Are you a mom who wishes you were the non-custodial parent?

is it okay to be a non custodial mom

Could being a non-custodial parent actually be desirable? 

I hate to admit it, but motherhood has been very difficult for me. I love my daughter beyond all reason, but as a ‘thinking' woman, it has taken away a part of my spirit. I can't help but feel a deep resentment that I gave up so much of my life and very identity. My ex and I have 50/50 custody of our 8-year-old and I'm starting to consider asking him to shoulder more of the parenting burden.

is it okay to be a non-custodial parentThat is what one mom wrote in Millionaire Single Moms group on Facebook, recently. It took my breath away — not because of what she confessed, but because of the courage to be so very honest.

Immediately other moms chimed in, sharing their own feelings about depression, overwhelm and secret wishes they had more help — including from their kids' dads. I shared how my own feelings have shifted over the years,  from being devastated to be away from my babies for a moment, to encouraging my ex take them way more our custody agreement stipulated.

To be, or not to be a non-custodial parent?

At the nut of my work here is my goal of gender equality.

And as feminists before me have said:

We cannot have gender equality in the workforce, in Washington, or in the economy, if we do not have equality at home.

As much (if not more) as it is that male-dominant attitudes contribute to women earning less, getting promoted and hired less, and having less access to capital, it is expectations of traditional female roles that keep gender inequality alive and well.

  • Women seek out lower-paying work, because it often offers more flexible work hours so we can be the primary care giver to our children.
  • Women are still dropping out of the workforce to care for children and ill loved ones at far, far higher rate than men.

I see in marriages all the time that brilliant and accomplished women take less demanding, lower profile (and lower-paying) jobs for the sake of family balance. Studies find that married women are most likely to drop out of the workforce all together at the moment their incomes are poised to exceed their husbands' — presumably because they sense their marriages cannot survive if traditional gender roles (he brings home the bacon, she is the lesser- or non-earner).

In divorce and breakups, when children are involved, mothers are granted primary custody in 80 percent of cases.

Regardless of whether you consciously chose a path that mirrors what society expects of you as a mother, or your role seemed like the most practical solution for a harried family life, or you stumbled into a situation where you are the primary caregiver and not living up to your earning potential, the pay gap suffers for it. The other option, however, is incredibly stressful, and it asks a lot of women.

The other option?

At least sharing equally parenting responsibilities, including in separated families.

Thankfully, shared parenting — in which family court negotiations start at 50-50 custody and equitable parenting time in all but abuse cases — is barreling towards the norm. There are now 55 peer-reviewed research papers published that prove that shared parenting is best for children (including in high-conflict co-parenting arrangements), and 26 states have introduced legislation supporting shared parenting.

I am convinced that this huge legal, policy and cultural shift in family court has the power to effectively close the pay gap. When half of families are forced to share parenting equally outside of marriage, both parents will demand more of their employers when it comes to flexible schedules, family leave, health benefits and demand of our politicians affordable child care and other family-friendly policies.

More women will be free of the burden of primary child care, and have more time to pursue careers and earning. When everyone accepts the realities their traditional marriage very well might end, they will make better decisions regarding earning potential and ensuring their own financial autonomy.

Most of all: Women will stop being presumed to be the primary caregiver for children.

To the original comment at the top of this post:

It is so ingrained in us that mothers are to assume primary residence, custody and care of children, that it is a real source of shame and stigma when they are not.

The assumption is that the mother must be unstable, an addict, negligent, suffering from mental health issues or otherwise fucked up. Statistically, that is likely the case.

According to Census figures, 18 percent of custodial parents in 2011 were fathers. And in 2011, 32 percent of custodial fathers didn’t receive any of the child support that had been awarded to them, compared with 25 percent of custodial mothers. The reasons? Dads tend to earn more than moms, because, well, men earn more than women.

Also, as Mona Chalabi of told NPR:

For a father to become the custodial parent, very often the mother might not be in a particularly good position. She might be struggling to find work. She might have drug problems. There can be all kind of issues there. […] That might play into the ability of those noncustodial mothers to actually make those child-support payments.

That may be the facts now, and it is certainly the stereotype.

But we need to face our prejudices, for ourselves and each other, and relinquish any shame or judgement attached to women who opt out of the role of stay-at-home, full-time, primary parent. That is not only dated, and does not serve individual women (as stay-at-home moms are more prone to depression, anger, vulnerability to domestic violence, and poverty, especially after a marriage or relationship ends), but holds women back collectively.

On a persona level, this kind of sharing is so cathartic — when you're a single mom there are so many things that can contribute to feeling of shame — the end of a marriage, pregnancy outside of marriage, not enough money, feeling like you're not doing enough for your kids, or that you're totally alone in a world of married people. But one thing I've learned by sharing my own story on my blog is that if I experience it or feel it, other people do too. I'm not so special that my feelings are unique.

And that gives me comfort.

What are you thinking and feeling? What are your feelings of shame as they relate to being a single mom? Do you wish you had less time with your kids? Were the non-custodial parent? Share in the comments.

About Emma Johnson

Emma Johnson is a veteran money journalist, noted blogger, bestselling author and an host of the award-winning podcast, Like a Mother with Emma Johnson. A former Associated Press Financial Wire reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Glamour,, U.S. News, Parenting, USA Today and others. Her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was named to the New York Post's ‘Must Read” list.Emma regularly comments on issues of modern families, gender equality, divorce, sex and motherhood for outlets like CNN, Headline News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Fox & Friends, CNBC, NPR, TIME, MONEY, O, The Oprah Magazine and The Doctors. She was named Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web,” “Top 15 Personal Finance Podcasts” by U.S. News, and a “Most Eligible New Yorker” by New York Observer.A popular speaker, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality. Read more about Emma here.


  1. Emma on April 20, 2015 at 8:40 am

    A reader unsubscribed to my newsletter after reading this. She wrote:

    “Our feelings about single motherhood vary too greatly. I learned early on to surrender to motherhood and although it has been and continues to be challenging at times, the fact that I feel incredibly blessed to share every day I can with my girls, now 14 and 17, makes it all worth while. When I counsel single mothers, I help them find solutions to ensure they can take time for themselves and be able to spend quality time with their kids. This creates positive results that empower them to celebrate their successes as single parents and overcome the challenges. I hope that you will one day be able to feel the joy and strength that comes with raising children without regrets.”

    What do you think?

    • Carla on April 21, 2015 at 2:04 pm

      I think that as a single mom by choice with no dad, while not being the non-custodial parent is not an option, I can relate to the original poster. Over the years, and especially recently, I find myself often envious of those who have daddy weekends where they can get some me time. And I felt guilty for even thinking that – I mean, I knew what I was getting into when I adopted, I have a great kid, many of those mothers are fighting through issues with their ex – it seemed indulgent thinking . Everywhere I looked in mainstream media, reinforced that – a rose colored view of parenting that just left me feeling like my thoughts made me a bad mom.

      And so, for the better part of 8 years, I basically made my daughter the center of my life. Yes, I had friends, but they were friends I made through her school or activities. I didn’t hire a babysitter – I worked 40 hours a week, so the weekends were our time. I can count on 2 hands, the # of times I went out on date or just hung out with other adults. That works for awhile, but then I noticed a few things: I was burned out, I had lost all sense of myself outside of being a mom, and my daughter was incredibly attached to me to the point of not being healthy. She would say that I was going to college with her, going with her when she got married, would worry about what would happen if I died. I kinda laughed these off at the sentiments of 7 year old, but when they continued, I looked deeper and realized, that while my intent was the best, I’d done both of us a disservice. So my 2015 goal has been to build a bigger, fuller life for both of us. Getting me out of the house with other adults, dating again, and getting her to exercise her independence. I call a sitter now without guilt, although it took some time. I’m planning a vacation that will have both together and separate time. I’ve made a great friend though the forum. Even if I don’t have a date, I try and get out with adults at least once every weekend.

      As for the sentiments of the person who unsubscribed, to need me time, to express our reservations or negative thoughts doesn’t mean we have regret. I have noticed a tangible difference in our home as I’ve made some changes: my daughter is less afraid to leave my side and there is more joy in our house. I have no regrets about that.

      Sorry this was long – this just hit a chord.

      • Emma on April 23, 2015 at 8:26 pm

        Love this – thanks for sharing, Carla. I appreciate how you owned your shit, saw that you were going down an unhealthy path and turned it around. Brava

    • Ellen on October 6, 2017 at 12:13 pm

      I have found your blog to be incredibly empowering. I have 50/50 custody without any child support with my ex. It took some time to get to this point of sharing responsibilities, a place we could not manage when we shared a home. I felt a ton of relief when I stopped being in charge of money (child support) and children 100% of the time. And I absolutely love knowing that I am making this shit happen! I am in the driver’s seat of my financial and personal life. I don’t worry about a late payment or argument over our kids’s expenses. I have not found another blog that empowers single parents to be independent and challenges societal norms with such grace. I am grateful this community exists! Thank you and please keep this work up :)

  2. Anon on April 22, 2015 at 4:32 pm

    I have a few different comments/thoughts relating to both the initial post and the comment from the reader who unsubscribed.

    As parents, we need to do what is best for our kids. In some situations, that may be having the father as the custodial parent and the mother as the non-custodial parents. No one should feel shame or guilt if that is that case.

    As a mother with a “50/50” arrangement, it often does not feel that way for me. Yes, my children split their time equally between my house and their father’s house, but I feel like I shoulder 95% of the responsibility when it comes to my children. I am the one who keeps track and makes doctors’ and dentist appointments. I take them to about 75% of these appointments. I also am the one who takes them for haircuts and buys all of their clothes, etc. I could ramble on for a while, but you get the point. So while it is a 50/50 arrangement, it does not always feel that way to me. I also harbor some frustration because I work in a FT demanding career. I have to spend time with my kids and my free time taking care of all of this. My ex seems to have a lot more free time with both our kids and when he is alone. Of course this is something that I need to deal with and find a way to alleviate the situation, but I get the frustration.

    There also are just times that we need a bigger break. Maybe we don’t need to switch custody entirely, but maybe we need something more than just a weekend off. We may need the other parent to take the children for an extra day for a couple of weeks. Or maybe we need the other parent to take on another responsibility, i.e. make and take the kids for their doctors’ appointments. I think creativity and flexibility are essential when co-parenting and single parenting.

    With regards to the reader comment, I cringed at the phrase “surrender to motherhood.” It sounds a bit dramatic to me. At the end of the day, of course our children come first. But, we can have a life outside of our children. It’s very important to me to have a fulfilling career. My friendships are also a priority and I make time to text, talk to, and see my friends. There is no need to surrender.

    • Emma on April 23, 2015 at 8:27 pm

      >>There also are just times that we need a bigger break. Maybe we don’t need to switch custody entirely, but maybe we need something more than just a weekend off. We may need the other parent to take the children for an extra day for a couple of weeks. Or maybe we need the other parent to take on another responsibility, i.e. make and take the kids for their doctors’ appointments. I think creativity and flexibility are essential when co-parenting and single parenting.

      Oh man, you hit it on the head. So well said, thanks

    • Michele on July 29, 2016 at 9:29 am

      I know too well your frustration of having to deal with the “everyday” stuff. My ex gets the kids just every other weekend. Not even the full weekend. By his choice. When they have soccer games or any extra curriculars while it is his day, I have to make sure they get to where they need to go, because the other 2 doesn’t want to spend that time at a soccer game. “His time” is nothing but fun stuff. No time schedule. Nothing. And he wonders why I can’t get them to listen, or do anything for me. Further, he wants them full time now so he can get the income tax. Father of the year right here. So I get needing time to myself. I am slowly getting there. You will too. Like was mentioned time for self is needed for the parent as well as the children. No reason to feel guilty about that.

    • LRR on December 5, 2016 at 2:02 pm

      I know this post is older …. However, it’s relevant! I cannot over emphasize the point that,as a mom, heck as a PARENT our duty is to protect, provide and educate our kids – to help them LEARN how to function ON THEIR OWN! Hell, the Momma eagle kicks her eaglets out of the nest, otherwise , they never learn to fly. I think our species is more kind than the said Accipitridae variety, however, the goal is the same. I struggled with this for a loong time, until my company downsized, literally forcing me to dream those big, harry scary dreams! I stepped into being a consultant in my profession, and I’ve not looked back since. The bite is that my ex and his wife (yep, he got himself a helper) have the boys during the week so that I can travel for my project if need be. I have my boys every weekend. Sometimes I still need time ALONE – not working, or doing anything, other than just being ME. I too have noticed increased peace, health, and less yelling, chaos, and stress when I take responsibility for self-care.
      I understand where people say “surrender to motherhood” – that is from an extremely conservative and patriarchal view. I left a cult-ish church that held those views, because I dared to believe that I was meant to be everything AND a mother. I was myself before I had my kids, and I’d like to be able to live with myself peacefully when my boys leave my nest. Great post Emma!

  3. anonymous on April 29, 2016 at 11:13 am

    I am going to share something that I haven’t shared with anyone on my own blog. I don’t even want to share my name since I still feel as if the stigma associated with a mom that doesn’t have primary custody is a real barrier that most people will have a ton of judgment about. I don’t have primary custody of my oldest daughter. There I said it and what a relief. Will I be judged? Probably. Does my identity as a mother change because I am not shouldering the primary responsibilities? No. I have three kids. My youngest two live with me full time with little to no help from their dads (Oooh yes I have children from multiple dads). I contributed to my own burdens and depression by putting too much on myself and not asking for help when I needed it. I was overwhelmed and I ended up suffering from anxiety, depression and a host of other things that took me off track of being the best mom I could be. Losing primary custody was forced upon me, I didn’t go quietly into the night on that one. However in hindsight as I continue to put the pieces back together on my parent-child relationship and coparenting relationship I could not have asked for better insight or a better opportunity to turn my ship around. My daughter’s dad now has first hand knowledge and experience of what I went through as the primary parent and that has made us better co-parents. We still don’t communicate as best friends but we communicate. I relish the time I have with my daughter and I don’t feel like I am having to split my time into pieces to make sure each child has my attention. During the week I can focus on my two littles and their day to day needs. Then the weekends come and my older daughter and the littles can enjoy our outings and fun activities. My daughter and I can truly talk because we know our time is limited and she has much more appreciation of her dad. I still go to therapy and it has helped me a lot with how I parent, coparent and relate to my children. I don’t have a resentment about this situation. Being able to manage this situation has helped me succeed in other areas of my life such as career and spirituality with a true work life balance that seems to elude so many single mothers. I continue to work hard and have no qualms about child support as I truly view that as my contribution to the life she has with dad since I am not there. I have also met other women who also don’t have primary custody and many expressed the same fears of judgment about our roles as mothers and primary caregivers. I still identify with the struggles of single motherhood as I have two children full-time with little to no help from dad but I am thankful for the gift of having my daughter’s dad bear the primary custody for my oldest child – it has brought my daughter and I closer.

    • Grazia on September 2, 2016 at 8:32 am

      I don’t have primary custody either, thanks a lot for sharing this. Best wishes for you!

  4. JK on April 30, 2016 at 8:15 pm

    Wow. I’m sitting here in the basement watching tv. My youngest child is calling me. Again. Wants water. Is scared, etc, etc. I’m runing on empty. Their dad will be sharing custody in a few months once he gets a house a few blocks from here. While he and I are on very good terms, I totally get what you are saying. I sometimes secretly wish I didn’t always have to get up in the middle of the night for them, referee their fights and exlain why we had to move and why things changed. I’ve been doing it alone for 2 years and I feel like most times I’m not keeping my head above water. To admit that to someone else feels horrible. Feels like I don;t love them enough. Like I’m not enough. Like I’m failing at marriage, parenting and living in general.

    I’m in a new relationship and things there are good. But even then, I feel sometmes that I resent my kids. Why? Because they fight. Because they need me. Because I have nothing left to give and its leaving me salty and tired and not pleasant to be with. I often try and picture it from my new fella’s eyes – he doesn’t have kids but thinks the world of mine. But I think about how I yell at them, how I get mad, how could he ever want to be part of this? How could anyone?

    I didn’t sign up for single parenting (single except for every other weekend and wednesdays at dinner) but its where I am and it is harder than I could have ever imagained. I love my girls with all my heart but it sucks.

    • Emma on May 4, 2016 at 2:31 pm

      I appreciate your honesty. You are not alone.

    • Michele on July 29, 2016 at 9:42 am

      Wow. Our stories are quite similar. I have mine full time except every other weekend. I too, am not a pleasant person to be around when I just get tired of the kids needing so much, whining, fighting. I have no privacy when they are around. In my bubble. I too feel guilty when I feel this way. I am slowly making “me” a priority. And trying not to feel guilty about that. It is necessary.

      • Emma on August 1, 2016 at 3:38 pm

        Sounds like you are taking positive steps and dealing with a very normal and common feeling.

  5. Feeling down on April 10, 2017 at 2:20 pm

    Wow, I cant believe I came across this post. I know its late but I couldn’t help but want to comment. Being the non-custodial parent has been a really tough challenge to overcome. I felt so much shame for so long and afraid to tell others that my children did not live with me full time. I had my children at a young age (18 & 21) and did everything myself without much help from their father. I later found myself working tirelessly to afford to pay rent and daycare (including weekends), while never being able to spend much time with the kids, let alone allow them to be able to participate in sports, go to weekend birthday parties etc. Their father lived with his parents and provided a solution to let the children live with them (free daycare with family) and since he worked part time that would allow the children the freedom to play sports and have social lives and live outside my work schedule. However, the father also lived an hour away…. I was making $2200 a month at my job, rent was $1000 and daycare was a little less than that… I knew I was struggling and I couldn’t provide the children what i knew I wanted to- that being said, here we are 3 years later and the children still live with their father…. Now that I have a higher paying job, working only M-F, i have the finances and time to have the children back – BUT religion has caused this to be next to impossible. The father began raising them Mormon and I am not …. I want what is best for the children and in the big picture makes them happy which is why the decision to have them stay with their father was made in the first place… but being more interested in science and cognitive thinking, this causes not being able to get them back because their core beliefs and mine differ. I use this as an opportunity to teach them perspective and how everyone is different and it differs from each person what their beliefs may be. This is a hot topic in our world today as well, so its helpful to have so many examples, but not being Mormon, their father has remarried and they have been “sealed” to their step mom, i feel like as their biological mother, its simply not enough time to be able to teach them everything they could find useful in the short time spent together. Not to mention, the big one of the lack of bonding together. Daily time together creates so much opportunity for those carefree and casual conversations that cause wonder and curiosity that I feel is fizzled by their adopted limited beliefs. I Just dropped them off last night and the sadness takes a while to suppress, and today has been harder than others, but all I can do is my best. I feel the need to apologize for any LDS members that may come across this, but I feel strongly about how much limited beliefs can hinder a persons ability to thrive and live fearlessly in this world. I want to spend more time with my children and because I am not Mormon that causes a hardship to make that happen.

  6. SE on November 9, 2017 at 10:17 am

    I decided to become the non-custodial parent last year, my daughter’s first year of high school after commuting almost 2 hours one way in traffic everyday to pick her up from her dads house and then drive another 30 minutes home getting home 8-8:30, eat dinner and go to bed and then start all over the next day at 6 am! It came at the same time I made the decision of moving in with my boyfriend who is closer to my work- 15 minutes. My daughter’s father lives 25 minutes away from her school and she can take one bus or train there. He also recently got married and she has 2 stepbrothers. I just felt like it would be better for her to stay with him at this point, for the family aspect of it. She would have a better routine and not have to trek back and forth during the week. Also her uncle and aunt and 3 cousins(more like siblings to her) live in the same house, its is a brownstone so everyone has there own floor. I don’t have a big family, it was just me and her. Another part of my decision is that I was just so physically tired and have neck and back issues, so driving long periods was no easy feat. I do miss taking her to school in the morning because that is when we would have our “talks” and 2 days on the weekends is not a lot of time, but I do feel like we do spend more “quality” vs “quantity” time together. Now I get to be the fun parent! and her dad has to be the disciplinarian, which I know he hates because that is his princess. It was very hard to make the decision mainly because of the guilt placed on my society for women to be the primary caretakers. But once I realized that I am not a bad mother, and that I am not abandoning her, it got easier. Even though I am not physically there during the week, I am there. I face time her every night and make sure she packs her lunch, eats breakfast and gets to school on time in the morning, just as if I were there. We always joke as if she is at boarding school, especially when I send her huge boxes of her favorite food and personal items back to her dads house every Sunday :)

  7. Jennifer on December 29, 2017 at 10:18 pm

    Wow. My son’s father has never even seen our son, who is 5 years old and has autism. The work is 100% mine. I get all the stress but also all the hugs. I would give anything for shared custody like so many of you are fussing about not being enough. Sometimes I just need a break. I don’t get that. So when you guys who have 50/50 custody or even just get a break every other weekend think you’re getting the short end of the stick, it could be worse. I love my child more than anything, but damn….

  8. Feeling stuck. on March 14, 2018 at 3:39 pm

    15 years ago I moved to CA from my home state with a guy. We ended up getting married and having children who are now 12. When the girls were 5, he decided I wasn’t his cup of tea anymore and left me for another woman. She is now married to him, living in my old house and step parenting my children.
    I have made being in a good relationship with my ex and his wife a priority for the sake of the girls. We have a 50/50 arrangement altho i would say that he shoulders the majority of things. It helps that he has money, a flexible schedule, all of his family in the area and a family environment under their roof.
    I on the other hand am living the bachelorette life. I am single, live in an apartment, strict schedule at my FT job, and no family. I am depressed and feel worthless as a mom. I am there for them, but I’m not really “there”. Our time together is a couple hours after school until bed 2x a week and 1 weekend day which usually consists of laying around watching movies. It’s pathetic i know. I just don’t have the ways and means to provide them the entertainment i wish i could.
    I have been contemplating for years to move back home and be the summer/holiday mom. I know that i would be happier being surrounded by family and friends and that i would be able to provide quality time and memories when they came to see me. Only thing is that i am scared to death to leave them. The guilt i have is unreal and it keeps me feeling stuck in this situation.
    I’ve talked to my girls about this and altho they don’t want me to go, they want me to be happy and also feel that our time together would be more special.
    I’m at such a crossroads. :(
    Comments, suggestions, advise … please.
    Thank you.

    • Stephanie on July 29, 2018 at 10:16 pm

      My advice would be to move closer to your family so you can have their support when you are not with your girls. I recently split from my husband, he moved back home to Mexico and I am in California. I let him take our young daughter with him to live. Not because I don’t think I can take care of her but because I know her quality of life will be better over there. She is learning Spanish, going to an international private school, in swimming, dance and gymnastics. I have a strict work schedule here and no family. He has a ton of family where he lives. And I can easily fly down there to see her and she will visit me in California in the summer. Major holidays are split.

  9. Bettina on January 2, 2019 at 9:27 am

    As of yesterday, I have decided to give up my son to his dad and see him only once a week. I’ve had since since birth, he’s 3 1/2 months and I’ve been doing it alone and without help. The constant crying every 2-3 hours for a feed and being so sleep deprived has really worn me down. My maternity leave had ended and I haven’t been paid since November. However, bills still stack up and some days I just don’t eat, because I don’t want to dip too far into my savings. It’s a very hard decision to come to, especially as a mum. However, I have another child to look after and he has expressed that he had changed his mind about us being a family. He has said my daughter is not his family. NCM get such a bad name, but what no one sees, is that someone we’re forced to do so. If men weren’t such bastards, we wouldn’t have to be forced into this situation.

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