When you hear that a mom is not the custodial parent of her child(ren), what comes to mind? For me it’s whispers of “I heard she lost her kids.” “A judge took them away, she must have failed them somehow.” “They don’t take kids away from good moms.” “She must have been on drugs, abusive, or something terrible.” When moms have 80% custody no one bats an eye that dads are on “every other weekend;” it’s a given that mom will live with the kids. If dad gets 40% custody or more, he’s gone above and beyond – he’s nominated for sainthood! Moms don’t get that response when the shoe is on the other foot, though.
From the outside looking in, we have a beautiful blended family. But upon closer inspection, you’ll notice my older two sons are here only for summer, school breaks, and holidays. That’s because 8 years ago I was not granted full custody. I went from being a stay-at-home mother with a husband who worked 25 days away and 5 days off to being left with nothing in my divorce. Not the house. Not the kids. Nothing. A series of unfortunate events … that’s how it happened. Not drugs. Not abuse. I didn’t break any laws.
When writing this I reached out to my community to ask other moms without primary custody how they felt, what they wanted to share, and what rumors they wanted to dispel. There are a lot more of us than even I expected. We’re professionals, nurses, leaders, and yes, moms to other children. A recurring theme for each of us: a series of unfortunate events is how it happened; not drugs & not abuse. Stay at home moms who were desperate to leave but rearranged their lives in a way to make the least waves for the kids. Moms who let the child stay with Dad out of town after Christmas or for Summer – then when they asked for them back, it was too late; now the child was “domiciled” in another state. Ex-husbands who froze assets, lawyered up first, and wouldn’t give the children back; there was not yet an established custody agreement so Mom was left with no choices. These are our stories. Not the ones you’d imagine where Mom was pulled over by the police or CPS was called in.
We are not bad moms. We didn’t commit crimes. We love our children. We love them enough to know that the fight may not be what’s best for them. We have talked to attorneys and watched others try to fight it. We have friends who have spent (way) upwards of $10K, had tons of evidence against the other parent and still, have lost. Why? It seems in some instances elected judges can do as they please, really. Many parishes have only a single judge so there’s no asking for another, either. The risk of fighting the same fight over and over just to lose thousands when the same judge wants to uphold their original decision is huge. For some moms – the idea of fighting against the person who was mentally abusive is very difficult to overcome, also. Especially if you don’t fear for the well being of the child and you know how much worse they can make it for you if you don’t win the fight you bring to the table.
It’s easy from the outside to say you would do ANYTHING to get your kids back. But would you risk their college fund? Even if you thought they are well cared for? Would you go into debt? Would you mortgage your house; the one they live in when they are with you? Would you be able to take off countless days of work for court? Would you take from the children you raise full time to win back the other(s)? What about uprooting the children from their friends and school and neighborhood? What if they didn’t want to live with you more often because your house has more rules, or more kids, or fewer presents? An extreme example I heard from a friend was of a mother who won custody back and it upset the children so much that her eldest emancipated himself at 16 and moved back in with the dad. They no longer speak now. Are you willing to risk it all?
You’ve heard the old line, “when the child is XYZ, they can ask to live with you.” I hate that because it’s just not true. Children’s desires are taken into consideration in some cases, but it’s not a choice given to the child and upheld by a judge. That’s a myth, and a hurtful one if I’m honest. Every time someone says, “just wait until they’re old enough to choose you,” I feel punched in the gut. There will likely never be a time when my boys live with me full time again, and I have to wonder if they even WOULD choose me if they could.
The other painful phrase I hear is “I could never allow my child to live away from me,” or “I don’t know how you do it because I could never do it!” The answer is for most of us mothers in this situation we have no choice but to live our lives one day at a time and look forward to the next time with our child. If you’ve ever talked to one of us about our children who live away, you’ll see a fire burning in our hearts. We are passionate about our children in a way that can’t be put into words because of our intimate knowledge of how little precious time we get with them. For some of us, when the children are away we don’t even get regular phone calls much less a photograph here and there.
If you see me smiling on social media and in-person after my sons have left, you might think I don’t even care that they’re gone. “It must be so much easier for her now. I bet she loves having that break.” I want to tell you that it gets easier, but in my situation, with months between visits and phone calls rarely answered, it doesn’t. I stuff it way down most days; I don’t even allow myself to think about it much. The alternative is that I would be hysterically crying and not living every day. And for the first couple of years, that’s what my life looked like. I don’t have the luxury of falling apart non-stop anymore, I have more children who need me and I deserve to be happy, too. So I will meet my ex-husband halfway (4.5 hours from here) and then I will cry myself all the way home and dissolve into a puddle for the remainder of the night. I will give myself that one evening to feel everything: fear, anger, devastation, and more. Then I will let it go and forgive myself for whatever “what ifs” my brain hurls at me and go on.
I hope when you learn that a mom isn’t the primary caregiver for her child that you forgive her whatever crimes you think must have brought her to that place and consider, maybe, it was just a series of unfortunate events.