Mothers Who Give Up Custody Often Judged Harshly

Few people give it a second thought when fathers give up parental rights. But when a mother releases custody, she is often judged harshly. Lea Goldman of Marie Claire discusses the challenges for moms who choose to separate from their children.

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Not too many eyebrows raise when a mother receives sole custody of the children after a divorce. But when the father gets the kids, heads tend to turn. And there are even more questions and judgments when a mother willingly gives up custody. Some moms, though, do just that - and say they are better mothers for it.

Are you a mom who's given up custody of your children, or a dad who has sole custody? Did you grow up in this situation? Is this the decision that's played out in your family? If so, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our Website. That's at npr.org; click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now is Lea Goldman, a deputy editor at Marie Claire magazine, who's researched and written about this very issue. She joins us from our bureau in New York. And Lea, nice to have you with us today.

Ms. LEA GOLDMAN (Deputy Editor, Marie Claire magazine): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: So what kind of mother - to ask you your own question, what kind of mother leaves her kids?

Ms. GOLDMAN: Well, in the course of researching the piece, I came across - I mean, this is a very rarefied group. There aren't that many women that volunteer to give up custody. And these women are searching for something, generally speaking. I spoke with a woman who, you know, really wanted to pursue a law degree...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. GOLDMAN: ...and realized that as a single mom raising three kids, you know, basically on a sole income with maybe a little support from her ex, she just couldn't do it, couldn't devote the hours to it. So she volunteered to give up her kids to her ex so she could pursue a law - a legal degree.

And then I spoke with another woman who felt like - you know, she grew up in a small town in the Midwest, and really wanted to explore the world. And selfish though she knew it sounded, felt like she couldn't be a good mother until she had satisfied that wanderlust - and so she did. She gave up her son to her ex to do that - and you know, she sees him, basically, once a month.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. GOLDMAN: So you know, these women are vilified by the - you know, by mothers at large, and yet they're very satisfied. They have satisfied -satisfying personal lives, satisfying professional lives. They're women you probably have run across in your day-to-day lives. These women aren't, you know - they're not backed into a corner. They do it willingly. It's an agonizing decision, but they do it willingly.

CONAN: It's interesting. One of the women you profiled - and I think she is the last one you were referring to, Rebekah Spicuglia? Am I pronouncing...?

Ms. GOLDMAN: Spicuglia, yeah.

CONAN: Spicuglia. She says, in your article: This is the part that's so hard to talk about but secretly, inside, it was the most exciting thing. If he was living with his father, I would be free to do what I wanted to do.

Ms. GOLDMAN: It was amazing. You know, I met Rebekah in a coffee shop. It was loud and I was kind of like trying to, you know, eke out her story. And we spoke for an hour before she finally kind of gave it up. You know what I mean?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. GOLDMAN: Because she was doing this dance with me where she wasn't sure how I would react to it, which is generally the vibe she gets from most women. She feels, you know, very defensive from the outset. I'm going to be judged if I reveal this. So I had to sort of like, you know, kind of get it out of her slowly but surely.

And then I said, come on. You know, did - what did it feel like to finally be able to get on a plane, go to New York, live out the life that you wanted to live? And she said, you know, deep down, I secretly enjoyed it. I secretly have wanted it from the outset. I wanted my own space, to do my own thing. You can't do that with a kid in the background. You can't do it when you have to cook dinner. You can't do it when you have to, you know, do the day-to-day - meet the day-to-day needs of your kid. It just can't be done.

CONAN: Yet all of them chose to have children.

Ms. GOLDMAN: They did. And this is the agonizing decision. They all wanted to be mothers, went into that willingly, and tried for a while to be full-time mothers before realizing that it just wasn't going to work. In the case of the lawyer, Elle Hull, you know, she felt like she couldn't provide the same kind of lifestyle that her ex could provide, and that was really painful for her. You know, she says - and I mentioned this in the piece. She says, you know, the last thing you want to do is give your kid to your ex-husband who you can't stand.

CONAN: Sure.

Ms. GOLDMAN: You hate this guy, that's why you divorced him. But you have to admit to yourself and to your children that this is probably a better arrangement for the both of you. They get what they need, and you get what you need. Unfortunately, society at large, really has very harsh opinions of these women.

CONAN: And sometimes the kids do, too.

Ms. GOLDMAN: Sometimes the kids do. All the women - the lawyer probably excluded - all the women told me the kids had some adjustment issues. But hey, you know, to be fair, there are adjustment issues when the mother gets sole custody. So it's not a one-sided thing.

CONAN: You talked to a woman named Maria Hawsten(ph), who said that she was fearful of how she would be judged, and then realized she was letting her neighbors' perceptions - and her family's perceptions - of what she was doing decide what was best for her and her kids.

Ms. GOLDMAN: Right. So Maria had divorced her husband and for a while, you know, her plan was, I'm going to raise these - she had three daughters - I'm going to raise them. I'm going to raise them. And then, you know, it started to get harder for her. And she had this, you know, this yearning to do something more with her life, to write. She wanted to be a writer.

And her ex was the one who very gently suggested that perhaps he should take the girls for a while, and she fought him tooth and nail. She was offended by the very suggestion. And then, you know, she was, you know, in the darkness, the still of the night, she was thinking long and hard about it, couldn't go to sleep.

And she said, you know, the reason I'm fighting this, I'm resisting this, is because I'm worried about what everyone's going to say about me - not because I think, you know, I could provide a better home for the girls, or because I think my ex is going to do a lousy job. It's because I'm worried what people are going to say. And once she acknowledged that, it opened up the possibility that maybe this was the best outcome for everybody.

CONAN: We want to hear from you if this kind of decision is playing out in your family; 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Ali(ph). Ali's with us from Charlotte, North Carolina.

ALI (Caller): Hey, good afternoon. Great show topic. This is something that affects me directly. My mom gave us up - my twin brother and myself, and my older sister - gave us up when we were 3 and 4 years old. And we didn't meet her again until we were about 13 or 14.

And she was one of those people who had a drug problem, you know, early '80s, and one of those, you know, crack-addict moms who felt it was better if she gave us up to the state. So you know, we spent time as wards of the state. So I can definitely see how, you know, both sides of the coin play out. And I'll, you know, take your response off air.

CONAN: Well, I wonder, Ali. You've now had a chance to get some perspective on it. Did she do the right thing?

ALI: Well, it's one of those things that's a gray area because you always have the option to say what if, you know? There's so many what-if options. I'm one of those people that believe that this is a free will universe, so anything that can happen, will. So it's kind of hard to say but, you know, things are good now. We have a great relationship now. It's never been the - you know, standard society's version of mom and sons but, you know, it's been a great relationship, and it's part of made us who we are, you know?

CONAN: It's interesting. Thanks very much for the call, and continued good luck with that.

ALI: Thank you.

CONAN: And it's interesting, Lea Goldman, you were writing about women who were, I guess, at the other end, for the most part, of the opportunity and income scale. But, well, that call illustrates this does not happen solely at that end of the spectrum.

Ms. GOLDMAN: No. And, in fact, when I was - when I started researching this, I put the word out at various, you know, just various news groups and chat rooms and things like that, for divorcees and working moms and things like that.

And the preponderance of feedback I got was from women who - frankly, angry women who said that they were forced into giving up custody, that they didn't have - they couldn't afford the right lawyer, or they couldn't afford to battle it out in court, women who were really angry about the situation, which is not the group I was looking at.

Certainly, there is a segment of those women out there, and my heart goes out to them. But I'm talking about women who willingly volunteered to abdicate custody. You know, they wanted to pursue careers. They wanted to pursue their own personal lives, on their own. This is a very different group. It's a very small group, but they're out there.

CONAN: Here's an email from Dan in Hamilton, New Jersey: My parents divorced when I was 3, and my mother gave my father custody for a multiple of reasons; primarily, though, my father was more responsible financially and in a better position to raise both my older sister and myself. While it was hard for me growing up to not have my mother there every day, it was indeed best for me in the long run.

That financial decision, again, played a big part in all of these women's decisions.

Ms. GOLDMAN: Certainly. I mean, money really is at the heart of a lot of these issues. Some of the women wanted, you know, better lifestyles. They wanted to pursue better educations that could get them better lifestyles. So certainly, money plays a role.

But what needs to be underscored in this discussion is: This goes on every single day in this country, for fathers across the nation. Every day, there are fathers who give up custody for, you know, for a variety of reasons, but they willingly say, fine. I'm going to give you to your mother.

So it's - you know, it's kind of a mark of our progress that women are also taking that road, too. But yet it's a completely different conversation when a woman does it because somehow, it's - you know, it's an unnatural, almost unholy thing a woman to do.

In fact, in speaking with Rebecca, one of the women you mentioned before, you know, she was telling me that there are - there's no language, there are no words to describe mothers - like, there's just no dialogue that happens. So it's difficult for her to even broach the subject with, say, friends, colleagues, etc. She just felt like we never had this discussion in this country, of a mother giving up her kids. It's unheard of.

CONAN: Well, here's an illustration of that. David from Fort Lauderdale -excuse me, Fort Charlotte in Florida writes: Would you stop trying to turn these mothers into victims? Any parent who can care for a child, but gives them up for their own selfish reasons, is not a victim.

Ms. GOLDMAN: Well, I mean, this is exactly the reaction that these women fear, and that these women experience. And it's what made them, frankly, so difficult to find, and so difficult to coax them to talking on record about their experiences. This is not a pleasant topic for people to talk about.

But you know you've touched a nerve when you get a reaction like that. And you know, we can judge these women, or we can look at what brought them to these decisions. But the fact of the matter is that there are more of them out there than we'd probably like to believe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We're talking with Lea Goldman, deputy editor at Marie Claire magazine, about her article in that magazine, "What Kind of Mother Leaves Her Kids?" as she profiles three mothers who made that decision. You can find a link to that article at our website. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from npr.org - and from NPR, too.

Lea Goldman is with us from our bureau in New York. And let's see if we can get another caller in. Let's go to - this is Terry(ph), Terry with us from Robbins, Tennessee.

TERRY (Caller): Hello, Neal. Yes. I'm a - I was a custodial parent. I received custody of my - full and sole custody of my sons in 1987. Their mother had left in 1980 and left the boys with me, then later on decided to fight for them. And she wanted the party life, and that wasn't good for my sons. I don't think I did too bad with them because one of them is a human resources director for Caterpillar tractor, and the other one is lieutenant commander in the Navy right now.

CONAN: And she wanted the party life?

TERRY: Yup. Then she decided that she didn't want the stigma of being a bad mother abandoning her children, so she caused us a lot more problems.

CONAN: Hmm. It's interesting. We have an email on that from Tim in Salt Lake City: I grew up in a split home. Mother was a drug addict. Father was a successful engineer. The court awarded custody to her, even though we would've been much better off with our father. The decision to give a stay-at-home mom with problems like these just boggle my mind. These decisions should be made on the basis of what's best for the kids and parents, not some antiquated idea of gender roles.

And I don't know what you're saying about a party mom but - I don't know if drugs were the issue but in any case, that does sound a little selfish.

CONAN: And Lea Goldman, it appears that...

TERRY: (unintelligible)

CONAN: And Terry, thanks very much for the call. It appears judges are making that decision more and more often.

Ms. GOLDMAN: Yeah. I mean, women, by and large, still generally receive sole or joint custody. I think the number is like, 70 percent of all divorces result in women getting custody of the kids. So this is still a small group. And among that 30 percent of women who don't, a large, substantial portion are women who don't volunteer to give up custody. They lose custody.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Ms. GOLDMAN: So that's worth keeping in mind. And I feel for this guy, this father who raised his kid and, you know, felt like his wife was out - not just doing her thing, but partying. And certainly, there are those mothers out there, and no one's making excuses for them. But there are a subset who just find that motherhood - you know, it sounds so trite, but motherhood isn't for them. It's just not for them. And we can - you know, it's just a very difficult conversation to have because it's supposed to be innate. It's supposed to be instinctive. And a woman who doesn't feel that way is somehow less of a woman, maybe, and devoid of the - of all the things we think of as womanly and feminine.

But you know, it's probably something we're going to see more and more of, especially as women achieve more equality in the workplace. Those numbers are only growing. Women represent 60 percent of the workforce right now. And as they assume more influential positions and find these careers more satisfying, odds are good you're going to see some women say, I choose this life. And I can't choose it if I have kids at home that I have to take care of.

CONAN: And would the odds then increase? The courts would say OK, but you have to pay child-care costs to the - for the parent who's left with the children?

Ms. GOLDMAN: Absolutely. Absolutely. No one is disputing the fact that some of these women had to pay their husbands child support. Absolutely. They weren't with the kids; the husbands were taking care of the kids. So yes, they owed child support.

CONAN: Here's an interesting email from Eileen(ph) in Bushnell, Florida: In 1975, long before it was common, my husband and I made a decision to separate and divorce. We talked very seriously about who would be the better, only parent. We decided it would be he. I've kept active in my son's life since then and have no regrets about the decision.

And it's interesting: For all of the pain that this decision caused the women that you profiled, all of them have kept in touch with their kids, and all of them say - at least to you - that they have no regrets. Maybe that's not what they say in the middle of the night, but that's what they say to you.

Ms. GOLDMAN: Absolutely. None of these women expressed - I mean, at the time, when they did it, certainly, they were anguished by the decision. But over the long run, they all felt it was the right thing to do.

And one of the most interesting aspects of this very controversial issue -provocative issue - is that one of the women was telling me that she and her ex had joint custody, even though their son spent more time with their father. So she saw him, I think, maybe every other weekend or every third weekend, something like that. But they still had legally joint custody, which means, by law, she's allowed to be involved in - so the - the big parental decisions, like where he goes to school, what religion they're going to keep, things like that.

And yet she constantly, every year, had to fight tooth and nail with his school - which was on the other side of the country - to get updates; to be regarded as one of his emergency contacts in school; to get, you know, report cards, things like that, because the school couldn't wrap their heads around the idea that even though legally she was a joint custodian, that somehow because she wasn't active on a day-to-day basis in this kid's life, that she - well, she had to be less interested. And so she had to really coax the teachers, and be on top of them, to get updates.

CONAN: And we'll end with this email from Jo: I was just thinking about this this morning while getting ready for work, and my mom left over 23 years ago. When my parents split up, my mom didn't even try to fight for us. She kept her same job and moved about two blocks away. Pretty much stayed the same, just didn't see me, my brother or my dad for days or weeks at a time. My dad would make me call her. As an adult woman, I can somehow understand not wanting the trappings of a house, husband, children, etc. But as a child, there's a gaping hole of why my mom walked away from my brother and I and just didn't want to see us on a regular basis.

So that's some of the price that's involved. Lea, thanks very much for your time.

Ms. GOLDMAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Lea Goldman, deputy editor of Marie Claire magazine. Again, you can find a link to her article at npr.org.

Tomorrow, we'll talk about some possible upsides to rising gas prices, and David Folkenflik on the gotcha video that features the now-former head of development for NPR.

This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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