Thursday, 22 March 2018

Prioritising Children’s Autonomy is Prioritising their Best Interests

Dr Aoife Daly argues that when judges make decisions about children’s best interests in courts, they often think that they are protecting children by taking decision-making from them, but this fails to acknowledge that children are experts on their own lives.

In my recently-published book Children, Autonomy and the Courts: Beyond the Right to be Heard, I look at cases where courts decide children’s best interests (for example about parental contact) to see how much influence children themselves have on decisions. I examine cases from liberal democracies all over the world and 11 countries in detail, including Scotland, England and Wales.

It seems that children in these cases find their wishes easily overridden. Common decisions from around the world include children being forced into contact visits with estranged parents (sometimes with the threat that the police or court staff will physically force them). In one case a 16 year old was not allowed to give video testimony in care proceedings; and in another a 15 year old was compelled to have inoculations against her will because her father wanted it. Compare these scenarios to adult ones: adults are never forced into relationships or non-essential medical procedures ‘in their interests’.

The instinct of adults, including judges making best interest decisions, is to protect children. This approach is well-intentioned and it recognises rightly that children’s capacities are developing and that they are lacking in experience relative to adults. They may need time, support and information to form an opinion. Sometimes they might not want to give an opinion at all and that should be respected too.

Yet in many cases, children have unmistakable wishes about a situation. An inquest opened recently into the murder of Ellie Butler. The six year old had been living almost all of her life with her grandparents, but was sent by a family court in 2013 to live with her violent father though it seems that she had begged not to be returned. She was beaten to death by him within a year. Adults often ignore that children might well understand their own best interests. It can be very difficult for children to be taken seriously when their wishes incline against strong societal assumptions, such as the need to prioritise the position of birth parents. Younger children find it particularly challenging to get adults to take their views seriously.

I argue in 'Children, Autonomy and the Courts' that it is illogical and unjustifiable that children do not have greater influence in court decisions determining their best interests. In liberal democracies, autonomy is held as the most important characteristic for the individual. It is prioritised in medical law for example, and increasingly is upheld to the extent possible for adults with cognitive disability (which demonstrates that decreased ‘capacity’ need not prevent prioritisation of someone’s wishes). Yet judges can make decisions about children without having to prioritise autonomy. Children’s wishes can be treated as just another factor and overridden with ease.

In my book I argue that a ‘right to be heard’ does not go far enough for children. I propose that a children’s autonomy principle, respecting children’s wishes unless significant harm would likely result, would ensure greater support for children in proceedings, and greater obligations on adults to engage in transparent decision-making. It would also mean better best interest decisions, because it is only by giving appropriate priority to children’s own wishes that we can make good decisions on their behalf.

Dr Aoife Daly is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Law at The University of Liverpool. She has worked and researched widely on children's rights and has held a number of NGO and academic positions. She also has teaching and research interests in a number of other areas including family law and civil and political rights. She researches human rights issues through the lenses of social justice, gender and psychology.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

The Red Flags Are Everywhere, but Nobody Can See Them

Dr Emma Katz argues that Netflix’s ‘The Crown’ glamorises the controlling behaviours used in domestic abuse.

Coercive control is a harmful criminal offence, yet it hides in plain sight. Sitting front and centre within our culture, it is performed routinely before our eyes. Coercive and controlling behaviours are glamorised in plotlines where abusers are sexy and romantic bad boys, and women enjoy being dominated and suppressed. It is vital that we challenge these representations, in order to tackle coercive control effectively.
The UK has recently taken the bold step of making coercive or controlling behaviour within intimate relationships a criminal offence. This is a breakthrough in our efforts to tackle domestic violence and abuse.

Perpetrators can now be prosecuted for controlling their partner’s activities, damaging their partner’s confidence and self-esteem, and isolating them from family and friends.

But prosecutions and convictions have so far been disappointingly low, and the majority of police officers have not received training on how to identify coercive and controlling behaviours.

This lack of action is partly fuelled by the representation of these behaviours in mainstream Western media.

A prime example can be found in the critically-acclaimed Netflix series The Crown, and its depiction of the relationship between the Queen’s sister Princess Margaret (Vanessa Kirby) and Antony Armstrong-Jones, later Lord Snowdon (Matthew Goode), in season 2, episode 4, ‘Beryl’.

As a researcher of domestic abuse who focuses on coercive control[i], I watched this episode with horror, seeing how Antony Armstrong-Jones’ controlling behaviour is portrayed as pulse-racingly hot.

Antony (a professional photographer) first meets Margaret at a party and offers to photograph her in his studio on the condition that she does everything he says for the duration of the session. He tells her she is ‘dying to be a supplicant’ – someone who behaves humbly towards a powerful figure.

This introduces a clear controlling dynamic – Antony will have the power in their interaction, and Margaret will submit her will to his. Margaret cannot complain, Antony asserts, because this is something she secretly desires. This is a classic example of how perpetrators of domestic abuse manipulate victims into thinking that they are to blame for their own abuse, creating a feeling of shame that often prevents victims from seeking help.

At his studio a few days later, Antony begins their session by ordering Margaret to wait downstairs. He then goes upstairs and calmly topples chairs and bangs on tables to make as much noise as possible. Margaret sits downstairs listening to the noises, unsure of what is happening. Having established his dominance and potential to use violence, Antony returns downstairs, offering no explanation of his actions. The message is clear – he can behave in a bizarre and violent way at any time and Margaret is not to challenge him.

Many more ‘red flags’ of abuse appear as Antony begins taking Margaret’s photos. Antony tells her she has ‘no idea who she is, not the faintest idea’. This comment attacks and destabilises Margaret’s self-confidence[ii]. He suggests that Margaret’s family doesn’t treat her well – laying the foundations for isolating her from them and setting himself up as ‘the only one who really loves you’.

At one point, without warning or consent, Antony pulls down the straps of Margaret’s top to expose her bare shoulders – beginning to establish the sexual coerciveness and sexually assaultive behaviour that is common in abusive relationships.

At the end of the session Antony becomes light-hearted and cheerful, as though his behaviour had never happened. Such abrupt changes of mood[iii] are commonly used by domestic abuse perpetrators to confuse and Gaslight victims by invalidating their experiences of reality. Victims are left thinking: ‘If he’s acting like everything’s alright now, then what just happened to me can’t have been that bad. I must have overreacted. I must be too sensitive’.

 How is Margaret depicted as reacting to all this? Does she run a mile? Is she outraged? Is she afraid? No – she goes home to her bedroom in a state of utter joy. She plays the song ‘I only have eyes for you’, which begins with the lyrics: ‘My love must be a kind of blind love. I can't see anyone but you.’ She smiles, dances, and is thrilled to have met such an exciting man. Viewers are encouraged to share her excitement.

What about the media reaction? Did they notice that this episode shows almost every red flag for an abusive relationship? No – much of media commentary described it positively. The photography scene is ‘when they fell in love’, Antony is ‘dashing’, ‘handsome’, ‘hip’, and ‘someone to get excited about’, the storyline is a ‘magnetic flirtation’ and a ‘red-hot romance’.

Given this glamorisation, it is unsurprising that the police may struggle with the idea that coercive and controlling behaviour is part of an offence they should be tackling. How can it be wrong, a police officer may wonder, if it is depicted as so thrilling, and as something that women are enjoying so much?

The grim reality is that such behaviour is rarely enjoyable. Most women whose partners are coercive and controlling experience a nightmare of abuse and manipulation from which they may need considerable support to escape (and the same is true for male victims of coercive control).

If this episode of The Crown is anything to go by, it may be a long time before controlling and coercive behaviours are seen not as the actions of sexy ‘bad boys’, but as the repugnant acts of domestic abuse that they are.

Dr Emma Katz is a Lecturer in Childhood and Youth at Liverpool Hope University and a member of the Gender Based Violence Research Network. Emma researches the impacts of domestic violence and abuse on children and mother-child relationships. Her work explores coercive control, agency, resistance, recovery and mother-child mutual supportiveness in domestic abuse contexts. 


[i] Katz, E. (2016) Beyond the Physical Incident Model: How Children Living with Domestic Violence are Harmed By and Resist Regimes of Coercive Control. Child Abuse Rev., 25: 46–59. doi: 10.1002/car.2422

[ii] Matheson, F et al (2015) Where Did She Go? The Transformation of Self-Esteem, Self-Identity, and Mental Well-Being among Women Who Have Experienced Intimate Partner Violence. Women’s Health Issues 25: 561-569 doi: 10.1016/j.whi.2015.04.006

[iii] Enander, V. (2011) Leaving Jekyll and Hyde: Emotion work in the context of intimate partner violence. Feminism & Psychology 21(1) 29–48 doi: 0.1177/0959353510384831

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Resilience in early years—continuing the conversation

Dr Caralyn Blaisdell continues our discussion on the theme of resilience and how this term is being used.

“We like to think of childhood as a time of joy and innocence—for many of us it’s just not true.”

…so opens the trailer for the Resilience documentary, an American film currently touring through the children’s sector in Scotland. The film is a public service announcement dealing with the “biology of stress and the science of hope”. It explores the ways that exposure to trauma, particularly during childhood, affects a person’s whole being, and looks at associations with future health outcomes. Research suggests that prolonged stress is associated with poorer health outcomes in childhood and adulthood. The film specifically focuses on the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study but resonates with a wider body of research—for example, hypotheses about the ‘weathering’ effects on health of chronic stressors such as racism.

The tagline for the film is ‘the biology of stress and the science of hope’. It is perhaps the ‘hope’ elements of the documentary that are particularly important to interrogate. The film is from a US context and - perhaps unsurprisingly, given its origin - focuses largely on individualised remedies. These are important. But the documentary does not spend much time questioning how inequalities come about on a structural level. For example, the film looks at an intervention that involves drama therapists listening to children about their lived experiences. But why is this such a departure? Why do we not already create space for children’s voices and seek out their perspectives—and believe them? The film does not unpack children’s subordination and the institutional practices that silence them. It’s sad, but not surprising, that we need reminding that children are human beings with complex lives and relationships.

At Strathclyde University, the initial feedback from students who have seen the Resilience documentary suggests they see a role for themselves. From vowing to avoid making their classroom stressful for children, to understanding that ‘bad behaviour’ may not be about children being naughty, but instead stem from stress, to making a commitment to be brave and ask children about what worries them, the students are thinking about how their own practice might create a more just experience for children. For example, how do early years professionals deal with racist incidents in the playroom? Do we gloss them over in the name of being ‘nice’ and ‘all being friends’ (Konstantoni, 2013)? Are teachers aware of the structural causes of poverty and the ways poverty impacts on school life (Kustatscher, 2017; Treanor, 2017)? Do early years professionals have an understanding of how cultural, political and legal contexts shape the choices that are available to children and families, and their sense of belonging in country and community (Tillett and Wong, 2017)?

In previous CRFR blogs about resilience, the authors have asked us to consider who is responsible for resilience. Are we cheering when children and young people successfully ‘steel’ themselves against a deeply unfair society, or are we going to look at our own contributions to dealing them a better hand, as Ariane Critchley asks? Remedies for resilience, such as mindfulness, are increasingly popular in early years, but we need to ask ourselves WHY environments are stressful for children and how we can change our own ways of working.

Caralyn Blaisdell is a Lecturer in Early Years Education at the University of Strathclyde. She completed her PhD at CRFR on ‘Young children’s participation as a living right: an ethnographic study of an early learning and childcare setting’. 


Konstantoni, K. (2013) ‘Children’s rights-based approaches: the challenges of listening to taboo/discriminatory issues and moving beyond children’s participation’, International Journal of Early Years Education, 21(4), pp. 362–374. doi: 10.1080/09669760.2013.867169.

Kustatscher, M. (2017) ‘Young children’s social class identities in everyday life at primary school: The importance of naming and challenging complex inequalities’, Childhood, 24(3), pp. 381–395. doi: 10.1177/0907568216684540.

Tillett, V. and Wong, S. (2017) ‘An investigative case study into early childhood educators’ understanding about “belonging”’, European Early Childhood Education Research Journal, 0(0), pp. 1–13. doi: 10.1080/1350293X.2018.1412016.

Treanor, M. (2017) Can we put the ‘poverty of aspiration’ myth to bed now? CRFR briefing 91. Available at:

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

How resilient do we want our children and young people to be?

In a follow-up post, CRFR Associate PhD student Ariane Critchley provides her thoughts on resilience in response to the recent CRFR Seminar ‘The Troubling Concept of Resilience’ given by Eric Carlin and Emma Davidson.

As a social worker I was fortunate to meet a number of children and young people who I would describe as ‘resilient’. The work of Gilligan (2001) was highly influential on my practice and I considered ways in which I might foster resilience in the children I worked with, particularly those children to whom we owed corporate parenting responsibilities, by virtue of their status as ‘looked after’. In my view, it makes sense to talk of ‘resilience’ in the context of frontline social work, where practitioners encounter young people who have suffered 'extraordinary vulnerability’ (Brownlie, 2014: 195) through their experiences of early trauma, their separation from family of origin, and experiences of an imperfect care system with multiple moves of home and school. Should young people flourish through such extremes of early adversity, aren’t we right to think of them as resilient?

I would argue that in this context, ‘resilient’ is exactly how we should describe the ongoing achievement that individual children make by not only surviving serious challenges, but somehow finding a way to grow and to thrive. And the ‘somehow’ here is crucial. Acknowledging Carlin & Davidson’s challenge, that resilience risks that we ‘prioritise external and normative judgements about individuals’ characteristics and behaviours and the adversities they are deemed to have overcome’ (Ungar, 2005), I wish to suggest that resilience as properly understood is an ecological and ‘relational’ quality (Bondi et al. 2007). We can only be resilient to the challenges we face through interaction with the internal and external factors that make up our life world. For example, our health, the people who surround us, the socio-economic context we live in, and the resources to which we have access. Resilience then, is not a ‘characteristic’ so much as a process.

Which is why, as social workers, we feel we can contribute to an individual child or young person’s overall ‘resilience’. However, this does not translate into a policy aspiration that all children and young people should be resilient. Listening to the seminar last week, what struck me was the way that the universal application of concepts such as ‘resilience’ can be dangerous. When youth policy suggests through GIRFEC that all Scottish children should be encouraged to be resilient we risk a backwards misapplication, which seems to demand that children and young people do their best with the cards they are dealt rather than our society finding them a better hand.

In their study of the operationalisation of resilience in practice, Daniel et al. cautioned that, ‘policy documents are increasingly referring to the promotion of resilience as an aim – it is important that such documents set out their operational definitions (Daniel et al., 2009)’. Viewing resilience ‘as an aim’ introduces the great danger that this seminar warned of; we might expect that children and young people encountering significant difficulty should simply become more resilient, flipping resilience on its head in a way that demands individual overcoming, not structural equalising. If resilience is understood as a dynamic process that occurs in conditions of adversity, the aim of public policy should surely be to challenge and reduce the social and material conditions in which children can truly be described as ‘resilient’, to decrease the very circumstances in which resilience can flourish.

Ariane Critchley is a qualified social worker and researcher with a range of interests across social work and public health. Ariane is based at the University of Edinburgh where she is writing up her ESRC funded PhD on pre-birth child protection, examining the complexities of applying child protection processes to unborn children and the experiences of practitioners and of expectant families. Ariane has contributed to Scottish Government publications on maternity care and is currently working with Social Work Scotland on finding evidence of good practice in the implementation of self-directed support in Scotland.


Bondi, L., Davidson, J. and Smith, M. (2007), ‘Geography’s ‘Emotional Turn’’, Chapter 1 in Davidson, J. Bondi, L. and Smith, M. (2007), Emotional Geographies, Aldershot, Hampshire: Ashgate.

Brownlie, J. (2014), Ordinary Relationships. A Sociological Study of Emotions, Reflexivity and Culture, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

 Daniel, B, Vincent, S, Farrell, E & Amey, F (2009), 'How is the concept of resilience operationalised in practice with vulnerable children?' International Journal of Child and Family Welfare, vol. 12 (1): 2-21.

Gilligan, R. (2001), Promoting resilience : a resource guide on working with children in the care system, London: British Agencies for Adoption & Fostering (BAAF).

Ungar, M. (2005) ‘Introduction: Resilience across cultures and contexts’, in Handbook for working with children and youth. London: Sage.

Monday, 18 December 2017

Resilience – continuing the conversation

Emma Davidson and Eric Carlin reflect on their recent CRFR Informal Seminar

It’s not a surprise that our seminar, ‘The Troubling Concept of Resilience’, received such interest. In recent years, fostering resilience has become a central dimension not only of early years, education and youth policy, but wider social policy and practice. The concept has, arguably, come from a sensible place: research that has sought to understand why, and in what circumstances, some individuals respond positively to adversity, and others do not. Our wariness, possibly scepticism, is about how resilience has been endorsed and appropriated by the state, distorting the policy focus away from the need for structural changes to reduce entrenched long-term and complex inequalities across populations and instead focussing on ‘steeling’ young people to bounce back from adversities that are assumed to be unavoidable.

 As we highlighted at the seminar, criticism of resilience projects has focused on their prioritisation of understanding and influencing individual behaviours, reducing risk factors for individuals and, in turn, neglecting social and structural explanations failure. Resilience based interventions are evolving, and a body of work is adopting a socio-ecological model which takes account of cultural contexts (see Hart et al 2016 or Ungar, M 2008). However, the psychoanalytical tradition from which resilience has developed dominates, with its focus on psychological dispositions and personality traits of individuals as ‘protective factors’. We are also troubled that our understandings of resilience are, to a great extent, being ‘imported’ from other social and cultural contexts, and we note the growth of a commercial industry of facilitators, consultants and trainers to support the policy drift towards resilience.

Of course, we are not suggesting that work on young people’s self-esteem, confidence and mental well-being is not important. However, we would argue that there is a need to stop and reflect – to think critically about how we are defining and operationalising resilience; to examine the evidence on resilience within our local contexts; to consider whether resilience is the outcome desired for your project; and to campaign for effective policies that can reduce unnecessary disadvantages.

Our final question is a bigger one – and that is whether the resilience framework is actually fit for purpose? Can a resilience framework transform fundamental inequalities marginalising young people, such as inequity in the education system, access to housing and welfare and precarious employment? Is this focus on ‘steeling’ young people - making them stronger and more resistant to adversity, and personally responsible for ‘success’ or ‘failure’ - socially just? This question is all the more potent in a climate of austerity, where many adversities facing young people cannot be considered a consequence of their own deficits.

These are questions, and conversations, we would like to continue. Follow this blog for ongoing debate and an announcement about a future seminar to continue the discussions.

Dr Emma Davidson is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in Sociology, based at the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships. Her ongoing research is exploring the social and community role of public libraries in Scotland (

Dr Eric Carlin is a Teaching Fellow in the
Usher Institute of Population Health Sciences and Informatics and is the Director of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP) based at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh.

Hart, A. et al. (2016) ‘Uniting Resilience Research and Practice With an Inequalities Approach’ SAGE Open, 6(4): 1-13.

Ungar, M. (2008) ‘Resilience across Cultures’, The British Journal of Social Work, 38(2):218–235.

Thursday, 14 December 2017

Evaluating the Bookbug programme in Scotland

CRFR Research Fellow Dr Emma Davidson writes about some of the key findings from the recent Evaluation of Bookbug Bags and Bookbug Sessions, carried out by CRFR for the Scottish Book Trust.

A little yellow bug in red dungarees has become a familiar part of Scottish family life. It’s name - and you will likely know this if you have young children - is Bookbug, and it’s the mascot of Scottish Book Trust’s Early Years programme.

The Bookbug programme has been running in its current form since 2010. It entitles all babies and children in Scotland to four free Bookbug Bags as babies, toddlers, at nursery and in Primary 1. Bookbug Sessions - free song and rhyme groups where parents, carers and children can meet, cuddle, read, talk and sing together – are also available in libraries and increasingly other community settings … parent and toddler groups, shopping centres, and even high rise flats!

In the last five years the programme has grown considerably. In 2016-17 Scottish Book Trust and its local and national partners gifted 178,045 Bookbug Bags, delivered 23,670 Bookbug Sessions, and trained 3,543 practitioners. This is a programme that has considerable reach and continues to grow. But what impact has it had on families and on early years professionals in Scotland? Over the last two years, the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships has been evaluating the Bookbug programme to answer these questions.

The evaluation findings can be read in full here, however, in this blog we focus on our survey and interviews with the professionals gifting bags and delivering sessions. Below, we share some of their views on how Bookbug is contributing to early years development across Scotland.

The key message? Bookbug is a model that works.

Overwhelmingly, professionals participating in the evaluation described Bookbug as a high quality, easy to understand programme that had a positive impact on their role, and the people they worked with. Almost all (99%) agreed that Bookbug was beneficial to their organisation, and 73% told us it helped them reach disadvantaged families.

Why were professionals so supportive of Bookbug? One of the main reasons was Bookbug’s model of delivery. Its flexible approach goes at a family’s own pace to support them to develop their own reading practices. As this nursery practitioner told us:

“You don’t want to be in a position where you are treating parents as stupid or telling them what they don’t know. Role modelling means I’m not saying it directly, ‘this is how you read to your child’” (nursery, case study)

Professionals repeatedly referred to Bookbug Bags as a ‘tool’ that helped to enable and nurture quality family reading practices. So rather than focusing on the frequency of reading, or reading a book from start to finish, Bookbug allows practitioners to model dialogic reading practices, which acknowledge the importance of talk surrounding the book sharing experience.

Bookbug Sessions were also praised by professionals for offering multiple benefits to parents and children, including increased knowledge of songs and rhymes; improved speech and language; understanding of social cooperation; supporting social networks and friendship. Perhaps most important was the way in which Bookbug Sessions can build on the benefits provided by Bookbug Bags, by incorporating creativity, physical movement and play into families’ experiences of sharing books, songs and rhymes:

“Those who access the Bookbug Sessions gain huge benefits, but those who just receive the bags but do not attend any song and rhyme sessions have a much diminished benefit.” (early years, professional survey)

Quality gifting experiences and Bookbug sessions not only support high quality early literacy experiences, but by making book sharing active, lively and fun they can support the development of intrinsic reading motivation (that is seeing reading as satisfying and rewarding in itself).

But Bookbug is being delivered in a challenging context …

Our evaluation found that families are more likely to use the books and resources in the Bookbug Bags if those gifting the Bag spend time talking to them about the benefits of sharing books, looking at the contents and sharing a story. We also found that collaborations between sectors (health visitors, libraries, nurseries and third sector organisations) created opportunities for increasing the impact that Bookbug had. Wider role activities (for example, where library staff visited nurseries or community groups on a regular basis) were seen as positive, motivating ways of overcoming the barriers for families seen to be more vulnerable, or less able to access the benefits of Bookbug.

However, the evaluation also found that lack of capacity and resources was placing increasing pressure on staff, and their ability to prioritise Bookbug activities, and consequently on the amount of time they can allocate to quality and consistent gifting and session delivery. We also found that the Bookbug Programme is most effective at a local level where there is strong strategic commitment; visible and adequately resourced leadership through the Bookbug co-ordinator; and a supported, trained and motivated community of Bookbug professionals. Risks occur when the capacity of the Bookbug co-ordinator is under-resourced, or where Bookbug becomes overly dependent on individuals championing the programme.

The greatest issue therefore is not whether the Bookbug programme is capable of supporting Scotland’s families to read, talk, sing and cuddle more, but rather the impact that diminishing resources will have on councils’ ability to deliver the programme at a local level. The key issue moving forward is ensuring all local authorities recognise that Bookbug is making an important contribution to achieving their strategic priorities – and encouraging them to support practitioners in delivering quality gifting and sessions in their area.

Want to find out more?

The full evaluation report (and executive summary) is available from the Scottish Book Trust here.

If you are a practitioner and want to get involved in Bookbug training, email

 Queries about the evaluation can be directed to the study manager, Dr Emma Davidson on 0131 651 1651 (

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

‘Trust me, I know exactly how you feel’: Undisclosed thoughts on researching single mums when you are one

Amy Andrada, CRFR Associate PhD student, provides her thoughts on reflexivity[i] during fieldwork

 “Yup. Uh huh. Ok… Could you tell me more about that?” This is my side of the interview. I listen intensely, nod my head along, and utter some phrase along these lines. It seems rather monotonous, but it’s necessary. This does several things for me and the other person: it ensures active listening, encourages the conversation to continue, and keeps a flow and rhythm to our interaction. For a moment it builds a sense of trust between us, which is vital in my research. But it also serves as a much needed crutch, for me.

You see, there are times during the interview when I’m divided, between being the interviewer and talking to the other person as if they’re just that, another person. If I were to ask them about how many children they have and why, there’d be some dialogue, that would go smoothly. But I don’t ask these types of questions. I ask these mothers why they’re alone. I ask them how they manage being alone with their children. I ask them to tell me when being a single parent doesn’t work for them and how they deal with it.

Most of these interviews start the same - parents express an extreme amount of shame. And I know that all too well, because I’m a single parent. Though single parenthood is the focus of my research, being a single parent myself doesn’t remove how sensitive the subject matter is, or relieve any discomfort when asking people to describe how their children were abandoned by their other parent, their fears of failing as the parent present, and the incidents that lead to choosing their current lifestyle. Now, I didn’t know any of these women previously, but during the interviews I find that I know every one because I know myself. I know what it’s like to tell my child their other parent chose to leave, that we will manage as just us two, and that somehow I’ll make what was wrong into something right.

During these interviews, there’s tears, hand holding, pats on the back and tissues given. I do what any decent researcher would do, I ask if they want to stop. But I’m met with their determination and told discussing these things is helping. Although I’m asking for them, a part of me is asking for me too. Though I don’t live with shame anymore, it doesn’t mean I don’t relive it when asking these mothers to disclose their own. But there is hope as well. Women speak of agency, love, and choice. There are tears of joy among the pain. Though they’re telling me their stories, they’re actively living them. And I am honored to be the one sitting across from them, listening. Which is why I continue.

The more I spend time interviewing these women, the more I see reflections of myself: as I once was, as I am, and as I hope to be. To be on the peripheral, is something academic research doesn’t really pinpoint, but it’s there. It’s just undiscussed, hidden between the “uh huh’s” and “tell me more’s”. But trust me, I know exactly how you feel. I’m just not saying it. It’s your turn to talk. And it’s my job to listen.

Amy Andrada is a CRFR Associate PhD student, based in the Department of Sociology at the University of Edinburgh. Amy is researching the dynamics and developments of identity among mothers, in the context of in-group and out-group relations. Her research aims to explore the ways in which identity is shaped by parental, gender, and relationships statuses.

[i] Reflexivity is the process by which the researcher reflects upon the data collection and interpretation process