The Non-Custodial Mother: Recognizing Social Biases and Shame

This week, I read a great blog about the negative stereotypes of fathers in divorce.  This brings up the subject that I feel passionate about-the stereotype of noncustodial mothers.  Most of us, myself included, have assumed that when a woman does not have primary custody that something must be terribly wrong with her.  We suspect she has a drug and alcohol problem, works in a strip club, has been incarcerated or has serious emotional problems.  This is partly due to the fact that women still tend to receive primary custody over men in most jurisdictions and as a result we think the absolute worst.  Nonetheless I am surprised to find with 30 plus years in the divorce field, that I have these same thoughts arise in my mind, but only for a split second, thank goodness.

When fathers say they do not have primary custody, we take it at face value and say, “Oh, that’s too bad.”  We do not question his character or life style.  However, when it is the mother making this revelation, the social stigma causes us to raise an eyebrow.

We need to recognize that there are other reasons why mothers may not have primary custody.

  1. There is of course, occasions when the court finds the father better equipped to provide the primary care of the children. This is happening more and more especially when the mother is working and the father has been a stay-at-home-dad by choice or due to unemployment.
  2. I have also seen perfectly effective mothers who settled out of court believing a verbal agreement with the father would hold up. Many of these mothers agree to “allow” the child to stay with dad while she finishes college, saves up some money, gets a job, buys a home etc.  When the child is not returned, these mothers are very surprised to learn that if something is not in writing they may be out of luck.  Mothers who believe a verbal agreement will hold up allow a situation to become established thinking things would be very different in the future.   Unfortunately, in this case, being naïve could cost a mother physical custody.
  3. If a mother travels for her job more than the other parent, the parents may agree to give primary custody to the other parent. The parties overlook the possibility that careers can change. When writing the original parenting plan, these factors should be taken into consideration and incorporated.
  4. In some situations, the mother did not hire an attorney thinking that they could share an attorney; however, an attorney cannot represent both parties. The mother may have signed a waiver not recognizing she was unrepresented.
  5. Naive mothers can be manipulated into believing that certain ages and genders must be with the other parent. They may make a permanent decision regarding custody based upon the developmental stage at the time of the divorce.
  6. There are mothers who recognize that the father is more nurturing and more available to their child. They chose to have dad be the primary parent.

It is important to recognize that doing the right thing for their child takes maturity and sacrifice.  These are not mothers that society should cast a critical eye upon. It is difficult enough for any parent to not see their child frequently without this additional negative stigma placed upon them.  Things are changing in the area of primary custody, and yet society as a whole, has not changed the unfair assumptions placed on a mother without primary custody.

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