As a mother, it is important to be able to recognise family violence and know what to do about it.
Motherhood can be so much easier with a loving and supportive partner, but the reality for so many women is that motherhood turns into a nightmare if they find themselves in the centre of family violence hell.
For some, the warning signs were present before bub arrived, while others find that the arrival of a baby transforms their formerly supportive partner into someone completely unrecognisable.
It may be subtle or it may be completely obvious, but the effect is the same. As a mother, it is important to be able to recognise family violence and know what to do about it.
1. What does family violence look like?
Family violence takes many forms, and some of it is very hard to define. The key categories are:
Sexual abuse: Forced or unwanted sexual contact, ranging from outright rape through to coercion or pressure to have unwanted sex or perform sex acts.
Physical abuse: Any form of violent physical contact.
Psychological abuse: Otherwise known as “mind games”, the perpetrator convinces the victim that they are powerless or worthless, or that the behaviour is the victim’s fault somehow. There is often an element of control.
Emotional abuse: Using emotions to achieve a desired result.
Control: Any use of power that restricts or dictates in order to achieve a desired result, up to and including isolating the victim from any possible source of support or escape.
Neglect: Denying basic necessities such as food or clothing, etc.
2. What does Family Violence feel like?
No matter which form(s) the abuse takes, the effect is typically the same; the victim feels increasingly frightened or powerless, and they will usually feel like they deserve the abuse or that they are somehow to blame. As the violence progresses, the victim may feel depressed or hopeless, and possibly even suicidal.
3. How can I tell if I am a victim of family violence?
Often, the first warning sign is a tendency to justify the partner’s behaviour. It is normal to justify behaviour sometimes – everybody has an ‘off’ day – but there should not be a pattern of such justification. If you find yourself justifying your partner’s behaviour on a regular basis, it’s time to look closer.
Another major warning sign is an increasing tendency to take the blame for the partner’s behaviour because it’s just easier than confronting it. More often than not, it’s because the victim fears the backlash that will occur if the partner is challenged about their behaviour. Taking the blame for the partner’s behaviour stops the abuse for a time and may even lead to a period of pleasant interactions or supportive behaviour.
Mostly, family violence is identified by patterns, particularly the “abuse, apologise, promise, repeat” pattern; the partner may express regret for their actions and take steps to make amends while promising that the behaviour will stop, only to repeat the behaviour and the remorse and the amends.
Any repeated behaviour that requires you to take the blame in order to keep the peace, or leaves you feeling intimidated and afraid, is a good indication that abuse is occurring.
4. What can I do about it?
Remember that even the subtle abuse will ultimately affect your child, and some kind of action needs to be taken for your child’s wellbeing. Even if you feel like you might be overreacting, and even if you deeply love your partner, it is important to put your child’s needs first.
Having identified that your situation is abusive, the first step is to decide what you want to do about it. Do you feel safe enough and confident enough to just up and leave with your child? Do you want to bide your time and wait for an opportunity to leave? Would you prefer to attempt some kind of mediation or counselling to address the behaviour without actually leaving?
If it is not an emergency and safety is not a concern, seek advice. Do you have a good friend that you can confide in about your concerns? You may find that you have become isolated from supports without even noticing that it has happened. If so, there are professional supports available; most police stations have a Family Violence Liaison Officer who can advise you on your next step, or help you escape if necessary. They can put you in contact with social workers who can help you address concerns like safe accommodation and financial support. They can also connect you with counselling services and other community supports.
5. My partner is violent and I fear for our safety if I reach out. What can I do?
If you believe that your safety or the safety of your children is at risk, you need to act immediately. In some cases the control has run so deep that you may find you have no opportunity to reach out for support. If this happens, your doctor can become your best friend; book a “regular health check” such as a pap smear to give you an opportunity to speak to somebody alone in order to reach out for help. Or you can wait until you are running an errand that is expected of you, like picking the children up from school. It’s okay if you have children at home at the time, the police are trained to get children out of a dangerous situation if required.
In an emergency – if you feel that being overheard on the phone could put you or your children at risk – call emergency services and leave the phone somewhere that they can hear what is going on.
Emergency operators are trained to identify “silent calls” and can trace the location of the phone and send help. Make sure they can hear what is going on, but that your partner cannot hear them.
Use code if you need to. I have had a friend text me to ask me to call the police about a “noise complaint” at her address. I knew her well enough to know a bit of her story, and so I was able to relay to the police that this was code for “get help now”. Sure enough, they arrived to find her on the floor being strangled in front of her children. The police arrested him on the spot and detained him long enough for her to escape to a shelter with her children under police escort. There is a story of a woman who “accidentally” called police with a “pizza order”, and managed to get across to them that it was an emergency using responses such as “yes, we’d like mushroom on that please” in response to “are you in danger?”
Police are smarter than you think, and so are your friends. Be smart too, and a way to reach out to them.
6. After the escape.
In some cases, it will be possible to resolve the issues with professional support (such as if the abuse being caused by a mentally ill partner in a psychotic phase), but in most cases it will be necessary to stay away from your partner.
Finding yourself alone with children, particularly if you do not have good support from family or friends, is a very vulnerable time. In some cases you may feel the desire to rejoin your partner once the initial crisis period is over and you start remembering the good times. In other cases you may be scared because of threats regarding custody or involvement of child protection services. You may be worried about money or accommodation. You may become depressed and wonder if you did the right thing. You may be scared of the future or feeling like you cannot cope.
It is a really good idea to connect with a counselling service during the “grieving” stage of escape from Family Violence. Having somebody to talk to will be invaluable to you, and they can also help you to keep things in perspective when the fear subsides and you start to miss your partner or focus on the good things about them.
Many professional supports can also refer you to somebody who can help you navigate accommodation and financial issues, including temporary emergency housing. These services are familiar with Family Violence and know that you are unlikely to have much money or many belongings, and can connect you with services that will support you with food and clothing and other essentials.
It is a difficult time, but you need to remember that you did the right thing by keeping yourself and your children safe. You are their mother, and that is your job.