Sociation Today

Sociation Today

ISSN 1542-6300

The Official Journal of the
North Carolina Sociological Association

A Peer-Reviewed
Refereed Web-Based 

Fall/Winter 2013
Volume 11, Issue 2

Motherhood, Empowerment, and Resilience within the Context of Intimate Partner Violence*


Julianne M. Weinzimmer
Wright State University

Rebecca Bach
Duke University

Shreya S. Bhandari
Wright State University

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define intimate partner violence (IPV) as the forceful control and harm of one intimate partner by the other that includes threats or acts of physical, emotional, and or sexual violence (Saltzman, Fanslow, McMahon, and Shelley 2002).  Intimate partners include present or past partners, spouses, boyfriends or girlfriends, both in heterosexual as well as same gender couples (Saltzman et al. 2002).  Lifetime prevalence of IPV ranges from 33-37% in the United States (Tjaden and Thoennes 2000a, 2000b). The rates of lifetime domestic violence among low-income women ranges from 34-65% with most studies reporting in the 50-60% range (Tolman and Raphael 2000).  The majority of studies report only physical violence and few provide the prevalence rates of psychological abuse among low-income women.  The lifetime prevalence rates of psychological abuse among low-income women are 33.2% and 38.7%, respectively with verbal or symbolic (e.g., harassment, threats of harm) aggression by male partners within the past 12 months being as high as 50% (Lloyd and Taluc 1999).
    Research on IPV, so far, has focused on its multiple causes, adverse outcomes, reasons for leaving and staying, impact on children and the parent-child relationship, intergenerational transmission of violence, the importance of providing shelters and other options, and emphasizing the roots of violence lying in traditional gender socialization, the institution of marriage, and the broader culture of patriarchy (Anderson and Umberson 2001; Hattery 2008; Campbell 2002; Khaw and Hardesty 2007; Levendosky and  Graham-Bermann 2001; Levendosky, Huth-Bocks, Shapiro, and Semel 2003; Onyskiw and Hayduk 2001; Sternberg, Lamb, Guterman, Abbott, and Dawud-Noursi 2005; Williams, Larsen, and McCloskey 2008).  Researchers have not yet fully explored how low-income women make sense of mothering—how they construct this role and how they relate to their children—within the context of intimate partner violence.  Our understanding of how mothers enduring IPV view and relate to this highly sanctioned role is limited, even though we know that the mother-child relationship is crucial in determining children's resilience in overcoming exposure to violence (Bancroft and Silverman 2002; Gewirtz and Edleson2007; Haight, Shim, Linn, and Swinford 2007).  Although a few studies, such as those conducted by Levendosky, Lynch, and Graham-Bermann in 2000 and by Peled and Gil in 2011, have focused on women's reflections on and perceptions of mothering in the context of IPV, there remains a need for research on low-income women living in domestic violence shelters.
    Previous studies have found that shelter residents are among the neediest, economically, having few other options for refuge, and are typically mothers who have experienced multiple and severe violent episodes (see Davies and Krane 2006 for a review of this discussion, as well as Tutty and Rothery 2002).  Such findings make conducting research on this particular population all the more important.  This paper is a response to the literature's call for studies examining mothering in the context of intimate partner violence for low-income women who are residents of a battered women's shelter (Davies and Krane 2006; DeVoe and Smith 2002; Haight et al. 2007; Levendosky et al. 2003; Peled and Gil 2011; Radford and Hester 2001; Sullivan, Nguyen, Allen, Bybee, and Juras 2000; Vatnar and Bjørkly 2010). Through a framework of feminist theory, this qualitative inquiry reveals how women perceive and facilitate mothering in the presence of IPV, and thereby, helps us better understand how to support and encourage this critical familial relationship.  In-depth interviews allow us to capture not only the experiences of mothering but to also explore the emotional meanings of motherhood for women who are coping with IPV.

Review of Literature

IPV and Children

    Many researchers have already asked major questions of interest to this study: why do women stay in battering relationships, what are the critical factors that compel women to leave violent relationships, and how are children impacted (see Johnson and Ferraro 2000, for a review of this research)?  Fantuzzo, Boruch, Beriama, Atkins, and Marcus (1997) indicate that families experiencing IPV are more likely than the general population to have children present, particularly children under the age of five.  The presence of children in any home increases emotional stress and financial strain, which can serve as contributing factors to IPV.  In the context of traditional social and cultural expectations for women, having children and being the primary caretaker can help women present a façade of normalcy both externally and internally.  Nonetheless, many women feel trapped in abusive relationships because of a lack of financial options for both themselves and their children (Kelly 2009).  Having children in the home is known to complicate decisions regarding staying with or leaving a violent partner (Kelly 2009; Khaw and Hardesty 2007; Vatnar and Bjørkly 2010).  The significant costs associated with single motherhood affect a victim's ability to leave a violent relationship and create a financially secure and independent household for herself and her children.  On the other hand research has shown that children can also be an impetus for women to leave abusive partners, as they come to fear for their children's safety or worry that abuse may become a learned behavior (Bhandari, Bullock, Anderson, Danis, and Sharps 2011).
    A considerable body of literature focuses on the negative effects on children of living with and witnessing violent parents, including a wide range of behavioral issues, developmental disruption and increased likelihood of becoming violent themselves (see Holt, Buckley, and Whelan 2008, for an extensive review of this literature).  However, studies have yielded mixed results on the link between IPV and its impact on children.  Feminist scholars exploring the effects of IPV on children have begun to examine not only the damage as a result of witnessing their mothers' abuse, but also examples of children's healthy survival and recovery experiences (Bancroft and Silverman 2002; Davies and  Krane 2006; Gewirtz and Edelson 2007; Letourneau, Fedick, and  Williams 2007; Levendosky et al. 2000).

Motherhood in the Context of IPV

    Despite more than 30 years of research on intimate partner violence, little is known about mothering in the context of IPV (Geffner, Jaffe, and Sudermann 2000; Graham-Bermann and Edleson 2001; Letourneau et al. 2007).  Women's social integrity is entangled with an ethic of care; hence, they see themselves in affiliation with others and not as independent entities (Lapierre 2008).   Kelly's (2009) research on mothering by victims of intimate partner violence found that their decision making is complex and health care professionals do not fully understand it.  Some women choose to stay in order for their children to have a father and receive his financial support.  Others decide to leave in order to shield their children from their father's violence.  In each case, women identify as a mother first and see their mothering role as primary in their decision making (Kelly 2009). 

    These findings point to feminist theoretical perspectives on the problematic nature of Western women's familial socialization, a central view guiding our analysis.  As previous studies on abuse and motherhood (Bilinkoff, 1995; Peled and Gil 2011) have noted, women learn to see their children and familial obligations as top priority, to the point where it can actually endanger their own lives, as they struggle to fulfill societal expectations as a self-sacrificing "good mother."  Not only can this oppressive "myth of motherhood" (Douglas and Michaels 2004) prove dangerous for women enduring abuse, it can also lead to a disjuncture between the institutionalized idealization of motherhood and the reality of mothering in the context of IPV.  The result is that women feel guilty and inadequate as mothers given their home situation, leading to  potential stress in the critical mother-child relationship (Damant et al. 2010).

    Women who experience intimate partner violence are viewed through the lens of what Lapierre (2008) labels a "deficit model" of mothering.  According to Lapierre (2008), battered women are seen as failures as mothers and as women who endanger their children by staying with abusive partners.  Feminist scholars tie this trend of "blaming the victim" to our patriarchal culture that works to hold mothers solely responsible for parenting and meeting their children's needs, including their physical protection (Douglas and Michaels 2004).  Similarly, scholarship on the cycle of intergenerational violence primarily focuses on negative outcomes for children who have witnessed their mothers' abuse (Rossman 2001; Wolfe, Crooks, Lee, McIntyre-Smith, and Jaffe 2003).  Both of these trends have resulted in a tendency to avoid blaming the male perpetrator and centralize concerns for children; safeguards for their mothers are sidelined.  

    On the other hand, Haight et al. (2007) discovered several positive strategies employed by women experiencing IPV, including reassuring children that they are loved and not to blame, fostering a sense of hope for the future, and educating children about preventing violence in their own adulthood.   The women in their sample also worked hard to separate their roles as spouse and mother; for example, they would avoid speaking negatively about the father in front of the children and tried to keep them from learning too much about adult problems.  In their 2002 study of battered women's self-perceptions as mothers, Irwin, Thorne, and Varcoe discovered that women maintained positive associations with motherhood and found this role to be a source of strength in the context of the battering relationship.  For women who are facing the devastating effects of IPV, being a mother can serve as the most significant, satisfying and empowering relationship, counteracting the helplessness felt as a result of the abuse (Peled and  Gil 2011). This makes sense given the significant societal importance of this particular role for women. Instead of emphasizing the need to "fix" the parenting practices of mothers experiencing IPV, many feminist scholars have turned towards recommending increased support for and empowerment of women, as individuals, as partners in relationships, and as primary caregivers (Bancroft and Silverman 2002; Bilinkoff 1995; Damant et al. 2010; Davies and Krane 2006; Gewirtz and Edelson 2007). 

    Researchers have, thus, found mixed evidence to indicate the impact of abusive relationships on mothering, with some stating the involvement in abusive partner relationships negatively affects mother–child relationships (McGee 2000; Mullender, Hague, Imam, Kelly, Malos, and Regan 2002), and others reporting that women in abusive relationships attempt to compensate for children's exposure to IPV by becoming even more committed parents (DeVoe and Smith, 2002; Levendosky et al. 2003).  Given that the quality of the relationship between parents and children is seen as an important predictor of women and children's outcomes, mothering within the context of IPV warrants further feminist examination.  The current study explores three research questions to this conversation:
(a) How do women who experience IPV perceive and construct the pivotal societal role of mother?
(b) How do women work to develop and maintain a positive mothering identity as they suffer the physical and emotional effects of IPV?
(c)    How do mothers view the effects of such parenting in terms of their children's outcomes?
Data Collection  
    We conducted twenty in-depth interviews in a domestic violence shelter in a southeastern metropolitan area to gain insights into the complex experience of mothering within the context of IPV.  The University's Institutional Review Board (IRB) approved all recruiting materials and interview questions.  We recruited women (with children) from the local domestic violence shelter through a flyer posted on the shelter bulletin board asking them to participate in a study and "tell us their stories."  We provided a gift card worth $25 for a nearby grocery store to each woman upon completion of the interview.  In order to provide the gift certificate, the university required us to collect names from the participants.  This was counter to our desire to maintain the safety of our respondents; as a result, we destroyed the list of names after the gift certificates were delivered and have exercised great care to refrain from revealing details of the respondents' life histories.  The first author conducted all the qualitative interviews at the shelter between 2006 and 2008.  Interviews lasted between one to two hours and were recorded for later transcription.  The local shelter was a house located in a working class neighborhood in a southeastern U.S. city of roughly 250,000 residents.  All of the interviews were conducted in the shelter's one shared library, which had doors that closed to preserve confidentiality.  Besides the library, the shelter had offices, bedrooms, and a kitchen for communal cooking and eating.  The clients were all dealing with severe disruption in housing and family structure and were living in a relatively cramped setting.


    Interview guide.  The interview guide was semi-structured; it included standard demographic data (such as race, age, and educational attainment), a complete reproductive history, a brief section of questions regarding history of IPV, and a series of open-ended questions about motherhood.   For instance, we asked, "How has having children affected your life?" and prompted with, "Try to think of both good and bad ways."  Additionally, we asked, "How would you describe yourself as a mother?  What are you good at?  What do you need to work on?"  Participants were asked to identify the best and the worst aspects of motherhood.  Finally, we asked about their goals as young girls and how motherhood may have affected those goals.

    Data analysis.  This study is a qualitative description of women's experiences as mothers in the context of IPV.  We chose this method because our research was exploratory in nature, attempting to understand women's lives as mothers, and because limited knowledge is available on mothering of low-income women in the context of IPV.  A qualitative approach with open-ended questions enabled us to gather rich experiences of this unique population.  Once we completed all of the interviews and they were transcribed, Weinzimmer and Bach  independently conducted content analysis of the transcribed interview texts and continued until saturation was achieved (Padgett 2008).  Both authors conducted line-by-line coding and constantly compared the content.  Through an inductive process, members of the research team each identified common themes that emerged from the interviews.  As novel information materialized, it was compared with the already existing themes and new themes were modified to include both.  Differences in coding were discussed until consensus was achieved.  All of the combined data were organized into a spreadsheet, with each mother's coded data displayed under overarching thematic categories. 


Demographic and Abuse Information

    The women in our sample were all low income.  Thirteen identified as Black, one as Latina, five as White, and one as mixed race (Native American, Black, and White).  The interviewees ranged in age from 20-56 with a median age of 39.5.  Because of the danger associated with being in close proximity to the abuser, all of the women came from other counties or even neighboring states.  Each woman we interviewed had at least one child, with an average of 2.5 children.  The ages of the children at the time of the interview ranged from six months to adulthood.  The number of pregnancies experienced by our respondents ranged from one to nine and many were still of child-bearing age at the time of the study.  Eighteen of the women had gone through at least one unplanned pregnancy and over half had their first child by the age of 20.  Nearly half had been physically abused during a pregnancy, resulting in miscarriages for some. 

    The types of IPV that our participants endured included: physical violence, sexual violence, threats of physical or sexual violence, and psychological and or emotional violence.  Specific acts of IPV mentioned ranged from being hit with objects (including hammers, bottles, sticks, baseball bats, and lead pipes), punched, burned with cigarettes, choked, slapped, kicked, dragged, shoved, threatened with a gun, and seven women reported being stabbed by their partners.  One woman described a violent episode where, "I was hit in the face with a wine bottle and I had to have nine stitches just inside my eyebrows.  He jumped on me, biting me, after he hit me with the wine bottle in front of the baby."  Another woman described extreme physical and sexual assault: "He would beat me and then he would drag me and pull me in the room.  My kids would be at the door, screaming and crying and banging.  And he would make me have sex with him."  Three participants' partners attempted to kill them and or left them for dead and one woman was shot with a gun.  Several women reported that their violent partners also abused alcohol and illegal and prescription drugs.  A few women were stalked by their partner.  Verbal abuse was ubiquitous.   Our participants detailed many ways they felt their lives were not under their own control.  They discussed their abusers forcing them to have sex, preventing them from accessing birth control, forcibly impregnating them and then giving them no choice other than to keep the baby. 

    On the basis of data derived from the qualitative interviews, we classified their responses into 'positive aspects of motherhood' and 'hardships of motherhood'.  Each of these themes is explained below in greater detail.

Positive Aspects of Motherhood   
    The women in our study did not experience childbirth and motherhood under ideal circumstances.  In spite of the unplanned pregnancies, giving birth at a relatively young age, and experiencing intimate partner violence, mothers' responses were overwhelmingly positive when asked how having children has affected their lives.  We identified several subthemes related to women's positive perspectives on mothering.  These include: (a) the chance to experience unconditional love from their children, (b) improved feelings of self-worth, (c) an enhanced sense of agency and empowerment, and (d) positive impact on children's behavior.  All of these subthemes encouraged the women to persevere and escape the IPV.  Each of these aforementioned subthemes is discussed separately below.

    Unconditional love from children.  Women's descriptions of mothering focused on the emotional benefits and the pride they felt about their children.  Almost all of our participants specifically mentioned that mothering provides them with an opportunity to give and or to receive unconditional love, a need unmet in their intimate partnerships.  In describing her pregnancy one respondent commented, "I could feel it kick and move and I knew when something come out, I got something to hold."  Another woman explained, "[I] don't need a man to be around to feel love 'cause I get the love that I need from my kids.  And that, you know, they lift me up."  Another mother similarly explained:
[W]here I wanted my husband to love me, my kids loved me all along, and I just didn't see it.  I don't care if I don't never get married again.  Now don't get me wrong, I'm going to have sex and I don't want to be by myself, but as far as getting into a deep, intimate relationship.  I'm really enjoying my kids right now because it's been seven years to where I guess I didn't get to know them.  And then my baby, he's my everything. 
One woman answered our question about the good parts of mothering with, "Well, good ways, 'cause I have somebody that I can cuddle, love, talk to, and, and I mean, right now, with them seeing me going through the stuff that I'm going through [trails off]."  A final respondent had experienced four miscarriages prior to having one live birth.  She commented on the unconditional love of her child: "The main thing is just having somebody that doesn't judge you, that loves you regardless."

    Improved feelings of self-worth.  Children also helped foster mothers' positive sense of self, assisting them in overcoming the confidence-shattering effects of IPV.  Several interviewees discussed how having children made them feel better about themselves and helped them to project a confident image as a successful mother.  One woman noted her appreciation of the rewarding parts of mothering, such as "[G]ood report cards.  [I] like being complimented.  I like when people recognize how smart or how cute or something that the kids do."  Another respondent indicated that she was a good motivator for her daughter, an "A" student, and several other mothers similarly described their pride in their children's achievements, particularly at school.

    The overwhelming majority of respondents indicated that having children gave them the strength to go on in spite of their history of ongoing physical and emotional abuse.  As one currently pregnant mother stated, "Well, having my children, it's made me realize, you know, that I'm not worthless.  My life does mean something."  A woman who had more than one abusive partner indicated that being a mother has been what has kept her alive.  "It's made me fight and made me be stronger because I have something to live for and probably if I didn't have them I'd be, like, you know, I'm out."  Another woman shared that parenting made her feel, "like I had a purpose for living.  They needed me and I needed to care for them."

    Their children's dependence on them provides the mothers with motivation and a purpose in life, one consistent with the dominant feminist view that we emphasize mothering as a central female obligation.  Two of our respondents even claimed that their children have kept them from killing their partners as a way to stop the abuse.
At some point women get tired and it seems like we're the ones that get punished the most. You chase us around and we do something to stop you, we go to prison. And I think that's basically what stopped me, because I think about my kids.  If I go to prison, what's going to happen to them?  So I just got out of it, although I'm not going to lie, I did want to kill him.
Another respondent seems to reference contemplating suicide, and that knowing her children need her was what stopped her.  "[T]hey motivate me.  They keep me going, even in my darkest hours, my hardest moments, and the saddest moments.  I mean, I believe if it wasn't for the girls, I wouldn't be here."

    Enhanced sense of agency and empowerment.  Understanding shelter residents requires a feminist examination of the women's issues with control and agency, as abusive partners have worked to make them feel powerless and incompetent.  As evidenced from the following quotes, having children can become a source of empowerment as women come to see themselves as capable of nurturing and protecting another person, and ultimately they may come to realize the same potential for their own lives.
[W]hen I got pregnant and stuff, I said to myself, "This is mine. This is my child and I'm going to protect them.  I'm not going to let him be like this, with what I went through and stuff."  And it made me feel good.  I feel like I got control over something.
For women whose lives are dominated by their abusers, becoming a mother reinstates a sense of control, as they take on the maternal, protector role.  Raising children becomes something to accomplish, someone who will always be there, unlike the abusive partner.
The best thing I like about being a mother is that I get to teach somebody. Instead of people teaching me and trying to tell me, I get to teach, try to teach my child the right way and what the right things to do.  That's my baby.  This is my child, something that grew inside of me. Can't nobody take that away from me.   
In essence, when it comes to our respondents' positive associations with mothering, children meet significant emotional needs of the mothers—needs that their abusive partners are unable or unwilling to meet.  In addition, having children to love and care for provides a sense of stability and normalcy within the context of dysfunctional and dangerous intimate relationship(s) and motivates them to forge forward.  This is evidenced by their decision to leave the abuser and get into a shelter, in hopes of beginning a new life for their children and themselves.  Such optimistic outlooks are typified by one respondent: "I'm finally doing something for myself without asking anybody and when I start working and get my pay stub it will be my money. I did this.  And that will make me feel so good about myself."

    Positive impact on children's behaviors.  Some of the women in our sample mentioned their children exhibiting positive behaviors as a result of their IPV, such as a mother who claimed, "I think she's learned from what I've been through.  She pretty well knows what the signs are."  One woman stated that living in an abusive household made her daughter stronger.  "No . . . she's not affected.  She just knows that she's not going to take any mess from anybody, and I told her not to." 

    Several participants explained how they work to teach their daughters that being hit is never okay, and at the same time they try to instill in their sons that being abusive is unacceptable.  When asked about her strengths as a mother, a respondent answered, "Teaching my children the right way to live.  I taught my boys not to ever beat up women."  The other explained: "I told my children, 'Your education is the most important thing.'  I said, 'Don't sit up here and make the same mistakes I did.'  I said, 'If there's any signs of him being jealous, controlling, too bossy, too pushy, get out.' " A final example comes from a mother who aims to teach her children, "to know that they're worth more than what I went [through]." 

    Many women indicated that their children, particularly their sons, have become very protective of them.  Two mothers pointed out that their sons frequently got between them and their violent partners in attempts to protect their mothers from abuse.  As one described it, "[A] few times he even jumped into the middle of it and he'd go get a baseball bat and say, 'Leave my mother alone!'" 

    Another notable finding is that a few mothers felt that they had successfully hidden the IPV from their children.  One woman thought that her children remained unaware because the abuser would hit her so that it would not leave any visible marks.  Another said, "[I] would hide it from them.  I became a good actress."  A third mother of a young toddler explained that her daughter was not impacted by it because she never directly witnessed it and was "still playing around and acting normal and stuff." 

Hardships of Motherhood

    Despite the abundant findings related to positive aspects of mothering, when probed, the mothers were able to identify some negative outcomes related to having children within the context of IPV.  The dominant subthemes in this area were: (a) poor timing and context within which they had children, (b) experiencing feelings of self-blame, (c) struggles with maintaining authority and control as a parent, (d) financial difficulties, and (e) adverse impacts on children's behavior.  Each of these areas is explained below. 
    Poor timing and the context.  Several of our interviewees expressed how they wished they had waited until they were older, more educated and financially stable to get married and have children.  One explained, "I wanted to be a teacher.  I had my children.  I was in my last year of high school when I met my first husband.  We just run away [sic] and got married.  So, that was all gone then."  Another shared, "I met my daughter's father and I did have a scholarship and funds put away for me to go to law school, but my dad took it all away.  It's like I threw my dreams away."  Some cited getting pregnant before they really knew their partner as what resulted in their staying in an abusive relationship for so long.  One participant stated:
I got pregnant when we met, so we got married—we kinda had to get married.  So, like, after I had my first child, you know, he started drinking really bad, and he would come home and he would get mad because, you know, supper wasn't finished, or his house wasn't clean.  And then he would start hitting me.
Most indicated that an unplanned pregnancy cut short their own educational and career plans.  Typifying such reflections, one mother noted, "Not necessarily saying that it's bad, but it just seemed like every time I was able to start something, whether it be work or school, that I always got pregnant."

    Blaming the self.  Just three respondents directly cited their partners' abusive behavior when asked to discuss, in general, hardships associated with being a mother.  Although all the parenting struggles mentioned above are clearly influenced by their experiences with IPV, the women appear to compartmentalize their experiences as wives or intimate partners and their experiences as mothers.  Self-blame was also common, as the mothers described feeling guilty for their IPV-related family circumstances.  The following conversation typifies this theme.  "I was like, okay, [the children] are acting out like this because of the abuse that I subjected them to. [Interviewer: Well, you didn't subject them to the abuse].  Well, I did because I stayed."  Similarly, another respondent lamented:
[I] sit back and I say, "Why did I bring, bring my babies into the world, knowing that their father was no good?  He does drugs.  He drinks.  He beats me. [T]hey were so scared of him, when they would hear his car pull up, they'd go lock their selves in their bedroom, and you wouldn't see them no more that night."  I was like, "Well, what have I done?  Have I damaged my children? [Chuckles] You know, have I made them hate me?"
    Maintaining authority as a parent.  Respondents' children witnessed their mothers being consistently berated and undermined by their abusers, as part of the IPV.  Consequently, mothers sometimes struggled to maintain parental authority.  When asked about the hard parts of mothering, one woman answered, "Uh, so I would say consistency.  I get upset and I'll tell my teenager, 'You cannot go skating because you're being smart-alecky.'  And then she pouts for a while.  A lot of time, I give in."  A few women identified themselves as pushovers, and a couple described the parent-child relationship as more like siblings.  Three mothers directly connected the IPV to their children's lack of respect.  One explained, "He was real vulgar to them with his language.  [S]ometimes they would come back and say that to me, you know, call me a bitch.  He'd tell them, your momma's a bitch, or your momma's a whore."  The second woman noted that she and her son are the same size, and explained that, "[H]e's seen that men are stronger and maybe he think [sic] he doesn't have to listen to me.  He remembers what their dad did, so he's acting the same way."  A final comment comes from a mother whose children were, "[N]ot willing to listen, showing out at school.  Just from hearing us bicker back and forth." 

    Financial strain.  Over one third of the respondents cited financial difficulties associated with having children.  This is an important area of consideration because it points to the intertwining nature of economic hardship, IPV , mothering and duration of abuse, all main concerns of shelters and others working to help women and children survivors of IPV.

    Some respondents expressed how they worked hard to provide for their children and hated when they could not afford the things they desired.  When asked what is most challenging about parenting for her, one woman said, "Oh, being broke.  Seeing stuff I want and going, 'No, I need to go to the Children's Place instead of going to Nordstrom's.'  Just being disabled with a limited income right now, that's the hardest thing for me."  Conversely, several of the participants indicated that they had given too much to their children, spoiling them and setting up an endless chain of wants and demands.  A mother described herself as, "kind of sappy.  If they beg enough, sometimes I give in."  Another identified herself as being a good mother because, "I wait on my kids hand and foot."  A third respondent explained how she constantly gave to her children financially, as a way to make up for the difficult conditions at home, and how they, in turn, came to see her as someone to exploit:
I am good at providing.  I did that a little bit too much.  Because when they got older they would call me, and I'd give, give, give.  You know, if they wanted something, I would do without myself to give to them.  I'm trying to get away from that because they're older now and they need to not call me just for money.  A lot of time I don't hear from them for three or four weeks, and when they call me, they want money.      
This last quote connects back to the previously-mentioned undermining of women by their abuser(s), and how that can lead to authority-related struggles for mothers and their children.

    Negative impacts on children's behaviors.  About half of the women in our sample had children that were already in their teenage years or older.  Four of the women mentioned how they thought that their own history with IPV has facilitated their now grown children, particularly their sons, becoming violent themselves, thinking that abusing women is acceptable.  As one older respondent said, "My oldest son thinks he can fight on women now.  He's abusive.  He's in a relationship and him and his girlfriend [inaudible] both of them abusive."  Another respondent cited growing up witnessing her abuse as "the reason why [her 14 year-old son] is so violent and thinks that men have more power than women."  A woman with grown sons described a particularly germane situation.
I'm glad I had my children.  I love them, but they've just turned out almost the same as us.  They drink a lot now, and when they get together now they fight each other.  And, my 26 year old, he beats on his girlfriend, and he drinks all the time.
Other respondents with young children expressed concerns about intergenerational transmission of abusive behaviors.  Several women indicated that their daughters have emotional difficulties, which they think are connected to having witnessed violence against their mothers.  In discussing her daughter, one woman explained, "Especially the oldest one. [She] doesn't even talk to me.  She has so many emotional issues that she needs to work through because it was traumatic for her [witnessing the abuse]."  Their daughters' struggles range from not trusting men to having issues with low self-esteem, anger, and even IPV themselves.  These daughters, similar to many of their mothers, grew up in homes where violence was normalized and they may have come to expect it as part of heterosexual adult relationships.

    Coming from a feminist perspective, our most significant discovery was how the women work to overcome the oppressive nature of both IPV and the social construction of motherhood by viewing mothering as a source of empowerment, much needed emotional support, and motivation to escape their abuse.  In accordance with the dominant motherhood ideology, the intensive mothering role is societally-sanctioned and informed by traditional family ideals which promote the two-parent, mother-as-primary-caregiver model (Arendell 2000).  In this context, mothering becomes especially important for women.  Because the women in our study had only recently escaped their abusers and currently resided in a domestic abuse shelter, their lives do not reflect the idealized family form.  Thus, meeting societal expectations for being a self-sacrificing, nurturing, good mother becomes one of very few available routes to feeling "normal" and competent. 
    Confidence boosting via parenting helps counteract the constant demeaning and harmful messages the women receive from their partners.  Our participants experienced extreme verbal, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of their partners (often at the hands of multiple partners) and many were also abused in their childhood.  The cumulative effects of abuse are intimately tied to self-esteem and feelings of self-worth; the mother-child relationship can offer a positive and fulfilling relationship that has been consistently lacking in the women's lives.

    All of these findings are consistent with other feminist theory framed research on parenting in the context of IPV (Bancroft and Silverman 2002; Irwin et al. 2002; Peled and Gil 2011; Williams et al. 2008).  What is salient here is the discovery that because motherhood is such a highly revered role in society, and one of few means of empowerment available to women being abused, the mothers' relationships with their children can help them to gain a sense of control and social acceptance in what has thus far been a mostly invalidating, stigmatized, and chaotic adult life.  This finding is particularly significant for women in a domestic abuse shelter, who represent those most limited by the available opportunity structure.  For our participants, mothering serves as a readily available path to agency and a positive self-image that is congruent with social norms and gendered expectations.

    Our interviewees' identities as mothers give them a sense of normalcy, social acceptance, and self-worth, results consistent with other research findings (Irwin et al. 2002; Kelly 2009; Levendosky et al.2000; Levendosky et al. 2003; Peled and Gil 2011; Stephens 1999; Sullivan et al. 2000).  Although their children were frequently unplanned and born into the context of IPV, they have provided their mothers with someone to love and cherish—a need consistently unmet in their adult intimate relationships.  The emotional abuse that usually accompanies physical abuse can cause battered women to experience feelings of worthlessness, but to a certain extent the mothering role can work to offset those damaging self-perceptions. 

    In line with other feminist research (Bancroft and Silverman 2002; Davies and Krane 2006; Gewirtz and Edelson 2007; Letourneau, Fedick, and Williams 2007; Levendosky et al. 2000), we discovered that the mothers in our study were able to take a very difficult parenting situation and create some positive results for their children.  These include: teaching them how to identify and avoid experiencing domestic abuse, that using physical violence is never acceptable, and how to be a strong and independent person.  As well, surviving and escaping an abusive situation often brought the women and their children closer together.
    Despite these more favorable consequences, there remain serious obstacles that women and their children must confront in response to IPV.   Previous studies have highlighted negative impacts on the mother-child relationship, such as adultification of children and "peerification" of the mother, which involves the child becoming overprotective of the mother and/or taking on a dominant role (Bancroft and Silverman 2002; Burton, Brooks, and Clark 2003; Burton 2007; DeVoe and Smith 2002).  Such behaviors can prove emotionally unhealthy and physically dangerous for children of IPV.  They can also work to further undercut the mother's authority (DeVoe and Smith 2002), something we witnessed in our interviews.  The fact that the mother is seen as in need of protection from the abuser can motivate children to fill adult roles, both physically and emotionally.  As we observed, although the protective behavior stems from the intensity of the mother-child relationship, it can ultimately undermine the mother's role and contribute to her challenges with discipline and authority. 

    The pattern of abuse cycling into successive generations has been repeatedly confirmed in numerous studies and literature reviews of IPV (Bancroft and Silverman 2002; DeVoe and Smith 2002; Holt et al. 2008; Levendosky et al. 2000), and was consistent with some women in our study.  Although, in their meta-analytic study of research on the intergenerational transmission of spousal abuse, Stith et al. (2000) did not find a strong relationship between growing up in an abusive family and experiencing IPV as an adult.  Mothers' assertions in our study that their children were unaffected by IPV could be part of a general trend of avoidance as a way to thwart feelings of self-blame and maintain an optimistic, empowering outlook (Peled and Gil 2011).  Although this perception may be accurate in some cases, scholarship on recurring episodes of IPV suggests that children need not be directly involved or even witness it in order to sense the threatening atmosphere and be negatively impacted (DeVoe and Smith 2002; Holt et al. 2008).

    Recruiting our subjects from a shelter delineates our sample in terms of social networks and socioeconomic status.  It is possible that the experiences of abused women recruited through the community sample may be shaped differently.  Battered women with sufficient economic and social resources are likely to find alternatives to shelter living.  The mothers in our sample are dealing with multiple challenges: poverty, single parenthood, and the impact of IPV.  Moreover, the crowded nature of shelter living exacerbates their tense situations, as does being relocated to a new city or state in order to protect them and their children from the  abuser. Consequently, we find that we are not able to separate the impacts of poverty, single motherhood, and shelter living from the effects of IPV.  Finally, data were collected through in-depth interviews that relied on self-reported memories of respondents and may entail some recall bias. It is very common for women who experience IPV to minimize their experiences as a way of dealing with their trauma.

    We have used 'feminist theory' somewhat loosely to refer to unequal conceptions of the power relations between men and women (Ramazanoglu, 1989). We recognize that feminist research emphasizes intersectionality, calling for careful attention to the ways that race, class, and gender operate both individually and as interlocking systems of oppression (Collins 1993).  In working to better understand women's experiences with mothering and IPV, an intersectional approach can uncover how racial and cultural backgrounds work alongside economic status to shape how subjects relate to their partners, their family and community, and themselves as women and mothers.  Our convenience sample ended up largely reflecting the experiences of women of color.  While this was not a primary focus in the initial design of this study, an intersectional exploration of how race and racialized dimensions of domination and subordination interact with and shape these low-income women's experiences with partnering, mothering, familial relationships, and accessing resources and support, could yield a richer understanding of ways to assist all mothers facing IPV.  

Future Research

    Future research should involve larger, more diverse samples of battered women, incorporating both sheltered and non-sheltered women.  By comparing these two groups, researchers may be able to better untangle the effects of poverty and other contextual factors from the influence of IPV on mothers and their children.  Finally, our research provides a unidimensional account of parenting.  Future research, including observations of actual mothering coupled with in-depth interviews, could help identify specific issues in parenting that mothers may be less aware of or hesitant to reveal.  It would also be useful to interview the children of these mothers in order to get a more balanced and encompassing perspective on mother-child relationships and how to best assist them in overcoming the negative effects of IPV.

    Both the empowering aspects of motherhood as well as the disempowering components described in this study all connect back to our core focus, via feminist theory, on how the social construction of motherhood teaches women that they are accountable for their children's welfare and well-being.  Clearly, shouldering the responsibility for children can be overwhelming at times and can overshadow the need for self-care and healing as an IPV survivor.  Regardless of the negative impacts of IPV on self-image, the women in our study did not let it diminish their role as a parent.  Despite the multitude of challenges endured, the mothers all saw their children as a symbol of hope for a new beginning, for both themselves as mothers and women, and for the future of their family.


    This project was funded in part by a Community Action Research Initiative (CARI) Grant from the American Sociological Association’s Spivack Program in Applied Social Research and Social Policy. We thank the courageous mothers who trusted us with their stories and the shelter board and staff, all of whom made this study possible.  Tracey Steele provided valuable feedback on a previous version of this article.


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