Let’s Talk About Mothers Without Primary Custody Of Their Children

flickr / HAMZA BUTT
The general consensus is that they are the most selfish women on the planet and/or don’t love their children.

What happened?

This is the simple but very, very loaded question that I am asked when someone finds out that I don’t have primary custody of my daughter. Even those who label themselves “feminist” or “progressive” seem to have a hard time wrapping their head around why a mother wouldn’t have custody.

Then, when they find out that my non-custodial status came about because I chose to not be with my daughter every day — and not as a result of addiction, abuse, or neglect — the situation becomes even harder for them to grasp. After all, if nothing happened, why would a mother choose to give up custody of her child? The general consensus seems to be that she would only do this if she was the most selfish woman on the planet and/or didn’t love her child.

That leaves non-custodial mothers like myself with one of two labels: selfish or unfit. And, yes, there may be some women who either lost custody or gave it up because they were unfit or “selfish.” (A subjective condemnation, at best.) However, those possibilities existing in no way make them the only reasons that a mother may be non-custodial; thinking in absolutes is reductive, dangerous, and leaves no room for very complicated and nuanced situations to be addressed objectively.

After all, if nothing happened, why would a mother choose to give up custody of her child?

This inability to acknowledge that absolutes — “mothers who do not choose their child are bad mothers” — are by and large useless, and belies a powerful gender bias that still permeates nearly every aspect of our society. Most of us have been taught, either directly or contingently, that mothers are and should be the primary caretakers.

A 2008 Kansas City University study — Non-custodial Mothers: Thematic Trends and — Future Directions— explores the complicated societal condemning of mothers who contradict, challenge, or defy the “right” kind of mothers:

“The non-custodial mother is an anomaly. She does not live with her children on a full-time basis, putting her outside of the dominant expectations associated with motherhood…recent motherhood scholarship has drawn attention to mothers who do not fit the dominant ideology of motherhood–mothers of color, working mothers, single mothers, lesbian mothers, and non-custodial mothers, to name a few. These mothers, often referred to as resistant mothers, do not fit neatly into the intensive motherhood paradigm.”

As has been made evident by much of the recent political activity in the U.S., when people aren’t familiar with something — when it doesn’t fit into their limited worldview — they tend to fear it. That fear can then manifest in many different ways, and on any part of the spectrum of fight or flight response. This explains why, when non-custodial mothers “reveal” their status, they tend to either be confronted and condemned or shunned completely.

One study from 1995—No-Woman’s Land: The Story of Non-Custodial Mother’sexplains that:

“Women without custody of their children are positioned as the ‘other’ to the norm of the custodial mother. This custodial/non-custodial dichotomy illustrates two central tenets within psychology. First, the norm operates as a standard against which ‘others’ are measured. These norms acquire a naturalness and usually a superiority which positions the ‘other’. Second, the individual as the focus of analysis results in a seeking for causes within the individual.”

Exactly. People want to know; they ask me again and again and again: What happened?

It is, as I said, a question loaded with a lifetime of gender roles, unforgiving standards that mothers are held to, and a belief that a woman’s role is, primarily, to be a mother.

In the same study, it is proposed that the assumed “unfitness” of a non-custodial mother is “a social construct, designed to disguise the disparity of power relations between women and men within both the context of the law and the family.” This observation highlights, again, the gender bias that comes into play when presented with a familial situation that conflicts with what we’ve been told to believe our whole lives.

These studies are admittedly dated, but they remain important because, to this day, they remain the most comprehensive research done on societal beliefs about non-custodial mothers. This, coupled with a steadfast cultural depiction of any mother who doesn’t fit into prescribed norms as unfit or selfish, means that mothers without custody of their children are both misrepresented and underrepresented.

No wonder I can see the visible shock on people’s faces when I say that my daughter lives with her dad. It’s so far outside most people’s realm of comprehension that they are horrified, confused, angered, or some combination of all three.

At first, I spoke of our arrangement freely. I wasn’t ashamed. I didn’t feel guilty. I had a deep conviction that the choice I made for myself and my daughter was a good one. My choice was born out of the clarity that as long as my daughter was reliant on me and only me, I’d never be able to get ahead in my career or regain a hold on my health and happiness. It was unfraught and I knew it was the right thing to do for both of us. It wasn’t until I was met with such visceral reactions that I began to feel as though I should feel ashamed.

When I say my daughter lives with her dad, people are horrified, confused, angered, or some combination of all three.

But that’s how shame works.

In her poem, “Ode to My Bitch Face,” Olivia Gatwood says, “we think we’re supposed to feel it, we’re told to feel it, about the way that we live, and act, and walk, and speak, and dress, and are. And then we feel it because someone else told us to. It’s not an organic feeling.”

Once I began to feel ashamed of my decision, I started to feel like an outlier, like I had made a choice so unthinkable that I needed to keep it hidden. I stopped telling people. If it came up, I followed my “admission” with a long list of justifications that, I hoped, would keep people from slinging their premature judgment in my face.

That got old, fast. I love to talk about my daughter — about the funny things she says, the plans we have for her summer visitation, the pictures she draws for me. Not being able to do that because of other people’s misguided assumptions about why she doesn’t live with me was painful.

I began looking for other women like me and, while being a non-custodial mother may seem like an anomaly, it’s more common than I thought.

According to the 2013 United States Census, 13.4 million parents are deemed “custodial” and, of those, 1 in every 6 (17.5%) are fathers. That means about 2.5 million households are run by single fathers, many of which have a non-custodial counterpart. This, according to the Pew Research Center, is up from 300,000 in 1960. The trend of single father households is growing, which means that being a non-custodial mother is, too.

In recent years, more women have come forward with their stories about becoming non-custodial mothers. One woman, Pauline Gaines, tells the Huffington Post why she’s glad she did, saying, “having me ‘out of the picture’ has enabled [my son] to have a more balanced perspective. We are closer now than we have been since before the divorce.”

She also wrote a later article defending her choice, after receiving pushback from the masses of keyboard warriors. She explains:

“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).”

Yet another non-custodial mother reveals her deep regret over leaving her son with his father. In an anonymous and heartbreaking confession she shares:

“I had to get out, but will you ever understand why you had to stay? Will you believe I abandoned you there to “live a carefree life” the way he thinks I did? Will you understand every night, every minute of every day, I wanted you with me but didn’t want to uproot you from the only home you ever knew? I didn’t want you to see me suffer, cry, and worry about where I would be, where I would stay.”

These stories are critical to starting a dialogue about non-custodial mothers. They illuminate just how varied each family’s circumstance is and shows that there is no black and white reason for a mother not having custody.

For some, like me, it is a choice. For others, it is out of necessity. Still others are the unfortunate victims of a faulty court system. As the number of mothers without custody grows, so will the reasons why. And as we shift into a culture where being a single father is applauded, we must also open our minds to the idea that a single father household is not always the result of an unfit or flighty mother. This can occur if both society and family courts begin to move away from antiquated narratives and become open to the idea that there are many ways to be a mother. (And many ways to be a good one.)

That being said, I will no longer shroud my reasons for being non-custodial in a false sense of selflessness. It took me two full years to be able to admit — even to myself — that part of my choice to become a non-custodial mother was for me, so that I could regain control of my life and create a better situation for myself. This falls so neatly into the paradigm that mothers are supposed to be saint-like creatures with not one single need other than to love and care for their children.

Society and family courts must begin to move away from antiquated narratives.

My reasons for making the choice that I did are numerous and complicated. They range from the selfish (wanting to have the financial flexibility to pursue a career that would set me up for a better life and needing time to breathe after a chaotic five years of a tumultuous marriage, an unplanned child, and a messy divorce) to the selfless (wanting to spare my daughter the stress of growing up with a single mom who was struggling to make ends meet).

I am intentionally dragging my shame into the light so others know they aren’t alone. Exposing shame and inviting conversation around it will help to destroy false assumptions and create a safe space for mothers, both custodial and non.

Conventional wisdom asks you to remain starkly attached to the traditional gender biased roles of parenting. What I, and many other non-custodial mothers ask, is that you take the time to understand our unique situations. While I will no longer justify my decision to anyone, I will gladly answer questions that are born out of curiosity and a desire to expand your perspective. If being open-minded about things you don’t understand is too much for you, I’ll tell you what I tell my daughter when she tattles: worry about yourself.

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