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The story of naming
"maternal alienation": new research enters the world of policy and
Home Truths Conference
September 2004, Melbourne
Liz Kelly tells us that,
"in order to define something a word has to exist with which to
name it. ...What is not named is invisible and, in a social sense,
nonexistent" (1988 114). When I sought to understand why so many
mothers who were victims of violence were blamed and often hated by
their children, I found myself identifying and naming a phenomenon that
had been virtually unnamed in the literature on violence against women.
I was drawn to research this from my experience as a practitioner working with women whose relationships with their children had broken down. In groups and counselling, I discovered the depth of their grief at losing their children, compounded by the blame they encountered from those around them, which further fed their self-blame as mothers. It seemed ironic that such a source of profound grief for women did not even deserve a word that identified their experience. For them, their children, families and communities, there seemed to be no way of understanding how their relationships had broken down other than seeing it as the mothers' fault.
Findings from 1999 Research
The research project,
conducted in 1999 (Morris 1999), discovered that in these cases of alienation,
male perpetrators of violence against the women and/or children use
an arsenal of strategies to deliberately undermine mother-child relationships.
Most often the mother's intimate partner and the child's father
or step-father, they employ these tactics in a number of different abusive
contexts, including domestic violence and child sexual abuse. They use
verbal messages and actions to position the mother in a place where
children can hate and despise her, can insult and even abuse her themselves,
where any action she makes becomes further proof of the statements made
about her. These messages do not have to be based on any truth
- their power is built on the commanding way in which they are conveyed,
the rhetorical devices they use and the emotional responses they elicit.
The messages are propaganda, and work powerfully on children, becoming
more authoritative than children's own experiences of their mother
and of their abuse. As they conflict with children's experiences,
these assaults on children's sense of reality have implications for
their later mental health and healing.
In this campaign against
the mother, the alienator manipulates and inscribes upon his victims
demeaning stereotypes of women and mothers. Children, coached to copy
the abusive behaviour of their father, are likely to form future relationships
based on these gendered stereotypes, whereby men are encouraged to use
power and violence for their own ends, and women are debased and held
responsible for all ills. Whilst painting the mother as unloving, stupid,
mad, lying, malicious and monstrous, the father portrays himself as
good, rational, victimised, but heroic. As stereotypes have cultural
currency, family members, community members and professionals readily
adopt these images without much awareness or criticism. He becomes
the 'poor man' that we easily sympathise with; the mother becomes
'the bitch' we love to demonise.
I named this campaign
against mother and child and their relationship maternal alienation.
This name defies the general trend towards gender neutral language,
that conceals"women's disadvantage in a range of institutional
settings" (Gatens and Mackinnon 1998 xiv), and reminds us that
this is a form of gendered violence aimed at mothers and mothering.
By removing gender from the framing of problems of violence, a gender-neutral
perspective obscures the role of gender and power in abusive relationships
(Berns 2001). The term 'maternal alienation' was created also partly
as a response to the contentious Parental alienation Syndrome (PAS)
(Gardner 1987), used particularly by men in custody disputes in the
United States, and increasingly in Australia, to undermine mothers'
allegations of their violence and abuse towards mother and/or child,
predominantly child sexual abuse (Myers 1997; Dallam 1998). A favourite
of the men's rights groups, Parental alienation Syndrome insists that
it is mainly women who alienate their children from their fathers, while
being silent about fathers' attempts to alienate children from their
mothers. The term 'maternal alienation' subverts this ploy and draws
attention to the prevalence of alienation aimed at mothers. The term
also has potential to take account of the widespread existence of mother
blaming within families, institutions and popular and professional discourses.
As maternal alienation
occurs across a spectrum of abuse and violence, I found Liz Kelly's
idea of a 'continuum' of abuse helpful, as it acknowledges the interconnectedness
of what are often seen as specific forms of abuse such as emotional,
physical and sexual abuse (of women and children) (Kelly 1988).
The concept of a continuum allows a consideration of the extent to which
institutional structures and the practices of health and legal professionals
contribute to maternal alienation, for I continue to discover that the
alienation begun by the perpetrator is invariably continued and compounded
by institutions and professionals who become involved with the family.
Naming maternal alienation
has had a number of consequences. The women who were interviewed as
part of the original research wished to have services and service-providers
educated about maternal alienation, as they had received such negative
and destructive responses from services. In addition, service providers
who heard about maternal alienation requested that practice responses
to maternal alienation be developed. In response to both requests a
project was established in Adelaide in 2002, called the maternal alienation
Project. I was the single project officer, and worked on a number of
fronts to educate services about maternal alienation, and develop practice
responses to it. The project also aimed to create systems change
and influence policy-making.
The maternal alienation Project (2002-3)
Naming maternal alienation
began a process for me of witnessing how a new concept is taken up,
or resisted, by institutions and individuals. I realised that naming
does not merely reflect an intellectual activity of progressively becoming
aware of the world in which we live, but is a profoundly political activity,
that challenges existing relations of power. Within the arena of gendered
violence, the act of naming assails the contested borders between the
speakable and the unspeakable, where what is spoken is monitored by
those who wish to define what is "true" and "untrue". Jan Breckenridge
discusses this as the interplay of "silences and subjugation".
She explains subjugation as "processes that subordinate or discount
certain types of experiences or sources of information, by either ignoring
or reinterpreting the content " (Breckenridge 1999 7-8).
Through my work in the
maternal alienation Project I became acutely aware of the ways in which
the borders of what it is permissible to speak are patrolled. The project,
and I as project officer, were exposed to many pressures, some subtle,
and some threatening. The most obvious of these was the ongoing attacks
from the men's rights groups, one of which published a press release
on their website calling the project "hate politics" and "Holocaust
Revisionism" and insisting that the Premier of SA and relevant ministers
close the project down. This was accompanied by a campaign of letters
to the Premier and Ministers, a barrage of questions directed to the
relevant Minister in SA Parliament by the elected member of the 'Family
First' Party, a Christian political party advocating their conservative
view of 'family values', personal attacks made on my character to
departmental directors, threatening and abusive emails to me, and the
slashing of my car tyres in front of my home. Analysing these tactics,
I found they mirrored and projected onto a larger canvas the tactics
used privately in maternal alienation. It is no wonder that this tiny
project, with a budget that could only afford to employ me for three
days a week, was finally closed down after eleven months, instead of
running for the three years we had planned.
Nevertheless, over this period I worked with two groups of practitioners to develop practice responses to women and children who had been alienated from one another in domestic violence and child sexual abuse. I also met with and conducted training sessions for workers and managers within the Family Court of Australia, Family and Youth Services, SA's statutory child protection system, the Police, Attorney-General's Department, a magistrate from Adelaide's Domestic Violence Court, domestic violence services, community health services, family services, and so on.
The most profound aspect
I continually encountered in my work on maternal alienation was a pervasive
mother-blaming, that seemed to inhabit all levels of institutions and
communities, of practice and belief. Perhaps this is not surprising
if one looks at how Western mothering in the late twentieth and early
twenty-first century has been subject to surveillance, judgements, regulation,
and how mothers have been dictated to, and sometimes punished by experts
of all types (Hays 1996; Smart 1996). Yet mothers' work is unpaid,
largely invisible, and under-valued. Theories such as Bowlby's attachment
theory direct expert eyes to mothers' shortcomings, yet blind them
to all the other significant influences in children's lives, such
as poverty, the wider community, peer groups, fathers, and the presence
or absence of violence (Birns 1999).
Many service interventions tend to focus on the deficits of the mother, perhaps accusing her of neglect. However, we need to be aware that the effects of violence and abuse and maternal alienation on the mother child relationship can look just like maternal neglect. As practitioners or outsiders we can encounter situations where mothers are unable to control their children, and where they can appear to be immobilised and apathetic, or angry and frustrated with their children, and feel the task of mothering is far beyond them. Thinking of themselves as bad mothers, they may even feel that the only option left to them is to give up their children. However, rather than being signs of neglect, such a situation can be the result of a relentless campaign to undermine on all fronts a woman's ability to mother. Children experience that their mother's authority has broken down - they have been coached to loathe and blame her; they have been told that their mother doesn't love them, that she's crazy, that she's a slut; she is a creature who deserves abuse. These messages are not just given once, but become the tapestry of family life. Such messages are difficult to resist. Professionals also find them difficult to resist, as they accord with cultural perceptions of mothers. As Martha McMahon points out, "Mothers are no longer portrayed as self-sacrificing and all-loving but as untrustworthy or potential enemies of their children" (1995 190)).
As a counterpoint to
the culpability of mothers is the invisibility of fathers. One needs
the other, for if all attention is directed to the failing mother, we
do not see the ways that violent and abusive fathers harm their children.
Many researchers have commented on the profusion of ways in which violent
men are invisible in the system, and women are held to different standards
from men, (Edleson 1998; Burke 1999; Irwin, Waugh et al. 2002). Child
protection services, family services all tend to focus their intervention
on the mother, and rarely "mess" with the father. Women are held
accountable for the effects of his violence, even when they are themselves
victims of his violence.
These factors create
fertile ground for maternal alienation, which assigns responsibility
to women for all wrongs, and conceals the ways that male perpetrators
operate to punish, control, and injure. Therefore the two most important
principles of any response to address maternal alienation are to support
the mother and make visible the tactics used by the perpetrator. These
two principles underpin the practice responses developed through the
maternal alienation Project (Morris 2003).
Principles of Best Practice: Supporting mothers and making perpetrators' tactics visible
To support mothers it
is usually necessary for service-providers to become aware of their
own tendencies to blame mothers or hold them accountable for their partners'
violence. This approach recognises that children's well-being will be
enhanced by a positive relationship with their non-offending parent.
This works against the cultural grain also in recognising the positive
role that mothers can have in their children's lives. Given appropriate
support mothers and children can rebuild their relationships, and mothers
can be enabled to support and protect their children in the future.
Effective work in this
area also depends on making the perpetrator and his tactics visible
and accountable for the violence, abuse and alienation and their effects
on women and children. This enables women and children to understand
how they were alienated from one another (Laing 1999). By making perpetrators
visible, we are shifting back to them the responsibility for the damage,
the harm, the trauma they have caused. When women and children understand
where their problems have come from, they can take back their power
to live the lives they choose for themselves, and not be driven for
the rest of their lives by the patterns set up and manipulated by the
A strange paradox emerges
in this field of work, which I suspect is the result of our gender-neutral
approach, where so-called neutrality constitutes a male view (Hearn
1998) -- on the one hand men become invisible in the system when it
is largely men who are responsible for violence against women and children,
and women are held accountable. But when it comes to the care and development
of children which mostly falls to mothers, women become invisible and
the significance of their mothering role is not acknowledged. Further,
we live in a society that values individualism, and our therapeutic
interventions tend to reflect this. We treat children as separate beings,
when in fact they are embedded in relationships of care and development.
We often work separately with mothers and children, not recognising
that after our clients' hour with us, they return to struggling to
live together. These influences effectively create a gap in our services
-- very little work is done to support the mother-child relationship.
I suggest we need to
look differently at how we work with mothers and children after violence,
decentralise our importance in children's and young people's lives,
and find ways of making their relationships with their mothers work.
If we work to re-build mother-child relationships after violence we
create possibilities for healing in the future.
This is the long-term solution to their problems; this is the realistic
solution, and if we get it right it acts as early intervention/prevention,
as mothers are enabled to support and protect their children.
The mother-child system/alliance
Therefore a service response
to address maternal alienation needs to focus on building a mother-child
alliance. The presence of abuse generally leads to mothers and children
developing quite different understandings of the shared events in their
lives. They need support to learn to talk together about the violence
they have been subject to and develop shared activities and plans for
This doesn't necessarily
mean that mothers and children always need to meet with counsellors
together -- they will need their own time to express their pain, grief,
anger, frustration, and this is best done separately. But practitioners
can keep in mind the need to develop mutual understandings throughout
Uncover the tactics used in maternal alienation
Where it is possible
to interact with programs that work with perpetrators of violence, there
is the potential to discover some of the tactics used to divide mothers
and children. Work with child sex offenders in programs like Cedar Cottage
(NSW), where offenders are required to admit how they planned and set
up sexual abuse of children, enforced the secrecy, and undermined children's
relationships of trust (Laing 1999), would be useful also within programs
for perpetrators of domestic violence.
tactics visible gives us an important resource for healing those who
have been abused - an understanding of the tactics used against them.
When perpetrators' tactics are exposed, women and children can unravel
the many misunderstandings they have been subject to, and understand
that neither the mother nor the child is the problem - their problems
have been created by the manipulations of the alienator (Laing 1999).
Once they see the role of the perpetrator in their alienation, they
can begin to free themselves from the lies and dynamics he contrived.
They can step aside from the destructive patterning that has been set
up, and behave in different and more positive ways towards one another.
Develop an alternative narrative
Women who leave violence
and abuse often find they re-capture a sense of being a worthwhile person
that was lost during the abuse; they may discover they have values and
a personality that were buried for years. This (re-) emerging self can
be strengthened during work with mothers and children, as together they
create a life that they choose. Becoming very clear about what they
want in their lives enables women and children to re-frame who they
are, and step outside the behaviours they adopted to survive the abuse,
and the negative narratives about who they were.
It can be helpful for
women and children to understand how the tactics of maternal alienation
capitulated them into particular behaviours. For women, these tactics
often worked to entrap them into 'playing out' the role assigned to
them by the perpetrator. After leaving an abusive relationship, women
and children often find that perpetrators' tactics to control them escalate.
They will need to hold on firmly to the alternative sense of themselves
so that they are not tricked back into the old ways of behaving that
'proved' the perpetrators' words about themselves.
Using authority positively
When maternal alienation
takes place, mothers are positioned as the ones least able to make changes.
A mother's words are discredited before she even utters them, and her
actions are reviled before she takes them. Whatever she does, she has
been painted as the mad one, the bad one, the stupid one, the one who
can't be trusted. Her children will not listen to her or cooperate with
her. Professional interventions that put pressure on her to make changes
within the family such as changes to children's behaviour, exacerbate
this situation and problems are likely to escalate. This tends to "prove"
to practitioners that the woman is the cause of the problems.
What is needed from practitioners
is both understanding of how maternal alienation has operated to disempower
and discredit mothers, and an attitude of respect towards them. Practitioners'
authority can be used positively to model respect towards the mother
and authorise alternative narratives and behaviours for mother and child.
This counterbalances the power and status of the alienator's voice.
Advocacy and information giving
Practitioners who work
in these ways report that their positive work is rapidly undone by services
that are ignorant of maternal alienation and unwittingly reinforce the
negative conditioning set up by maternal alienation. On the other hand,
they found significant changes when they worked together with these
services to address the family's problems. An integral part of this
work is to educate all services that interact with these families about
the effects of violence and maternal alienation, so they too can support
them and not become a part of the problem.
Creating consistency, safety and integrated service approaches.
absolute control over their families by being inconsistent and unpredictable.
The inconsistency and distortion of reality that occurs as part of maternal
alienation fractures women and children from their own experience, and
from being able to trust themselves. What is consistent in their
world is their lack of safety.
This pattern of inconsistency and families' resultant lack of control can be mirrored by services when they take different approaches to mother and family. Those services that are punitive and judgemental and continue to disempower mothers repeat the dynamics of the abuse situation. Families cannot recover while this is their environment - while they are awaiting the next blow, the next senseless act that removes their sense of control and safety. Integrated approaches by all services connected with the family develop consistency in the way a family is treated. This can counteract the many contradictions that the alienator has used to confound his victims and remove their sense of control or understanding.
I believe these practice
responses require a fundamental re-thinking of our practice: they entail
becoming aware of and resisting mother-blaming in its many forms; making
visible the hitherto hidden tactics and influences of perpetrators;
valuing and re-building mother-child relationships; treating mothers
with respect and allowing them the power and authority needed to take
up the responsibilities of mothering; working in an integrated way with
other services to create safe and consistent environments for mothers
In the short history
of the maternal alienation Project, it appeared that these changes were
too difficult to achieve, in the face of continuing attacks by men's
rights groups. Perhaps increasing bureaucratisation and standardisation
of service procedures was another factor that made it difficult to take
up these challenges. Towards the end of the Project, some managers and
policy officers aware of the parliamentary attacks on the Minister suggested
that we change the name "maternal alienation" to something less
confronting. Soon after, the project ended for lack of further funding.
But this is not the end
of the story. The resources created during the Project, and the information
given at training workshops continue to circulate. Survivors of gendered
violence and practitioners are discovering and redistributing this material,
requesting training for their organisations, and changing their practice.
They are advocating for changes within the system, and have created
working groups to accomplish this. I am reminded of the single flower
whose seeds are scattered by wind and insects, take root and create
generations of flowers. There is no longer one lonely target, vulnerable
to attack and attempts to silence it, but many advocates of change as
the ideas about maternal alienation have taken root and grow.
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Birns, B. (1999). "Attachment Theory Revisited: Challenging Conceptual and Methodological Sacred Cows." Feminism & Psychology 9(1): 10-21.
Burke, C. (1999). "Redressing the balance: child protection intervention in the context of domestic violence". Challenging Silence: Innovative responses to sexual and domestic violence. J. Breckenridge and L. Laing. St Leonards, Allen & Unwin: 256-267.
Dallam, S. J. (1998). "The Evidence for Parental alienation Syndrome: An Examination of Gardner's Theories and Opinions." Treating Abuse Today 8(2): 25-34.
Edleson, J. L. (1998). "Responsible mothers and invisible men: child protection in the case of adult domestic violence." Journal of Interpersonal Violence 13(2): 294-5.
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Gatens, M. and A. Mackinnon (1998). Gender and Institutions; Welfare, Work and Citizenship. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.
Hays, S. (1996). The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood. New Haven, Yale University Press.
Hearn, J. (1998). "Theorizing men and men's theorizing: Varieties of discursive practices in men's theorizing of men." Theory and Society 27(6): 781-816.
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Kelly, L. (1988). "How Women Define their Experiences of Violence". Feminist Perspectives on Wife Abuse. K. Yllo and M. Bograd. Newbury Park, C.A., Sage.
Laing, L. (1999). "A different balance altogether? Incest offenders in treatment". Challenging Silence: innovative responses to sexual and domestic violence. J. Breckenridge and L. Laing. St Leonards, Allen & Unwin.
McMahon, M. (1995). Engendering Motherhood - Identity and Self-Transformation in Women's Lives. New York, The Guildford Press.
Morris, A. (1999). Uncovering 'maternal alienation': a further dimension of violence against women Department of Social Inquiry, University of Adelaide, Adelaide.
Morris, A. (2003). Working with maternal alienation in Domestic/Family Violence and Child Sexual Abuse. Adelaide, Northern Metropolitan Community Health Service; Women's Health Statewide; University of Adelaide.
Myers, J. E. B. (1997). A Mother's Nightmare - Incest: A Practical Legal Guide for Parents and Professionals. Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage.
Smart, C. (1996). "Deconstructing motherhood". Good Enough Mothering? Feminist perspectives on lone motherhood. E. B. Silva. London, Routledge.
1 The author wishes to acknowledge the contributions to this work of Dr Margie Ripper, University of Adelaide, and Professor Liz Kelly C.B.E., Child & Woman Abuse Studies Unit, London Metropolitan University.
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