying goodbye to my dad, and then law school, and then Japan.

I flew away, and away, and away, still never quite knowing why I bothered to fly at all.

thank you, Li'l D, for making a mom of me

And then, in 2009, I met my first son. I held his eight-pound body against mine and found my toward: in protecting him, loving him, and building him up so that he might never know the pain of always, always flying away.

That son, Li’l D, is now almost seven years old. His brother, Littler J, is two.

I dream the world for these two boys, but my dreams don’t stop there.

I know you are out there. I feel your fear and heartbreak even as I cherish my sons’ obliviousness to such things.

I did not deserve the hardships I endured. You do not deserve the hardships you endure. The fact people tell you or imply these things does not make them true.

These people–especially politicians–will tell you they have nothing to do with your suffering, which they’ll characterize as springing from failures of your family’s personal accountability. They will always, always be able to point out something your parents could or should have done better to have earned a kinder life, believing despite all evidence to the contrary that every child in the U.S. begins with equal opportunities and access to opportunities.

(While in law school, I visited two San Francisco elementary schools ten minutes apart by public transportation. One school, full of black and brown children, crumbled while I watched long-term substitute teachers give their very best with decades old books. The other school, full of white and Asian students, was thriving. Don’t even get me started on tutoring at a Skid Row homeless shelter. Those sweet kids knew a fraction of the stability I–I, who knew virtually none!–experienced at their age.)

Those politicians have no idea how hard you have worked just to stay alive.

They have starved your stomach, your safety, and your soul to feed corporate entities that have no need for these human trivialities. They call you an outlier when, in fact, the majority of U.S. schoolchildren now live in poverty and 6.6 million children annually suffer abuse, with four to seven children daily being “lost” dying from it.

They have sacrificed your hope at having a chance for their ability to hoard limitless chances.

When fear and hunger distract you from school, they blame teachers and pass legislation both penalizing teachers and moving more education funds to private actors.

They point to studies showing that the United States is falling behind other first world countries in education, obfuscating the fact that wealthy students in the U.S. actually fare better than students in other nations. It is you, more focused on surviving trauma than on passing any one of the more than a hundred standardized tests you’ll take before you graduate high school, whose test scores bring the U.S. average down. But it’s not because of you. It’s because your parents, busy trying to ensure you have food in your belly and a roof over your head, cannot invest in you the time, energy, or money your wealthy peers’ parents do in their kids; because politicians set you up to fail and then derive economic benefit from your failing.

They are failing you.

I, who enable them by failing to advocate for you or your parents so they have the resources they need to make a better future for you, fail you.

I see you. I hear you. I feel you, and know you are capable of great things. I know from experience that surviving is the very hardest thing you can do.

You have done that. You can do anything.

I am committed to helping clear the hurdles before you.

I am committed to you.

I dream the world for you,
and I am willing to fight for it–
to fight for you.

  1. July 18, 2016 at 9:15 pm

    I have no words. So very powerful. ❤ Thank you so much for sharing.

    • July 18, 2016 at 9:40 pm

      Thank you. ♥

      It was hard to put this into a couple thousand words, when the full story could easily take several hundred thousand words … but I think this captures the heart of it, and am glad to know Rache is contemplating writing her own like post.

  2. Paul
    July 19, 2016 at 12:47 am

    Jesus Deborah, that you survived that at all is a miracle. Riveting read and such true and controversial conclusions. (Don’t get me wrong – i agree 100%)

    • July 19, 2016 at 3:17 pm

      Thank you, Paul. I really, really appreciate your reading and commenting. Right now, I am struggling with how my friends with gentler backgrounds hide their heads in the sand and pretend it doesn’t happen, when it does ALL THE TIME. I am grateful for those who acknowledge it, and send their love.

      I am so disheartened by the small but vocal group of people who continue to perpetuate the idea that people like my mom asked for it, deserved it, or otherwise. They are complicit in the all too rampant violence they pretend is isolated. 😦

      • Paul
        July 19, 2016 at 4:06 pm

        Thank You Deborah for sharing your story – it is a very important one. You know when the supreme court decided that companies were to be treated as individuals, a psychiatrist did an article in HBR (Harvard Business Review) about company personalities. He found that the vast majority (along with their executive) would match the definition of sociopathic or even psychopathic (per the DSM-5). That pretty much says it all when it comes to how companies treat people – they will say what you want to hear to benefit themselves.

        • July 19, 2016 at 4:06 pm


        • July 19, 2016 at 4:08 pm

          Also … because you happen to have commented now, when I am sitting on a post about being angry at U.S. liberals for perpetuating inequity … better to post angry and let my whole truth be known, or wait and post only when able to view the more productive wider angle?

          • Paul
            July 19, 2016 at 4:16 pm

            It’s more interesting for me if you post angry. 😀 That said, you do a daily post, so generally how things impress you in the moment is what I expect.

          • July 19, 2016 at 4:18 pm

            Thank you! This leans me toward posting it. I’ll give it one more hour and see how I feel. 😀

  3. July 19, 2016 at 4:02 am

    Deborah, your story is heartbreaking, despite this I hear strength and hope in your writing. You are amazing and I’m sure your sons and husband think so too!❤️

    • July 19, 2016 at 3:18 pm

      Thank you! Anthony actually wrote me a rockin’ message from our backyard yesterday. I tell him little bits and pieces about my past, so that this was–in places–a revelation to him.

      I love that my little guys know that I had it harder, in the abstract, and are thus so concerned about making sure other people are okay.

      • July 20, 2016 at 6:00 am

        If anything that experience has made YOUR family stronger and more empathetic towards other! I truly loved this post!

  4. July 19, 2016 at 4:29 am

    Agreed with others that this is a powerful and riveting read. So much finger pointing and blame thrown around when all that is needed is a mirror. I can’t imagine the horror that you went through. On one hand, it should never have been that way, on the other hand it made you the person you are right now inspiring others through words. I don’t think your conclusions are controversial, they’re what we’re all thinking but most too afraid to say out loud. You’ve read some of my writing and I’m not afraid to say what I think, I’m trying my hardest to be part of the solution so my daughter has the best possible chance to succeed in life.

    • July 19, 2016 at 3:30 pm

      I just love your comment, so much.

      Sometimes I’m so sad for what happened. Other times, when women whisper to me, ashamed, what they endured, I am so glad I had the experiences I did so they know I am safe and that I will support them; that I will tell them they NEVER DESERVED IT. Part of my “safe” is, of course, having three siblings who can confirm that my experiences were theirs. Most people don’t have that.

      I really didn’t understand how highest echelon tax cuts impacted everything until very, very recently. Now, we decry anything that sounds like raising taxes for the highest echelon even when the IMF concludes unequivocally that trickle-down doesn’t work and higher net value for the highest destroys economic growth. It’s so wrong!

      I get so sad and so tired when people continue the tired narrative that poor people did something to deserve it. When poor people had no voice, that might have flown, but today … we have one. I mean to use mine to say that I am no longer poor, but that I see, hear, and remember poverty; that my mom struggled so hard to escape it and was unsuccessful, not because of who she was but because of who other people were.

      Liberals try to pretend they’re not part of the problem, but I grew up in a profoundly liberal town where people plugged their ears to my pleas and told each other how sensitive and understanding they were. They, too, are part of the problem, part of how kids RIGHT NOW are starving, struggling, and dying, so that I acknowledge this is a non-partisan problem destroying lives without regard to political parties.

      I am grateful for anyone who hears, and wants to ensure their children are heard, and live better.

      Thank you.

  5. July 19, 2016 at 5:07 am

    Wow! This is very inspiring. I admire you and your mom. Such strong women. 🙂

    • July 19, 2016 at 3:34 pm

      Thank you! My sisters and my brother share this strength, though they show it in different ways.

      I am always so, so grateful for anyone who sings my mom’s praises. So many were so hostile toward her, and blaming, that I breathe a sigh of relief and joy when someone acknowledges her hardships and sees how well she did despite them. Thank you again.

      • July 19, 2016 at 4:50 pm

        You are a proof that she was a great person. She raised you well. 🙂

  6. July 19, 2016 at 6:58 am

    I have been crying for almost 39 minutes. Often words won’t come to me, as I see my life as one I cannot/will not share.
    If I, as small as I am, could change one thing, it would be everything. The everything wrapped up by the nothings the outside holds closer to them than safety, peace.
    A movie line comes to mind though how over played it is…
    ‘Dear God, make me bird, so I can fly far…far far away from here.’
    Thank you for the words.

  7. July 19, 2016 at 7:34 am

    Such a powerful post. I’m glad you are fighting, I think the world is glad too.

  8. July 19, 2016 at 1:35 pm

    This is powerful—and even more so coming from someone who has also endured, then overcome, poverty and abuse. Sharing.

    • July 19, 2016 at 3:39 pm

      I am so glad you commented, and shared. Right now, I’m having a hard time not being angry–how do my privileged friends plug their ears and not understand their ear-plugging was part of what made my childhood so hard? What is making so many childhoods RIGHT NOW so hard? Argh. I am so sad, and so angry, but I am trying to be hopeful. I am trying to hope that those who have not experienced this will look at my–and other–words and know that no one should have to experience this. That hiding their heads in the sand to pretend it doesn’t exist is part of the problem. I know I will win more by gentleness and love, but man, it’s hard. It’s so hard to know my mom’s suffering need not have been, and that millions of moms’ suffering right now should not be, and wouldn’t be, without people pretending it’s much more peripheral than it actually is.

  9. Nikki
    July 19, 2016 at 4:13 pm

    I know understand the strength and vulnerability in your eyes…these struggles have made you the person you are today and I love that person, that friend, that mom, that wife…that you are. Big hugs to you, my dear…soon in person.

  10. July 20, 2016 at 12:42 pm

    I am so proud to know you!xx

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