THE BLOG
11/26/2012 02:22 pm ET Updated Jan 26, 2013

Mothers Without Children

The "mommy wars" are a misnomer. Battles over parenting styles aren't really between moms. Rather, they are being fought behind closed doors, in courtrooms and psychiatrists offices, between feuding parents.

Recently I heard from a friend of mine who, after three years of a grueling divorce process, relinquished custody of her children to her husband. The friend, let's call her Amy, was a devoted mom for fifteen years, a domestic engineer par excellence.

Amy married right out of graduate school, happily gave up a promising career to raise her three children while her husband pursued his career full throttle. They bought a house in the 'burbs. Family was nearby. Life seemed pretty sweet.

What happened? The purpose here is not to ask why, or to point fingers. Rather, this case is important because the choices all women make about parenting and career should be undertaken with full awareness of where these decisions could lead them.

Amy's scenario is an example of what I see happening all around me, albeit on a less divisive scale: moms assessing choices they made about their vocations when their children were very young. And moms coming to terms with where these chosen paths have put them, ten years or so down the road.

The novelist Meg Wolitzer has called the period when many women halt or shift careers to raise children "the ten year nap." But as Wolitzer's novel explores, the early years are hardly a time when moms are snoozing. What's more likely to be dormant is a career outside the home. So what happens to these women after their decisions have had time to marinate, settle in, become life shaping? The period when women are "waking up" is also statistically the most likely time for divorce to occur -- second only to when the children go to college.

I was upset that years of Amy's life could disappear in a poof as if they didn't represent the renunciation of self required of primary parenting. Maybe I saw too much of myself in that "poof" -- balancing the demands of a baby and a teenager as I am. I see how quickly my older children have grown, how different their needs are from those of an infant, and how little they remember of the time I spent home with them. How does that time get accounted for, if it comes to that, if it must? These are prickly questions. Experts suggest that marriage is a financial arrangement, and not an undertaking wrought of love and passion (not to mention gobs of patience for a partner's many quirks). Divorce always casts marriage in a different hue. Let's call it grubby and slightly rank.

How would your parenting decisions stack up in front of a judge? Partners in the parental trenches don't really want to think about this. And many won't need to. But it's wise for all of us to consider the costs of creating families.

In "The Price of Motherhood", Ann Crittenden exposes the historical devaluation of women's housework and how it disappears -- wrapped in a magic eight ball where "labor of love" is the surface message. From zeros in their Social Security accounts to legal inequality, at-home mothers pay a "mommy tax" of millions in lost income. This tax doesn't hurt women alone, it hurts the general welfare of society for which the nurturing of human abilities is key to economic progress.

Mothers don't expect a return on their investment, per se. That would be far too crass. After all, motherhood is a gift, motivated by unselfish devotion. The process is its own reward. But is requesting financial acknowledgment more crass than a father benefiting from years of unpaid domestic labor while enjoying the emotional benefits of being a dad?

I say this with full understanding that not all lousy marriages have a traditional structure. Even more evolved marriages can fail. I also say this knowing that dads can primary parent and moms can make money; or the division can fall somewhere between. But women are still more likely than men to be the involuntary philanthropists who make sacrifices in the marriage because they are the moms and it is expected of them. And these sacrifices don't leave paper trails. While in some states legislation has edged towards more equitable distribution of familial assets, in contested cases custody is still up for grabs.

According to recent statistics, fathers seeking primary custody are awarded custody 50 percent of the time. (Of course this doesn't indicate how many of those dads are at-homers.) It's entirely plausible for a woman -- lured by the myth of maternal calling -- to lose custody, virtue be damned.

Contrary to popular belief, maternal wealth is not an endlessly renewable resource. The investments women make are not simply individual sacrifices but also social contributions. Denying an at-home mother custody strips her -- and the rest of us -- of this broad acknowledgment. (And I'm not giving a blanket mom pass; I'm not talking about cases involving child endangerment or substance abuse.) As another divorcee told me, "I gave up my aspirations, my sense of self, for this? I sacrificed for all those years and what I got is the stick's shortest end." Don't let it hit you on your way out the door, mother.

The price to pay for turning the other cheek is steep: as a culture, we are more than eager to label women "bad mothers" for the slightest infraction of motherhood's altruistic creed. We tend to look askance at mothers who give up their children. But what about moms who choose, like Amy did, to live without them? What if after years of holding together the household you were told that your work amounted to nothing? Could you imagine yourself saying, "I quit"?

Amy's scenario points to larger cultural dilemmas far beyond the "mommy wars," dilemmas that pinpoint the stakes of caregiving: who does it and at what cost? Although we acknowledge that no parenting situation is perfect, when it comes to court decisions, imperfection may be biased against the mom. So long as mothers' work is undervalued, all women are at risk for losing their children. That is the ultimate "mommy tax."

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