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What kind of mother could give up her kids?

Categories: Bad Parenting, Parents in the Media, Wanna Fight About It?


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?

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16 comments so far...

  • No. You’re not asking too much. When M and I made the decision that he would leave his job to stay home until our daighter was school-aged (he started his new life as a SAHD after I went back to work when Amelie was 6 weeks old), we didn’t think of role-reversal, the fact that he wasn’t her mother or anything else. We were looking at finances, pure and simple.

    Because, you see, we both made the choice to have a child; we both made the choice to be parents. Parenting is an equal responsibility in our household. We are both nurturers, both disciplinarians. We are both housekeepers, cooks and entertainment directors.

    Our daughter is half me, half him, all her own person. But we brought her here. We care for her.

    When a friend lauded me for putting the “man in his place!” I quietly pointed out that it was a financial decision and had nothing to do with perceived gender roles in parenting. When another friend teased him for being a “Mom”, he asked if that friend would like to hire him at a wage more than mine.

    I’m tired of the idea hat dads aren’t caring, nurturing or competent. Our daughter is thriving under his care, intellectually and socially. And she’s not afraid of anything either. They’ve formed a beautiful bond.

    And FWIW, there are people out there who have told me, to my face, that I abaondoned the son I had when I was 19 because I gave him up for adoption. I took care of myself throughout my pregnancy, didn’t do any of the things you’re not supposed to do, did all of the things you are supposed to do, weighed all of my options to provide him with the best life possible and hand picked the family he went to. He’s now an opera singer, an honors student who will be going to college early and one of the most well adjusted teenagers I’ve ever met. He’s traveled the world, dissects architecture and has a romantic and sentimental streak a mile long too. If that’s abandonment, if my leaving my daughter with her father to work and seeing what a beautiful, intelligent and precocious child she’s turning into is abandonment, perhaps more mothers should consider “abandoning” their children. There’d be a lot less hurt in this world if they did I think.

    Phe  |  July 22nd, 2009 at 10:20 am

  • I don’t think that there is any right or wrong here, just the way a person feels. I know that the way that I feel about my son, I cannot bear to be apart from him for even 24 hours. I do work full time but I have never been apart from him for much more than the length of time my hours are. I really don’t like the stereotypes as far as who should stay home, who gets kids in a divorce, etc. Every situation is different and should be treated as such.

    The problem that I have with my son’s father staying home with him or any of the such, is that he really doesnt know our son as well as I do and I don’t agree with many of the things that he does. Okay, let me explain - our son loves to be outside and my husband will just sit in the house for hours on end with him. He will not play any structured games or learning games with him, just let him run around with no direction. Basically, after an hour or so with his dad, my son becomes increasingly energetic and destructive as he needs some direction and needs to get out of the house and my husband cannot keep up with his energy level - but I can. But, again, this situation clearly only applies to our household and not everyone’s.

    Oceans Mom  |  July 22nd, 2009 at 12:43 pm

  • I definitely believe it’s healthy for younger people to view parenthood as a course that each of us has to chart. This is a greater challenge but a very worthwhile one, compared to the “norm” that girls tended to internalize when I was young.

    Phe, I just want to say thank you for giving your son a wonderful start in life and seeing him off on his journey of opportunity. What a blessing that you are able to watch him grow up, and that he knows how much you care for him.

    SKL  |  July 22nd, 2009 at 1:33 pm

  • Karen, your story here is sad.

    It is NOT sad because you made a decision to work and live 3000 miles away from your kids and left them in the capable hands of your ex-husband to raise. It’s NOT sad because later in life you won’t be as close to your kids because you abandoned them to pursue a career. You MIGHT NOT be close to your kids later but in all likelihood you could be closer to your kids compared to many moms who “sacrificed” their careers to raise their children. It’s NOT sad because you are missing many special moments in your children’s lives that you’ll never get back. You are missing special moments of course but you made a choice and I give you credit for setting your priorities as your values dictate.

    What is sad is that you are obviously feeling a lot of guilt about your decision and feel the need to justify yourself and say that the decisions you’ve made will actually benefit your kids because it will show them that they don’t have to live by those social stigmas that society places on women and families. That’s crap (pardon my french). Sorry Karen, you’re not changing the world. You’ve made a decision about your life (and the lives of your children and ex) and that’s all you’ve really done. You should live with it. No need to justify yourself to the world (or more importantly, to yourself) because you feel guilty each time someone gives you that look because you “gave up your kids”. Accept that you will feel guilty because you are still insecure about your life’s decisions (who isn’t?) but as long as your children feel like you’re still part of their lives, they’re growing up to be well adjusted adults and that you’re still MOM to them, I’m sure you can live with your guilt. Personally, I would not feel guilty about your decisions if I was you (well, maybe a little) but I am guessing that non-guilt is beyond your ability in this matter.

    I have a feeling that you are asking WAY too much about being honored and supported but I never thought we’d have an African American President in my lifetime so there is hope.

    Glenn  |  July 22nd, 2009 at 3:00 pm

  • I checked out your article on Literary Mama, but still don’t have a sense of what series of events resulted in the decision(s) to switch from attachment-parenting SAHM to non-custodial parent. You’ve experienced both ends of a big continuum and I’m sure it gives you some interesting perspectives on parenting. Sorry if this comes across as too nosy, but I’m very curious to hear your story!

    SoftwareMom  |  July 22nd, 2009 at 5:28 pm

  • Phe - Hugs to you and your son. That took strength, as did keeping an (I’m assuming) open adoption all the way through. Major kudos. Faugh on those judgy people!

    Ocean’s Mom - That’s a hard one, and I remember feeling similarly when my kids were smaller. I recommend letting go of some of the smaller stuff if you can (not that you asked, but if I had it to do all over again I’d try that route myself).

    SKL - I’m right with you. Thanks, as always, for adding to the conversation.

    Glenn - Wow, you wrote with a lot of emotion; thanks for sharing. Sounds like you have your own definition of motherhood and I respect that. Like I said, we each define that as individuals.

    SoftwareMom - Nope, not nosy. It’s an understandable question. I’ve chosen to be circumspect about certain elements of my choice because 1) it’s more complicated than I can adequately express in a short column, and 2) I am telling my story and not my ex-husband’s, so even though the move from SAHM to non-custodial parent had a lot to do with him and the dynamic we had while married and while sharing joint custody and how this affected our children, there are elements I am choosing to keep private. Essentially, I was in a poverty situation and couldn’t work except from home because of the erratic joint custody schedule the court gave him full license to dictate, often on a last-minute basis. I hadn’t worked outside the home in more than 10 years, having stayed at home at his request to care for our children and had few employment prospects. Remaining in a joint custody situation, there was little hope for change. The conflict between us had a detrimental effect on the children. It was a difficult choice to make and it took a year to work out the details while preparing the children for changes.

    Karen Murphy  |  July 22nd, 2009 at 9:22 pm

  • SKL - It has been a blessing to be able to watch him grow, albeit from afar. I’m not heavily involved in his life and that’s just fine. But he does know that I’m here and love him.

    Karen - The decision was his mother’s, about 7 years ago now. Shortly after we met, they moved across the country but I have seen him at least once since then - he met his new sister (our daughter) last summer. His mum and I talk fairly regularly (she’s such a great lady), but my son did just recently add me on Facebook too. It’s a good place for both of us, in all. I’m thrilled to see him grow - and continually in awe of him. He’s happy to know that I’ve always loved him.

    Judgey people be damned. There are too many of them with a lot to say and no clue about what it is they’re actually saying. Pfft!

    Phe  |  July 23rd, 2009 at 5:23 am

  • It is never an easy decision to decide to be apart from your children. But sometimes life dictates what will be. All my children are grown - except for my youngest…a Senior in HS this year.
    They did live with their Father for alittle over a year when their Father and I got divorced….until I got on my feet and got tired of walking around without a piece of my heart. I always had legal custody…so just went and picked them up and took them home and they stayed with me until they were grown.
    And since my next to oldest has been grown she has decided that she enjoys a big gap between me and herself. Was it hard to let go at all - even though she was grown…yes very hard…but I have learned how to give her all the space she wants…and sometimes more. She knows how to contact me and where I live if she misses me… but I had to stop putting my heart out…only to be stepped on. That has been one of the hardest things in life to adjust to. But you do what you must.
    My next to youngest just moved over 2,000 miles away…that came as a surprise…but am glad she keeps in contact with the computer and with phone call. Life is full of twists and turns… either learn how to handle the curves or you become road kill. A personal decision we all have to make on our own.

    Eileen  |  July 23rd, 2009 at 9:47 am

  • I can only imagine what a difficult and painful decision you had to make. Of course it’s hard (what isn’t in parenting?), and that should be the only response you should ever get.

    I have custody of both of my children, but my daughter, who was critically ill for almost a year and needed full time nursing, does not live with our family.

    There are many reasons to not be the custodial parent and some of them are easier to understand than others. The truth is, though, that whatever choice you make is the one that shapes your life and no matter what, it must be difficult.

    kat  |  July 23rd, 2009 at 11:18 am

  • Responsible, loving mothers who put their children’s best interests above their own may sometimes choose not to be a custodial parent. It must be a difficult, heart-rending choice. I admire any parent who does that for their child(ren).

    Robyn  |  July 24th, 2009 at 9:59 am

  • I think all those women in the article made the right choices for themselves. all hard choices and very personal. Am I going to judge them? yes, because I have only my own experiences and expectations to relate to.
    I wish my mother would have made those choices right away. I love her, she was a great mom (to the best of her ability) but she was just not a mom. she limped along at night school as a single working mom of three. of course, we told her she made the right decision, arent children raised to please their parents? to this day she is not a mother, I am 30 and still have to have hear about some of her irresponsiblities (from my view) decisions. her personality did not leave room for mothering children, but i could be her friend.

    I wished she would have made my meek father (who wanted, but was not awarded by the court) full custody. he was a stable intelligent family man who passed away when I was eighteen and all I had was 8 years of uncomfortable hellos and goodbyes when we visited. when what all us kids really longed for was for a PRESENT parent good or bad.

    would this be a choice for me? the one thing I supported and liked in your article was “until you are faced with a gun staring down at you and a trigger under your own finger you just don’t know.” but I do know that I have made a bigger impact on my son in his 3 years than she ever did the entire time she had “full custody” mostly because I strive to be present rather than all things.

    cricket  |  July 31st, 2009 at 2:09 pm

  • one more comment, I try to remember that “children need interesting momma’s” but I also believe they need present ones, my goal would be to not sacrifice the little things that matter to kids for my own agenda.

    seems to me that these three in the article were not great examples becuase they all had their own agenda, ie fell in love, followed this new man to such and such country. not the best examples of choices that I would like to see my daughter model. I challenge you to find those women that truly did not flit about at the whim of other men in their lives at the sacrifice of thier children. without knowing more, yours might be that story. thanks for at least putting it out there and making me think about my opinion becuase if I dont stand for something I will fall for anything.

    cricket  |  July 31st, 2009 at 2:19 pm

  • Thank you Talyaa Liera for being a horrible mother. Your failure as a mother is yet another sign of the inferiority, debauched nature and moral decline of Western civilization. That failure and weakness assures that the followers of Mohammed (SAAW) will triumph over the infidels of the West. One day soon the world will be at peace under Sharia law and the global Ummah Wahida will be a reality. And then evil, selfish women such as yourself will get the just punishment they deserve!

    Tariq Saddiqi  |  March 5th, 2011 at 7:29 am

  • My question is what are the effects of you leaving your children on your children? Do they feel abandoned? If so how is this coped with? I was abandoned as a child due to my mother just not wanting to be a mother. She had an abortion that nearly killed her at age 17 and then at age 21 when she got pregant with me she decided to have me out of fear of going through a bad abortion again. My grandmother raised me and my mother actually lived in the same house with me, off and on until I went away to college. I ended up really despising my mother for the abandonment util I had my own children. I grew to understand that just because you give birth, does not make you a mother. I went through what you did, with being an at home mom for years and doing all the things that “good moms” are suppose to do. I was married for 11 years and was only married becasue I did not want my daughter to be a bastard like me. After the marriage dissolved I remarried quickly and have been remarried for 10 years. My children feel like I should of not remarried (to someone I really love) because they wanted me all to themselves. Anyway how do you win?

    MONICA  |  March 5th, 2011 at 12:51 pm

  • Do you pay child support, Karen?

    M2A  |  March 5th, 2011 at 10:02 pm

  • Monica, it does seem that no matter what we do or how we do it, someone won’t be happy, at least not in the instant moment. Hopefully your children will one day understand the choices you made better than they seem to now. I am pretty up front with my children about the struggles I’ve had as a mother, and I am just as up front about how much I love them and am proud of them. My kids rock.

    M2A, of course I pay child support.

    Talyaa Liera  |  March 5th, 2011 at 10:12 pm