The Stigma Of The Mom Who Leaves

When Rahna Reiko Rizzuto got a divorce, she stayed near her husband and two sons, and saw the kids several times a week. So why is her story called, "Why I left my children?"

On Salon, Rizzuto writes about a trip to Japan that ended in the dissolution of her marriage. She did initially travel there alone, but her children later joined her. And after the divorce, though her husband had primary custody, she remained active in the boys' lives. She describes their arrangement thus:

These days, my sons live and sleep at their father's house. They can walk to their "other house" — mine — which they do several times a week. They come over after school and get picked up at bedtime, and in between I help them with their homework, we cook dinner together, eat and clean up together, and we talk about the day.

It's not 50-50, but she hardly sounds like a neglectful mother, either. So why is it that "The question I am always asked is, 'How could you leave your children?'" Maybe it's this:

I never wanted to be a mother.

I was afraid of being swallowed up, of being exhausted, of opening my eyes one day, 20 (or 30!) years after they were born, and realizing I had lost myself and my life was over.

Shared custody is one thing, but admitting you never wanted kids is still a pretty big taboo — and much more so for women than for men. Writes Rizzuto,

My problem was not with my children, but with how we think about motherhood. About how a male full-time caretaker is a "saint," and how a female full-time caretaker is a "mother." It is an equation we do not question; in fact we insist on it. And we punish the very idea that there are other ways to be a mother.

Really, if Rizzuto were a man, this would be a non-story. A dad whose marriage breaks up but who stays near his ex and continues to take the kids several nights a week might not be thought of as a "saint," but he'd come in for little judgment. Of course, in the past I've criticized dads who are willing to swoop in for a fun visit but don't stick around for the hard work of changing diapers or juggling doctors' appointments, and yet my first impulse when I read Rizzuto's story was to defend her — all because I'm so tired of the impossible standards to which moms are often held. But Rizzuto makes clear that all sweeping standards for parenthood are pretty useless when they come up against the realities of actual family life.

It's easy to see how other parents might find fault with Rizzuto's assertion that she's actually a better mom now that she no longer lives with her kids. But ultimately, what her essay shows is that we should be less concerned with who's a "good mom" or a "good dad" (the expectations for the latter being radically, and distressingly, different), and more with whether a family is happy and healthy. Rizzuto's family appears to have gotten there — and judging how they did it against rigid (and gendered) parenting ideals does nobody any favors.

Why I Left My Children [Salon]