Somewhere in New Zealand right now there’s a woman who doesn’t dare leave her husband, because she can’t fathom how she’ll make ends meet without his income. On her own, she wouldn’t be able to make the mortgage payment, the grocery bill, the school bills, the electric, gas, firewood, petrol, and maybe a feed of fish and chips of a Friday. She can’t see her way to do this. Hot on the heels of her fantasy about not having to live with her husband, she imagines what would happen: her kids would have to leave the only home they’ve ever known, they might not be able to stay at the same school, they would have to go without the sporting activities at which they excel. She would lose oversight as to what’s going on with her kids when they’re with their father. She would have nearly insurmountable anxiety whenever they were with him that he wouldn’t bring them back. All of this is too much. So instead of leaving, this woman lives in constant anxiety about the next time her husband hits her. She tries to make sure the kids don’t know, don’t see it. But she doesn’t know when it’s going to be, whether she’ll end up in hospital this time, whether she’ll need dental work, whether her kids will see it, whether this will be the time he hits them too. She is tired, exhausted.
Shouldn’t there be enough support that this woman can leave her husband? Shouldn’t there be enough support that this woman, and her children, can lead dignified lives? Shouldn’t she be able to make choices that keep her safe? Without worrying about how to cover her expenses? Shouldn’t she have as much right to happiness, and respect, and peace as everyone else? Shouldn’t she get to make the decision whether she buys new pyjamas or a bag of kindling?
Ah, but choices I hear you say – she’s made choices which landed her in this situation. She chose to marry this man, she chose to have those children.
So, let me tell you that this woman married this man, whom she loved with all her heart, and he’d never hit her. She’d never seen him angry, she’d never seen him even get into a fight at a pub. They met at university, and they fell in love, and they travelled together all over South East Asia and Europe. Then they came home and got well paid jobs in the city. They got married. They had their first child. She took some time off work. And then her husband’s firm got hit in the 2008 crash, and he lost his job. And suddenly, he changed. She saw his shoulders round and hunch, a little lower each day that he had no work to go to. She smelt the wine on his breath when she got home from work each day. She noticed that he stopped getting out of his pyjamas. Then, a friend of his gave him a job. A job which he thought was beneath him, which he thought he was overqualified for. And he was angry all the time. And it seemed as if she did everything wrong. And then she got pregnant again. And the burden of a second child seemed to tip him over the edge and the anger bubbled over into rage and the rage turned to fists.
Shouldn’t there be enough support that this woman can leave those fists?
Shouldn’t there be enough compassion in our society that this woman, even before you’ve identified with her, can expect to live with dignity?
But she can’t. Because beneficiaries are low-life scum who are unmotivated, drug-smoking, conniving, useless drains on society. So, let’s give them enough money to just not quite let them lead dignified lives. Let’s give them just enough that they can survive, not thrive.
And then, make the whole process so vile, so utterly degrading, that they don’t want to ask for more. Look at them like they made bad choices. Sit there in judgement, and then wonder why they can’t speak eloquently. Make it uncomfortable, anxiety inducing. Lock the door behind them as they stand in line and tell their personal story to a disinterested government official within earshot of everyone also waiting, knowing the chance that they’ll get more money is so utterly slim as to be hard to focus on.
And then, when she has enough gumption to put a boarder in the spare room to earn enough money to send the kids to cricket camp, make her a criminal so her voice can no longer be heard, so that everything she says is no longer valid, so that she is, once more, scum, and worthless.
In the recent history of the world, when people have protested women not being able to vote, when they’ve lobbied for homosexuality to not be a criminal act, when they’ve sat in at lunch counters, or ridden at the front of the bus, when they’ve spoken Māori at school, or refused to give up land, they’ve been criminals who later matured into revolutionaries once society caught up. Once society had the crystal clear vision of hindsight.
When this woman commits this crime of making her financial life more bearable, she is not a criminal, but a freedom fighter. She is mounting a protest. She is marching against oppression. She is showing us the way. She is making difficult, just, dignified choices. And I really hope the rest of us catch up, mature, and find our compassion.