Posted by: Nicci Coertze
About Mothers Who Don’t Have Custody/Primary Residence:
Without going into too much personal detail, there is something weighing heavy on my heart that I would like to share with you. After yet another awkward exchange, I decided to write this post. It’s a bit long but please bear with me:
After a divorce, most people assume that children reside primarily with mothers. However, there are many noncustodial mothers (NCM) out there. Not that you would know it. NCMs are more than a little hesitant to let others know their status. Many feel ashamed. Some choose not to let others know they have children at all. I have experienced a very strong sense of stigma and shame amongst NCM. I should know. I am one. I have shared custody with my ex-husband but our son (7) resides with him and his wife. (I have 2 other much older children who studies at the University of Stellenbosch.)
When a noncustodial mother tells someone that her child does not live with her, she braces for the reaction. Perhaps it is silence. Perhaps there is a fleeting sour expression or an abrupt end to the conversation. The other moms at school may back away and even the best reactions are tainted by the unspoken assumption that she must have done something wrong. In fact, NCMs routinely experience harsh judgment and the assumption that they are unfit mothers.
Many NCMs have lost friends or found new friendships cut short. Others have lost family members or job opportunities. Still more common are the difficult interactions with schools, sports teams, and medical offices. NCMs have been denied access to school and medical records. And they are marginalized in interactions involving their children’s extracurricular activities.
Most of these mothers I have met, like myself, do not match the stereotype. They are not drug addicts, criminals, abusers, or unstable. How then did they become noncustodial? Most custody arrangements are not made in the courts. Some mothers (like me) reached a mutual decision with an ex-partner. In my case I am not strictly a non-custodial parent – I gave primary residence to my ex but we have shared custody.
Other mothers lost custody because of their geographic moves, a new partner, or changes for their ex-partner that made an old custody arrangement unworkable. Some lost jobs or houses and could no longer afford to care for their child in the way she felt her child deserved. Or their children who wanted to experience living with the other parent for a while. Some found themselves without custody after a protracted and high conflict custody dispute where she lost the case or ran out of money to fight. There are as many different stories as there are NCMs.
So why do society assume NCMs are unfit mothers? There are two things going on here. One has to do with fatherhood and the other with motherhood. There are involved fathers who share equally in household labour. There are even stay-at-home fathers. Fathers can be competent caregivers. The horror that underlies negative reactions to NCMs rests on our low opinion (and expectations?) of the capabilities of fathers. If mom is noncustodial, then surely the children must be in harm’s way.
Our contemporary understanding of motherhood remains stubbornly resistant to change. We still embrace a vision of all-encompassing motherhood and intensive childrearing. When a mother diverges significantly from this cultural ideal, she can feel resistance.
The NCM’s I know are lovely people who care deeply about their children just like me. A few (also lovely people and caring mothers) have struggled with mental illness and disabilities. Despite their many differences, these moms all feel stigmatized by their status. Former stay-at-home mothers feel it strongest. But today, moms do not always get custody. Not even stay-at-home moms can take child custody for granted.
According to an expert in the field, dr. Krasas, since the 1970s courts have been rewriting custody determination standards in gender-neutral language. The tender-years doctrine from the 19th century (held that young children needed their mothers) lost its legal standing decades ago. Being the “Primary-caretaker” is also no longer the overarching determinant of custody decisions. Nevertheless, most divorce-related custody decisions are made without the intercession of the courts. Litigated custody decisions focus on “the best interests of the child,” which still does not imply that there is only one fit parent. Indeed, the vast majority of mothers and fathers who do not have primary custody of their children have never been proven unfit. Dad ‘gets’ primary custody, but mom is not “unfit.”
Remember, not having custody or not having your children live with you doesn’t mean you’re not still their mother. According to our court order (that I approved and agreed to) my son may sleep over on Wednesdays and I may have him every second weekend from Friday to Monday. We also share holidays etc. 50/50. I am a birth and bereavement doula and that means that those arrangements are not set in stone. And I am eternally grateful that my son has a stepmommy (without other children) who adores him and can’t get enough of him.
Our son is a well-adjusted, happy, healthy little boy who is secure in the knowledge that his daddy, mommy, mamma (stepmom), uncle Fish (my husband) and his big brothers love him very, very much. He has lots of grandparents and extended family and he just loves being loved. Yes, I had to make many, many sacrifices and yes, going to his school is awkward and straight up hard for me. But I love my son more than I fear rejection from others so I go and I smile and wave – even when it feels like everyone is ignoring or excluding me.
To me as a NCM it is so important that schools, school communities, workplaces, and medical offices provide the same level of access, communication, and support that they provide to non-custodial dads. Although the laws support NCMs, prejudice and ignorance still prevent these moms from being fully included in their children’s lives. On a more individual level, non-custodial moms long to be treated with the nonchalance non-custodial dad’s experience.
A word of advice? When meeting such a woman, ask her just what you would ask a non-custodial dad, “How old are your kids? What are their names? What do they like to do?” Try it. You will be pleasantly surprised. My little boy is my pride and joy. Ask me about him and you’ll find that out for yourself soon enough. I’m his mommy and I love him unconditionally. No matter where his primary residence is!
(With acknowledgment to Prof. Jacki Krasas – a professor of sociology and Director of the Women’s Studies Program at Lehigh University who is conducting research on non-custodial mothers.)