Source: My Practice
The concept of the ‘good-enough’ mother, introduced by Winnicott (1965), is still in common use today in family law, and in health and social services. However, it is often misused to blame women for falling below expected standards of parenting rather using it in its intended context. It is often not understood that the concept of the good-enough mother was embedded in another concept: that of ‘the nursing triad’. Winnicott acknowledged that support for mothers is necessary to mothering. The author did not have an expectation that mothers could be ‘good-enough’ without the support of either the child’s father, or another supportive adult. On the contrary, Winnicott acknowledged that mothering would be very difficult without support: this was a concept that he applied to all mothers.
Mothering without support becomes even more problematic when mothers have to manage alone in a context of domestic violence and abuse. Women who are mothering through DVA need help and support more than most. Furthermore, when the mother-child relationship is actively being interfered with and sabotaged by an abusive man using coercive control tactics mothers need specialised support from experts who understand this type of abuse. To expect women to overcome difficulties on their own is unrealistic, and to accuse women of not being ‘good-enough’ mothers because they are in a DVA relationship is to ignore the difficulties in escaping abusers and how they need help to do this. To blame women for abuse perpetrated towards them (and their children) is simply to shift the blame from the perpetrator to the victim and needs challenging. Furthermore, mother-blaming of this type supports perpetrator strategies to undermine mothering roles, abuse woman as mothers, and target mother-child relationships. Professionals can be unwittingly co-opted into such perpetrator strategies when they allow themselves to be manipulated by abusive men who are exploiting mother-blaming systems to their own advantage, e.g. by accusing mothers of being ‘unfit mothers’, ‘bad mothers’ – not ‘good-enough’ mothers.
This deficit model of the mother who is not ‘good-enough’ fails to acknowledge the many ways that women care for and protect their children in DVA situations. A strengths-based model of mothering recognises women as experts in their children’s lives. A mother-centred approach enables professionals to listen to women and believe them so that they know what they need to support and protect their children from their partner’s abuse. Mothers experiencing DVA need to be supported and protected, not blamed, threatened or punished. Winnicott’s ‘good-enough’ mother needed support. Women trying to escape DVA need more support and this is often in the form of protection. As many researchers have said, mother protection is often the best form of child protection….
“The best way to prevent child abuse is through ‘female empowerment’” Stark and Flitcraft (1998: 97)
“The best form of child protection is frequently mother protection” Kelly (1997)
Supporting the non-abusing parent is likely to improve the safety and well-being of children and should always be fully explored (Women’s Aid 2015)
“The most effective way of creating safety for the child is usually to increase the safety of their mother” (Laing and Humphreys 2013)
I have had a number of emails in the last week from women whose ex-partners are turning their children against them. These emails are in response to a presentation that I gave at the WMSDAC conference in Birmingham last week on coercive control through the use of children and the ways that abusive men target the mother-child relationship.
What I recommend to anyone in this situation is to understand how strategies involving children, directly or indirectly, particularly those that target women as mothers, and interfere or seek to destroy the mother-child relationship are part of a pattern of coercive control. We now have a law in the UK to address coercive control and I urge anyone experiencing this range of tactics to pursue their abuser using this law.
Understand what coercive control is. There is much information on the internet, e.g. Rights Of Women have a good info page:
It is vital that you visit your local DVA services asap to explain that you are experiencing post-separation abuse and that your ex-partner is continuing to control, abuse, threaten, intimidate, frighten and punish you through your children. Women’s Aid have a wealth of information about where to find help and support.
If your abuser is one who threatened you with loss of contact with your children (as is very common), explain that your children don’t want to see you because he has carried out this threat, and this is the consequence of the coercive control that you experienced during your relationship. It is important that you engage with your local DVA services to build a paper trail of how you have reported the abuse over a period of time. You will be asked to keep a detailed diary of all the ways in which your partner is coercively controlling you. I advise that you record in as much detail as possible how this started before your children were turned against you or stopped seeing you, describing the grooming and alienating strategies that led to your separation from each other. This paper trail is important in order for you to apply for legal aid. You might be able to get legal aid if you have evidence that you or your children have been victims of domestic abuse or violence and you can’t afford to pay legal costs.
Many abusive men have engineered a situation through the family courts where women have lost contact with their children when the abuser has used the concept of parental alienation syndrome to claim that reports of DVA and CSA are fabricated and are really attempts by ‘malicious mothers’ to prevent contact between loving fathers and their children. This is often a very successful strategy of abusive men who use the family courts to continue abuse and control because this narrative has become embedded in the national psyche through decades of promulgation by fathers’ rights activists. It is virtually an article of faith now in the family courts that reports of DVA and CSA are likely to be false allegations. So much so that women who make such reports at the time of divorce and separation are often advised by their solicitors to keep quiet about these because they are likely to be disbelieved and their abusers even more likely to be awarded greater contact.
In contrast, family courts rarely recognise the abuse that women and children experience when abusive men use alienating strategies themselves; when they target the mother-child relationship. This is because these tactics form part of a continuum of violence against women that are denied, minimised or ignored by courts – largely because of the parental alienation syndrome concept. This concept, therefore, has become a powerful tool for abusive men to simultaneously deny their abuse and commit further abuse through using alienating strategies, refuting alienating strategies and accusing women of alienating strategies. All of which are more likely to be believed by professionals in family courts then women’s own accounts of abuse perpetrated towards them and their children.
It is important to understand how abusive men co-opt professionals into abusive strategies using children by overwhelming services with their versions of events, claiming that they are the real victims. They use the same tactics with professionals as they do with their victims – either to charm or elicit sympathy, or to threaten and intimidate. They manipulate workers and exploit systems, by capitalising on victim/mother-blaming discourses that are embedded in patriarchal institutions. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ mothers, mothers who ‘fail to protect’, the ‘unfit’ mother are all examples of such myths that perpetrators use to their advantage. Many women who are victims and survivors of abuse find that when they seek help through the normal channels the gaze of services focuses on them as mothers, scrutinises their behaviour and blames them. Simultaneously, men’s abuse becomes invisible when the abuse is denied and reframed as lies by ‘implacably hostile’ mothers. These same men are then viewed as ‘good fathers’ and ‘caring dads’ when they ‘symbolise family values’ within the paradigm of ‘shared parenting’.
Seek out professionals who understand coercive control and ask them to help you challenge it. Find support from other women in similar situations so that you don’t feel so alone in what you are going through. MATCH mothers is such an organisation. Many of their members are unfortunately very attached to the concept of parental alienation syndrome and spend time promoting it through awareness-raising and activism and this is unhelpful. That aside, most members understand the pain and suffering of being separated from their children by their abuser and can help with that feeling of universality – that you are not the only woman in the world to experience the anguish, isolation, humiliation, blame and self-blame of being a mother apart from her children.
Good luck and stay strong.
My model showing the mechanisms of maternal alienation
A designer friend of mine funked up my model of the mechanisms of maternal alienation that I developed during my psychology master’s in 2013. I planned on using it in a presentation for the West Midlands Specialist Domestic Abuse conference on coercive control March 14th 2017. However, I have it on good advice that this is not an ideal Powerpoint slide for a conference presentation as the audience might not be able to see it properly. So, I thought I’d file it here for all those interested in my work to see. I’ll use it in the training that I have developed for professionals to learn about the coercive control of women using their children that leads to mother-child separation.
As always, the findings of my study do not in any way apply generally to men but, specifically, to abusive men who use children to control and abuse their partners or ex-partners by targeting the mother-child relationship.
Tracey McMahon from the She Project – a Mother Apart
I have to get this off my chest. In fact, this is a decade of frustration over my family law case. While I am out of Family Law as are my children, I have had shall we say, a few years to reflect on the mistakes I made back in 2003 in expecting a court would resolve the difficulties within my home environment.
A decade on – Action for Children are working on an alternative offence for the neglect of children. Details of which can be found in the link.
I am passionate about justice and child welfare. Having failed as a mother to protect my children from the damage two warring parents subject any child to, I have found peace within myself to be able to look at situations with a degree of balance.
I opened proceedings in Family Court back in 2004 in order to secure the residency…
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I’ve been working on a theme that is to do with unhelpful/punitive/harmful responses to mothers who have become, or are at risk of becoming, separated from their children in a context of domestic violence and abuse (DVA) (mothers apart for short). I am arguing that these responses stem from mother-blaming and involve attitudes, beliefs, values and perceptions that are influenced by culture, society, theories and the media. I also argue that blaming mothers apart can lead to secondary abuse/coercion, re-victimisation and re-traumatisation, and relates to the dearth of support for this at-risk population of mothers apart who are largely a marginalised and stigmatised vulnerable group of women with complex needs that are currently not being met by services/interventions.
These are arguments that I have made before (although not so developed) in the Mothers Apart Project (MAP) Workshop that I created (with collaboration from MATCH Mothers), and piloted last year in Coventry, and at a recent practice development seminar that I gave at King’s College London to a group of practitioners as part of the Making Research Count partnership between KCL and University of Bedfordshire. These were both invaluable experiences for my research project as both were attended by a range of practitioners, especially social workers, from whom I learned much. Their responses and feedback to my work has helped me to appreciate the nature of mother-blaming that leads to unhelpful/punitive/harmful responses to mothers apart, in much greater detail than I previously understood it.
I have observed that mother-blaming (related to mothers apart) involves a way of thinking about women victims/survivors of DVA, who are abused mothers, as follows:
During my research project, I have observed and learned of these attitudes, values, beliefs and perceptions held by a wide range of professionals at the intersection of DVA services, health and social care, and the family courts (private and public). I argue for the need for DVA training that includes an understanding of how violence and abuse is a risk factor for mother-child separation. I have identified mother-child separation due to coercive control based DVA using children as a serious problem right now that is largely not recognised by professionals/services/organisations, and that specialised training is required in order to use the new coercive control legislation to combat this problem. I also argue for the need for specialised support for mothers apart who have experienced mother-child separation due to coercive control based DVA using children. Currently, I only know of the charity, MATCH Mothers, which provides emotional support to mothers apart, and WomenCentre in Calderdale and Kirklees, which is an exemplary service offering support that is specific to mothers apart.
January 2016 and I’m immersed in my interview data once again. I only conducted a preliminary analysis before the workshop and now I’m exploring them in-depth. Some of the professionals I spoke to are so amazing – such wonderful, caring, empathic, compassionate, extraordinary people. If only all vulnerable people were lucky enough to encounter such individuals.
Today, I read the excerpt that follows and it brought tears to my eyes. I immediately wanted to share it and I contacted the professional who gave me permission to post it here. I wanted to share it for all the mums out there, including mums apart, who have been made to feel bad as a mother because they have not been able to leave an abusive relationship – for whatever reason.
Interviewer: and you said there about that mum – that she was a good mum – and a lot of people would say, “well, she’s not a good mum if she’s in a domestic violence relationship” – what would you say about that?
Participant: I would say that’s not true. I think, you know, if the mum has an attachment to her child, if the mum puts her child first and meets all its needs, in terms of health and everything. But the mum is herself a victim, I feel, and often, like I said, they’ve not…… It’s a difficult one but I do believe that mum can absolutely put her child first, whilst still being very, very scared and fearful, and sometimes equate that leaving would be worse for the child. I know this one mum in particular who keeps saying, “the only alternative is to go home with my alcoholic abusive parents and my child will not be happy there, the other alternative is that we’re homeless, and the other alternative is that my child will never see her father And it’s important that they have their father….” So you know, they are still thinking of the child all the time and they’re living on the hope that their partner will change, and that things will be better and that they can be a family. And that’s all that they ultimately want. Yes, it might be naïve and it might be misinformed sometimes but I don’t believe it’s deliberate. And like I say, when you’re dealing with a chronic history of abuse, they don’t know any better and their self worth is very low. And I think with a lot of mums that I’ve met, if ever the abuse has gone towards their children, that’s when they’ve had the courage to straightaway leave because it’s not about them. They don’t care so much about themselves and they’re thinking, “Well, I don’t mind that he’s abusive to me and I probably deserve it” because their self-esteem and self-worth is so low. But they wouldn’t want anything ever to happen to their children and if the partner ever directs any thing towards the children – they’re out, but they are not always seeing the fact that they are being emotionally abused or that, you know, with the child present it’s the same, but I think that education could help with that. But yes, I would totally disagree – I still think mums can care for their children but not always realise the implications of being in an abusive relationship – or see that it is worse for the child than the alternative, which for them is extremely fearful. And they do fear sometimes for their lives if they leave -and then they would be thinking, well, their child will be without a mum – so yeah, that would be my argument on that one.