Barely Escaping Within the Patriarchy by Beth Mattson

Painting by Arna Baartz

WHAT IS THE IMPALPABLE SOMETHING that looms over the otherwise blissful life of myself, a single mother, and my children? What is it that maintains my ex-husband's abusive voice in our daily lives? What is it that dictated an official child support formula that keeps me in food stamps while my ex-husband makes six figures a year? What is the factor that keeps my male employer, my kids' grandfather, or my young, often male students from fully appreciating how difficult it is to be an adjunct professor and a single mother? I often think it is patriarchy – this system of slightly favoring the unproven word or value of a man over a woman.

When my beautiful, genius, also-a-mama lawyer wrote a statement to our divorce case judge – mentioning that my now ex-husband had been fired thrice already, that he had no family in our then-current state of residence, that I had a stable job and family lined up in my home state – that judge granted me permission to leave the state of residence for my home state. But she didn't want to see the pictures of the mystery bruises and filth with which my children returned from their father's even brief care. I didn't get to testify that their father had once gotten drunk and locked me out, away from the baby, on purpose. We didn't get the time to mention that he cheated, was extremely unstable, and terrorized me through a campaign of forbidding change to the thermostat, opening windows, using certain kinds of silverware, and forbidding visits to family and friends. We didn't get a chance to mention that he tried to decline paying for childcare so that I couldn't get a job outside of the home, nor that he stopped putting money into the family checking account, even while he forced us to still live together.

But it is considered great, vast, massive, good fortune that a judge lets a mother with children leave the state in which the father resides, so we didn't push our luck. We couldn't when we tried. The judge told my lawyer to “go away with that” – referring to the picture of my four-year-old with a large bruise on his face, which his father couldn't explain because he has trouble waking up, even when a child is screaming in pain and fear in the dark several feet from his sleeping head having fallen out of an adult-sized, unfortified bed… into the corner of a pulled-out dresser drawer (supposedly; according to the grandmother who woke, stretched, and made it downstairs to eventually help my child, alone in the dark, crying until she arrived and his father never woke). Because it is considered such truly incredible luck to be permitted to move children away from their (dysfunctional, diagnosed, documented) father my lawyer, my kids, and I had to swallow what would be the other conditions of the move. A mother cannot just look into the eyes of a female judge and say, “Look, this guy is no good. He's gone really downhill. He has terrorized me, neglected the kids, and will not be a good influence.” Women's words in court get us only so far.

In addition to allowing my abusive ex two weekends each month with the children, he gets thrice weekly video calls, in which he awkwardly tries to converse with them on the limited number of topics that he knows to interest them, asks them questions they can't answer, gives them confusing descriptions of where he is, winds them up, and encourages socially inappropriate behavior like not having to share and screaming as much as they like. I hear my abuser's unstable voice floating through my house three times a week, coaching my children to continue believing in his good cop, wild-and-fun-one status. I tried to tell our legal system that he's a horrible person who had fooled me for too long already, but he gets to loom over the children promoting himself for years to come.

In addition to his daily, weekly, and monthly rights, he gets to have the children for two weeks at a stretch, twice every summer. Twice a summer, the creep that I didn't recognize for too long gets to have my babies for fourteen days at a time: without their mommy, their primary caregiver, to comb their hair, make sure they get enough sleep, vegetables that are not baby food purees, sunscreen, baths, learning to share, learning to think of others, or to let them know that not everything has to be a wild tickling match with a weird, wild, unstable energy. We do not live in a system wherein a mother can look at a judge, even a female one, and say, “Look, this is no good. He is not good – not to me, not to his family, not to the only two friends who stick by his unsafe behaviors, not to his co-workers, and not to these children. Let us go. Let me decide how safe my children will be. I will let them know of him, but let me meter it out.”

We live in patriarchy, a system that prioritizes a father figure at the expense of a mother figure. I know that my children will benefit from knowing that even a mentally ill or utterly mean father loves them. I understand that all children benefit from knowing much of their history, genetic and otherwise, sooner or later, at some stage of life when knowing things satisfies curious hunger inside of them instead of confusing them and teaching them a lack of boundaries. I accept that they may often prefer their “good cop” who garners their attention as fodder for his ego. But my trauma and their poor education of the heart continue due to the patriarchal system that isn't going to let a mother and children just walk into the sunset while waving, discussing amongst themselves, and occasionally running back for hugs and brief chats. I don't get to testify as to how often and for how long my sweet, innocent, beloved babies should be up close and personal to an evil clown.

My abusive ex gets to continually drip and ooze his patriarchal dysfunction all over my matriarchy, but it's not him alone. My otherwise very thoughtful and competent bosses often don't understand why I am not free to attend extra meetings or trainings at short notice. Why isn't my schedule more flexible? Aren't my children in childcare? Well, no, not officially. You see, I am an adjunct professor. There's a hiring freeze at our public institution, which is constantly being busted on the chops by our state's very masculine governor, who loves going after teachers specifically. So, with only three classes per semester, I make a decent wage for the few hours that I work, but I can't be given more hours and more money, because full time employees cost the public institution benefits (even before Obamacare). So my mother has given up on her income to retire, and on her planned retirement activities, and her beautiful home to provide my children with expert childcare many days per week. This small version of matriarchy continuously saves me from the ever increasing patriarchy of the larger work system that can't fathom why I would like to be paid for more classroom prep, why I can't pop in to a spur-of-the moment meeting, or why I can't grade papers the day after they are turned in.

My superiors, the institution itself, and my students, stuck staunchly in the patriarchal code of our country, cannot even picture what it is to be a single mother: dependent on my personal matriarch for survival, constantly attending to the tiny bodies that depend on me and my mother for everything – missing out on their milestones even as I try to work to support them, and not being supplemented by decent child support because my ex's state formula multiples my hourly income by forty hours a week, pretending that I am full time. I cannot put my children in childcare to attend spontaneous meetings, because an official state child support formula dictates that if a mother has a job, her wage, for support purposes, even paired against a six-figure ex-husband, should be multiplied to paint wildly more income than she actually makes.

It is a good thing that I win in life by having my beautiful children, because it is impossible to win in many other ways. Even with my amazing mother helping me out, I cannot fully escape my abuser, or knowledgeably limit his access to my children. I cannot rise to the professional level expected of me, to move away from needing child support, because I can't afford to put my children in childcare while I work. I cannot end the trauma and after-quakes of trauma due simply to the codified patriarchal values absorbed by our entire legal and political system. My children are the treasures of my life; I wish that I could better protect them. A matriarchy would and does already serve them better than patriarchy ever has.

-Beth Mattson, a selection from the upcoming Girl God Anthology, Single Mothers Speak on Patriarchy.

Beth Mattson mothers, teaches, writes, bakes, fawns over a vegetable garden, and fights the patriarchy tooth and nail in the Driftless Region of Wisconsin.