With mothers retaining custody of children in approximately 70 percent of divorces, it’s no wonder that there is a widely perceived notion that men walk out on their families far more often than women do. But when women do abandon their families, they take with them a tarnished reputation and the perception that they are horrible people just because of the maternal role they were destined to fulfill and failed at. Mothers who leave their children behind have to live with this guilt every day. Here are their stories.
Who gets the kids?
Once upon a time, the courts automatically deferred custody to mothers following a divorce. Now judges weigh the best interests of the child in question. There’s joint custody, physical custody and sole custody. While fathers give up custody every day, increasingly, so are mothers. The only difference? Moms are judged way more harshly for it. Continues on the next pages…
Rebekah Spicuglia moved across the country to rediscover herself.
Spicuglia became a young mom fresh out of college. She was free-spirited and thought that settling down with her baby-daddy would be the best option for her and her family. She eventually learned that this belief was naive and came to the conclusion that, sometimes, the best thing a mother can do for her child is let go of them… so she relinquished custody of her son to his father. “Telling people that I was a noncustodial mom — I found it to be a conversation stopper. For a long time, I didn’t really feel comfortable talking about it. [But] the more I talk about it, the more I find that people’s eyes are open to the reality — which is that over 2 million noncustodial moms are in America right now, and it is definitely increasing […] People are recognizing that fathers can be amazing primary caregivers, and we shouldn’t sell men short.” She moved from California to New York to pursue the arts and contacts her son occasionally.
Maria Housden became a best-selling author.
Housden was married for 15 years and had three children. No matter how hard she tried to fill her role as a suburban mom, something was not right. “It started as a restlessness. I had this feeling that I could write a book, that I’d like to travel the world,” Housden recalls. In 1994, the couple lost their 3-year-old child, Hannah, to kidney cancer. The couple’s relationship did not recover from her death. “Hannah’s death made me realize life is too short. At what point do you say, ‘This isn’t working?'” she says. Housden wanted to write about her experience of losing a child and figured that such an undertaking would require a lot of reflection. She would need freedom from the “daily grind of raising three kids.” She moved across the country to San Francisco and sold the proposal for her book, Hannah’s Gift, for $250,000. The book has been translated into 15 languages and is in talks to be adapted into a film. Her ex-husband provided the girls with structure, and she gives them adventure. They travel to London, France and the Bahamas together and Maria is in frequent contact with them. “The joy of my life has been providing those experiences for my kids. Their lives are bigger because of it […] I did something divorced fathers are expected to do every day. But when a mother does it, it’s abandonment,” she says.
Elle Hull left for a fresh start abroad.
After she and her husband divorced, Hull moved with her three girls to Illinois. They barely made ends meet, so she had to send the girls back to their father. Hull was resentful. “My ex had taken a great deal of time after our divorce to get back on his feet. Here I was, eking by because the girls needed me,” Hull says. Thinking it was in the girl’s best interest, she gave her ex custody. She began dating a man based in the UK and left to be with him. She started attending school again, studying law, and says, “There’s no way I could have done it as a single mother. They’d never understand why Mommy has to study for an exam. They’d say, ‘Where’s dinner?’” Hull says that the first time her girls called their father’s girlfriend “mom,” it hurt. “When they’re older,” she says, “They’ll understand.”
Pauline Gaines gave her husband full custody to ensure the financial safety of her child.
“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. 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. 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 deserve compassion, not contempt.”
Talyaa Liera removed herself from her children’s lives to help them.
“There was an enormous amount of conflict [between my ex and I], and it was wreaking havoc on my children. I felt I had no other option but to take myself out of the equation and possibly sacrifice my relationship with my children to make things better for them […] We talk all the time. We’re very connected. My kids are totally wired, so we IM every day, we Skype frequently. I do the best that I can in my circumstance, and my heart tells me that I’m a good mother.”
Bracing for the reaction.
When a NCM (noncustodial mother) tells someone about her life, her knee-jerk reaction is to brace herself for impact. A majority of people react very poorly to NCMs. Even the “best” reactions are tainted with an unspoken judgement and the assumption that the mother is making the wrong choice for her and her family.
Noncustodial mothers have lost friends.
They have lost family members, job opportunities, are denied access to school and medical records and they are marginalized in interacting in their children’s lives.
Most noncustodial mothers do not fit the stereotype.
A majority of these women are not drug addicts, criminals or unstable. They are noncustodial because they cannot afford to take care of their children or due to other life changes that led them to chose an alternative route to parenting.
There are at least 2.5 million households run by single fathers.
And for most of these fathers, there is a noncustodial mother… Not that we would know it, because noncustodial mothers are often very hesitant to reveal themselves to anyone, let alone the public. Why are these mothers so ashamed and why is there such a negative stigma behind noncustodial mothers?
There is a lot of sexism happening here. Sexism involved with fatherhood and motherhood. We are both assuming that men are inept in taking care of children and that if a woman is noncustodial, the children are absolutely in danger.
The roles are changing.
Women make up nearly half of the workforce and earn more post-secondary degrees then men. The idea that men dominate the realm of work and women are best served as caretakers is dated. Our vision of women as these all-encompasing manifestations of motherhood is trite and insulting… to both men and women.
How can we help NCMs and the perceptions they’re facing?
We need to provide NCMs with the same level of communication and support that we give to noncustodial fathers. While many areas have laws that supports NCMs, prejudice and ignorance is still prevalent and prevent these moms from being a part of their children’s lives.
It doesn’t matter which parent walks away.
As long as it’s done for the kids’ benefit. You don’t want a child subjected to bad behavior like alcoholism or drug abuse. Having a mentally ill parent often causes children lifelong suffering as well. Instead of vilifying moms who leave their children, we should consider why we’re doing so. Is it because we place more value on mothers? Shouldn’t both parental roles be important?
And to all of the haters, remember one thing:
Just because these women do not have custody of their children, that doesn’t mean that they still aren’t mothers. You never stop being a parent, no matter what.