November 6, 2018

Teach Your Daughters well: Girl Power isn't about Self Esteem; It's about Money

By: Maggie Haukka

When we talk about what women and children need in order to escape abusive husbands and fathers, the word we use is “resources.”

And resources — whether they take the form of food, clothing, shelter, counseling, or support groups — are undeniably important.

But what we really mean when we talk about resources — the one resource that actually counts, because it can get all the other resources — is money.

I think we need to be honest about this.

I also think we need to be honest about the fact that it’s unrealistic to hope that non-profit organizations — effective and well-meaning as they may be — will ever be capable of fronting the amount of money it actually takes to get someone “out.” That doesn’t limit their power or call into question how much we need women’s centers and women’s shelters; we DO need them — they are often the first step a woman takes toward safety, and they provide temporary shelter for women and children when it is sometimes the difference between life and death.

In desperation, I recently walked into one myself. I’m not their usual clientele. I’m educated, financially independent, liberal. I’m also scared of my husband.

I went because I didn’t know where else to go, and because I needed help. This is all new to me. Prior to the relationship I’m currently in — an eight-year marriage that’s produced two young daughters — I’d been fortunate enough to have been only hazily aware of things like restraining orders or, as they’re now called, “orders-of-protection.” I’ve dismissed the “Do you feel safe in your home?” question at the doctor’s office as just another arbitrary inquiry of the bureaucracy — a nod to PR more than anything else, I assumed.

But now I don’t feel safe in my home.

I walked to my local women’s shelter one afternoon when my husband was drunk enough to be rendered temporarily benign and when my girls were at school. For some reason — and this is both embarrassing and shameful — I thought it would be easy. In my mind, I would “get connected to resources” and then, with the help of the people at the shelter, navigate the system to get a restraining order, and then he would have to leave, and my daughters and I could live in peace and safety.

But that’s not exactly how it works. I’m one of the “lucky” ones; my husband is not physically abusive. Psychologically, he’s sadistic, but he’s not physically dangerous. He’s frightening, and he knows how to dance right along the line between innuendo and threat, but he understands the consequences of both sides of that line. He’ll even articulate them for me: “The police aren’t going to help you. You don’t even have any bruises. Go ahead and call them.”

And he’s right.

The counselor I spoke with at the shelter was sympathetic. Two nights previously when things had gotten really ugly with him, I’d quietly hit the “record” button on the voice memo function of my phone — and then I just let it go for the next several hours. It captured him refusing to leave even though I begged him to; it captured me asking him to get away from me as he got closer and closer to my face as he screamed; it captured him running into furniture as he swayed and keeled about the kitchen in his drunken state.

The woman listened to the tape, and she nodded sadly at me. It’s what we call “assaultive language,” she said. “It’s pretty textbook,” she added apologetically. “The smart ones know exactly how far they can push it without really getting in trouble.”

“So what are my options?” I asked. “I mean, he’s clearly threatening me; doesn’t that allow us to do something?”
She explained that, with the limits — the appalling limits — of our current system, the best I might be able to hope for would be to procure a harassment order, BUT that would only be helpful if our home was mine alone. If the home was in my name alone and I got a harassment order, I could ask the landlord to issue a “no trespassing” order as a result of the harassment order, and my husband would not legally be allowed to come around. “Is he on the lease?” she asked.

He’s on the lease; they’re almost always on the lease, and this is the problem. Women — wives and mothers in particular — tend to co-sign for leases and mortgages because it makes financial sense to do so. Unfortunately, this also renders us trapped like animals if there is abuse in that home that stops short of physical violence.
And this returns us to the issue of “resources.” Because what I’ve found is that the resources we get for ourselves — that we earn or save or borrow or steal ourselves — are what we really need; that’s what helps us get out. And the best way to ensure we have resources at our disposal is to ensure that we have jobs, and not just any jobs, but well-paying and secure jobs.

Like a lot of girls from “good families,” I was raised to seek shelter, not to provide it for myself. I don’t blame my parents. They were working from a different generation and from a model that had served them well — my dad had been the primary breadwinner, and he was kind and gentle and responsible; it allowed my mom to work a little less than what she would have it she’d had to solely support herself and us, and it had been a good, solid, safe, comfortable life. In an ideal world, partnership would always work — couples and parents pool resources and share responsibilities to evenly distribute the workload and mutually enjoy the benefits such a partnership offers — emotional safety, financial security, the stability and comfort of knowing that if something goes wrong there’s a net, and there’s someone anchoring that net, and it’ll cradle us all until we can work together to get back on our feet.

In reality — and far more often for women than men — the condition of shared resources is used to exploit, control, and abuse. I’m *almost* in that condition.

Except that again, I’m lucky. Despite my parents’ efforts, I somehow became independent — financially and practically. I know how to take care of myself and my girls, and I have the money socked away to do it. It’s not much money, and once I get out there’s not going to be any of it left, but it’s enough.

I walked away from the women’s shelter feeling an odd mix of gratitude that these places exist and a cold realization that, ultimately, because my girls and I were not in imminent physical danger, I was on my own.
I went from the shelter to a coffee shop, where I logged on to the WiFi and, against all warnings and my own experience in the tech field, signed into my bank account and transferred enough money from my savings to my checking to make a deposit on a new apartment. If I was going to get away from him, it was clear I would have to be the one to leave.

I waited until he passed out that night to comb Craigslist, Zillow, and to see what the options were. I found one apartment in our current neighborhood that would allow the girls to continue attending their same school, and I applied for it online. Because I have a good job and excellent credit, I was quickly approved. The next morning, on my way to work, I unceremoniously visited the property, signed the papers, and paid the security deposit. It took approximately 20 minutes.

But the set of circumstances that allowed me to secure a new place to live in the span of 20 minutes took years.
It took multiple degrees and good jobs and solid credit scores and years of saving money and the relevant experiences and support systems to accumulate all these things.

For women with no education, no jobs, no cell phone contracts or laptops of their own, perhaps no car — such an escape is literally impossible. People don’t understand this. I have all these things, and it’s still been hard. I’ve had to strategize every move — wait until he’s at the bar to go to the shelter; seize the time he’s passed out to search for apartments; change my computer settings to “don’t remember history” because I know he’s checking it to see if I’m “up to anything” — he constantly thinks I’m having an affair — if only — if only there were some other guy ready to swoop in and save me.

But there’s not, and this is the crucial lesson and the thesis of this article:
We must raise girls with the clear and unquestionable message that their goal in growing up is to become independent — financially, practically, emotionally, and in all other ways. Partnership or marriage are nice, but those things are icing on the cake, and they are frequently temporary; they’re decoration, not foundation.
My new apartment will be available in 6 weeks, and right now that seems like a long time, but it’s not. I know it’s not, because I know women who live for years, for decades, for lifetimes within the confines of a trap. I know that for some women manicured lawns and country club tennis courts are the landscape features of a prison; I know that for other women even a roach-infested apartment — if it were their own roach-infested apartment — would feel like paradise.

Don’t let your daughters grow up to be in either of these positions. I’m not going to, and I am pleading with everyone reading this to hear me, please please hear me: You don’t know where your girls will end up — my parents have no idea of how I’m living right now because I know that to tell them would break them — I will tell them after I get out, once I’ve made everything okay.

Give your daughters the power to make everything okay, for themselves.