In an op-ed in this weekend’s New York Times, Sara Shoener, a public health researcher and recent Columbia doctorate, writes about how mothers have a hard time, both personally and legally, walking away from abusive relationships. Behind these impediments lurks the high value our culture places on heterosexual, two-parent families.
Shoener cites a 2011 statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that more than a third of American women are assaulted by a partner at some point in their lives, and yet she found in interviews that almost all of these women who have kids have maintained contact with their abusers in part because they believed that being a good mother meant being married. She reports that some women don’t want to be perceived as a single mother who moves from man to man (a so-called “baby momma”). Shoener says that feelings of fear and shame about not being seen as a good mother go across class lines:
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 … regardless of who they were, most survivors were acutely aware of how their victimization would influence their public identities as mothers.
That is a typical “blame the victim” mentality, which in this case the victims themselves have adopted, as if the abuse of their partner was somehow warranted or would somehow affect or change their ability to parent. Anyone can find themselves in an abusive relationship, and motherhood has nothing to do with marital status: a woman can be a dedicated, caring, amazing mother regardless of whether she’s married, divorced, or never-been-wed. And yet as Shoener goes on to point out, our legal institutions are set up to value a two-parent household, even when one of those parents is an aggressive abuser. The thinking seems to be that the woman must be deserving of the abuse somehow, or that the kids would be better off within a traditional family structure even if that structure puts the health and safety of the woman at risk, as if living with an abusive man were a small price to pay for hetero-normative stability. It’s infuriating.
We are at a complicated place regarding gender and family structures. On the one hand, we’re witnessing men as more present figures than ever in the raising and caring for children, which is great. And yet at times, the men’s rights movement can be seen trying to erode positive steps in gender equality by flipping the focus of the discussion from the victims to the victimizers, claiming that men are, instead of privileged, under a cultural and legal attack by women. These are men who think feminism is a bad word, and that women are trying to oppress them under the guise of equality. (You can read more about that on Time.com.)
It is important that our society recognizes that fathers have a place in the family, and yet we can’t allow that to come at the expense of a woman’s rights or her safety. It is for this reason that, as Slate reports, last November the New Jersey court system denied a man access to his ex-girlfriend’s delivery room when she was giving birth to their child. The court recognized that up until the baby is born the mother’s mental well-being and physical health is ultimate and should be protected. In the New Jersey case, the mother didn’t want the father next to her as she gave birth, and that wish superseded his desire to be there.
Shoener writes that in many circumstances of domestic abuse, this same value is not in place. Courts basically tell abused mothers to toughen up and return to the home, and then, later, if things get worse, they’re eviscerated for not getting out of the relationship sooner. Either way, they lose, and the batterer is protected. It’s a sign of institutional patriarchy, a system which asks questions and points fingers at the female victim, not the male victimizer.
If you are a mother experiencing abuse at home from your partner, it is important to take steps to keep yourself and your kids safe. Your partner’s physical and/or verbal aggression is not your fault. It does not mean that you are a bad mother, wife, or woman. You need to take care of yourself so that you may take care of your children. Sometimes, that means making what might seem like a counter intuitive, or unpopular decision by leaving your marriage. The sad fact is, not all marriages are safe spaces. Hopefully, with reporting like Shoener’s, the legal system will catch on to this distressing fact.