Here’sa blog by a non-custodial mother who gets it. Sophia Van Buren shows every sign of being the type of divorced parent I wish was the only kind.
On this blog, the stories sometimes seem endless. The stories of decent, loving fathers done dirt by a family law system that often seems to care not a whit for the wellbeing of children, mothers or fathers come to us every day. We’ve taken on the enormous job of combating that system that’s rife with injustice, inequality, hypocrisy and downright unreason.
But most of what we deal with is what makes the news. They’re the outrageous cases, the system gone spectacularly wrong, judges, litigants, experts run amok.
They’re also the exception. As plenty of data show, the huge majority of divorce and custody cases don’t make the papers because adult parents sit down across from each other and agree on what’s to be done. Then they stick to their agreements. Now, I’ve pointed out many times that those agreements are made in the context of a family law system that routinely shortchanges dads and their children. So the agreements reflect, not the ideal of post-divorce parenting, but what dads think they can wrest from a system deployed against them.
The truth is that when it comes to child custody, mothers rule; they know it and so do their attorneys; fathers know it and so do theirs. The not unexpected result is that, when resentment runs its highest, as it does in custody matters, mothers can and do game the system to their perceived benefit. This is not news.
That’s why I’d like as many people as possible to read Van Buren’s blog on what it’s like to be a non-custodial mother. If all mothers and all fathers had her sense of balance, fairness and flexibility, Fathers and Families would go happily out of business.
A couple of caveats. First, on her blog, we only hear Van Buren’s side of things. Her ex-husband has no voice. So according to her, their divorce was her husband’s fault; he was a two-faced, cheating so-and-so. Well, I know enough about human relationships to suspect there’s more to the story than that, but we have no way to get more.
Second, exactly how her ex came to be the parent with primary custody remains distressingly vague. After all, according to Van Buren, she did everything right, he did everything wrong, so how is it that he gets custody? I’d like more on that subject.
Third, Van Buren describes herself as a non-custodial mother, but never mentions child support. She seems to be quite content with their custodial arrangement, but never lets on about whether she pays her ex every week or two and if she does, how much.
But those are quibbles. I can live with her gray areas because she understands the need for a child to maintain a relationship with its father post-divorce. Above all, she’s a mother who’s been able to set aside her own deeply-felt need for sole parenthood, let the dad into the child’s post-divorce life and understand that her own post-divorce life is an opportunity, not a burden. In short, she’s the type of parent, male or female, who makes shared parenting work. We need more like her.
Van Buren was a stay-at-home mother – in spades. Her identity was wrapped up in motherhood and when working mothers dropped their kids off at her house for play dates, she felt no envy rather a smug sense of superiority. She was the mother who was doing things right; she was the mother wholly devoted to her kids.
I stayed home with my children, first when they were babies, then as toddlers. I bought the latest Baby Einstein crib mobiles and educational toys. I never forgot to pack an extra hat and kept an ample supply of organic graham crackers in the diaper bag. I would spend hours researching what kind of diapers or sunscreen to buy. I made baby food and froze it in convenient serving sizes in the ice cube tray. I subscribed to Family Fun magazine. I felt confident in my role of Super Mama for over eight years.
Van Buren was body and soul a mother. She lived and breathed that reality, that role, that self.
But she discovered her husband’s infidelity about the same time he lost his job because of it (how that happened, she doesn’t explain). That meant not only divorce, but a radical shift in how she lived. She had to go to work.
Meanwhile, her husband who was no longer going to the office every day, found childcare to his liking. So the pair split up, but since she was earning and he wasn’t, he kept the kids. Soon enough, they were sitting across from each other deciding that he would have the kids weekdays and she weekends. It was a simple arrangement that fit both their schedules.
Eventually, her ex remarried and his new wife liked his children and seems to be a perfectly sensible, loving step-mom.
But all of that was an assault on Van Buren’s sense of herself as mother first and everything else second.
Unfortunately, I failed to see the repercussions of what amounted to a handshake deal. Our new set up would come to tear at the very fabric of my concept of motherhood and my identity. I also hadn”t thought ahead about how other people would view me as a woman and mother.
There it is – not only the value she placed on motherhood, but the importance attached to it by others – friends, relatives, neighbors – by society, by popular culture. Freeing herself from that was a steep hill to climb and would be for any mother. It requires a shift in one’s values and one’s self-concept. Here’s how Van Buren did it.
I asked myself — what if being a responsible and good mother now means that I need to work outside the home instead of flipping pancakes and shuttling the kids to school and practice every day? Ultimately, I decided that it was my turn to bring home the bacon, and their father”s turn to be the caregiver. I decided that I would have to let go of what everyone else would think and pay attention to what my children”s practical needs were instead.
In short, she’s a mother who put her children’s needs before her own. When she did that, it was easy enough to refigure her own role. She was no longer the stay-at-home, but the go-to-work mom and that’s what was best for her kids at that time. Far from abandoning her nurturing role, she was reinventing it in another form, a form that fit her and her ex’s situations and her children’s needs.
Again I say, if all divorcing parents were as child-centered and sensible as Van Buren, we’d all be so much better off. Shared parenting would work the way it’s supposed to.
As if to prove the point, Van Buren’s blog recently received an email from a woman she calls Melissa. Melissa is divorced and she’s upset about the fact that her daughter who’s three and a half has taken to calling her step-mother “Mommy.” Melissa thinks that title rightly belongs to her and wants Van Buren’s advice.
Here it is and it should be emblazoned on the wall of every family court in the country:
“Melissa, let me ask you this question — how is whatever name your child calls her stepmother adversely affecting the well-being of this child?
That’s a woman with her eye on the ball. She knows what’s important and what isn’t. She knows it and she puts it into practice.
At this point, I encourage you to always use this lens to judge matters involving your kids and your situation. Again, it’s very difficult and it will take a while to get used to it, but that’s what I’ve taught myself to do and I really believe it is a big reason why my kids are well-adjusted, when, on paper, you would think that they would be torn in half.
It’s how shared parenting works. It’s the best we can do for children of divorce.