Damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
We reprint this article from New York Times not to detract from the two-parent family, but to point out how battered women are blamed when they don’t “just leave” but are labeled as bad parents if they are single mothers.
AFTER spending two years studying services for domestic violence survivors, I was surprised to realize that one of the most common barriers to women’s safety was something I had never considered before: the high value our culture places on two-parent families.
I began my research in 2011, the year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that more than one-third of American women are assaulted by an intimate partner during their lives. I talked to women in communities that ranged from a small rural mining town to a large global city, in police stations, criminal courts, emergency shelters, job placement centers and custody proceedings. I found that almost all of the women with children I interviewed had maintained contact with their abusers. Why?
Many had internalized a public narrative that equated marriage with success. Women experiencing domestic abuse are told by our culture that being a good mother means marrying the father of her children and supporting a relationship between them. According to a 2010 Pew report, 69 percent of Americans say single mothers without male partners to help raise their children are bad for society, and 61 percent agree that a child needs a mother and a father to grow up happily.
The awareness of the stigma of single motherhood became apparent to me when I met a young woman who was seven months pregnant. She had recently left her abusive boyfriend and was living in a domestic violence shelter. When I asked if she thought the relationship was over, she responded, “As far as being together right now, I don’t want to be together. But I do hope that in the future — because my mind puts it out there like, O.K., I don’t want to be a statistic.” When she said this, I assumed she was referring to domestic violence statistics. But she continued: “I don’t want to be this young pregnant mom who they say never lasts with the baby’s father. I don’t want to be like that.”
Shame about not meeting certain standards of motherhood was prevalent in upper-middle-class families, too. Women with professional and social prominence often feared tarnishing the veneer of their perfect-looking lives. Others were afraid of being judged for putting their children at risk by choosing a dangerous partner. One explained that she kept her abuse a secret because “I was embarrassed by the things I was seeing; I couldn’t let people know that he wasn’t the husband and provider we pretended he was.” Regardless of who they were, most survivors were acutely aware of how their victimization would influence their public identities as mothers.
The truly alarming part, however, is the extent to which the institutions that are intended to assist domestic violence survivors — protection order courts, mental health services, public benefits programs and child custody systems — reinforce this stigma with both official policies and ingrained prejudices.
Mental health professionals, law enforcement officials, judges and members of the clergy often showed greater concern for the maintenance of a two-parent family than for the safety of the mother and her children. Women who left abusive men were frequently perceived at best as mothers who had not successfully kept their children out of harm’s way and at worst as liars who were alienating children from their fathers.
In court, I watched a judge order the very first woman I interviewed to drop off her son at his father’s house every week for visitation. When she tried to tell the judge that she had a protection order against her child’s father and that she was concerned for her safety, the judge responded: “You know what? You are just trying to keep this child from his father, aren’t you?”
I saw women lose custody rights because they had moved with their children to friends’ houses or even into domestic violence shelters to escape abuse, and judges considered these “unsuitable living arrangements.” The children were sent back to their abusive fathers, who could provide “more stability.”
Another survivor I spoke with was tangled in a custody battle with her former boyfriend, who was also being prosecuted in criminal court for injuring their children. One afternoon, we sat outside the town’s courthouse. She had just lost two additional days a week of custody to the children’s father. The primary evidence against her was a picture of her drinking a cocktail, illustrating her apparent unsuitability as a mother. She said: “I tried to get my kids out before things got really bad, and the court was like, ‘Where are the bruises? It’s not so bad. Why are you alienating the kids from Dad?’ Next time they said, ‘Why didn’t you get out? Why didn’t you protect the kids?’ They want you to get away from the abuse and then they make it so hard.”
The very system meant to punish perpetrators and protect survivors of violence bound the two more tightly together. This reality deeply affected women’s choices; many calculated that they would rather live in abusive homes with their children than risk leaving them alone.
Since returning from my fieldwork, I have been struck by the pervasive narrative across the ideological spectrum regarding the value of two-parent families. To be sure, children who enjoy the support of two adults fare better on average than those who do not, and parents with loving partners often benefit from greater emotional and economic security. However, I have seen the ways in which prioritizing two-parent families tethers victims of violence to their assailants, sacrifices safety in the name of parental rights and helps batterers maintain control. Sweeping rhetoric about the value of marriage and father involvement is not just incomplete. For victims of domestic violence, it’s dangerous.