Sociologist supporting YWCA through proceeds from new book

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Caroline McDonald-Harker speaks at the launch of her new book on the experiences of 29 mothers living in abused women's shelters. ~ Photo by Bryan Weismiller

Caroline McDonald-Harker shares powerful stories of Calgary mothers experiencing domestic violenceIn a first-of-its-kind Canadian study, sociologist Caroline McDonald-Harker, PhD, interviewed 29 mothers living in abused women's shelters in Calgary.

The stories heard - both empowering and heartwrenching - have inspired a newly released book: Mothering in Marginalized Contexts: Narratives of Women Who Mother In and Through Domestic Violence. The book builds on years of doctoral research.

"The stories these women shared with me were very difficult," said McDonald-Harker, a faculty member in Mount Royal University's Department of Sociology and Anthropology. "Several times throughout my PhD, I just wanted to stop the research process.

"But it was these women's stories that kept me going because I wanted to give them a voice by sharing their stories of strength, perseverance and personal empowerment. It's my hope that this book is a step in that direction."
Abuse is not a choiceIn addition to bringing awareness to an important issue, McDonald-Harker will provide financial support to a leading city agency. All of McDonald-Harker's personal proceeds from Mothering In Marginalized Contexts will be donated to the YWCA, Calgary's largest and longest-serving women's organization.

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Tim Haney congratulates McDonald-Harker on the completion of her work. ~ Photo by Bryan Weismiller

Elsbeth Mehrer, director of External Relations for the YWCA, was one of the dozens of supporters who attended an on-campus book launch earlier this month.

To Mehrer and those working in the field, domestic violence is too often "oversimplified." Women experiencing domestic violence must weigh the brutality of their home life against the risk of losing their relationship, family and home in pursuing help, she explained.

"Caroline's body of work and her contribution to understanding those complexities is invaluable," said Mehrer. "Each of us, as individuals, need to understand domestic violence.

"No woman is choosing abuse."
Guilt and stigmaIn her book, McDonald-Harker challenged the idea there are "good" and "bad" mothers, based on the physical and social circumstances in which they live. She explored the courageous decisions women make in fleeing abusive situations. And, despite evidence of growing resilience, the women interviewed were still wracked with judgement as they felt their motherhood always being called into question.

One woman quoted in the book, Leena, talked about the stigma surrounding social assistance programs. In one example, she talks about being scorned by her neighbours when picking up her food bank donation in the lobby of her apartment.

"...I wasn't ashamed but was just real happy, then I noticed that everyone was looking at me like I'm a bum and just real poor. Yes, I am on welfare, but I'm not so poor that I don't have no place or whatever. Like it pays my rent and my utilities, but not my food, so I get food bank. But you still get that feeling..."

While much scholarly work looks at domestic violence and mothering studies separately, McDonald-Harker found a gap in research focused on mothering in the context of domestic abuse.

Her interest in the subject began from months spent working as counsellor at a women's shelter after graduating from Queen's University. Those eye-opening experiences influenced her master's research at McGill University and, ultimately, the topic of her doctoral research at the University of Alberta.

Fellow sociologist Tim Haney, PhD, described Mothering In Marginalized Contexts as "a very powerful and sociologically rich work."

Haney paid special acknowledgement to the introduction of the book in which McDonald-Harker shares her own challenges in finishing her dissertation in graduate school while raising two children and being pregnant with her third.

"Those who know Caroline, know she is steadfast supporter of all things that her colleagues at Mount Royal do… so much so, that sometimes her own achievements too often go uncelebrated," Haney said in his opening remarks at the book launch.

"That's why I think events like today are so, so important."

April 18, 2016 — Bryan Weismiller