Sarah Schoener writes in the Opinion Pages of the New York Times “After spending two years studying services for domestic violence survivors, I was surprised to realize that one of the most common barriers to women’s safety was something I had never considered before: the high value our culture places on two-parent families.
“I began my research in 2011, the year the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that more than one-third of American women are assaulted by an intimate partner during their lives. I talked to women in communities that ranged from a small rural mining town to a large global city, in police stations, criminal courts, emergency shelters, job placement centers and custody proceedings. I found that almost all of the women with children I interviewed had maintained contact with their abusers. Why?
“Many had internalized a public narrative that equated marriage with success. Women experiencing domestic abuse are told by our culture that being a good mother means marrying the father of her children and supporting a relationship between them. According to a 2010 Pew report, 69 percent of Americans say single mothers without male partners to help raise their children are bad for society, and 61 percent agree that a child needs a mother and a father to grow up happily.
“The awareness of the stigma of single motherhood became apparent to me when I met a young woman who was seven months pregnant. She had recently left her abusive boyfriend and was living in a domestic violence shelter. When I asked if she thought the relationship was over, she responded, “As far as being together right now, I don’t want to be together. But I do hope that in the future — because my mind puts it out there like, O.K., I don’t want to be a statistic.” When she said this, I assumed she was referring to domestic violence statistics. But she continued: “I don’t want to be this young pregnant mom who they say never lasts with the baby’s father. I don’t want to be like that.”
“Shame about not meeting certain standards of motherhood was prevalent in upper-middle-class families, too. 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. One explained that she kept her abuse a secret because “I was embarrassed by the things I was seeing; I couldn’t let people know that he wasn’t the husband and provider we pretended he was.” Regardless of who they were, most survivors were acutely aware of how their victimization would influence their public identities as mothers.
“The truly alarming part, however, is the extent to which the institutions that are intended to assist domestic violence survivors — protection order courts, mental health services, public benefits programs and child custody systems — reinforce this stigma with both official policies and ingrained prejudices.”