Society For The Study Of Addiction

QMJC January 2020 – Good enough’ parenting: Negotiating standards and stigma

Meeting: January 2020

Article: valentine, k., Smyth, C. & Newland, J. (2019). ‘Good enough’ parenting: Negotiating standards and stigma. International Journal of Drug Policy, 68, 117-123.

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Team: Adrian Farrugia and Gemma Nourse (Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, La Trobe University)

kylie valentine, Ciara Smyth and Jamee Newland’s (2019) article ‘“Good enough” parenting: Negotiating standards and stigma’ offers a generative and nuanced analysis of what is often a controversial topic: strategies used by parents to minimise the potential risks and harms related to their drug consumption. The article explores three key issues: (1) parents’ practical strategies to ensure child safety; (2) parents’ efforts to negotiate discourses of ‘good parenting’; and (3) the impact of stigma on parents’ access to state and support services. valentine, Smyth and Newland’s analysis of the challenges of parenting safely within a context saturated by stigma and discrimination has significant implications for service delivery and the governance of drugs more generally.

valentine, Smyth and Newland analyse interview data gathered in 2014 as one component of a large multi-method study of parents often constituted as ‘high risk’, including those with mental illness and those who consume drugs. Operating within a ‘positive deviance’ framework, the project proposed that in all disadvantaged communities there are individuals and families thriving despite adversity. The article focuses on the accounts of eight individual parents who consume drugs. The analysis begins by recognising recent shifts in contemporary discourses of good parenting which constitute it as a set of skills and strategies to be acquired and demonstrated rather than a relationship. From here, valentine, Smyth and Newland explore how parents who consume drugs negotiate what it means to be a ‘good parent’, particularly as they are often positioned as anterior to the definition of one.

The article identifies a number of strategies and practices participants used to reduce harm. These strategies included: keeping drug-related paraphernalia out of reach of children; avoiding consumption when children are at home; ensuring drug consuming associates do not meet children; and generally attempting to minimise children’s awareness of their drug consumption. Beyond these practical strategies, the article also explores these participants’ efforts to resist stigmatising and negative stereotypes about parents who consume drugs. For the authors, participant interviews:

Indicated a more active, agential negotiation of the practices of using drugs and the identity of a ‘drug user’, which pushed back against the idea that their parenting should be primarily thought about in terms of risk. (120)

In this sense, the article explores different forms of labour that parents who consume drugs must undertake. This includes forms of self-work necessary for living within a context in which they are doubly stigmatised not only for their drug consumption, but also for consuming drugs as parents. A particular strength of this analysis is that it manages to bring attention to the specificity of the challenge of negotiating stigma for the participants at the same time as emphasising that many of their challenges are shared by other parents who do not consume drugs. Participants’ reflections on their drug consumption were ‘tinged with guilt rather than shame’ (120), but this was not necessarily about drug consumption per se. For example, participants expressed guilt about the amount of money they spent on drugs. However, some participants such as ‘Alannah’ also expressed concern about how much time they spent away from their children while they were at work, demonstrating that parents who consume drugs manage many of the same stresses as other parents. Importantly though, the experiences of stigma and discrimination faced by these parents makes it more difficult to balance household budgets and work and parenting commitments, especially in contexts of material disadvantage. In this sense, rather than pathologising parents who consume drugs, or positioning them as intrinsically a risk to their children, valentine, Smyth and Newland’s analysis emphasises how drug consumption is but one practice in the lives of these parents and that approaches focussed solely on risk or deficit are simplistic, stigmatising and, ultimately, unhelpful for informing research, policy or service provision.

Due to the stigmatisation and criminalisation of their drug consumption practices, perhaps the most significant implication of the article concerns the participants’ anxiety about engaging with state services:

Participants spoke of trying to avoid engaging with government supports and services, fearing that child protection services would automatically remove their child if they became aware of their drug use. (121)

Highlighting the risks created by current drug laws, the analysis emphasises that parents who consume drugs can experience support services not as a public resource, but as a punitive mechanism of scrutiny and surveillance. While these participants may have been thriving in adversity, such significant barriers to accessing state support and other services add to the stigma and material disadvantage they experienced.

Importantly, all the participants in this study had some involvement with peer advocacy and service delivery organisations, experiences that contributed to a strong sense of identity and social justice for people who consume drugs. Many deployed highly politicised accounts of their status as parents who consume drugs and contested notions that people who consume drugs cannot be competent parents. For valentine, Smyth and Newland, this suggested a possible direction for service delivery.

Supporting drug using parents to develop a sense of identity and efficacy seems counterintuitive in a context where drug use is so stigmatised, but may facilitate openness to support and change. Shame-drenched parents who think about their behaviour mostly in terms of it being not as bad as the behaviour of others, are far less likely to be amenable to support than parents who are secure in their identity and oriented towards their children. (121)

valentine, Smyth and Newland’s analysis emphasises the complexity and challenge of negotiating understandings of not only what it means to be a good parent but what it means to be a good person in a context that registers parents who consume drugs as incapable of parenthood. This is a compelling example of critically informed research with important implications for policy design and service delivery.

Additional reading

Fraser, S., Pienaar, K., Dilkes-Frayne, E., Moore, D., Kokanovic, R., Treloar, C., and Dunlop, A. (2017). Addiction stigmaand the biopolitics of liberal modernity: A qualitative analysis. International Journal of Drug Policy, 44, 192–201.

Martin, F. (2019). Engaging with motherhood and parenthood: A commentary on the social science drugs literature. International Journal of Drug Policy, 68, 147–153.

Paquette, C. E., Syvertsen, J. L., and Pollini, R. A. (2018). Stigma at every turn: Health services experiences among people who inject drugs. International Journal of Drug Policy, 57, 104–110.

Radcliffe, P. (2009). Drug use and motherhood: Strategies for managing identity. Drugs and Alcohol Today, 9 (3), 17–21.