“After yet another awkward exchange with a mother at my son’s school, I really feel that other parents should be made aware of the fact that being a non-custodial mom (NCM) is one of the most selfless things a mother can do for her children – especially if it was her choice and not the court’s. It is not a shame to be a NCM and I am not a bad mother because my son lives with his dad. I made the best decision for him, not for myself!” – Elizabeth, mother of Benjamin (9)
Do mothers always get custody of the children in a divorce?
After a divorce, most people assume that children reside primarily with mothers. However, there are many non-custodial mothers (NCM) out there – not that you would know it because NCMs are more than a little hesitant to let others know their status. Many feel guilty and ashamed of being branded bad mothers. Some choose not to let others know they have children at all, simply because the judgement and questions are sometimes just too much.
“I have experienced a very strong sense of stigma and shame among non-custodial moms. I have shared custody with my ex-husband but our son (7) lives with him and his wife. The looks I have been given at his school – and the parents openly discussing me – is just heartbreaking to me. I love my son with all my heart and I only did what was best for him.” – Nicole, mother of Doug (7)
Jacki Krasas* is a professor of sociology and Director of the Women’s Studies Program at Lehigh University (Pennsylvania, USA) who is conducting research on NCMs. She says, “When a non-custodial 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 judgement and the assumption that they are unfit mothers.” (sic)
All the NCMs interviewed for this article confirmed that as soon as people find out that they ‘gave’ custody to their child’s father, that they are judged. Some NCMs had friendships cut short and others are being punished by family and friends not talking to them after their decision to give custody of their children to their ex-partners. Too many of these negative reactions come from other women.
Deciding which parent gets custody of a child
“As soon as I realised that my daughter would be better off with her dad because I have to travel overseas so much for work, and I actually voiced my intention to do this, I was crucified. The things that people who were supposed to love me said still hurt my heart whenever I think of them. After I granted primary custody to her dad, strangers have judged me too. But then again, how can I expect a total stranger to understand that I was only doing what is best for my little girl, when my own mother doesn’t speak to me because of my decision? I used to explain extensively when people asked me about Sarah before, but nowadays I just smile and wave. It’s not worth the effort.” – Lisa, mother of Sarah
Communication, interaction and cooperation from the child’s school are other huge obstacles these mothers must face. From the class teacher, to the school nurse, to the sports team coach, some may act with hostility and disdain as soon as it’s known that a mother is not the custodial parent.
Anne, mother of Mackenzie (14) is regularly humiliated, ostracised and even ridiculed by school personnel and other parents. “My best friend did not believe me when I told her about the way I was being treated until I took her with me to Mackenzie’s netball game and she saw how contemptuously I was treated. It is truly so unfair and quite heartbreaking when you think about it…”
Nicole agrees. She has tried on many occasions to get regular feedback from the school regarding her son’s scholastic development, but her requests for more information on this are regularly met with stony silence – or she is referred to her ex-husband. Once, Doug had an allergic reaction to a bee sting. Her ex-husband phoned her to tell her about it, but his cell phone’s battery died and she frantically phoned the school for more information. They refused to give it, stating that she didn’t have custody, and therefore wasn’t privy to those details.
A lot of times, NCMs have great difficulty getting their children’s medical and dental records after a visit to a medical facility. Most of the time the ex-partner/father must consent to any information given to a NCM. Says Lisa: “It is ludicrous if you think about it. We are marginalised and discriminated against simply because we put our children first – and we can do absolutely nothing about it!”
Why would a mother give up custody of her children?
Many of these NCMs have not been ordered by a court or a court order to give primary custody to their ex-spouses but have reached a mutual decision with them after consulting with all role players in her child’s life. And most mothers most certainly do not meet the stereotype of being a ‘bad’ or ‘absent’ mother!
Elizabeth says: “In my case, I am not strictly a non-custodial parent – I gave primary residence to my ex but we have shared custody. So, if I was such a bad mother, why do I pay maintenance for my child, pay his school fees and for all his extramural activities? Why am I at every school activity (even though I’m not welcome), school concert and sports activity?
And why am I then not included in PTA meetings or parent interviews concerning my child? I am not a bad mother. I am an unselfish mother who pays the price for this decision daily. It amazes me though; would people prefer for me to have custody of my child and then never be there for him? What exactly is it that people want from NCMs?”
Krasas explains that some 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 they deserved. Or their children 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 does society assume NCMs are unfit mothers? According to Krasas, 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 non-custodial, 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 meet resistance.
The NCMs I know and those interviewed for this article are lovely, strong women, who care deeply about their children and place their children’s interests above their own. A few (also lovely people and caring mothers) have struggled with mental illness like severe depression, illness, bipolarity and even physical disabilities. They have realised that their struggles will directly impact their children and they have made the unselfish decision to do what is best for their children, and not for them. Despite this, these mothers are regularly pushed out by society. These moms all feel attached by their status as NCMs.
Former stay-at-home mom, Stacy, says: “It is an absolute nightmare for me. As a former SAHM I was humiliated and ridiculed for making the decision to give custody to my ex-husband. What people don’t realise is that nowadays it is not an absolute given that a mother will receive full custody of her children. Times have changed, circumstances have changed, and court criteria have changed. Why are non-custodial fathers almost never shamed for not having custody, but it is okay to shame a woman making a decision that is in the best interest of her children and even more so when she used to stay at home?“
Custody of children in South Africa
Krasas says that 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, most 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 her children live with her does not mean that a woman is not still the child’s mother. I should know, I am an NCM myself. According to our court order (that I approved and agreed to) my son sleeps over on Wednesdays and I have him every second weekend from Friday to Monday. We also share holidays 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 stepmom (without other children) who adores him, can’t get enough of him and who tends to his special needs. Our son is a well-adjusted, happy, healthy little boy who is secure in the knowledge that his daddy, mommy, mamma (stepmom), stepdad and his big brothers love him very, very much. He has lots of grandparents and extended family and he just loves being loved. I am always so grateful that we all truly only act in his best interest and that I have such a good, open and honest relationship with my ex-husband and my son’s stepmother.
Yes, I had to make many, many sacrifices and yes, going to his school is awkward and straight-up hard for me – every single time. 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. I am very passionate about educating parents about the struggles of NCMs and creating awareness of the fact that they crave acceptance, just as non-custodial dads do.
To me as an 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 our laws apparently 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.
Says Lisa, “It is just never a ‘thing’ when a father doesn’t have custody, but the second the roles are reversed, judgement is rife. Please accept us as the caring, loving mothers we are, who made one of the hardest choices any mother would ever have to face.”
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? Where do you live, would you like to arrange a playdate?” 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. I’m his mommy and I love him unconditionally no matter where his primary residence is! We need to reflect the inclusiveness and non-judgmental principles we try to teach our children by accepting and welcoming NCMs into communities.
*With acknowledgement to Prof. Jacki Krasas – a professor of sociology and Director of the Women’s Studies Program at Lehigh University who is conducting ongoing research on non-custodial mothers.