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We just celebrated Mother’s Day and even if you believe, as I do, that it’s another Hallmark holiday like Valentine’s Day, it is always nice to reflect on the women who birthed us or raised us or both. Sometimes, they are not one and the same; many of us were raised or mentored by women who were like moms to us.

There’s still a lot of angst about motherhood, whether we’re discussing moms who work outside the home; moms who care for the children at home; moms who breastfeed and moms who don’t; what it means to be a “good” mom; helicoptering moms; why many women are opting out of motherhood …  you name it, and it’s causing conflict somewhere on the Internet.  good mother

But there often isn’t a lot of discussion about mothers who walk away from motherhood.

Not women who choose to be childfree, but moms who abandon their kids. A good number do.

Well, we don’t know that for a fact. There are 2.4 million moms who don’t have custody of their kids (versus 8.6 million single moms) and there are 2.6 million single dads. There’s no way to know from those numbers how many women willingly gave up their kids, how many single dads are widows or single dads by choice, etc.

But every once in a while, we’re reminded that some moms abandon their kids. Few of us, rightly or wrongly, raise an eyebrow when we hear of a dad giving up custodial rights. But, a mom? That goes against everything we believe — or choose to believe — about mothers. Still, it happens, and there are many ways to look at it.

For a child, it isn’t necessarily a happy thing, or so Melissa Cistaro told me as we chatted about her new memoir, Pieces of My Mother, which details her decades-long search to understand why her mother abandoned her and her two brothers when they were all under the age of 5. “I have a great deal of compassion for my mother. I really do. I always loved her, but I longed for her so much,” she says.

But as a mother herself — and one whose third child came unexpectedly many years after the birth of her first two, just when she was about to have some coveted “me” time — she relates to the ambivalence her own mother felt:

“Somewhere deep inside me, I can relate to my mother’s irrepressible desire to be free of everyone, everything. Maybe I have inherited this fleeting nature, too. Though I love my children passionately, I leap at opportunities for time away from them.” tweet

When Rahna Reiko Rizzuto wrote about leaving her husband and two small children in her 2010 memoir Hiroshima in the Morning, she was vilified — even receiving death threats — for her decision:

We want our mothers to be long-suffering, to put their children’s needs first and their own well-being last if there is time left. We need her to get dinner on the table and the laundry done and the kids to school and the homework finished and the house clean and the cookies for the bake sale made and the school clothes purchased. Our society is hurting, schools are bankrupt, family finances are squeezed, drugs and guns and sex in the media and international terror are all bombarding our children and the person we designate to help kids negotiate all of this is their mother. It’s a big job, too big for one person. Especially when she also has to work, and when she also has a life of her own to care for. But to say that, to act on it, is too much of a threat. tweet

This, of course, isn’t an issue for dads. Sure, there are lots of conversations about absent dads and “dead-beat dads,” but since many women seek sole custody after divorce, many so-called absent dads have been given little alternative but to be somewhat absent — well, maybe except for every other weekend and one night a week.

For whatever reason, society seems to think that dads don’t have to be there for dinner, laundry, homework, cookies for the bake sale, etc. to still be a good dad. He’s either working really hard supporting his family or he’s divorced and so the kids are most likely with Mom (why?). But if Mom isn’t there for the typical “mom things,” well, not only is she not a good mom but she’s obviously selfish, too, putting her needs — career, schooling, her sanity, whatever — before her kids’ needs (although women who don’t have kids are evidently just as selfish, according to the Pope and others).

What’s a woman to do?

Perhaps there’s another way to look at the mothers abandoning their kids phenomena (if it can indeed be called that). What if it means we are at a point in society when we believe dads are just as capable as moms in caring for their kids 24/7?

That’s how some would like to frame it.

“People are recognizing that fathers can be amazing primary caregivers, and we shouldn’t sell men short,” says Rebekah Spicuglia, one of the three moms who gave up custody of their kids profiled in Marie Claire in 2009. “It’s increasingly a trend, especially as society becomes less judgmental of men who want to step into that role,” Joanna Coles, the magazine’s then-editor-in-chief, told the Today show.

Wouldn’t that be a positive thing?

There are 2 million stay-at-home dads today, although that wasn’t necessarily their choice. Are we as a society able to accept that men can be as good, perhaps even better, caregivers than moms?

I would hope that we could embrace that.

But sometimes, it isn’t quite about that. Sometimes it’s a recognition that staying would do more damage than leaving. As Cistaro herself says:

“Actually not growing up with her, we were protected from a lot of her behavior. I would have been a very different person had my mother raised me, maybe not better. As hard as it was having her absent, my father was the more reliable parent.” tweet

Maybe it doesn’t matter which parent walks away as long as it’s done for the kids’ benefit, because staying would subject them to bad parental behaviors; children who grow up with an alcoholic or mentally ill parent often suffer. Maybe that’s the conversation we should be having. I’m not sure that it is, but I’m sure of this: vilifying moms who abandon their kids more than we vilify dads says a lot about who we value more as a parent, mom or dad.

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6 Responses to “Is it OK if moms abandon their kids?”

  1. blurkel says:

    My mom once admitted she was about to run away and leave us behind at a very tense time of our family life. She should have. She did nothing but cause trouble from that moment and pitted us against each other without necessity. She ended up destroying my dad, who went insane and never recovered. And when she died recently, none of us attended her funeral. None of us wanted to tear open the scar tissue and relive the pain.

    So, yes. Run away, moms! You are no good for your kids if they are the excuse of your pain and regrets. Just take responsibility for putting them in a terrible place to begin with. They didn’t do this – YOU DID!

  2. Nowell Purdue says:

    Very Enlightening…thank you!

  3. Jessica says:

    Your language of “abandonment” is unfair, even if you are simply parroting the words of others on this matter. I am a noncustodial mother. My ex spouse and I agreed that, because my work was an hour away from our pre-divorce home, I would move out and our girls would stay with him so as to not change school districts. It broke my heart to leave them, and I still mourn that loss daily. However, I see them as often as I can, provide support and health insurance, and tell them ad nauseum that they are still and will always be my girls. This is not abandonment — it is sacrifice. Four years later, they are coming to appreciate that sacrifice.
    While I am sure that your headline is meant to draw readers to the article, do non-custodial mothers a favor and don’t vilify they further with such language. Thank you.

    • OMGchronicles
      Twitter: OMGchronicles

      Hi Jessica. Thanks for writing. I used the word abandonment purposefully because that’s how men who don’t have custody of their children are described, even if they are engaged with their kids as you are, and so what’s fair is fair. If we don’t like that word, we shouldn’t use it against men, either. I am not vilifying mothers who give up custody of their kids (which you would know if you go past the headline and read the article because I am addressing the many sides of noncustodial moms). The children themselves, however, do feel abandoned and so I am bringing their voice into the mix as well. It sounds to me that you are actually doing the best for your girls, and I applaud that — as others should. There are some moms who don’t do that (I know people for whom that is a sad reality). I tried hard to represent the many perspectives that come into play when a mom — versus a dad — gives up custody rights. It very often is not a bad thing. At all.

  4. eliisa says:

    Yes, some moms abandon their children. I get the article…it is highlighting those moms who leave there children and don’t look back, like my mother did. MY father raised all 3 of us on hi sown in the 1970’s (nearly unheard of) My mother told the judge she didnot want us, period. Its not ike she put any effort into caring for us, or trying to see us. SHe didnt! I am forever grateful for my dad. FYI: at this moment my mother is MIA…her choice…she sent a letter asking us (her children) not to contact her. good riddens, she is basically selfish among other things.

  5. Arden says:

    Aw, c’mon. Parental abandonment is downright awful. Selfish. And it breeds children who have trust problems, often for life.

    I’m a father, and regardless of whether the mother or father bails, it’s reprehensible.

    My wife left me, giving me three hours notice. My kids found out from her sister that she was moving four hours away and never coming back. She now calls on their birthdays, and has visited only once – after two years, and only because she had to sign paperwork at her attorney’s office. The kids are allowed to visit her (they’re old enough to drive), but have done so only three times, and they rarely call her.

    She also isn’t working, so time demands are not her problem. She’s living wiht her mother, brother and sister, none of whom work (although her mother is aged and has earned her spot).

    The kids were stunned, and hurt. They still are. I’ve been doing double duty, trying to keep the kids in one piece after their third major crisis (the death of their sister, followed a month later by a flood and then this maternal abandonment).

    I’ve seen evidence of them blaming themselves. Of incredible pain – being unable to determine why their mother won’t call. Describing her as a distant aunt, and not a mother. Feeling really down at the Holidays, which were already painful because our daughter died.

    Don’t justify any kind of parental abandonment. If you must divorce, don’t punish the children. Keep them in your life. The research says that this creates lifetime problems for them.

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