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In their own words: The experience of mothering as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse

  • Margaret O'Dougherty Wright (a1), Joan Fopma-Loy (a1) and Katherine Oberle (a1)

This article reviews past research on the parenting characteristics of childhood sexual abuse survivors and presents the results of a qualitative study exploring the women's perspectives on mothering as a survivor. Grounded theory was used in the collection and analysis of the data. Data sources included the narrative responses of 79 women (mean age = 38.2 years) and in-depth interviews of a purposive sample of 15 women (mean age = 39 years). They had an average of 2.2 children, ranging in age from 5 months to young adulthood. The theoretical model identified through analysis of data using the constant comparison method was entitled “The Hard Work of Mothering as a Survivor.” Processes emerged that described the ways participants managed the work of mothering in light of memories of the abuse and attempts to heal from this earlier trauma. The conditions for committing to the work included becoming aware of and accepting the reality of the abuse and how it affected one's life, and taking on the hard work of developing a mothering self. This included expanding awareness, developing and evaluating a personal model of mothering, navigating typical and abuse salient parenting challenges, mothering through the pain of recovery, and battling for balance. The findings highlighted the dynamic, multifaceted nature of recovery and resilience for these mothers and the need for an increased focus on parenting in counseling with childhood sexual abuse survivors. Provision of anticipatory guidance regarding commonly experienced stressors at varying stages of the child's development and the mother's stage of recovery and methods for coping with these challenges, would benefit these mothers and promote parenting competence. Specific implications for psychotherapy and directions for future research are discussed.

Corresponding author
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Margaret O'Dougherty Wright, Department of Psychology, 90 North Patterson Avenue, Miami University, Oxford, OH 45056; E-mail:
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