After studying domestic violence services for a couple years, public health researcher Sara Shoener realized that one of the biggest barriers to survivors safety is the widespread cultural belief that two-parent homes are best–no matter what. She writes the New York Times:
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.”
And it’s not just that some women have internalized these ideas; far more worrying is that the institutions that are supposed to help them–mental health professionals, law enforcement officials, judges and members of the clergy–”often showed greater concern for the maintenance of a two-parent family than for the safety of the mother and her children.”
Vilifying single mothers–blaming them for poverty that our policies created and maintain–is not just unfair. And spending billions of dollars on marriage promotion programs is not just wasteful. It’s also harmful. As Shoener writes, “Sweeping rhetoric about the value of marriage and father involvement is not just incomplete. For victims of domestic violence, it’s dangerous.”
Maya Dusenbery is an Executive Director of Feministing.