Ooh. Just reading that title, “What kind of mother could give up her kids?” has an emotional sting, doesn’t it? It gets you right here — in the heart, in the gut. After all, whyever are we mothers, anyway?
There’s a provocative article in this month’s Marie-Claire that’s been making the internet rounds this past week. Yesterday it made the New York Times. I’m fascinated by the gamut of response to these pieces, often thoughtful, but just as often the response of what clearly hit a nerve. Motherhood is being threatened.
[insert bias here: a year and a month ago I moved 3000 miles away from my children. They now live full-time with their father after two years of joint custody and ten years of stay-at-home motherhood. You can read more about my journey over at Literary Mama.]
I’m going to go out on a bit of an ideological limb here and compare non-custodial motherhood to gay marriage. Both ideas make some people uncomfortable. I find that people’s perceptions of themselves are shaken when they feel confronted by a model that doesn’t fit theirs. I have had my share of “how could you’s” and “I could never do that’s” in response to my mentioning that yes, I have four children and that no, I don’t live with them. Even more often, I hear “that must be hard” which to me is a compassionate response. It is hard.
It is hard to walk a path that challenges not only the identity I myself held for years (I’ve been a mother more than half my life) but also appears to spit in the face of a cultural identity most of us share. I never fancied myself as either an activist or a world-changer (well, maybe a little of that second one), but simply by existing and writing my story here and there, I am now both.
A couple of weeks ago I suggested that in some cases it works for Mom to go out and work and Dad to stay at home with the kids. A wise commenter pointed out that my new model was really just swapping one gender for the other, and while that’s true I think that in general we don’t give dads enough credit for their nurturing abilities. Sure, my ex didn’t work out for me as a husband but now he gets to test himself as way more of a dad than he could have been while I was trying to be the Supermom. My stepping back creates a void he can fill (it seems to be working) and gives my kids space to expand as well.
Yes, I miss them. I miss their slightly-sweaty smell when they come in from playing hard outside, and their squeaky-clean smell after a bath. I miss our nightly Story Time, the years of exploring worlds through the pages of books, passing down my ardent love of words to the next generation. I miss pancake Saturdays. I miss the little looks that passed between pairs of us at the dinner table, eye rolls and winks and amazement, all completely non-verbal yet intimate.
Things change, though, and life moves on, sometimes noticeably so. By the standards I have to judge such things (phone calls and emails and report cards and dad’s narratives of their activities) my kids are doing fine. The arrangement we have now is always subject to change.
The thing is, the definition of motherhood is a uniquely personal thing but we have made it a cultural norm to live up to. There are already so many and varied expressions of motherhood out there, each working well in its unique manner, flying well under the radar of awareness. Your story is yours alone. Asking whether you could ever move 3000 miles away from your children is like asking if you could ever kill someone — until you are faced with a gun staring down at you and a trigger under your own finger you just don’t know.
What I do ask for, though, is the opening of a conversation. We need, as a culture, to open to possibilities that we don’t personally share. To explore our gender biases (why can’t we think of dads as nurturing? Why is a mother leaving her kids “abandonment” while a dad leaving them simply elicits shrugs of “oh well, it’s the system”?) and make room for changes.
Yes, I’m changing the world. For myself and for my children. I want my kids to be adults in a world that’s not entrenched in expectation and cultural identity, where they can feel more free than my generation has been to explore variations without feeling social repercussion. I want love to be expressed in ways other than within a Hallmark card. I want fathers to nurture and mothers to love in ways that don’t necessarily involve tucking in at bedtime and baking muffins. And I want parents who make these hard choices on their children’s behalf to be honored and supported, not reviled. Am I asking too much?