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Why It's OK If Moms 'Abandon' Their Kids

05/13/2015 04:56 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2016
Vicki Larson

We just celebrated Mother's Day and even if you believe, as I do, that it's another Hallmark holiday like Valentine's Day, it is always nice to reflect on the women who birthed us or raised us or both. Sometimes, they are not one and the same; many of us were raised or mentored by women who were like moms to us.

There's still a lot of angst about motherhood, whether we're discussing moms who work outside the home; moms who care for the children at home; moms who breastfeed and moms who don't; what it means to be a "good" mom; helicoptering moms; why many women are opting out of motherhood... you name it, and it's causing conflict somewhere on the Internet.

But there often isn't a lot of discussion about mothers who walk away from motherhood. Not women who choose to be child-free, but moms who abandon their kids. A good number do.

Well, we don't know that for a fact. There are 2.4 million moms who don't have custody of their kids (versus 8.6 million single moms) and there are 2.6 million single dads. There's no way to know from those numbers how many women willingly gave up their kids, how many single dads are widows or single dads by choice, etc.

But every once and a while, we're reminded that some moms abandon their kids. Few of us, rightly or wrongly, raise an eyebrow when we hear of a dad giving up custodial rights. But, a mom? That goes against everything we believe -- or choose to believe -- about mothers. Still, it happens, and there are many ways to look at it.

For a child, it isn't necessarily a happy thing, or so Melissa Cistaro told me as we chatted about her new memoir, Pieces of My Mother, which details her decades-long search to understand why her mother abandoned her and her two brothers when they were all under the age of 5. "I have a great deal of compassion for my mother. I really do. I always loved her, but I longed for her so much," she says.

But as a mother herself -- and one whose third child came unexpectedly many years after the birth of her first two, just when she was about to have some coveted "me" time -- she relates to the ambivalence her own mother felt: "Somewhere deep inside me, I can relate to my mother's irrepressible desire to be free of everyone, everything. Maybe I have inherited this fleeting nature, too. Though I love my children passionately, I leap at opportunities for time away from them."

When Rahna Reiko Rizzuto wrote about leaving her husband and two small children in her 2010 memoir Hiroshima in the Morning, she was vilified -- even receiving death threats -- for her decision:

We want our mothers to be long-suffering, to put their children's needs first and their own well-being last if there is time left. We need her to get dinner on the table and the laundry done and the kids to school and the homework finished and the house clean and the cookies for the bake sale made and the school clothes purchased. Our society is hurting, schools are bankrupt, family finances are squeezed, drugs and guns and sex in the media and international terror are all bombarding our children and the person we designate to help kids negotiate all of this is their mother. It's a big job, too big for one person. Especially when she also has to work, and when she also has a life of her own to care for. But to say that, to act on it, is too much of a threat.

This, of course, isn't an issue for dads. Sure, there are lots of conversations about absent dads and "dead-beat dads," but since many women seek sole custody after divorce, many so-called absent dads have been given little alternative but to be somewhat absent -- well, maybe except for every other weekend and one night a week. We like egalitarian marriages but not egalitarian divorces.

For whatever reason, society seems to think that dads don't have to be there for dinner, laundry, homework, cookies for the bake sale, etc., to still be a good dad. He's either working really hard supporting his family or he's divorced and so the kids are most likely with Mom (why?). But if Mom isn't there for the typical "mom things," well, not only is she not a good mom but she's obviously selfish, too, putting her needs -- career, schooling, her sanity, whatever -- before her kids' needs (although women who don't have kids are evidently just as selfish, according to the Pope and others).

What's a woman to do?

Perhaps there's another way to look at the mothers abandoning their kids phenomena (if it can indeed be called that). What if it means we are at a point in society when we believe dads are just as capable as moms in caring for their kids 24/7?

That's how some would like to frame it.

"People are recognizing that fathers can be amazing primary caregivers, and we shouldn't sell men short," says Rebekah Spicuglia, one of the three moms who gave up custody of their kids profiled in Marie Claire in 2009. "It's increasingly a trend, especially as society becomes less judgmental of men who want to step into that role," Joanna Coles, the magazine's then-editor-in-chief, told the Today show.

Wouldn't that be a positive thing?

There are 2 million stay-at-home dads today, although that wasn't necessarily their choice. Are we as a society able to accept that men can be as good, perhaps even better, caregivers than moms? I would hope that we could embrace that.

But sometimes, it isn't quite about that. Sometimes it's a recognition that staying would do more damage than leaving. As Cistaro herself says:

"Actually not growing up with her, we were protected from a lot of her behavior. I would have been a very different person had my mother raised me, maybe not better. As hard as it was having her absent, my father was the more reliable parent."

Maybe it doesn't matter which parent walks away as long as it's done for the kids' benefit, because staying would subject them to bad parental behaviors; children who grow up with an alcoholic or mentally ill parent often suffer lifelong. Maybe that's the conversation we should be having. I'm not sure that it is, but I'm sure of this: vilifying moms who abandon their kids more than we vilify dads says a lot about who we value more as a parent.

A version of this post appeared on Vicki Larson's blog, OMG Chronicles. Interested in creating a specific kind of marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.