Spirit, endurance and determination: being a mother in the face of violence
It takes profound strength for a mother to parent when a father is using violence against her. Our work with mothers must pay tribute to this strength and the actions she takes to protect her children despite the father’s intentions to hurt her.
How violence intentionally hurts mothers
A father’s coercive, controlling and violent behaviour casts a shadow over family life and all the relationships within it. It will hurt the family members individually and together.
Research into how domestic violence impacts on family relationships has found that some children say the relationship with their mothers improves as a consequence of the violence, while others blame their mother for the family splitting up or for putting up with the violence for so long. The mother-child relationship can particularly suffer if a child imitates the behaviours of violent father.
How the mother and child respond to the violence will also shape their relationship. Often they may both feel silence is the safest response. This silence may impact on their ability to understand each other’s needs and to understand what each other knows about the violence.
This lack of mutual knowledge and understanding may affect the bond between them. Violence can be a secret within the family itself, as well as from the outside world.
Look out for ‘mother blame’. A father’s attempts to undermine a mother’s parenting are deliberate. If we don’t remember this, we are more likely to engage in mother-blaming ideas.
‘Domestic violence creates an environment deeply unconducive to achieving even ‘good enough’ mothering. That so many women do resolve this impossible conundrum is testimony to their spirit, endurance and determination. That many are unable to surmount the obstacles constantly and consistently should surprise no one.’
We place high expectations on mothers
Lapierre’s 2010 study found that, central to the challenges of mothering in the face of violence, is the interplay between:
- expectations placed on mothers by society and the underlying belief that children are the primary responsibility of mothers
- the assumption that the mother is able to control the father’s violence
- the additional and unique responsibilities that mothers face when a father is using violence
- the specific context an abusive father creates to make the woman have less control over her mothering.
View Double Standards by David Mandel and the Safe and Together Institute to see how the Safe and Together Model keeps the focus on the domestic violence perpetrator through language and documentation.
The Safe and Together model requires us to hold high standards for men as fathers. Most legal systems’ understanding of parental responsibility is that both parents are equally responsible for children’s basic needs being met.
The practice of holding high standards for fathers is based on the simple premises that:
- fathers’ choices and behaviours matter to child and family functioning
- mothers’ and children’s situations are tied to these choices
- interventions with families can often benefit from the inclusion of fathers, whether they live in the home or not.
Always ask yourself:
- Am I helping or harming?
- Am I exacerbating the woman's sense of responsibility?
- How can I be of most use to her?
- Who has the most power to stop the violence, and who is being asked to be responsible for stopping the violence?
How mothers may feel
Be aware of what a mother may be going through while you are working with her. Think about how you can help her manage these stresses and how you could potentially contribute to her emotional pressures.
‘I feel like people expect so much more of me because of the violence’
Mothers who are responding to father’s violence are often expected to meet higher standards of parenting than other women.
As a professional, you may reinforce this injustice by placing responsibility on her to:
- be resourceful and put herself at risk to protect her child from the violent acts of the man
- manage any additional needs her child may have as a result of the violence
- develop strategies to provide care for her child in the face of his control
- parent her child away from the supports most other mothers have access to, such as family, friends, playgroup and child care
- care for her child in the face of her own trauma and responses to violence.
‘I feel like I have less control’
She may feel she is losing control over the parenting of her child. This stress is likely as a result of the tactics used by the father.
She may feel she’s unable to be the kind of parent or role model she wants to be. Or because of the relentless stress of abuse, she may feel she does not have the energy to fully dedicate herself to the care of her children.
These feelings of stress and hopelessness can be compounded by the increasing needs of some children as they respond to the trauma of domestic violence.
‘It is not an accident that abusive men attack women's abilities to mother, they know that this represents a source of positive identity, the thing above all else that abused women try to preserve, and also that it is an area of vulnerability.’
Watch this video to hear survivors of domestic violence talk about their experience.
Why didn’t you just leave? Domestic violence survivors explain why it’s not that simple
How fathers use a woman’s identity as a mother to abuse her
Fathers may even control the mother’s decision to become a parent. They may force mothers to have an abortion, not have an abortion, or become pregnant. This may not be about the father’s wish to have or not have a child but about having control over the relationship.
Threats, violence and humiliation
Threats, actual violence or abduction of the child are all ways to undermine a mother’s parenting and to send her a message that she is unable to protect her children.
Threatening to report mother to Child Safety is a frequent and effective strategy used by fathers, tapping into their fear that Child Safety may take their child away from her even when his behaviour is the source of the harm to the child.
Use of violence, humiliation, threats and control in front of the child is also common. Fathers use these actions as a way to send a message to the mother and the child, that she cannot protect herself or them.
Ridiculing her as a mother and blaming her
This often involves blaming the mother for the violence and the fact that the children are subjected to his violence. He may also criticise her as a mother and her love for her child.
Subtle and persistent manipulation strategies are also common. They may include undermining her discipline and parenting practices, her authority and direct care abilities.
Controlling the bond and relationship formed between her and the child
This may include how much time the mother spends with her child, how she talks to (and about) the child, and the way she responds to her child’s needs and cues.
Controlling money and other assets like the home or car
Many mothers may experience financial hardship and scramble to meet the basic needs for the care of the child as a result of his control.
You can read more about how mothering and fathering have been depicted in Bad Mothers and Invisible Fathers, a discussion paper from the Domestic Violence Resource Centre.
‘He acted like a loving father to the outside world, but at home he did very little for our daughters. I had to do everything, all the housework, all the care for our kids ... But at the same time, he tried to control how I dealt with the kids and how they related to me and each other. He’d sabotage my attempts to create routines and often told the kids to ignore rules I tried to set’
(Jenna’s story Domestic Violence Resource Centre).
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