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.
That 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 FiveThirtyEight.com 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.
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, Oprah.com, 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.