mothering

a word about being a non-custodial mother

This isn’t a post about my children, about how they are well taken care of by a man who loves them very much, about how they being taught discipline and responsibility and all of the life lessons a man passes down to his sons, about how they know I moved to New York City not to escape responsibility but to prevent becoming homeless and to find work, which in turn would help me be better able to contribute to their lives.

It’s also not a post about the extraordinary measures I take to maintain a relationship with my sons, participating in focus groups and research studies to fly back to Chicago at least 15 times in the ten months, spending weeks with them last summer and extensive time over winter and spring breaks, calling them twice a week, sending care packages and emails and Skypeing and generally staying in touch as much as I can without overwhelming their daily routines.

What this is about: I’m getting really tired of people’s judgments about being a noncustodial parent and about not being able to pay very much in child support (because, uh, my income is low). This has become a bit of an issue in the context of my book project/crowd-funding campaign, where people make a lot of assumptions. They assume I moved to dodge responsibility, that I purposely have a low income so that I won’t have to take care of my kids, that it “must be nice” to “fly away” to another city and “leave someone else to raise [my] kids.”

[The truth: I moved because there was NO WORK in Chicago and I had a basically free place to live in New York for up to four months while I got settled. I have a low income because that’s all of the work I’ve been able to find. If my book takes off? I GUARANTEE that the vast majority of the money I make from it — if I make any — will go to the boys and catching up on lost financial time. It’s not “nice” to be 800 miles away, even though I dislike Chicago and prefer to be in New York. If I’d been able to find a way to stay in Chicago, I would have. But it wasn’t working.]

I get it. Mothers are “supposed” to be with their kids after a divorce or separation. Fathers are the ones who are “supposed” to be noncustodial parents. For a variety of reasons, that’s how things often end up. But as for the “supposed to be…” expectation, that’s ridiculous.

Here’s what a child’s life is “supposed to be” like: children are supposed to be loved, feel safe, learn life skills, and grow up in a stable environment. What is supposed to happen is for adults to come together to decide what’s best for children and then act accordingly. And — here’s a news flash — sometimes what’s best for children, what offers them stability and safety and guidance, isn’t what one (or more) adult would prefer. I wouldn’t characterize my status as a noncustodial parent as my preference. If I were guided by my own desires and selfishness, I would have dragged them into a horrible custody battle and it would have been painful for everyone involved, especially the children.

I chose not to fight because I wanted my children to have a better life than I did after my parents divorced. I chose not to fight because I saw that they were in a good place and there was no reason to move them to a different place just because I wanted them there. I chose not to fight because it’s not about what I wanted or what my ex wanted: it was about what was best for my kids (and, in some respect, what they wanted).

Did I do everything perfectly? No. Do I still make mistakes? Absolutely. Am I still trying to make amends for the things I handled badly in the past? You bet. Do I owe money? Yes. But what do you want me to do about it, other than what I’m already doing (which is everything humanly possible)? [Also, it’s really none of anyone’s damn business what financial or custodial arrangements I have concerning my children and/or what sort of relationship I have with them and my exes.]

It irks me that people who know nothing about my situation — and some people who know a lot about it — still go around with preconceived notions about mothers who don’t have custody (in general) and my fitness as not only a person but a human being (in particular).

At the end of the day, I know it’s none of my business what anyone else thinks of me, and I also know that I can’t change someone’s mind about me if they’ve already decided their judgment. So be it. But I am allowed to say it bothers me and to point out that it’s unfair, hurtful, and dishonest to judge someone for making decisions that were made out of everything but selfishness.

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4 thoughts on “a word about being a non-custodial mother”

    1. Thank you. It’s obviously something I’m quite sensitive about –one good thing that has come out from speaking up is that I was chosen to write a chapter about noncustodial mothers in a book about feminist perspectives on mothering. It’s an academic book due out next year. They hadn’t originally planned to include a chapter on noncustodial mothers, but I contacted them and pointed out they had left out one huge aspect of the mothering experience that even (in my experience) feminist mothers are extremely judgmental about. I’m excited about the chapter, and it makes me feel less alone in my experiences, but it doesn’t make it any easier to get attacked.

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