I’m a practicing mediator (including as a volunteer with an East London mediation service, Common Ground – yes, I am making a flagrant pitch for the organisation!). Today I did some coaching. The objective of the coaching was to help a woman who had requested mediation, but the other party – who had initially said yes – pulled out before the scheduled meeting. The idea with coaching was to work through different options for moving forward. This case was unusual for me – the primary dispute and request for mediation was in relation to a husband and wife. I suspect I will be thinking about this coaching session a lot over the next days – I was deeply touched by it. And I ended it thinking – and saying to the interpreter – “Wow. I bet there are so many women like this one. It’s heartbreaking.” And so it is, that I want to tell her story – making changes, so that her anonymity is guaranteed. I have no concrete purpose in telling it, except to bring visibility to women like her. I say ‘women like her’ with a bit of reluctance – because I believe that ‘women like her’ aren’t all that different from ‘women like me’ – that the story I heard today unfolds in different forms everywhere – cutting across class, race, religion, ethnicity, educational background etc.
I also believe that the fact this woman is experiencing what she is experiencing is a damming statement about our society. Yes, our – not ‘society’, not ‘the society’ or ‘her community’ – our society. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – we all have responsibility for the culture we live in and the destruction around us. Our contributions to and involvement in our society take many different forms including, silence and passive complicity, active encouragement, active challenge, and unconscious encouragement (by unwittingly behaving in ways that undermine ethical values). But that’s enough of my soapboxing – here’s Sasha’s story (with a few bits and pieces about our exchange).
Sasha is thirty four year’s old. She’s been this country for sixteen years. When she came she spoke no English. She had come with her new husband who spoke English to a decent level. She was scared, but excited to go live in another country. Eventually her family would be coming, too. She soon realized that the man she married was not the kind, gentle individual she had seen when they met and got to know each other. When they arrived in this country, she started to see his need for control, his temper, his impatience and what she would call his ‘cleverness.’
Fast forward, she is thirty four years old and her husband has left her. She has three children who are nine, thirteen and fifteen . She is taking classes and her English is slowly improving. She understands more than she speaks. Her children are bilingual though their English is better than their mother-tongue. This means, she has discovered, that they do not do a very good job at translating for her – for example, when she has to talk with their teachers.
Sasha has no friends. Her family has been in this country for almost all of the sixteen years that she has been here. When she told them of her situation, they offered up advice on different people she should talk to – mainly, public agencies – but no one from her family would go with her to make inquiries, support her with language or emotionally.
Sasha feels totally alone.
She also feels angry, frustrated, sad, and powerless. And tired. She’s very tired of going from place to place to sort out different issues. And often, she has to struggle with language and/or poor service. When she goes to the Job Centre to sign on, she cries the whole way there because she is afraid they will yell at her. Her experience has been that they like to yell and talk aggressively. She has bad knees and a bad shoulder (the shoulder problem, I once heard is a common female ailment – our rotator’s cuffs get worn away and I imagine by the time she is forty, she’ll need surgery). Physically she is tired. Emotionally she is tired.
And, I feel it is appropriate to add, that I imagine she is soulfully tired.
Her children aren’t much help. The teenagers, likely many young people their age, like to talk back and feign aloofness. When she asks them to help with household chores they resist. They say they are tired or too busy. Same goes for when she asks them to help her on the computer. She’s aware that learning English and using the computer could open up her world – but it is a very slow journey when she is getting no support at home. She fears her children cannot be changed.
On that point, we had a lovely exchange where she remembered a time when they were very small and used to pull up chairs and stand on them and help her with the dishes. One day her husband said that she shouldn’t let them do that – it would be bad for their hands. He said he would help her. And sometimes he did. But more often than not he didn’t. One of his ‘clever’ approaches was to send the children upstairs and stay with them, only to go down and offer to help when she was pretty much finished with all the washing up.
As we talked about this I encouraged her to see that her children once –upon-a-time wanted to be very helpful. I suggested that that desire is still within them, only right now it’s hidden. It can, however, be uncovered again. They can change.
We also talked about how the children must be struggling. They are probably feeling all that she is feeling and must be very confused. She would like to talk with them about what is happening in their family – but when she asks them to talk (as is often the case with children and teenagers) they say ‘I’m fine.’ She gave examples of how the children have expressed their frustration with their father and how they do not like having to ask him for things on her behalf. The children, at times, just seem fed up with both parents. She thinks that they go back and forth between blaming each parent – if they are having an argument with her, for example, they will blame her for the family breakdown. If they are having an argument with their father, they will blame him. We agreed that they must be very confused.
And we talked about her. ‘What are you good at?” I asked. “I’m not good at anything” was the reply. “Everybody’s good at something.” was my response. Eventually, she told me that at holiday times, when people from her ethnic community would get together, she would often have ideas on what food to make and how to arrange the table. The other women usually loved her ideas and wanted to use them. There we had it, something she’s good at. I suggested to her that she is also good at being organized – after all she runs a house with three children on her own. She keeps it clean, she looks after her children (cooking, cleaning etc), she’s studying English three days a week.
And how about making friends – I asked if she was interested in doing that. Well, it turns out that she is worried about what people will think when they find out her husband has left her. She feels ashamed.
Shame. Wow. Tough stuff. We talked about how she isn’t unique in having a bad marriage. About how having a bad marriage doesn’t make her a bad person. Eventually we talked about the importance of her connecting with her own strength, with her power – even though right now it feels like she doesn’t have either.
We talked about going on strike. Could she, I wondered, send a message to her children by going on strike – not cooking or cleaning. She figures that wouldn’t work – they would just happily be messy and go live on junk food. Maybe. It was only an idea – an idea for someone who felt like she had no options – like she had done all she could.
Throughout this conversation, Sasha cried periodically. Nothing dramatic. I would first see the water fill up her eyes. And then a few tears would trickle. Early on she had left the room to get a stack of tissues. When it was all over, I asked Sasha what she felt she had got – if anything – out of our conversation. She said she felt more confident that ‘social workers’ – though she knows I am not a social worker ‘ could come over and hear her story and listen without judging her. She felt more confident that they wouldn’t simply take her children away from her. That was a light bulb moment – she’s scared that in seeking assistance, her children might be taken away.
We came up with a few steps she could take immediately. One included going to her GP and explaining that her language skills are not good enough to respond to the letter she received about a psychological consultation (for her depression). The letter was asking her to call for an initial consultation on the phone and had a form to fill out with a number of questions about her mental health. It has a two-week response deadline on it. Thankfully, this had come up in our conversation and we could point out to her that she needs to take action by the last day of October.
She clearly needs an advocate – someone to bat for her with all the public agencies. Often, when she goes to talk with people they are not very nice and/or they are rushed. Her language constraints become even more constraining in this kind of environment. She needs emotional support. We agreed that there are organisations that might be able to help her with all these things.
It wasn’t said out loud, but it was clear. Sasha also needs love, tenderness, caring, and affirmations of her worth as a human being.
When I asked her what she was looking forward to over the next couple of weeks, she started to cry. Nothing. She isn’t looking forward to anything. She cannot imagine anything that was going to happen in the next two weeks that would make her smile.
She asked us if we wanted a drink. Previously we had said ‘no, thank you.’ But I asked the interpreter if she had time to stay. When she yes, I said we would very much like to stay for a drink. And so Sasha brought out a tray of biscuits, candy bars, two glasses of soda. She was smiling when she did that.
So much more I can/want to say. But it seems best to end there…thinking about our society how alone, tired, frustrated and scared so many people feel within it.