By Katy Read
Kim Voichescu was running into conflicts with the staff at her sons’ school. Sometimes she was kept from seeing her kids’ records or picking up her boys after school. She suspected that people there might secretly doubt her qualifications as a parent. One day, a school secretary came right out and said it to her face:
“Well, you’re not a real mother.”
Voichescu is a real mother, but she doesn’t live with her children. She doesn’t have physical custody of her two boys, now ten and thirteen, but she does share joint legal custody with their father, and that entitles her to access their educational records and to other parental rights.
For Voichescu, who has spent tens of thousands of dollars and years in court fighting to get physical custody, the secretary’s comment was a pin against a big balloon of pent-up frustration. Now, a year later, Voichescu can’t remember exactly what she said to the woman, but clearly recalls it left the secretary gaping wordlessly.
“I wish I could relive it and put it on the Internet where it would live as one of those speeches for all eternity,” recalls Voichescu, thirty-four, of Diamond, Illinois, a project manager for a civil engineering and land surveying firm. “It was one of those occasions when you walk out of a place and you feel like a shining light is upon you. [The unspoken prejudice] had been undulating under the surface for so long that I couldn’t pinpoint it. But she actually said it.”
The suspicion that people secretly doubt their fitness as parents haunts most noncustodial mothers—even loving, caring, law-abiding mothers who’ve always acted in their children’s best interests.
Their worries are not unfounded. As a society, we don’t quite know what to make of mothers who don’t live with their kids. Whether it’s expressed openly or not, society still tends to assume that the mother is the parent mainly in charge of caring for children, and the one best equipped to do it well, the one to whom most of the responsibility rightly falls. A father pushing his child in a stroller draws charmed smiles—Wow, what a great dad, helping out!—from people who wouldn’t look twice at a woman behind the stroller, just doing her job.
When parents are separated or divorced, it’s often assumed that the kids live with her. If the father lives in a different household or is out of the picture entirely, it may not be ideal, but it’s not unusual. Sure, we’re no longer surprised that some children of divorce pack their bags and shuttle between parents every other week. But when the roles are completely reversed—when Dad has the kids and does all the domestic duties and Mom lives somewhere else—the old gender stereotypes come rushing back into play. People wonder what went wrong. They assume the noncustodial mother must have deserted her children or had them taken away. Did she hit them? Leave them home alone while she went bar-hopping? Leave them in order to “go find herself”?
If those thoughts actually don’t go through your mind when you meet a noncustodial mother, you can bet that the fear of what you’re thinking probably is going through her mind. Rather than face odd looks, intrusive questions, or rude remarks, some noncustodial moms say they keep their kids’ photos off their desks at work, avoid mentioning their children, and wonder when to break the news to new acquaintances that they are, in fact, real mothers. They often suffer guilt, confusion, sadness, and depression.
“You can’t believe the discrimination and bias that people have toward you,” says Voichescu, who now carries around laminated copies of her custody papers wherever she goes. “It’s like you are an alien.”
Noncustodial mothers like Voichescu might feel like cultural oddities, but they are actually far from alone. There are about 2.2 million noncustodial mothers in the United States, according to the most recent U.S. Census records. The reasons women live apart from their children are many, of course, including a move, a job, family preference, a prison sentence, or a court order. Some noncustodial mothers live near their children; some live in different cities or states or countries (the last group includes women who come to the United States from other countries to work as nannies or maids in order to support children they’ve had to leave back home).
Some women retain the right to share physical custody of their children, even if they choose to live elsewhere and not exercise it. Some share legal custody—that is, they retain the right to make decisions on behalf of their children, even if they don’t live together. And some have neither.
Some see their kids frequently; others rarely. Some have good relationships with their children and their children’s fathers, “other mothers,” or legal guardians; others find that hostile former partners have turned their children against them. And, yes, some actually have behaved in ways that caused the court to deem them inadequate parents: committed a crime, abused drugs, abused or neglected their kids.
The number of noncustodial mothers is increasing, in part because family courts have moved from always assigning custody to mothers toward deciding what works best for a particular child’s situation, whether it’s having the parents share custody or assigning it to one parent or the other. But many noncustodial mothers live apart from their children willingly, because of a job or school situation, because of individual relationships or preferences within the family, or for other personal reasons.
Even among these ostensibly voluntary arrangements, made privately or informally within families, some situations are actually “a little more gray,” says Geoffrey Greif, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, who conducted a pioneering study of noncustodial mothers in the 1980s. For example, he says, a woman might say, “I divorced my husband and I need to earn more money and I can’t do that if I have [to pay for] child care. My husband happened to start his career ten years sooner, while I was home taking care of the children. He has more job flexibility; he can pay for a babysitter.” In cases like that, the mothers gave up custody willingly, Greif says, meaning they didn’t fight in court. “But it’s sort of unwilling, based on the roles of men and women in society,” he says. “Men make more than women. He gets to reap the benefit of that.”
As for women unwillingly separated from their children by court order, there, too, is a lot of gray. Their status may mean that they willingly signed over their rights for various reasons, or it may mean they lost the legal battle with their children’s father. When there is a dispute over custody, parents don’t always enter a courtroom on equal footing, financially or otherwise. Some women—especially former stay-at-home mothers who did not have a career or separate finances—can’t afford lawyers and lengthy court fights. Ginna Babcock, an adjunct associate professor at the University of Idaho, who has studied noncustodial parents of both sexes, says many women lose custody “essentially by default.”
Even women who can afford the legal costs may face disadvantages in court, Babcock explains. If the father has a new wife at home, some judges reason that if a mother works full time, her child would have to go into daycare, while the father’s new wife could provide a presumably more stable home environment, she says. “In other words, many of the women in my study ‘couldn’t win.’ “
Janet, thirty, would recognize that feeling. She says her ex, who physically abused her, comes from a prominent family and has friends in the court system in their small Midwestern community. He forced her to hand over custody when their daughter was just two months old, grabbing Janet by the neck and brandishing papers for her to sign, threatening that if she didn’t, she and the baby “will never leave this house.” She has spent six thousand dollars trying to regain custody of her now six-year-old girl. Recently, her new husband was laid off, her own hours are being cut, and she’s running out of options.
“It’s a game, and if you don’t have the money, you’re going to lose,” says Janet, who asked that her identity be concealed in order to protect her daughter. “When mothers don’t have custody of their children, it doesn’t mean they were negligent or that they didn’t care about their kids or that they didn’t want their kids all the time. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of who’s got the better attorney, who’s got the better connections.”
The history of child-custody policy is one of flip-flops. Before the Industrial Revolution, children were expected to contribute to the family’s income and thus were seen as a form of property, says Diana Gustafson, author of the 2005 book Unbecoming Mothers: The Social Production of Maternal Absence. Fathers, who generally provided their financial support, were assumed to have the right to their custody. After the Industrial Revolution, the outlook started to change. Children’s rights were given more attention, and mothers came to be seen as “naturally more able to nurture,” she says. That gave rise to the “Tender Years Doctrine,” a legal concept from the late nineteenth century that presumes that during a child’s “tender” years (generally, up to age thirteen), children belong with their mothers.
“There were exceptions where the mothers were judged to be so unfit that they weren’t able to care for the children,” Gustafson says. “That’s where a lot of the stigma of not having care of your children comes from. Because it was seen as natural for mothers to take care of their children, there’s something unnatural about you if you can’t.”
In recent decades, the overriding concept in child-custody cases has shifted from the Tender Years Doctrine to the “Best Interests of the Children” doctrine, a newer legal concept in which decisions about living arrangements are based on children’s individual situations, theoretically without regard to the parents’ gender. Family courts still have tended to favor mothers as the primary caregivers, says Jill Miller Zimon of Cleveland, a lawyer and social worker who has worked on behalf of families and providers involved in the court and social service systems. That attitude is changing, however, as a result of evolving gender roles, employment patterns, pressure from fathers’ rights groups, and other social developments.
But society hasn’t fully caught onto the fact that the term “noncustodial mother” no longer suggests, as it once might have, that the child was forcibly removed because of the mother’s inadequacy.
“Clearly that’s not the case anymore,” Miller Zimon says, “but there’s not been an effort to really change the image of that.”
If mothers who lose their legal rights to their children discomfit us, what emotions do we reserve for intelligent, loving, competent mothers who voluntarily choose to live apart from their children?
“Society expects a mom who basically ‘abandons’ her children to sort of slink off guiltily, and the hero single dad to come in and save the day,” says Rebekah Spicuglia, twenty-nine, an articulate, affable New York media manager at a nonprofit media-advocacy organization who happens to not live with her son, eleven.
When Spicuglia, who writes the NonCustodial Parent Community blog (ncp-community.blogspot.com), relinquished physical custody of her son about nine years ago, it wasn’t against her will, and she is not fighting to have him live with her.
Though she may face less overt prejudice than noncustodial mothers who have “misbehaved,” her situation confounds society’s collective assumptions even more deeply. “When you’re a mom and your kids don’t live with you, there’s a look in someone’s eyes that you can see a mile away,” Spicuglia says. “They’re wondering why. Were you on drugs? What did you do? The imagination goes crazy.”
When Spicuglia meets new people, she has learned not to mention her son, not right away at least. At twenty-nine, she has spent much of the past decade living and working among students and young professionals, where the subject of children doesn’t often come up. Spicuglia waits to mention it only when she has time for The Explanation: the tale of how her son lives in California with her ex-husband because of a series of decisions Spicuglia made as she progressed in her education and career. She seems to feel obligated to clarify: “There were never any issues of me being a bad mom or anything like that.”
“Once you tell someone you’re a mom, they want to know what school your child goes to and they want to ask all the kid questions,” she says. “I believe that in general, people are very understanding. But I think that because this is something most people don’t think of or haven’t heard of, it’s just something that needs to be explained. For a long time, I didn’t have the energy to explain it to people. It took me a long time to really own it.”
As with most such stories, hers is not particularly short or simple. Spicuglia, who lived with her own divorced dad when she was a kid, got pregnant at seventeen. She married her son’s father, a co-worker in a restaurant in Santa Maria, California. He lived among his large Mexican family, which she describes as “so incredible in all its beautiful traditions, people everywhere, relatives just loving each other and lots of great food.”
When their son was about a year old, Spicuglia’s husband returned to Mexico to deal with some immigration red tape, and their son accompanied him. Spicuglia had been taking community college film classes; while they were gone, she moved to Los Angeles to work as a production assistant.
When her husband returned, the couple moved back in together, but soon realized they “wanted different things” from life, she says, and decided to split up. Spicuglia was accepted at the University of California, Berkeley. She left her son with his dad’s family while she waited for family-student housing. At that stage, both parents assumed the boy would live with his mother.
Unexpectedly, a year and a half went by, during which time Spicuglia worked, attended classes, and visited her son as often as possible. When her name reached the top of the family housing list, she called her ex-husband to tell him. He announced that he had changed his mind: He now felt the boy would be better off living with him and his extended family, rather than be placed in daycare while Spicuglia attended school.
“It was a huge shock for me,” she says. “This was not what I’d wanted, not what I had ever expected to happen. But I was faced with a decision to either challenge this in the courts or I could reexamine the situation from a more objective and loving standpoint and try and see if what his father was saying was true. Maybe that is a better place for him to be. When I looked at that, I realized that his dad had so much more to offer than I did.”
Spicuglia retained shared legal custody, got her degree, and moved to New York, where she remarried a couple of years ago. She does her best to keep up with her son’s activities long distance, although, like Voichescu, she has run into problems. School officials have left her off of her son’s emergency-contact information, neglected to send copies of the report cards, and have made her get authorization from his father to release records although legally she isn’t required to provide it.
“The school system is not set up to include noncustodial parents in any way, even though legally noncustodial parents have the right to equal access to educational records, to make decisions for their children,” she says. It’s ironic, she adds, that although educators know that parental involvement is important for students’ academic success, “I’m out there begging to be part of my son’s education, and I’ve hit roadblocks and apathy at every turn.”
The worst moment was when she discovered inadvertently that her son had been seeing a school counselor for a year, visiting once a week to talk about problems. Though Spicuglia was in favor of the counseling, she was upset that no one had notified her about it. She called the counselor, who had to get permission from the boy’s father in order to talk to her.
“Which is crazy! I’m not a bad person. There’s no reason for this,” Spicuglia says. “It may sound like a small thing to some people, but until you actually go through it, until you’re actually told that they have to get permission to talk to you about your son…”
The counselor told Spicuglia, “I didn’t even know if you were in the picture.”
Which made Spicuglia wonder what the counselor and her son could have been discussing; she stays in the picture of his life as best she can. They see each other during school breaks and hold video chats on the computer in between.
It’s not easy. In her blog, Spicuglia writes about her delight over having the rare opportunity to answer her son’s history questions during a visit (reminding herself to tell him to call anytime with questions), and about the tears shed by both mother and son when they parted in the airport.
“He was eager to get into line, but that always rushes our goodbyes too, as we can’t keep everyone waiting,” Spicuglia wrote in her blog in January. “So we hugged and kissed, and I was asked to step aside. As he waited by the gateway to the plane, his back was turned to me, and I called [to] him … When he turned, there were tears in his eyes, which set me off too, but that was it, and he was escorted away.”
Later, she wrote, “The quiet has descended … a house once full of laughter and tears (he will never forgive me for making him do his reading and math over what he sees as VACATION!) is now silent.”
Remaining in the picture can be a challenge for noncustodial mothers, if only because it’s hard for many mothers to define where the frame begins and ends. In a society where even residential mothers can feel that they’re never doing enough, many noncustodial mothers suffer from a sense of inadequacy for not meeting their own expectations of themselves.
In her research of noncustodial parents, Ginna Babcock was struck by the difference between fathers and mothers. She writes, “The most dramatic finding for me was in how precisely each and every father in my study was able to articulate a definition of ‘a good noncustodial father.’ He (1) paid child support regularly, and (2) took full advantage of his visitation rights. These two qualities defined the good noncustodial parent for these men.”
But if fathers were able to define “in pragmatic and attainable terms” what would constitute fulfilling their responsibilities, the mothers were not, she reports. “When they tried, the definitions were amorphous and far-reaching—basically describing a woman who is physically present, providing emotional support to her children every day, which is difficult for even the residential mother.”
Child support was not part of the mothers’ definition of adequate noncustodial mothering. (Many noncustodial mothers do, in fact, pay child support, just as fathers do.) And visitation was mentioned only in the broader context of “being there for my kids when they need me,” Babcock writes.
As a result, many of Babcock’s respondents felt that, by definition, they could not be good mothers. “There were many tears, and the response always was, ‘How can I be if I am not there?’ I heard stories of mothers missing their child’s first steps, first day of school, first prom, getting their driver’s license, and many of the other special days in a young person’s daily life,” she writes. “Because of the high expectations mothers had for parenting, their perception of success as a noncustodial mother was almost impossible, regardless of how much they wanted to succeed.”
Bethany Gilmore, who lives in New York, gets together once or twice a month with her daughter, eleven, who lives in Mississippi. But it never feels like enough time to either one of them.
“Over the past ten years, I feel like I’ve missed so much of her life,” says Gilmore, twenty-eight, who works as a senior accountant.
Gilmore gave up both physical and legal custody when she entered college in Nashville. She has since regretted giving up those rights, but has been told by attorneys that it’s hard to get custody back unless the father can be shown to be unfit. So she hopes that she and her daughter will be able to live together once her daughter is old enough to make her own choice. “It’s too hard to be without her. We’re so close. She’s going through puberty, and she can’t really talk to [her father] about boys and cliques in her school, so she just feels more comfortable talking to me. I hate being away from her.”
The feeling goes both ways: Children may hate being away from their mothers, too. But does the damage go beyond simply missing their moms? Are the children of noncustodial mothers any worse off—emotionally, developmentally—than children of noncustodial fathers?
These children often are as aware as their mothers that they are in unconventional situations, and may have to face the same sorts of questions about why their mothers aren’t around, the same assumptions about why she lost custody or chose to leave, the same stigma except from the other end.
Traditional psychology tended to demonize mothers for “abdicating their so-called natural responsibilities,” Gustafson says, just as it demonized fathers who failed their financial obligations. (As usual, those traditional judgments were cast along gender lines, with moms being chastised for perceived emotional lapses and dads for financial failures.) If the children had behavioral problems, the blame was often placed on their mothers’ absence, often to the point of disregarding the quality of their fathers’ parenting. Such assumptions were so pervasive that, according to Gustafson, they shaped the way questions were asked and findings interpreted.
But more recent and more nuanced research indicates that other factors play greater roles in predicting a child’s well-being than which parent is present or absent, Gustafson says. The ability of the caretaking parent, regardless of gender, to do the job well is paramount. Other factors include those that also affect kids in two-parent families: household income, parents’ level of education, the safety and stability of the physical environment where in which the children are raised, whether the parents’ relationship is conflicted or respectful, the supportive social network, the mental and physical health of the caretaking parent, and so on.
“When all factors are in place to support healthy child development, maternal absence doesn’t necessarily equate with damaged children,” Gustafson says.
And because studies show that absentee mothers tend to want to stay more involved with their children’s lives than absentee fathers, she points out, their lack of custody often does not translate into lack of contact or participation.
Mothers who share legal but not physical custody of their children have often had to toughen up as they get in the habit of asserting their parental rights, which include the right to access their kids’ educational, health, and other records, and to have an equal say in decisions made on behalf of the child. Some aren’t even fully aware of what those rights entail.
“For a long time I didn’t assert my rights because I felt like I was imposing” on school staff, Spicuglia says.
Educators and health-care providers are often no better informed about what the law requires, and may throw roadblocks up as a result of this ignorance, says Miller Zimon, the social worker. “Maybe there’s a need for a public campaign to show the face of the twenty-first-century noncustodial parent,” she speculates. “Or even to start looking at the language again and figure out what’s best to denote this relationship of involved parents who share or have arranged custody when it has nothing to do with abuse, neglect, or dependency.”
Kim Voichescu doesn’t think she’s ever been as fiercely determined about pursuing a goal as she has been in asserting her rights as a noncustodial mother. She is in the midst of a long, expensive and emotionally draining court battle with her ex-husband, to whom she originally signed over physical custody in the days when her job was far more demanding than his. She is now trying to reverse that decision.
Meanwhile, her tangle with the school secretary and subsequent letters to the superintendent has led to a change in school-district policy ensuring that both parents see any documents filed with the schools. Along the way, she has overcome initial intimidation and learned more effective ways of handling judges and court procedures. Perhaps not coincidentally, she has become a martial artist and a kickboxer, and is working on an economic degree with the ultimate goal of becoming a lawyer.
“The frustration told me that’s what I want to do,” Voichescu says. “I want to help other ladies, so they’re not fucked over like I was.”
Author’s Note: When I told a friend I was working on an article about noncustodial mothers, she asked, “Are you hearing a lot of really sad stories?” Well, sure, it can be sad to live apart from your children, but I knew that’s not what she meant. She meant, “Are you hearing stories about drug abuse, and child mistreatment, and other terrible events that might lead to children being seized from their mothers?” I explained that women in such situations are a minority among noncustodial mothers. But I also understood that the term itself seems to imply past transgressions—it struck me that way at first, too.
Meanwhile, one of my own children had been begging to return to the city from which we moved last summer, in another state, where his father still lives. He missed his friends, his school, his old neighborhood. That move isn’t practical for now, but it’s possible that at some future time my son would go live with his dad. That’s how easy it would be for me to become a noncustodial mother. Well, not easy maybe—probably kind of sad, in fact -but definitely free of transgressions.
Brain, Child (Spring 2009)
About the Author: Katy Read’s essays, articles and reviews have appeared in Salon, Brevity, River Teeth, Chautauqua Literary Journal, Literal Latte, Minnesota Monthly, the Chicago Sun-Times and other publications. She has been awarded a 2013 Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Art Board to work on a collection of essays. She has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and been honored in literary competitions including theChautauqua Literary Journal Prize for Prose, the Literal Latte Essay Awards, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition and the Mid-American Review Creative Nonfiction Competition. She is a reporter for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, where she lives with her two sons.
Want to read more thought-provoking essays? Subscribe to Brain, Child: The Magazine for Thinking Mothers and see why we’ve been receiving awards for literary excellence since 2000.