What it’s like for a Mother without her Children.

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The summer of 2007 started like any other.

My ex-husband and I planned the trip for weeks: our two daughters, ages eight and ten, would board a plane and fly from Los Angeles to Florida. They would spend the entire summer with him, and a couple of weeks before school started, they’d return and our lives in California would go back to normal.

It was hard to watch the girls get on the plane alone, but I knew these trips would help them grow up to be independent women in a way that no other experience could.

That same summer, I landed a job with a documentary production company. I was fresh out of graduate school and this job held a lot of promise for putting me on a career track that was exactly in line with my goals. After much negotiation, my ex and I agreed that the girls would extend their visit with him until Christmas, giving me a good six months to focus on work without having to worry about daycare costs, after school pickups, or other realities of single parenting.

It all sounded like such a good idea at the time. On paper it made sense, but my lived experience was different.

I expected it to be hard and knew I would be sad, but I didn’t count on the stigma I would face then, and even now. I struggled with the internal guilt and feelings of selfishness but quickly rationalized them away. I knew (because both my ex-husband and I were veterans) that if we were still in the military and got called away, no one would consider either of us selfish for choosing the jobs we chose; they would say it was too bad and move on.

If we were still married and he decided to take a job somewhere internationally because it was a good career move and it had a higher salary, people would likely praise him for making the sacrifice all in the name of caring for his family and looking out for the best interest of the children. Again, I was pretty sure no one would call him selfish for making these imaginary choices.

I told myself that my situation was no different and that as long as my ex—their father after all—was willing and able, I should take advantage of the opportunity to get ahead so that I could ultimately provide the best environment for my daughters while showing them what it was like to be a professional working woman.

Despite how often I told myself these things, I could feel the stigma of not having my daughters living with me. When I became a single parent, no one offered me any special kudos, nor did I expect them—our situation was a product of divorce and I had to accept my new role with strength and dignity while being a leader for my family. But when my girls went to live with their dad, I was actually a little shocked at the number of people who praised him. “Wow!” they’d say. “He sounds like an exceptional man to agree to let the girls live with him!” At least one person called him a hero.

What? I couldn’t understand this. He was their father and I’d always believed that the minimum expectation from him should be that he watch out for our children. Furthermore, not that this was a tit for tat thing, but how come people didn’t have that same reaction when women agreed to have full custody of the children? What about women who took care of the entire household while their partners worked on their careers, married or not?

I realized at that point that rarely, if ever, did I hear someone refer to a noncustodial father as selfish—not selfish for breaking up the marriage, but selfish for not having full custody of the children.

On the one hand, I can’t say much of this was a surprise, having studied gender in both college and graduate school. But on the other, there was a part of me that secretly hoped that my university had given me a lot of outdated material to work from and that in the real world, things were different. But they weren’t and it made me sad.

In an article for The Establishment, Christina Vanvuren writes:

“According to the 2013 United States Census, 13.4 million parents are deemed ‘custodial’ and, of those, 1 in every 6 (17.5%) are fathers. That means about 2.5 million households are run by single fathers…This, according to the Pew Research Center, is up from 300,000 in 1960.”

The number of single fathers versus single mothers is still not equal, but clearly, this number is rising. Vanvuren’s article echoes the stigma of shame I felt in the early years. For me, the external shame nicely complemented the internal guilt.

By the time Christmas rolled around, I was very excited to have my girls back, even though I hadn’t really made any headway at work. I had a hard time focusing and found myself trying to hide my emotions with food and alcohol. I felt sluggish and depressed most of the time.

One day, my ex called to ask if the girls could stay through the end of the current school year. He put them on the phone and they told me about all their new friends, how much they loved their teachers, and about the cool activities coming up in the spring that they didn’t want to miss. “Please Mommy,” they pleaded. As much as it killed me, I said, “Okay.”

And there it was. If I’d known then that they would never come back, I would not have agreed so easily.

My daughters are now grown, both in college. I never lost touch with them and, in fact, when my job at the production company didn’t work out, I took jobs overseas with the idea that this would give them a great opportunity to travel—and it did. Before they were in high school, they’d visited more countries than the average American and that made me smile. I was able to reach my goal of broadening their horizons even if it came about in a circuitous way.

I never questioned my love for them, even though others did. Even now, I occasionally receive messages from people who originally believed me to be selfish, saying I gave up my girls to go travel. I’ve been told that I abandoned my children. I’ve been told that I didn’t love them. It seems that every step along the way, others were questioning my motives and adding to the guilt I already felt on my own.

After a while, I stopped telling people that I had children simply to avoid the harassment that came when they figured out I was the noncustodial parent. Yet, despite my belief that this was the best move for them, even all these years later, I occasionally wake up with tears in my eyes questioning if I did right thing.

Now that all these years have passed and I’m able to talk to my daughters more openly about it, I can see that I made the best choice—even though there were some very difficult times for everyone involved. This isn’t the best choice for everyone, but it was the best choice for my girls. Talking to them openly about these years has helped to chip away at the guilt, but I don’t know if it’ll ever completely fade.

There are a lot of reasons why mothers don’t have custody of their children. As a society, we should not immediately assume she’s in trouble with the law or that Social Services has whisked them away from her incapable hands. While it’s great when a father steps up, we need to stop acting like these fathers are more special than the hundreds of thousands of mothers who do the same job every day.

If we want women to be treated equally, we need to become aware of the deeply held prejudices that we all have and stop ourselves when we feel a judgmental thought approaching. If we can collectively begin to retrain how we think about women, men, and family, we will all be on a much better track.

So the next time you meet a mother without custody of her children, assume she loves them and know that there are reasons for this arrangement. And ask her about her children, because even if they don’t live with her full time, she is still their mother.

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Relephant watch: The One Buddhist Red Flag to Look out for.

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Author: Ruth Cuevas
Image: Author’s own
Editor: Nicole Cameron
Copy Editor: Travis May

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Ruth Cuevas

Ruth Cuevas grew up in California but currently lives in Germany. She’s a yoga instructor, Adjunct Professor, and the very proud momma of two beautiful daughters, both currently in college. During the warmer months, Ruth and her fiancé love to tour Europe by motorcycle. Look for her on Instagram and Facebook.

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Gina Perez Enriquez Jul 7, 2018 12:00pm

Ruth Cuevas Mar 13, 2018 2:58pm

Thank you.

Sukriti Chhopra Mar 13, 2018 8:50am

So beautifully written. It was a pleasure to read this article on a topic which not many are open to discussing (unfortunately.)

Ruth Cuevas Mar 12, 2018 3:58pm

Kudos to you, Laurie! I don't know why our society is the way that it is but women like you don't get enough recognition though, we all know that there isn't enough recognition becuase there are jokes about it so it's not a secret. I'm not sure what the answer is here, but I know that whatever it is, it isn't something that is accomplished alone. Thank you for taking the time to read my article.

Laurie Hennessey Murray Mar 12, 2018 1:37pm

I can’t understand why “other” people felt entitled to make judgements on your life situation that had absolutely nothing to do with them. I was a stay at home mom who gave up a career to be at home, I volunteered a lot, but without a pay check, my children value their father over me even though he spent very little time physically or emotionally with them, he was the provider of all things they wanted. Our society is so skewed.

Ruth Cuevas Mar 11, 2018 9:05am

Thank, Jill. Even when people got the full story, I always got the sense that they felt I was leaving out some selacious detail like, "oh yeah, all this happened after I got busted trying to smuggle drugs across the border." But no, it was never really anything more than me trying to look out for what was best for the kids. I only wanted to work on my career for 6 months but during that period after they extended their school year, I lost my job and it didn't make sense to get them back when my life felt more upside down than ever. I was having a terrible time finding work in America so I started looking overseas and when those jobs responded, I made the jump. Ahh. It funny though, because even though I was looking out for them, for many years, I still felt like I'd been dealt an unfair hand.

Ruth Cuevas Mar 11, 2018 9:00am

Yes, you're right. There is so much to deconstruct. It was hard to not go off on tangents and stay on topic because even when I was married and trying to get my undergraduate degree done, I noticed a lot of funny stares. My favorite was, "why didn't you think of kids BEFORE you went to school?" It just made me think how far behind we really were.

Ruth Cuevas Mar 11, 2018 8:57am

Thank you, Roxanne, for your comment. I think this is great and how it should be. I believe that we should always look out for the best interest of the children and my point with the arrticle was just that even if that's what's been decided between the parents, sometimes, people can be jerks. I felt lucky that my ex and I were able to discuss things amicably (most of the time). I hope your boyfriend's ex didn't have to deal with a lot of the negative stigma that exists. It would be good to know that the tide is changing.

Roxanne Nelson Mar 11, 2018 1:36am

My BF has 3 children, and when he divorced, he stayed in their house and had the kids during the school week and his ex wife had them on weekends. The youngest was 9 when they divorced, and after a few years, she asked if she could live with her dad full time. His ex agreed and now she is 17 and a senior in high school and he is a full time dad (the older two live on their own). He's a really good dad (I'm biased) but nothing heroic about it. The only thing heroic was that he didn't try to force his ex to pay child support once his daughter moved in with him full time--he earns a lot more money and didn't want to have to deal with it or her, even though they are on cordial terms.

Jill Marie Diem Mar 10, 2018 7:20am

Your points are so honest and true. People can be so critical by jumping to conclusions without knowning the whole story. It's sad you didn't feel supported in your choice to do what was best for your children while pursuing a career and I hope time's are changing for the better.

Constance J. Crisp Mar 9, 2018 3:58pm

I would like to see us get beyond the idea that men are hereos for doing everything that women routinely do. Not to mention, women usually have less money too. There's so much here to deconstruct.