In Defense of Non-Custodial Mothers
Recently, The Huffington Post ran an article that featured a mother's regret for leaving her children with their father post-divorce. She explained that the divorce left her feeling emotionally and psychologically fragile and she chose to live with relatives for a few years in order to regroup. She went on to explain that she regretted the decision, but it was the best one she had at time. Now that she is back on her feet and has the means to provide for her children, she is in the process of regaining joint custody.
The comments were mostly negative, excoriating the mother for "abandoning" her children. The remarks seemed to be based on the sexist message ingrained in our culture that any mother who does not have custody of her children is a derelict who deserves to be shunted to the margins of society. The responses lauded the father even though the mother alluded to a marital situation that appeared to have been abusive and a divorce that was punitive -- she apparently did not receive child support since she stated she didn't have the means to care for her children.
Few readers approached the story with a shred of objectivity. They applied gender-biased conventional wisdom that a woman's primary purpose is to be a mother, and that she should be able to execute this task in saint-like fashion, regardless of the circumstances in which she finds herself.
I chose, after a long, deliberate and painstaking process, to give my ex-husband essentially full custody of one of my children. It was the most wrenching decision of my life, but one that I felt I had to make. My ex-husband has bottomless pockets and had ground me down financially in a custody battle. I was spent psychologically and worried that even if I did have the financial means to keep fighting, I would lose the emotional stamina to care for my children. (My ex did not try to get custody of my daughter, of whom I have primary custody.)
Because my ex was an alienating parent who had put my son in the miserable position of having to take sides, I still would have "lost" my son even if I'd won the battle. He would have wanted to be with his father and I would have had an ungodly level of friction in my house. Finally, the custody battle was brutal on my son's psychological well-being and I was afraid he would snap if I didn't give my ex what he wanted.
I wrote about this process in a piece for Huffington Post. The piece garnered upwards of 1600 comments, most of them eviscerating me for the choice that I made. I was accused of being "unfit," suspected of lying about settling out of court, as some believed that only nutjob mothers don't have custody. I was also told that I had ruined my relationship with my son and that he would grow up hating me. Basically, I deserved to be despised and ruined.
What happened after relinquishing custody is fodder for another blog post, but here's the nutshell: my son ended up in residential treatment where he finally got support from objective parties who didn't force him to take sides. He was able to see the conflict between his father and me in a more balanced way. Our relationship is the best it's been since his dad and I split up nine years ago. My son will be returning from boarding school next month, and will live with me every other weekend.
I write this to show that sometimes a mother's best choice is temporarily to relinquish the day-to-day job of parenting. Only when I extricated myself from an untenable situation could healing begin. I have connected with many non-custodial mothers, and not one of them is a "deadbeat." They had different reasons for not having custody (many lost custody due to vindictive exes), but they never stopped loving their children, or wanting them back. For most of them, their efforts to regain custody have been thwarted by their exes. They all talk about the damage gender-biased stigma has done to their self-esteem.
The bashing of non-custodial mothers needs to stop and be replaced by a realistic understanding of the obstacles faced by the typical single mother. Single mothers who lack sufficient (or any) child support, who have no family available to help with child-rearing, who scramble to find work and yet are still unable to provide appropriate housing for their children, are in an oppressive situation. Some are able to soldier on and create a better life for their family, and some are not. But those who are not able to deserve compassion, not contempt.
Raising children does take a village, and single mothers especially need support. When mothers have sufficient support, they are better able to care for their children. Affordable community housing for families run by single mothers would help those mothers provide for their children, while giving children the benefit of an extended family network.
If single mothers had more support, fewer would lose custody. JK Rowling, Harry Potter author and an inspiring single mother, is president of a UK-based organization called Gingerbread which raises awareness and funds to help single parents (including fathers) living in the United Kingdeom.
One of my dreams is that someday an organization like Gingerbread will exist in America. Tearing down non-custodial mothers, and keeping them in positions where they cannot raise their children, primarily damages the children. So let's jettison judgment and do what we can to support all single parents.
I invite anyone with ideas about how to make this support tangible to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.