Rizzuto Again: ‘Punished’ by Society

Continuing with the saga of Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, there’s this article she wrote on the subject of her decision to leave her kids ages five and three, and husband of 20 years (, 2/28/11). 

Amazingly enough, although it’s longer and more detailed than the “Today Show” interview, she still leaves out crucial facts.  We still don’t know for how long she was absent from her children’s lives; we still don’t know if she pays child support.

I count those remarkable omissions.  It’s as if she and the MSNBC interviewers in the “U Go Grrl” chorus are nervous about our learning that her joyous freedom from the bonds of parenthood involves not being asked to do what most non-custodial parents do – contribute to the kids’ support.

And the same is true of how long she was gone.  If she spent six months in Japan, divorced her husband and moved in immediately down the street, we’d have a lot more sympathy for her than if she’d stayed gone for several years.  Surely she knows this, and yet she’s at pains to avoid giving us those facts.  Until I know otherwise, I’m going to assume that she was gone for a significant time and doesn’t pay child or spousal support.

If anything else were true, wouldn’t she have said so?

That of course brings up one of the salient features of her narrative and one that’s duly picked up on be the many commenters to both the and MSNBC pieces.  It’s the concept of the parenting “double standard.”

Is there a double standard?  Of course there is.  If there weren’t, we’d have equal parenting arrangements in this country as the rule rather than the rare exception.  Mothers are routinely regarded by courts as the parent deserving primary custody and fathers as deserving “visitation,” if that.

Indeed, the one fact that sticks out from all the rest about custody decisions is their gender bias.  Mothers get primary custody; fathers don’t.  That’s a rule that’s proved remarkably impervious to whatever other changes have occurred in this society over the past 20 years or so.  The U.S. Census Bureau tells us that, in 1993, 84% of custodial parents in this country were mothers.  By 2005, the figure had plummeted to 83.8%.  Now it’s 82.6%.

This frank preference for maternal custody has nothing to do with the best interests of the child.  As researcher Paul Millar discovered using Canadian government data, there is no evidence that maternal custody enhances children’s outcomes and some evidence that it has the opposite effect.

As I’ve pointed out before, pro-mother/anti-father bias in the courts is simply a reflection of social bias.  That bias keeps fathers from their children and mothers from earning and advancing in the workplace.  Look around you in popular culture; the image of women as mothers, and happy and fulfilled by the role is everywhere.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing.  The fact is that most women do want to be mothers, Rizzuto notwithstanding, and most men want to be fathers.  So it’s perfectly acceptable and accurate for popular culture to depict mothers enjoying and fed by motherhood. 

Does popular culture overdo it?  You bet it does.  When a vacuum cleaner ad shows a mother gushing over the machine and her wonderfully dust-free carpet, you know something’s wrong.  Still, some people seem to object to all positive depictions of mothers and motherhood, which is itself an over-response.

But when Rizzuto and her supporters talk about the parental double standard, they want us to believe that, in some way, dads get a free ride.

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.

Beware of the writer who tells you how “we” think and what “we” do.  Count on it, she’s only comfortable looking at one side of an issue.

It’s true that people often take for granted a mother who stays at home with the kids and see as special a father who does.  That’s the side of the issue that Rizzuto likes to look at; the side she wants to ignore is that those same fathers are often looked down on as poor providers and less than men by many people including the ones they’re married to.  They’re the ones who are shunned as pariahs by the mothers at the park with their children.

And Rizzuto’s notion that “we insist on” full-time mothers is pure nonsense.  In fact, the vast majority of mothers do paid work and therefore aren’t full-time moms.  Surely Rizzuto is aware of this well-known fact.

But again, this is a woman who wants us to believe that she either didn’t have a choice or didn’t know she had a choice about having children or not.  This was in the mid-to-late 90s.  Where’d she been for the previous 25 years or so? 

The point being that Rizzuto sees herself as more passive, more at the mercy of certain social winds than most women.  Stated another way, my guess is that most women in this country have a firmer grasp of the need to strike a sensible work/family balance than Rizzuto did.

And sure enough, her efforts in that direction were pretty poor.  She started by, according to her, not wanting to be a mother, but becoming one anyway to please her husband.  Then, when her kids were at very vulnerable ages, she left them.  Again, I think that most women do a better job of deciding to become a mother and sticking with it after they do, than did Rizzuto.  Rizzuto’s effort to make her bad decisions seem virtuous falls flat.

Let’s be clear, because Rizzuto is, at least on this point.  Her decision was to leave her kids because she didn’t want to be a mother.  Several commenters try to liken her actions to those of any other person who gets a divorce and a shared parenting arrangement.  It’s not.  Most people who divorce do so in spite of the kids.  They realize that the children will be hurt, but they can no longer live with the other adult.

That’s emphatically not what Rizzuto says she did.  It was specifically motherhood that she threw over. 

Her contention that, if a dad did the same thing, people would yawn and wonder what the big deal was, is silly.  The narrative “father abandons small children and wife to find self” is not calculated to win admiration.  In fact, it’s guaranteed to do the opposite.  It’s a sure bet to bring a yet another rain of fire and brimstone down on the heads of fathers generally. 

Rizzuto pretends to oppose double standards, but in fact she embraces them.  She wants us to see her as brave and virtuous for leaving her kids to “grow.”  If a dad wrote such a script, he’d be hooted off the stage.

There’s a single standard to apply to people like Rizzuto and to any father who does what she did.  Parents of either sex need to take parenthood seriously.  It really is the kids who come first.  If you commit to that, don’t have kids. 

Social messages don’t control you.  The image of the deadbeat dad doesn’t require that you become one.  Neither does the image of the cheerful mom.  Vacuum cleaner commercials shouldn’t control the important decisions of your life. 

Remember, being a parent with dependent children is almost never a lifelong occupation.  In all cases but those of profoundly disabled children, the kids grow up and leave the nest.  If you want to do other things, there’ll be plenty of time to do them.

Don’t dump your kids because they’ve become an impediment to your writing career.  They’re more important than that.  And above all don’t try to convince us that your selfish choices are anything but.  Most of us know better, whether you do or not.

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