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August 25, 2009
An intriguing and provocative story in Marie Claire details a new trend: mothers who voluntarily decide to relinquish custody of their children in order to pursue other life goals. Just reading that title, “What Kind of Mother Leaves her Kids?” hits a nerve with many people. It pierces your heart and strikes a chord. After all, don’t good moms place protecting and nurturing their children above all else?
The article portrays three women who, for various reasons, decided to give up custody of their children to their ex-husbands. What they all have in common is that they faced judgment from others who can’t understand why or how a mother could possibly make this choice. The article has created controversy and has generated a multitude of reactions, with many people responding as if motherhood itself was being threatened
Although the definition of motherhood is uniquely personal, there is a cultural norm regarding motherhood that exists and those attitudes are hard to shake when challenged. According to The Today Show, mothers currently retain custody of the children in approximately 70 percent of divorces in the U.S. Even though that represents the majority, it still leaves a large and growing number of women who do not retain custody, either voluntarily or involuntarily.
No matter how equal-minded people think they are, the assumption prevails that a woman’s connection to her children is stronger and thus more sacred than a man’s, so when a couple splits, the mother should naturally retain custody.
As a culture, perhaps we need to be open to options that we may not personally understand or agree with and explore our own gender biases in order to expand societal attitudes toward parenthood. For example: Why is a mother leaving her kids abandonment while a father leaving them acceptable? Why can mothers be nurturing, but not fathers? Why is it okay for men to have goals outside the family, but not okay for women?
“The fact is, some good moms can protect their children best by recognizing someone else is the better parent . . . maybe they’re emotionally overwhelmed; maybe to get financially on their feet; maybe because in a divorce, mom is desperate to leave the house, but she knows the kids need stability,” states clinical psychologist Judith Sills.
Sills goes on to say that while adults are more concerned with social norms, children are more concerned as to whether they have a happy and stable home, regardless of which parent they are living with.
Whether the mother or the father retains custody, most experts agree that children are generally better off with some type of shared visitation arrangement rather than being totally cut off from one of their parents for much of the time.
If we are truly to value parents equally, then we must be accepting of mothers who make the difficult choice to give up custody of their children if they believe it to be in the children’s best interest. It takes a lot of strength for a woman to make a rational individual decision against a social onslaught of judgment and disapproval. Mothers should not be denounced or scorned for making the same choices fathers make every day without similar social condemnation.
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