Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The impact of domestic abuse on women’s relationships with their babies

Dr Fiona Buchanan writes about her research on women’s perspectives on how domestic violence affected their relationship with their babies

At a seminar organised by the CRFR at the end of June I was delighted that the audience of committed and active workers from agencies all over Scotland and beyond found my research thought provoking and - hopefully - useful.

I was grateful for the opportunity to get research from Australia out to inform practice in Scotland, and so I’m also using the CRFR blog to take the discussion further. This is what I presented.

Feminists have long argued that services for women and children who have survived domestic abuse need to be informed by the every-day experiences of women and children.

However, in the growing field of early intervention it is attachment theory, based in expert opinion informed by clinical testing, observation and classification, that is guiding many workers. With this approach women and their babies are the focus for identifying and treating problems.
But, in basing practice in theory formed from expert opinion, women’s voices about how they think domestic abuse affects the relationships with their babies are overlooked.  Instead the focus is on fixing problems.
Having worked in South Australia rolling out new early intervention services based on attachment theory I was concerned that we were missing what was really going on for women and their babies in domestic abuse.

That’s why I undertook research to find out: "How knowledge of relationships between women and their babies can be informed by focusing on the lived experiences, including the emotional experiences, of women who have birthed and mothered babies in domestic abuse".

Sixteen incredibly honest, open and insightful women who had mothered babies in domestic abuse took part in the research.  They spoke of how, in domestic abuse, their partners focused ongoing hostility towards the developing mother/baby relationship.  The women gave many examples of how they responded to this by thinking, feeling and, where possible, acting to protect their babies.  They did this whether or not they felt attached to their babies.  It seemed that protection came first and took priority over attachment.

Enduring sustained hostility, protecting babies and finding space to relate
Women protected in many ways we don’t recognise as protection, for instance trying to make sure the baby was always quiet, the house was always spotless and their partners’ lifestyle was not disrupted in any way.
They did all this to appease their partners so that they would not find fault and create a scene.  But as one woman put it: “there is no routine in that crazy life-style; you never know when the next eruption is going to happen”.

Women also described some heart wrenching situations where they put themselves in danger to make sure their babies were not physically hurt. Most of the women never told friends and family these details because of the distress it would cause. Counsellors had not enquired about the impact of abuse on the relationship with their baby or their efforts to protect their baby.

The women did their best to protect their babies but found that the time it took to try to‘keep the peace’ meant they had little time to get to know their babies.  As one woman said:

“ … I didn’t get to spend the time that I wanted to with Chris (the baby), cuddling him and didn’t get to sit down and read books to him when he was really little, and, you know, do all those little things you want to, spend the time playing on the floor, and that, was always having to do other things to prevent problems...”
However, women were creative about finding at least some space to relate to their baby. They did this during breastfeeding, by co-sleeping and one woman spent time with her baby at childcare.

What should we do?
There is a lot to learn from these women’s stories and three things that workers could take on board:
Ask about and listen to women’s experience of sustained hostility directed towards the mother/baby relationship
Ask about, acknowledge and respect women’s protective feelings, thoughts and actions towards their babies.
Applaud women’s efforts to find a safe space where they could relate to their babies and when women have no safe space, help them to access some.

Of course, when living with domestic abuse women are not always able to protect their babies, especially when they cannot protect themselves, but let’s stop seeing them as the problem.  By learning from women who have formed relationships with babies in domestic abuse, workers can act with understanding of context to promote women’s protection of their babies.

For more information about my research

View Fiona’s presentation that accompanied her talk in Edinburgh.

Domestic Violence and the Place of Fear in Mother/Baby Relationships: “What Was I Afraid Of ? Of Making It Worse?” Journal of Interpersonal Violence June 2013 vol. 28 no. 9 1817-1838

Fiona Buchanan, School of Psychology, Social Work and Social Policy, University of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia

Read other CRFR blogs on gender-based violence

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