I could feel the soft pull on my nipple and let down as my twelve month old suckled in the early morning hour, the soft yellow of the rising sun. I half dozed as he nuzzled in close, and I was cherishing this sweet bond between mother and son, enjoying the sweet flow of life in this moment I so rarely experience.
A knock rattled the wooden door, I lifted my head, “Time to get up…” sang a woman’s voice. I let my head drop back down to the pillow as thoughts ran quickly through my mind. I’m nursing my son, can’t I just have a moment of peace. I’ll get up soon, I’ll be a good girl, I’ll do what I am asked, just let me have this moment. “I’m nursing my son.” I called out. “We’ll be out in a minute.” I planned on weening him at twelve months, but when our world was suddenly turned upside down, us homeless and me a single mom, living together in a shelter with strange women and unknown children, our schedule dictated to us by some random third party who did not know us, our lives, or our circumstances; battling the justice system, all while terrified of what my then husband and father-in-law might do, the words of my father-in-laws threat constantly running through my mind, influencing all the decisions I was making I have worked for the city, I have worked for the county, I know all the judges and all the judges dirty laundry, if you leave my son again, you will not get custody of yours.” With all of that, I knew we could both use the comfort and normalcy nursing provided.
I finished nursing, but not before another knock rattled my door, this time with the woman coming in. There was no real privacy here. After dressing myself and my son from the limited clothing options I had and changing his diaper, we were out in the common area of the shelter. Shelter life was not quite what I expected, I remember walking in with visions of something like an elementary school cafeteria with cots set up in rows and public bathrooms. I expected meals to be served from the school kitchen on plastic trays with little milk cartons, the whole scene with a faded tonal quality. Instead there was a large open area divided into two sections, a living room with three couches set up in a ‘U’ and a large flat screen TV on the open end, we even had Dish network, and a dining room with two large tables and benches, there were three or four highchairs lining the back wall, satelliting out from the main living area were offices for the counselors, a play room with donated toys and movies, a large kitchen and pantry where we prepared our own meals, and five bedrooms each with their own bathrooms and the capacity to sleep 5-6 women and children.
We had to take turns doing daily chores, vacuuming, dusting, sweeping and moping, cleaning our bathrooms, and preparing the meals they told us to. They provided a washer, dryer, and laundry soap, I remember walking down the five flights of stairs into the dark unfinished basement where we did our laundry, the other women staying there told ghost stories about the creepy room, though I never saw anything. One evening the assigned meal was meat loaf, while I had seen my parents make it all growing up, I never had prepared it myself. I’m not sure why she was there, because she rarely was, but the director taught me how to make the meatloaf, it was a tender mercy to be standing there in the kitchen, cooking dinner together she felt like a mother figure to me and that brought me a small bit of peace in a then otherwise cold world.
There was a 9 o’clock curfew, if we weren’t in by 9 o’clock, with a few pre-approved exceptions we would be kicked out, period. One night, shortly after beginning my stay at the shelter, I found myself in the doctors office with my son at 8 pm I was lucky enough to have my mom and Grammy in the office with me, my son had just been diagnosed with RSV the nurses instructed me on how to give him a breathing treatment and had ordered a machine for me. It was miserable to stick the silicone mask in my one year old’s face as I held him tight and he cried and tried to get away. When I knew the appointment would get me back to the shelter past curfew, I called and told them what was going on, this was obviously and exception, and I had no problems getting back in when I showed up half an hour past curfew.
We lived on the fourth floor, no one was allowed in except those of us staying there and a handful of counselors. It was that fact that brought me the most comfort, I knew my ex and his family had absolutely no access to me. There were legal advocates to help us file temporary custody papers, divorce decrees, and protective orders as needed, she was a liaison between us and the legal system, some thing I was particularly grateful for as I had absolutely no experience with the justice system. There was a daycare we were allowed to leave our children at free of charge for when we absolutely needed it. We had to take Domestic Violence, Self Esteem, and Parenting classes that would continue on after we left the shelter and optional one on one financial and sexual assault/abuse counseling available as well. We could only stay in the shelter for 30 days, then we were kicked out, we had the option of getting assisted living, and in order to be approved for that, we had to have a job and pass a drug test. That was my first and only experience being drug tested, and having a woman assigned to you to watch you pee was a little weird.
The Other Women
When I walked into the shelter, my son and I were the only ones staying there, the first woman to join us was older, in her 50’s or so, she had left her abuser several times before. I was blessed enough to have a car, and after my ex canceled my sell phone service, my Grammy gave cash to buy a new cell phone, the woman knew I was going to get a phone, and asked if she could come along and visit her bank while we were out, I drove to a mall far away from the one my ex and I had frequented, when I took her to the drive through for her bank, she found her accounts had all been frozen, she had no access to money and shortly after returned to her abuser again.
Another girl had two children, and pre-teen boy and a four year old girl with Asperger’s Syndrome the mother had little time and attention for her daughter, as she was so wrapped up in everything else going on, I stepping in as I could, and I now understand her come from as my son falls somewhere in the behavioral needs spectrum.
One girl, somewhere in her 30’s I remember as being super cute and nice, I even let her borrow my shoes, then had to claim them back after she cut herself and they kicked her out for drug use.
A mother came in for one night with her five children, the children were frightened and unsure of everything going on, I remember talking to one of the daughters about anything that didn’t have to do with the shelter to help comfort her, that family was out the next day as the mother had taken legal measures to kick her abuser out of the family home.
There were many more who came and went in the 3 weeks I stayed there. I was surprised how many women had been in the shelter before, and come back several times. We would put all our children to bed and sit up on those three couches in the living room with the TV off talking about our lives, children, and abusers. There were woman who had it far worse than I had, I was the only one with a car, steady job (even though it was seasonal and I was furloughed, I knew I would begin work again soon), I had a strong support system of family, friends, and angels. Some women had no hope of living a life on their own, believing they didn’t have the skills to do so. Some women had been beaten so bad they had had hospital stays, one had been locked in her house with her children whenever her abuser left with absolutely no access to the outside world. I remember being told I was beautiful and tearing up over it, it had been so long since I had heard those words and I had forgot I was. It was humbling and frightening to hear each others stories, but we lifted each other and buoyed each other up, we were all we had.
For me, it was in the classes that I began to find hope and faith again. I didn’t think I really needed them at first, I thought I was above them, and as I continued to go, I began a journey of self improvement that has not stopped in the seven years since I left. I remember sitting in the Domestic Violence class as the teacher was speaking and letting my mind wander, I was pondering the fact I never thought I would be where I currently was, I never thought I’d be a single mother leaving an abusive marriage, I realized there was a long road a head of me, and my life had taken a complete 180 degree turn, and I didn’t know where to go from here, anything was possible, it was then I had a thought come to me, Everything will be okay, you are going to get through this, and you are going to come back and teach other women what you learned. It was four years later that I found a company that teaches how to be a trainer and a mentor, I knew this was the start to my journey as a teacher to help these women, and I have taught in several locations, including the very shelter I once stayed at.
All in all, I am truly grateful for the shelter experience, it opened my eyes to the truth of the world by taking off my rose colored glasses, it gave me a safe place for myself and my son. The shelter taught me lessons I could have learned no other way and set me on a new and invigorating life path, I won’t trade that for the world.