Motherly love

Most women would agree that the major downside of becoming a parent is that if bad things happen to your children, you feel their pain as if it’s happening to you. If very bad things happen to them, you know your life is effectively over. The two women a week murdered in domestic situations in England and Wales will leave behind two families whose lives are devastated. How could anyone lose a daughter in those circumstances and ever recover?
As mothers, we often focus our worries on highly unlikely occurrences – the stranger abduction; or things that lie completely beyond our control, the cancer diagnosis. How many mothers of girls consider protecting their daughters from the very real risk of getting into a domestically abusive relationship? With one in four women suffering domestic abuse, there is a very real risk our children will become victims.
What can we do to protect our girls? How can we raise them so we minimise the risks to them? Is there really anything we can do to keep them safe? The biggest risk factor is obviously being female, and there is little we can do about that, but there is much we can do to reduce our daughter’s risk.
The most significant thing we can do is to educate our girls. Women of any age, social background and race can fall prey to an abuser. Confident women with high self-esteem and supportive functional families are not immune. However, the perpetrators share common character traits, and when educated to be vigilant to these traits, our daughters may have the chance of backing off before they’re in too deep. We can teach our daughters to be wary of the charming man who loves too fast and wants to be with them all the time to the exclusion of everyone else. We can also teach them that domestic abuse takes many forms, it’s not just the physical. This is important because although it’s commonly known that physical abuse constitutes domestic abuse, there is a lack of understanding that coercive and controlling behaviour is abuse too. Sexual abuse and issues around consent is also an area that causes confusion. Girls need to be educated that their bodies are their own and that they should never feel pressured or coerced into engaging in sexual activities.
As well as educating our daughters, they will benefit from seeing us model confident, assertive behaviour. We model good behaviour when we stand up to others, demonstrate assertiveness, value people who speak their minds, and value our daughter’s opinions. When you set personal boundaries so that you don’t tolerate being abused by anyone, your daughter will hopefully model this behaviour in her own social interactions.
It’s important to teach our daughters to question sexual stereotypes. Discuss sexism and violence towards women. Teach them to question the toxic narrative that tells them that girls should value their youth, attractiveness, and sexuality over anything else. Encourage them to understand that working hard, being polite and showing respect and kindness are highly important qualities. Parents can give their girls the knowledge that having a man in her life will not be her greatest achievement, nor will it define her. By ensuring our girls grow up to be educated, resilient and self-sufficient, we can ensure they do not define their worth from external sources.
Demonstrate healthy, mutually respectful relationships at home. Girls have an advantage when they know what a functional relationship looks like, when they see their mother expressing her needs, having disagreements and conflicts in a healthy way. The concept of cycles of abuse is all too familiar in domestic abuse, with generations of women in the same family suffering. If you have been abused, it is still possible to break this cycle and give your daughter the best opportunity to avoid entering an abusive relationship herself.
Communication is key. Keep communication with your daughter open, honest and non-judgemental. Open conversation that allows for deep honesty, difficult questions, and opportunities for her to share things she feels vulnerable and unsure about will be helpful. It’s also important not to be intrusive, but to trust your daughter’s judgement and allow her to confidently make her own decisions.
Despite some progress, girls and still bombarded with messages that they are less valuable than boys, that they are objects to be sexualized and prized by men. This can confuse their sense of value and encourage girls to believe that self-worth comes from the outside, whereas it’s what’s inside them that’s more important. Without a strong sense of value, girls are more likely to accept mistreatment from partners later in life. Because of this, girls may grow up without a sense of inner value, and they’ll expect and accept mistreatment by their partners. We need to challenge the cultural messages that our daughters are subjected to, and convey the importance of having high expectations for her relationships.