Mothers Who Give Up Custody of Their Children Face `Scarlet Letter’

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c. 2006 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Catalina Herrerias recalls an acquaintance’s reaction in 1981 when she revealed she’d voluntarily relinquished custody of her two young daughters.

“You must have been a real (expletive) to have given up your own kids,” he said.

Now, one of Herrerias’ daughters is divorcing _ and leaving her children with their father. So far Danielle Spence is telling only a few close friends; none understand. “They say, `They’re your kids, you should fight for them.”’

Times change, but not much for women whose children live with their fathers. Every Mother’s Day brings a churn of emotions.

“The bottom line is, people still look askance,” said Herrerias, a human relations professor at the University of Oklahoma, Norman, and author of the upcoming book “Noncustodial Mothers: By Choice or By Force?”

Herrerias has interviewed hundreds of these mothers over the past 20 years, “and been in contact with many more who indicated the pain of living apart from their children was so profound they could not participate.”

Experts say the decision these women make is part of current shifts in the American legal system.

Family courts are striving to become more gender-neutral in custody cases. Judges see that fathers often have more financial resources than mothers, and want a larger part in their children’s lives. Some women yearn to explore life beyond motherhood; others reluctantly give up custody to spare children the legal battle _ and even then find themselves looked down upon.

The issue is complex, encompassing individual and societal views of motherhood and gender roles, as well as cultural norms and socioeconomics, said Joyce A. Arditti, editor of Family Relations, a journal.

“There are layers of stigma involved,” said Arditti, an associate professor of human development at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg.

There’s also scant specific data.

The share of American children under 18 years old living with their father only _ regardless of how they came to that arrangement _ increased from 1.1 percent in 1970 to 4.6 percent in 2004, according to the Child Trends DataBank, a national research group. During that same time, the share of children living with only their mother grew from 10.9 percent to 23.3 percent.

When researchers cull divorce records for details, “it’s not always easy to figure out what happened,” said Sarah H. Ramsey, a law professor at Syracuse University and director of its Family Law and Social Policy Center.

Reasons vary as to why women become noncustodial, said researcher Geoffrey L. Greif. “It may be better school districts, or the housing situation. Perhaps the mother believes a son needs more contact with his father.”

Greif, a social work professor at the University of Maryland, is co-author of the 1988 book “Mothers Without Custody: How Could a Mother Do Such a Thing?”

“It’s clear,” he added, “that society treats these women more harshly.”

Deborah Eicher-Catt said that forces some of them “to just live in these cocoons; they have no societal role models.”

Eicher-Catt has interviewed some 50 nonresidential mothers over a decade. She is an associate professor of communication arts and sciences at Pennsylvania State University in York.

“I’ve talked to women who’ve tried to commit suicide, that’s how distraught they’ve become” over their choice, and reactions to it. “Some end up with grave psychological problems,” she said. “It’s like they’re wearing a scarlet letter.”

Herrerias had two marriages, with a daughter from each. In 1981, she was a divorced mom just beginning intensive work on her doctorate. When the 7-year-old’s father requested custody, “I knew she’d be fine with him, she was daddy’s little girl,” she said.

But when Herrerias told her 11-year-old, Danielle, of that decision, Danielle announced that she, too, wanted to live with her own father. So on a day in June, Herrerias walked into an Oklahoma courthouse, turning over custody of her younger daughter in the morning and the older girl that afternoon.

“Everything happened rather quickly and unexpectedly _ which is what I found during my research with noncustodial mothers, it’s generally a result of uncontrollable events,” Herrerias said.

That was true for Beverly Morris, who heads the National Association of Non Custodial Moms Inc., a nonprofit support and resource group (http://www.nancm.com) with about 350 active members.

In 1998 Morris and her ex were living in Florida, sharing custody of their two youngsters. One day he called to say he was moving back to Erie, Pa., the couple’s hometown.

Morris realized he would give the children “the life I’d always wanted for them. They’d be raised with their aunts and uncles and cousins, go to the same school we went to.” She also knew fighting the move could cost thousands of dollars, and winning would mean the children would spend 10 hours a day in child care.

So now her son, 13, and daughter, 11, live with their father and his girlfriend in Erie. Morris is remarried, has had a third child, and lives in Clermont, Fla.

“I have a wonderful relationship with my kids,” she said.

She stays in close contact with phone calls, e-mails and visits. But the arrangement is challenging.

Recently, her faraway daughter was at the mall and had her ears pierced; Morris found out later. That was a coming-of-age ritual Morris had wanted to share. “So I took her to have them double-pierced.”

Even when parenting decisions are carefully made, the long-term ramifications can’t be foreseen.

Spence said a major reason she’s leaving her 13-year marriage and children (a boy, 6, and girl, 11) is to deal with the emotional scars from her own childhood.

“For the longest time I was resentful toward my mom for letting me go,” Spence said. Although Spence decided to live with her father, “I was trying to be a grown-up and make a sacrifice to make it as easy as possible on my mom.”

Spence is seeing a therapist, striving to become the mother she wants to be for her children. She’s moving into an apartment near the family home.

Her mother is supportive.

“She said there’ll be time when my kids become adults to re-establish the relationship,” Spence said. “That looks good on paper, but I still feel like my relationship with her is fractured.”

As Herrerias said, Spence “knows I love her very much, but we’ll be working for some time to heal the effects of those years apart.”

Penn State’s Eicher-Catt finds it ironic that society honors mothers who give up kids for adoption at birth, yet denigrates those who work hard to stay close to faraway children.

“I’m in admiration of their continuing struggle,” she said.

LF/PH END SEFTON

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