When mothers leave
Women who decide to give up custody pose a conundrum for this mother of 3.
You hear about it, but not too often. I know of two cases: Andre’s wife walked out on him and their three young children and left him to parent alone. A colleague told me recently about her boyfriend whose ex-wife decided that she wasn’t cut out for mothering and left the family behind to pursue a life on her own.

Moms who walk out on their kids aren’t the norm and their doing so evokes shock and revulsion in many of us. These stories leave me wondering two things: why do moms do it and why are we so shocked by it?

Why do they do it?

In a Mail Online article, Lesley Darcy, a mother of two and an aspiring writer, is said to have been torn between ‘domestic drudgery and dreams of success’. She explains her decision to leave her family and pursue a career as a writer by saying: ‘Meals were late, clothes weren’t ironed, a layer of dust began to settle on our home. I was writing all night…and I was a monster of a mother, really short-tempered with them…’. Darcy now sees her children during the holidays and communicates with them regularly.

‘I had to leave my children to find them,’ says Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, who gave primary custody of her children to her husband after their marriage broke down. She admits to never wanting children, but agreed to it because her husband was keen to do so. After being away from her family on a six month writing trip, she came to the decision that it would be best for everyone if she granted custody to their father. 

According to Petra Bueskens, a Melbourne University Lecturer who wrote her PhD dissertation on this topic, modern motherhood is to blame. Moms are working full-time outside the home and then coming home in the evenings to do the work of the traditional homemaker. Moms are over-committed and overwhelmed by the pressures of parenting and working, which leads to depression and a feeling of inadequacy.

Economics plays a part here too. Historically, women had to rely on their husbands to provide for them. These days, they are free to earn a living on their own, which might leave some women feeling trapped in the traditional role of motherhood.

Why are we so shocked by it?

‘We punish the very idea that there are other ways to be a mother,’ says Rizzuto.

In an interview about the making of the movie, Kramer vs Kramer, in which the mother leaves her son and husband because she feels she is an unfit parent, Meryl Streep deems her character to have been mentally ill.

Social norms dictate that mothers are the ones who form a bond with their children from conception. They are the ones who carry the babies in their womb, who breastfeed, who suffer as much separation anxiety as their children do when they have to go out to work. The mother who deviates from these norms is considered either mentally ill or a monster.

It’s clear from their stories that the decision to leave their children was not an easy one for Darcy and Rizzuto, yet they experience condemnation on a regular basis. Perhaps a more constructive response is to examine the pressures and challenges that seem to be part and parcel of modern motherhood and find ways of easing the burden.

Do we judge mothers too harshly if they leave their children?

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