Managing ‘Motherhood’ in Social Research

A few days ago, I attended a research seminar where a female academic was presenting a paper on constructions of motherhood. While the presentation itself, and the discussion that followed, were very interesting, I was fascinated by the final question asked by an audience member during the Q&A. The audience member wanted to know what messages the academic had for her two teenage daughters, whose fascination with and engagement in celebrity culture worried her, both personally and politically. The academic responded in the way we all do when we’re not sure how to respond in such moments – she asked the questioner about what messages she had for her daughters.

Aside from the question about how useful(or not) of such strategies are in bridging the gap between academia and the ‘real world’, I was particularly interested in how the academic used her own status as ‘child-free’ to enable her to avoid the audience members’ question. Firstly, the academic disclosed that while she was researching motherhood, she was not ‘actually’ a mother. Then she turned to the questioner and said ‘but you are a mother, so you know better than me – what do you think?’ The questioner clearly wasn’t prepared for this – after all, up until that point she had clearly been positioned as the student, the one who was to learn from the academic, who was – in contrast – the authority on the subject. So the questioner muttered something unrelated to the research findings about “well, what I always do is talk to my daughters….” drawing on the only knowledge she had – the experiential knowledge that comes with being a mother.

These discursive moves made by academic and audience member tell us something interesting about how the subject positions of ‘woman’, ‘feminist’ ‘academic’ and ‘researcher’ occupy different spaces and can be usefully mobilised depending on the demands of the moment. In our paper, published this week in Qualitative Research Journal, myself and Dr. Nollaig Frost discuss how our own subject positions of mother/child-free played a role in our own research into motherhood. At the time of the research, we both identified (and still do) as women, as feminists and as academics. However, Nollaig was a mother and I was child-free, and in our paper we reflect on how these subject positions shaped the process of the research, including: identification of research topic, access to participants, choice of method and how the mobilisation of our various subject positions shapes research practice – particularly during interview interactions with mothers. We also discuss what other feminist academics have shared about their experiences when researching motherhood, and our conclusion discusses how the mobilisation of different subject positions threaten our (often conflicting) goals as academics, women, mothers and feminists. 

The seminar experience recounted at the beginning of this post highlights how subject positions continue to be mobilised long after ‘research’ is complete and once ‘dissemination’ is underway. And it raises further intriguing questions: in the final analysis, does ‘mother’ trump ‘academic’, to the extent that a female feminist child-free academic cannot advise mothers about what their research findings might mean for them? Or perhaps motherhood does not trump academic, but the idea that it can do may be a useful tactic in particular contexts to skilfully respond to a challenging question while keeping an academic’s authoritative status intact?

Our interest in pluralism in qualitative research is shared by others, and more can be found on the collective Pluralities in Qualitative Research blog.

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Adolescent-to-Parent abuse: Reflections on 2013

This year, the media has finally turned its attention to the issue of a relatively small, yet very real, problem: adolescents’ abusive behaviour towards their parents. What Im talking about here is a pattern of behaviour that uses verbal, financial, physical or emotional means to practise power and exert control over one’s parent. Examples found in my own research include physical violence (and threats to cause physical harm), intimidation and undermining the parent, and theft and damage to a parent’s property and possessions. Like other forms of family abuse (e.g. child abuse, intimate partner violence), adolescent-to-parent abuse often takes shape very gradually and it can be very difficult for parents to acknowledge what is happening, with a sense of disbelief often the first emotion to surface. Following disbelief, the emotional landscape is often very complex, with fear, worry, guilt, betrayal, resentment and despair all part of the painful tapestry of family life for those parents who find themselves ‘walking on eggshells’ around their own child in their own home. Such feelings may be particularly potent in cases of adolescent-to-parent abuse because many people are unaware that such abuse exists, making it hard for parents to talk about their experiences – and hard for others to hear. Parents may also feel particularly silenced because we live in a culture where parents are routinely blamed for the problem behaviour of their children – both informally ‘over the garden fence’, and formally through the use of criminal justice measures.

However, 2013 has seen a real shift in the articulation of adolescent-to-parent abuse in research, policy and practice, as well as through the mass media. My own book ‘Adolescent-to-parent abuse: Current Understandings in Research, Policy and Practice’ was published at the beginning of 2013 and is the first academic book to explore the problem in depth and from a range of perspectives. It draws on both my own research with parents and practitioners and on the wealth of international research that has, over the years, slowly accumulated. I am very humbled by the very positive response the book has received. 2013 has also seen the publication of other major research studies, such as the recently-published study by Condry and Miles which identified 1892 crimes reported to the Metropolitan Police within a single year that involved adolescent-to-parent abuse. The study found that the majority of cases involved young men’s abusive behaviours towards mothers. Other research projects are well underway, and there are now a handful of undergraduate and postgraduate students who are specialising in this under-researched area.

2013 has also a real increase in local parent and family support groups and programmes which deal specifically with the problem. Some support groups, such as Everybody Hurts in North Derbyshire, have been organised by parents themselves, while more structured multiagency programmes are developing within local regions (see, for example, the Teenage Violence toward Parents (TVAP) in Hull and Break4Change in Brighton). 2013 is also the year when the Youth Justice Board started mapping out good practice across England and Wales. As well as serving as a coherent and centralised resource for practitioners, this development is symbolic of how the problem of adolescent-to-parent abuse is now being been recognised at the statutory level, although it is regrettable that this recognition is currently only within a ‘criminal justice’ framework.

Finally, in 2013 the mass media has started to give attention to this issue, serving to raise awareness and enable parents to voice their experiences for the first time. Despite researching this issue for five years, for the first time I am receiving calls from journalists, programme-makers and radio stations who wish to learn more about this problem, as are many of my fellow researchers and practitioners who are working in this field. And Helen Bonnick’s blog, Holes in the Wall, continues to provide fantastic commentary and a resource home for all research, policy and practice developments in the field of on adolescent-to-parent abuse.

The problem of adolescent-to-parent abuse deserves to be taken seriously. As a human rights issue, no-one should be living in fear or, or under threat of, physical or emotional harm. As a health issue, the effects on families can be devastating, with long-lasting physical and emotional symptoms which can affect the life chances for parents and their children. As a criminal justice issue, there is evidence that adolescent-to-parent abuse can be part of a wider tapestry of family abuse, and intervention here may stop subsequent abusive behaviours.

However, 2013 is only the beginning. While many working in this field have been encouraged by the Government’s recent lowering of the age criteria (from 18 to 16) in its definition of ‘domestic violence’, I am concerned that simply ‘adding in’ children into what is nevertheless a policy response developed for adults may not be altogether positive: this problem has some very unique characteristics that set it apart from adult-to-adult domestic violence, and questions about what this means for the child protection system have not yet been addressed. Furthermore, we only need to observe the history of how ‘intimate partner violence’ or ‘child abuse’ became recognised as social problems, and the often inadequate ways in which we are still responding to such problems, to remind ourselves that there is a very long road ahead.

Adolescent-to-parent abuse is now available to buy from The Policy Press website with 20% discount.