First in a Series in a Partnership between JOURNEY Magazine and the Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre.
By Melodie McCullough
Motherhood: A time of joy, a time of feeling loved, a time in a woman’s life when everything is just about perfect.
Unless … it brings with it unwanted triggers of past sexual abuse and sexual assault.
Unless … it escalates domestic violence a woman is already experiencing, or begins it.
“Being a mother” is one of the ongoing risk factors for sexual violence against women listed in Lessons from Behind the Door, a 2015 community needs’ assessment report on sexual violence against women and girls in the city and county of Peterborough, produced by the Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre (KSAC).
“Pregnancy, miscarriage, childbirth, motherhood, and even the early childhood years, are times in a survivor’s life when the trauma of sexual violence can be relived through triggers and nightmares,” said Lisa Clarke, community engagement and project manager at KSAC, and principal author of the needs’ assessment report.
“This is a topic that is rarely talked about, and many women suffer in silence,” said Clarke.
“Mothers love their children, but something like breastfeeding can be a trigger, or having someone hold onto your body all the time,” she continued. “When we don’t talk about this, people might not understand some of postpartum experiences that can be linked to sexual trauma.”
Escalation of Violence
At the same time, pregnancy and motherhood is a real time for escalation of a partner’s violence, said Clarke, and as the mother’s attention is devoted to the new baby, she may not understand what is going on, or why.
“This is a topic that is rarely talked about, and many women suffer in silence.”
“Transition times (starting a relationship, having a baby, leaving a relationship) are always difficult times,” explained Jennifer Martin, START and Family Court Support manager at YWCA Peterborough Haliburton. “Anytime where the relationship is functionally destabilized, people revert to not their best selves. Anything that causes tension or stress increases the likelihood that someone is going to react angrily.”
While the START program at the YWCA (see below) doesn’t see a lot of pregnant women, it does see a lot of women with children under age two, said Martin.
“The thing I want women to know about abuse is that he’s not going to change by magic. He’s not going to see your little baby and suddenly be overcome by the milk of human kindness,” she said.
Clarke said motherhood for sexual abuse survivors can also be a time of shame and guilt. A mother who was sexually victimized as a child (survivors are most often victimized in childhood and adolescence by someone known to the survivor and her family) may see her daughter victimized, often by the same family member who victimized the mother. It can be a difficult time.
“Because families are silent, no matter how protective a mother is, that guilty family member may still be around,”said Clarke.
There can be more shame as their children grow older. Mothers can be labelled inappropriately by others for being ‘helicopter parents’, she continued, “but it’s because they understand, only too well, the risks in childhood of abuse.”
Mothers as Advocates
The needs’ assessment study found the community believes parents should take the lead in consent and sexual health education for their children. Often mothers who have experienced violence are actually very good advocates about consent and bodily autonomy, said Clarke.
“It’s as important to speak to your boys and young men about consent and healthy relationships as it is to speak to girls and young women. You need to clearly outline for your sons about not hurting women, not sexually assaulting, not objectifying,” she said.
“We can’t rely only on the education curriculum to do all the work to keep our children healthy and safe, and to teach them that their body is theirs to make their own choices about. Any touching, hurting or verbal language against that bodily autonomy is violence,” she continued.
Mothers Need Support
Barb Woolner, clinical counsellor at KSAC, said motherhood should be a time for survivors to check in to make sure they’re getting the support they need.
“Being a mother might trigger you in a different way from five to 10 years ago, when you received treatment. Mothers need to know they can reach out for support in any stage of their life, throughout the life span,” she said.
Clarke agrees, saying mothers who experience violence in their lives need compassion and the understanding that the healing process is life-long.
The reactions of friends, family members, work colleagues and community members play a significant role in either providing ongoing support or re-traumatizing the survivor through victim blaming or shaming, says the needs’ assessment report.
“Building women’s capacity through empathy, patience and strength is an approach that is integral to building her, and her children’s, resiliency,” Clarke said.
Kawartha Sexual Assault Centre, 411 Water St., Suite 102, Peterborough; Office Line: 705-748-59012; 24-Hr Crisis Support Line Toll Free: 1-866-298-7778
YWCA Peterborough Haliburton START Program: Support Team for Abuse Response Today; Call 705-743-3526 (or drop-in Mondays, 9:30 am – 3:00 pm); 216 Simcoe St., Peterborough providing coordinated access to free, confidential services for women experiencing violence and abuse.