(iStock)

The cop stood in my kitchen, making it look twice as small. I’d put a towel on the door, duct taping it there to keep out the January cold. It was a relief to finally have something to show for the year-long abuse, even if it was just missing Plexiglas in a door. But I could point to it, ask someone to look at it, and say “He did this. He did this to us,” and they could look at it and say “I see that. I see that he did this to you.” The police report was my validation that I wasn’t crazy. I carried it in my purse for months like a certificate.

The day after I called the police, I sat on the beach next to my car talking to my stepmom on the phone while Mia napped in her car seat. I didn’t want either of us to go back to that home anymore.

My dad had been remarried for a few years, and his wife had begun to step in as the motherly figure I’d lacked after my mom had moved to Europe when I was 21. I needed that look of “Oh, you poor dear,” and the warm, cushy embrace of a mother. I needed to know that someone, anyone, loved me unconditionally. Like how I loved Mia.

Soon after that phone call, I left town. I shoved everything I thought we’d need inside my Honda hatchback. My parents’ house felt like a safe haven where I could launch a new life for my daughter and myself.

I began to fill a small, red notebook with phone numbers of food banks, low-income housing, day cares and potential employers. I spent hours on the phone with domestic violence advocates.

Mia’s dad had been charged with malicious mischief in the third degree with a domestic violence tag. As a result, a judge ordered a no-contact order for two years, and it had Mia’s name on it, too. I panicked over this. Her father spent the first six months of my pregnancy screaming at me to get an abortion and saying I’d kept the baby because I wanted him to love me. But now, my friends said, he told anyone who’d listen how evil I was for taking his daughter away. I imagined a Child Protective Services worker showing up at my house, while he stood looking like a concerned parent and trying to hide his smile.

“Just look at you,” he’d said so many times, “You sit around this house all day, and you never go out. You have no friends because nobody wants to hang out with you. And what do you do? The grout’s filthy in the bathroom. Why don’t you at least get off your lazy ass and clean?”

In the last two months, I had started to not only believe but accept that I was stupid and crazy. I carried those words on my shoulders, their weight heavy and burdensome, like suitcases. He was right, I thought. I didn’t go out. I was in the house all day with Mia, drinking coffee. In the afternoon, Mia napped in my arms, while I watched Oprah and Dr. Phil. He would come home from work for lunch, picking Mia up from her chair to cover her with kisses, and then setting her back down. “Have you even showered today?” he’d say, sneering at me. The occasional sweet gesture or gentle touch came at me like a bone I gnawed at to get every bit of marrow.

After the broken window, he maintained that I’d called the cops needlessly. He said that the no-contact order was my fault, that I’d just called to turn him in for nothing. I didn’t need him to scream at me over the phone about it. I already heard his voice in my head, and I knew what he’d say. I also knew that in the court system, a mother who denies a father access to a child is the villain, no matter what the father did to cause harm to the family.

The Superior Court building was about 45 minutes away from my parents’ house. I asked for application packets for the order of protection. I wrote about him smashing the plastic chairs outside to pieces. I wrote about him punching the couch next to my head. I quoted his threats to turn me in or take my daughter. They asked me to highlight the parts that made me feel like my safety was threatened, issued a temporary order, and then a court date. They suggested I call the Northwest Justice Project for legal assistance, and through them I was assigned a lawyer.

I lost weight during this time, worrying over this massive pile of paperwork for a visitation schedule, feeling like I was fighting to keep my daughter.

But then the brightness began to crack through: A week or two after being at my parents’ home, Mia stopped screaming each time someone entered the room or there was a loud sound. She started talking, saying “Dog, dog, dog,” whenever Jack came over for pets. She started crawling. She played on her own with toys, lost in her little world, and gobbled up roast beef with potatoes and carrots.

And I was able to be a present mother, less afraid than I’d been for her entire life.

On sunny days, we’d go to the park and I’d push her in the swing. Sometimes we would just sit. Those moments were my solace, like the eye of my own storm. Nothing mattered unless I could find a few minutes a day to let everything quiet down around us, and we’d sit in the grass in our little bubble like a still life painting. I needed to make those moments. And Mia and I needed to have them in the midst of the chaos.

That chaos kept coming in various forms, even after we escaped. Despite my relief over finally having tangible proof of abuse, it wasn’t that simple. In the court documents from our custody battle (because he did fight for custody) the judge would say that while the court accepted my statements of the defendant’s behavior, there wasn’t any evidence of violence. The judge questioned if a reasonable person would feel threatened without physical abuse, and he dropped my order for protection. I stood 10 feet away from Mia’s father outside the courtroom while our lawyers discussed the terms and definitions for restraint. He was not to come 50 feet or closer to me, and we couldn’t speak to each other. A friend would have to transport Mia back and forth. I don’t think I would have been granted even that if it hadn’t been for that broken window.

By the time we’d move back to town, his town, when visitations began, Mia was  10 months old. The homeless shelter we lived in was a line of small cottages. We weren’t allowed to bring more than a bag for each person, along with food items. I was lucky enough to have a storage unit, but most of my neighbors had cars full of clothes. I had a radio someone had loaned me, no computer, an old pay-as-you-go cell phone, and a few toys and books. The sun came through the front window over the love seat I’d thrown a sheet on. I bathed Mia in the sink when she needed it, and read books after she went to bed.

We made it work, and I found our moments, even there. Even in a homeless shelter. I’d strap Mia in her carrier and we’d go for long walks during the day in the time before I started working various landscaping jobs. It felt good to walk into town, even if I was in a place I’d run away from, then returned to with my feet dragging.

We’d sit on the beach for a while, picking up rocks, throwing them, and picking up another. It’s a time I return to often in my mind: the simplicity of doing nothing but enjoying each other’s company. My solace, our life. Together.

Stephanie Land’s writing has been published by Vox, The Huffington Post, Mamalode, Literary Mama, and Scary Mommy. You can find her on twitter and stepville.com.

Like On Parenting on Facebook for more essays, advice and news. You can sign up here for our newsletter. You can find us at washingtonpost.com/onparenting.

You might also be interested in:

I may be a single mom, but I’m not doing it alone

Being a present parent while falling apart

Taking time off to be a dad

A man and his dog were harmful to me