"How can you leave your children?" It was the question leveled at me when I was away from my children for four months to interview the atomic bomb survivors in Japan. I heard it again, when I was facing divorce and my husband and I had to decide what was best for the children. We decided that he would keep primary physical custody and, as a joint legal custodian, I would move down the block and be a very involved, noncustodial mother. It worked for us. It was the best choice for the children in a time of heartbreak and loss.
But the rest of the world, it seems, could not agree.
An article about my choices that was published on Salon.com generated so much public conversation that it continued on television. Rage on behalf of my not-actually-abandoned children can be extreme. The responses directly to my website split along clear gender lines, and expose our great anxiety, not only about the perfect motherhood ideal that we can't live up to, but also about our transforming family structures and our high divorce rate.
Men -- not all but many -- tend to accuse, call names and threaten me. I am "evil," "worse than Hitler," "trailer trash and a perfect liberal," and other things that don't bear repeating. One told me I was only "created to create." Another man in the Huffington Post comment section made up a whole story about how the Vermont family court stripped me of custody. His comment was eerily authoritative, and entirely impossible: I don't live in Vermont!
These angry men have missed the point. I have not, as one accused, "left my children in an orphanage." On The View, Joy Behar pointed out that if I was a man, we would not be having this conversation, and it's true. When I was separated from my children to do my work, people called my husband "a saint" for taking care of his children. If he had left, and I, as the mother, had stayed behind, people would have asked me how he was doing over there and said how exciting it must be for him to be pursuing the work he loved!
As a noncustodial mother, I am exactly the opposite of a deadbeat dad. I give my children love, time and money. We cook together, do homework, play games and have an old-fashioned "how was your day?" conversation at dinner. Since I work from home, our days start after school, the minute they arrive, not after the traditional workday. They feel like they spend the same amount of time with me as with their dad, probably because our time together is focused, quality time when they are the center of my attention. And still, because I am a woman, people equate this with "leaving."
Women's responses to me have been different. More women than men have written to me directly, and they tell me their stories. Most are supportive, but even those who are not have shared advice or a glimpse into their own lives. So many have offered encouragement and thanked me for telling my truth, and some report, unfortunately, that when they tried to express their support in the comments on an article, they too were attacked in turn. But ambivalence about motherhood and struggles with divorce mark many of these stories. Even women who have dedicated themselves to a more traditional motherhood are sometimes exhausted by the overwhelming demands of the myth of the perfect mother and their role as caretaker in their marriage.
Why do we continue to cling to a dream that is increasingly impossible in a society where approximately half our children live with divorced parents, single moms, grandparents, LGBT parents and single dads? Partly, I think, because of our wish for unconditional, all encompassing love, much like the fairytale of the prince on the white horse coming to rescue the beautiful maiden. Love is essential, of course, and so is caretaking. The problem is that, in our society, we put the full responsibility for providing it on the woman. Our mothers are our knights in shining armor: our prince.
It has become clear, in my conversations with women, that too many are functioning as sole caretaker: caring for children, spouses, clients or patients at work if they do work, and then elderly parents as time moves on. Their needs wait until everyone else's are satisfied. Some women embrace this role and do it with love, but that doesn't make them less exhausted and ambivalent. It is this "role" that I was rejecting when I said I didn't want to be a "mother," but many people have put different words into my mouth, claiming that I do not want my children. This is wrong. These two things are not at all the same. But the misunderstanding is very important to look at. If we let the all-encompassing role of "mother caregiver" be the equivalent to love, there is no way to make changes and improve the situation for women.
My family is trying to recreate itself in love, honesty and support of every member in it-- adults and children alike. I love my sons and they know it. Like many divorced parents, I don't sleep in the same house with them, but that does not mean I am evil or human garbage. Roles and gender expectations, aside, the opinions that matter are the ones voiced by the people who see my family in action. Like the high school counselor at my sons' middle school who told me last week that my former husband and I were the best co-parents she has ever seen.