Not all men cheat. Not all men yell. Not all men hit.
I remember opening the front door and walking into the living room where my father sat with a beautiful woman. She had long, brown hair and looked glamorous in her blue jumpsuit. There was a candle lit and a huge jug of wine sitting on the table.
They were sitting side-by-side on the couch, and though not kissing, I felt something was very wrong. I looked at his hand on her leg and felt confused and also a bit sick to my stomach.
Though my stepmother was not someone I was close to, I felt angry for her. She was exhausted and hiding a black eye while at one of the two janitorial jobs that made up the 16-hour working days. These jobs offered up enough money to pay for my father's drug and drinking problem and kept her out of the house most of the time. After putting in her hours, she would come home to a drunk husband who, depending on his mood, would beat or caress her with hands that had been all over other women.
At eight, I didn't understand the complexity of these things. I didn't fully know what came after hands on legs but as a result of being exposed to these kinds of situations too often and way too early, I knew too much for an 8-year-old.
What I did understand was that my father was a terrible, selfish and dangerous man whose version of self-care was at the expense of every decent person around him.
The woman looked at me and smiled. "You must be Brenda. I'm Sharon."
I remember thinking she looked like one of my Barbies, said hello and went into my room only to have my dad follow me and tell me to go outside and play. He then quietly instructed me to ask someone if I could have a sleepover. I was to be back in the house by the time my stepmother came home.
I didn't argue and found a place to stay that night. The next morning, I came home to find Sharon getting ready to leave the apartment. My father was in his underwear. My stepmother was ending her shift at the hospital and would be home in a couple of hours.
Sharon asked me to walk her to her car as she had a piece of candy for me. My father said it would be OK but to hurry back because we had things to do.
During our walk, Sharon asked me if I had a mother and if she lived with us. Though he had never said a word to me, I knew that I had to lie and cover for my father or I would get a beating. I told her my mother had left me as a baby (true), but that my father never remarried.
That was a lie. He had done so three times: twice to the woman who was now going to collapse into sheets that had been wiped with Sharon's perfume and God knows what else.
When I returned to the apartment, my father asked me what Sharon had asked me. I told him everything. He commended my "loyalty," a word he also used when I lied to the doctors about the marks on my body.
I went into my bedroom and shut the door to stay out of his way. A while later, my stepmother walked into the apartment and my father pretended to just be waking up. She went into the bedroom and they shut the door. The memory is one that sticks out in my mind as it was the first time my father's cheating stung and terrified me.
People spoke about my father's violence, but never his constant sexual indiscretions. That was not a topic to discuss with a child, and yet it was discussed constantly around me. I knew the names of his mistresses because my stepmother would scream them out to him in an angry, painful wail and he would throw them in her face after beating her, right before he slammed the door and drove away to meet whichever one.
At times, I would see them sitting in his car, waiting for him to "leave" my stepmother. She would always cry and pack her things as I would sit in the room watching her. She would share information that I was too young to hear and promise to come and get me and leave for the night (usually to a neighbor's house).
I would lay in an empty house and pray that grandpa would get better and I could live with him alone or that my mother would turn up and want me.
Looking back, it's clear that my father's infidelity came as no surprise to anyone who had ever met him (the man left no value unturned), but the impact it made on the women in his life, including me, was significant.
I couldn't understand the grotesque way he moved women around to please his needs and how willingly all of them were to ignore or live with the fact that they were in the life, the home and the bed of another woman. At the time, I could not comprehend how my current stepmother would put up with going from mistress to wife to mistress to wife again.
Though my grandfather was the most moral and loving man I have ever known, I never saw him with a woman, and we certainly never spoke about such things. The only relationships I was exposed to were ones in which I was given the message that men cheat, hit, scream and lie and women better shut up and deal with it because being with a man is more important than being safe: physically, sexually or emotionally.
This dismal interpretation of love taught me that men can do whatever they want to us, and loving them meant putting up with it. This was a lie that took decades to stop believing.
Through trial and error (first, by dating men a bit too similar to the chaotic man I was stuck calling "dad," and then projecting my father's behavior on good guys), I finally learned that the lessons my father taught me about life, love, respect, partnership and parenting were not only toxic, they were wrong.
This was a man who had no dignity or respect for himself, his body or anyone else. He believed that he was worthless and therefore projected that onto everyone around him. Once I understood and fully accepted that he was not a reliable source of information, my life changed. I stopped being a victim of his poor choices and stopped trying to make it right (the repetition compulsion struggle is real).
Not all men cheat.
Not all men yell.
Not all men hit.
My father was not a man I chose to have in my life and I have chosen not to have him in it, ever. The tricky part was not allowing the disturbing characteristics that made him who he was into my life by way of men who shared them.
That's where the help of a good therapist, research, and a healthy support network comes in. Though many of us will struggle with what has happened in our past, it is important to remember that we all have our own lives to live.
We live in a world full of information and opportunities to learn and grow. We have the freedom to make our own choices and to surround ourselves with healthy, respectful people. This means that we don't have to do what we have always done; we can change the way we live our lives, and that includes the way we view, give and receive love.
I don't need to forgive my father for being unfaithful to his wives, but I did need to forgive myself for allowing those lessons to dictate my choices in the years before I knew better.
And make no mistake: I know better.