This post follows on from yesterday’s (23rd July 2018) and is the second part of the Introduction to my book, planned for mothers apart. All feedback welcome 🙂
Who I am Now and Why I Wrote this Particular Book
Since leaving that women’s refuge, I have earned a doctorate in psychology and am now a doctor of philosophy in improving professionals’ responses to mothers who have become, or are at risk of becoming, separated from their children, in contexts of violence and abuse. I planned and developed an innovative domestic abuse education programme that encourages practitioners to examine their own part in outcomes by encouraging reflective practice and fostering reflexivity. The latter is the ability to understand where experts’ knowledge and beliefs come from and to consider how their own attitudes and values shape their practice. Such reflection and critical analysis of practice in this field not only has the potential to actively avoid blaming women and mothers but can lead to holding abusive men accountable for their actions and promote understanding of how perpetrators exploit professionals who can unwittingly support their strategies to target the mother-child relationship. I facilitate such women-centred education in coercive control, in a programme that is based on person-centred principles for practitioners working at the intersection where mothers separated from their children might be found seeking help or be forced to engage in an intervention relating to safeguarding and/or contact.
I am also a counsellor and psychotherapist specialising in abuse and trauma that manifests in problems for individuals, couples, and families. And, I provide consultative supervision to a wide range of practitioners in health and social care. Additionally, I teach humanistic counselling practice at the University of Nottingham in the School of Education. In this department, I have the privilege of working alongside Professor Stephen Joseph, who researches and writes about post-traumatic growth and positive psychology. These concepts have encouraged me greatly on my journey because they offer me a way of creating meaning from suffering, help me to value my own growth, and inspire me to commit to sharing my experience, knowledge, and research, in order to help, support and inspire others.
My doctoral study was devoted to investigating how professionals’ responses to mothers separated from their children could be improved, following an early scoping exercise, which exposed a catalogue of survivors’ grievances about various experts/workers. During the course of my study, both mothers and practitioners, who talked about other workers’ practices, reported: inappropriate mother-blaming behaviours, shocking insensitivity, utter dismissal of mothers’ concerns, and outright abusive practice by a range of experts in the field – including judges, psychiatrists, social workers, and counsellors. There was also a range of helpful, supportive, therapeutic and kind responses by individuals in these same fields, described by the women and experts that I spoke to. Either way, professionals’ responses directly impacted on the outcome as to whether mothers and children were helped to remain together, or if perpetrators were enabled in their machinations to destroy mother-child relationships. If like me, you find the random nature of individual practitioners’ responses an unbelievable situation, then you have only my sympathies. For it really is the case that the fate of mothers and children being able to remain together is, largely, in the hands of the workers she encounters. It is a complete lottery as to whether she finds herself under the scrutiny of someone who is judgmental, blaming, misogynistic and punitive or in the hands of someone who is believing, supportive, empathic and resourceful.
My initial plans for my doctoral studies involved the development of a group therapy programme for mothers dealing with the psychological impact of mother-child separation. However, after that initial scoping exercise, I switched my focus to the professionals because that’s what the mothers said they wanted. In the main, the women involved in The Mothers Apart Project were recruited from the charity, MATCH Mothers (mothers apart from their children) www.matchmothers.org In this online, self-help community dwells an amazing group of women who help and support each other through the worst of times. Almost every mother I ever met through MATCH thought she was the only mother apart before finding the charity, which indicates the tendency for mothers living apart from their children to stay quiet about their situation. Many women speak of the shame and embarrassment of being a mother apart and some keep it secret for evermore – never telling anyone – not friends, colleagues or new partners. The women talk of barely existing and describe their experiences as a living bereavement. Meetings are highly emotive as women try to manage their grief, loss and anger – at the system, at professionals who let them down, and at the abusive men who turn their children against them. In lighter moments, women joke that ‘it seems like we were all married to the same man’. The shame that burdens mothers separated from their children via coercive control isn’t theirs to carry – it belongs to their abusers. Yet the fathers/perpetrators of this terrible form of abuse against women and children often position themselves as the true victims, and as heroes and benefactors. Friends, family and professionals willingly accept their version of events over the mothers’ accounts in a post-truth world where money, power and status lend credence to a new narrative that suits the system.
This book explains an aspect of coercive control whereby abusive men harm women as mothers by using and abusing their children against them, by targeting the mother-child relationship, and by exploiting mother-blaming ideology, culture and practices. The vulnerabilities of women as mothers make this aspect of coercive control a common feature of the abusive relationship itself. The usual threat to women living in these circumstances is that, if they try and leave, or if they tell anyone about the abuse, then their children will be hurt or they’ll never see them again. Such threats keep countless women bound to their abusers in fear – sometimes for life. If a woman dares report the abuse or tries to leave, the threats may be executed. If she actually manages to escape, then the abuse will likely escalate at the point of separation and divorce to a full-scale assault on her relationship with her children – usually through the family courts. This behaviour is calculated to continue the abuse, control, intimidation and humiliation. It is enacted out of revenge, a desire to punish her for leaving and a continued need to control.
This is the experience of countless women past and present, and I have spoken to very many of them over the years of conducting my research. In this book, I draw on my investigation to explain in detail how the perpetrator manages to succeed in a form of abuse that seems impossible to many. This is especially true of professionals in health and social services, in the family court arenas, and even in domestic abuse agencies and in the ‘psych’ professions, i.e., psychiatrists, psychologists and psychotherapists. I interviewed thirty-one professionals in all – both men and women – from a variety of backgrounds. Interestingly, I noted the frequency with which female practitioners told me, with some conviction, how they would never let such a thing happen to them: that they would kill the man that tried to come between them and their children. But the reality is, that if an abusive man sets his mind on achieving a mother-child separation via coercive control then he will have done most of the grooming and groundwork before the woman even realises. Then, when he begins to inundate services with false accusations, there is little a woman can do but comply with the system in defending herself. Killing the man wouldn’t help in the least, and her maternal fury would only be perceived as a mental/personality disorder. If she went on the run with her children – as some mothers do, then there would likely be a national search for the missing children, and she would be vilified or supported in the press depending on people’s ignorance or knowledge. The inevitable outcome on her return would almost certainly be for her children to be ordered by the courts to live with her abuser, and minimal contact for her – likely leading to nil contact. Even the strongest mother who is prepared to kill for her children can be totally disempowered by a system that forces her to hand over her children to her/their abuser.
Currently, the family court system in the UK is set-up in such a way that coercive controllers can exploit it to their advantage. This book is for all those women who, when threatened with mother-child separation by their abuser or abusive ex-partner, find that the system works against them. And, for those mothers whose worst nightmare has come true, and their children have been wrested from them, this book not only provides some understanding of this process, which can be important in making sense of the senseless. For both mothers who are threatened with and have experienced mother-child separation, this book helps survivors in shaping a future that creates meaning from suffering, fosters hope, and encourages self-care and self-love.