I remember it like it was yesterday. It was late at night. The room was dark and I was lying in bed. I had just fed our two-week old son and my husband was changing his diaper at the end of the bed. We were both bone tired.
He removed the diaper and was reaching for a clean one when our son did what little boys all over the world do when you take off their diapers. He peed. We were usually prepared for this and had perfected a technique of covering him up with a cloth until a new diaper was secured in place. However, in his half-asleep state, my husband had forgotten to do this.
His reaction was swift and fierce. He slammed his fist down on the bed, inches from our son’s head. He accused our newborn of deliberately peeing on him. He was livid.
For a moment, I sat frozen. Then I reached down and grabbed my son, who was now wailing, and held him close to my chest. My heart was racing. My mind was racing. I wanted to scream back at him and tell him that he was crazy. That this was a biological reflex and who the hell assigns hostile motives to a two-week old infant? But I didn’t do that. My instinct told me to remain quiet. My instinct told me to lie there and hold my son, to quiet his cries and remain still until my husband fell asleep.
* * *
Yesterday, there was an emotional confrontation in the Australian media over some proposed legislation that would impose a harsh sentence on mothers with violent partners if they failed to report child sexual abuse. I have a lot of friends in Australia and the story has filled my news feed. Kerri Sackville wrote a beautiful post about it, if you’d like more information.
The story naturally caught my attention. I was the wife of an abusive man and he was convicted of sexual crimes against children. I reported him and cooperated with police. Doing so made my situation even more unsafe.
The exchange in question was between Joe Hildebrand, a Sydney columnist, and Rosie Batty, the mother of a young boy who was recently murdered by his father. Mr. Hildebrand said that fear for one’s own safety should never be an excuse for a mother not reporting child abuse. He said women need to leave abusive relationships, full stop. Ms. Batty (who, by the way, showed remarkable poise and clarity of thought for someone who has recently lost a child) said he was misguided and that the law should punish the abuser and not victims of abuse.
Mr. Hildebrand’s comments reflect a very common view of domestic violence: It’s wrong. It’s bad. Women should just leave. They are fools for staying.
It’s an understandable view, but it shows a real lack of comprehension of what abuse really is. It’s not simply violence. Abuse, at its core, is about power and control. I wonder how the conversation would change if we stopped talking about violence and started talking about control.
If you are a man in a bar and you get into a fight with some random stranger and he threatens you, then yes, leaving will probably put an end to the threat. He doesn’t want to control you. He’s just pissed off.
If you are a woman in an abusive relationship, leaving will absolutely not put an end to the threat. It will, in fact, increase it. Women are 75% more likely to be killed when they leave an abusive relationship than when they stay.
The thing is, both Mr. Hildebrand and Ms. Batty have valid points. Child sexual abuse should be reported. But women should not be held accountable for their partner’s crimes. A woman who reports abuse may have a lot to fear. Often, reporting child (or any) abuse will set off a dangerous chain of events that may further threaten the safety of both the mother and her children.
While there are laws in place to hold perpetrators accountable, the enactment of those laws is often inadequate and painfully slow. Laws alone will not keep a woman safe from an ex-partner intent on hurting her.
In my case, it took three years from the opening of the investigation of my ex-husband’s case until he was convicted and imprisoned. Three years. That’s a long time to feel unsafe.
I was lucky. I had the means to front a legal battle to protect my children. I had savings and a retirement fund I could deplete to pay the mortgage and utilities on my home while I couldn’t live there, while I was hidden away in a safehome because I was afraid if he found us, he would kill us. And when he did find us, I had a friend who slept downstairs with a gun, and other friends who made sure the kids and I found another safe place to go. I had a network of supportive people who loved me and believed me.
For those reasons, I am able to sit here today and write this post.
But most victims of abuse don’t have that. I am the exception to the rule.
When my ex-husband slammed his fist down on the bed, I did not have those means. I was not working and had no income. I had a newborn and a toddler. I had a cancer diagnosis. Both my parents were deceased. Shortly after the incident, I told him I would leave him if he ever touched one of the children. I had no idea how I would do it, but a line was drawn in the sand. I was lucky that it would be years before he crossed that line. And by then, I was prepared.
There it is again. I was lucky.
That moment after he slammed his fist down on the bed, I say I was frozen, but that’s not entirely accurate. It wasn’t that I was incapable of action. I was simply doing what women in abusive marriages all over the planet do every day. I was assessing the situation, trying to simultaneously read a hundred silent clues and predict the safest next step. It wasn’t a deliberate or even a conscious process. It was primal and intuitive. It was a survival instinct.
If you have never felt that kind of fear, if you have never had to protect your child from someone who exerted financial, emotional and physical control over you, you have no right to tell a mother what she should or should not do. Because, honestly, you don’t even know what you yourself would do.