Wednesday, March 23, 2011

When Mommy has to Man Up

This story was recently featured on my new friend and Huffington Post writer, Lee Block's website, "The Post Divorce Chronicles"...

To ‘Man Up’ – For someone to stop being self –centered and to look at what they are doing, or how they are acting—for them to change viewpoints, and perspective on the situation and move forward to correct direction in their lives and/or others lives.  – Urbandictionary.com

Nine years ago, on the night of my 14th wedding anniversary, which was also my 35th birthday, I stood in my living room in front my husband and listened as he revealed the dark truth about his indiscretions to me for the first time.  I felt like I was in the middle of an overly dramatic movie.  In slow motion my life was unraveling before my eyes, and I felt as though everything I thought I’d known was slipping like sand through my fingers and out from under my feet.  In just those few moments of his confession, I knew I had lost my husband and that our relationship for the past 17 years was not at all what I had thought it was.  In one fell swoop, he lost his job, our children lost their health benefits, and to top it off, we would soon lose our home.  My mind spun.  I wasn’t sure how to react.  The slumped and tired looking husband standing in front of me was suddenly broken and empty shell of a man – a man who was not, and probably wouldn’t be again, the kind of man who could save our family.

In the first few months after the “Big Bang” (the name of the chapter in my book that describes these events) that destroyed our world, I had every reason to be furious and to be cruel, but he had his own demons to battle.  My friends all told me to make him leave and not let him even see the children.  I was told to make him pay alimony and child support, and by all means, I should stay in the house and make him pay the mortgage.  But he was Humpty Dumpty – broken and useless.  He didn’t have the motivation or wherewithal to rebuild.  Additionally, for as much harm as he’d done to our family, I was not the kind of person who would kick someone when they are down, no matter what they had done to me.  Lastly, and most importantly, he was the father of my children.  They were going to need him in their lives once he pulled himself together from this.  Not only was it up to me to “fix” and clean up the mess my ex had made of our family, home, and finances, but I couldn’t let my personal feelings get in the way.  There was too much work to be done.  My husband could not be counted on for help.  His tremendous indiscretions at work had lost him his job and there was no indication as to whether or not he would ever be able to the take care of our family again financially.  Common sense told me that, since he couldn’t do it, I would have to.  As the mother, it was up to me to put my feelings aside and simply make sure I could feed, shelter, clothe, protect, and insure our children. 

I would have to “man up.”

There are plenty of men throughout history, and in literature, who have set aside their own emotions in order to overcome the odds and to rise above their situation.  When I was a dorky fourth grader, I lost myself in the pages of books reading amazing tales of valor about gods, superheroes, saints, and legends of the male persuasion… Hercules, Apollo, Batman, Superman, Saint Christopher, King Arthur and Odysseus are all men who are defined by their selfless and heroic acts.  All are men who protected the weak and oppressed.  At the time of my separation and in the middle of losing our family home, I remembered how these heroes reacted in the face of disaster.  I knew it was up to me to protect my children.   I imagined myself in a heroes shoes.  Or better yet, cape and tights.

I wrote letters to the utility companies.  I spent hours on the phone negotiating with the bank that owned the second mortgage on our home.  I found someone to help me short sell the house.  I polished up my resume, dusty from ten years of working at home and teaching preschool, so I could get a job in an office downtown.  I went with my ex husband to his counseling sessions.  I was worried about his emotional stability and I did what I needed to do – told him what I thought he needed to hear – to ensure that my kids would get their father back in one piece.  I made sure he had a place to stay with his brother until he could find an apartment of his own.  I tried to fix our family as best I could.

Little by little, my ex seemed to be pulling himself together.  He found a part time job.  He became more involved than ever in our children’s day to day lives.  Perhaps he wanted to make it up to them by spending as much time as possible with them.  Within a year, we had reversed our roles.  He would pick the kids up from daycare and school, make them dinner, and help them with their homework.  When they were sick, he stayed home with them.  When they joined sports teams, he would shuttle them around.  He began dating a woman who helped him with the daily responsibilities of taking care of our three young children.   I was working nearly 50 hours a week.  I had secured health insurance again for my kids – something I took great pride in.

When we decided to split physical custody in an atypical fashion, with me being the non custodial mother (joint custody actually, but their father having physical custody), I felt tremendous guilt at first.  Although the solution made sense on paper and based on our situation, I couldn’t stop thinking – What will people think if I am not the full time mom?  In the end, it simply didn’t matter – I couldn’t let it.  What did matter for my family was that one parent would be there for my kids on a day-to-day basis to pick them up after school and practice while the other provided health insurance and an income for food and necessities.  We worked together and did what was best for our kids.

It should have been no surprise that there were many eyebrows raised about our arrangement.  People thought I was nuts to not go to court to battle my ex for full physical custody and to make him pay me child support.  But I had to be practical.  On the one hand, I was simply doing what I had to do to support my family.  My ex just wasn’t in the position to fulfill the role of income and insurance provider.  I took on the role of ‘divorced dad’,  even paying child support before we had a parenting plan or divorce decree in place, so that my ex could move to a bigger place to accommodate more time with the kids, while I moved to a smaller, less expensive one since they were really only with me anymore on the weekends.  I did it because my kids needed it.  I did it because it was the logical choice.  I saw it as being a responsible parent, no matter my gender or what society said my “traditional” role should be.

There were few female heroes in the books I read as a kid.  It was rare to read fairy tales or legends about women who would “take control of the situation and rise to the moment” (another definition of “Man Up” on Urban Dictionary).  Mostly, I read about men rescuing the damsel in distress and vanquishing the dragon while balancing the world on their shoulders as they went about their quest to find golden apples.  Many of the women were princesses locked in towers, maidens in need of protection or vain and vengeful Goddesses, bent on destroying men with jealousy.  It was hard to find a female hero.
Sadly, my critics, more often than not, were other women who said to me, “How could a mother abandon her children?”  This is a question I read about on Huffington Post and Salon.com in response to stories on and from women who have chosen a non traditional role in their families.  The anger, hostility, and backlash towards mothers who do not have residential custody of their children can reach a dizzying crescendo.  But the assumption that the only reason a woman would not have her children full time is that she is crazy, irresponsible, and/or selfish is, many times, not accurate.  I am an example of a woman who does not have physical custody of her kids because she is selfless enough to look past those stereotypes and simply do what is best or necessary for her children.  In no way shape or form did I abandon them.  I was still there for my children, just in a different way than I’d been before.  I was in the background, but still playing an important role.  The supporting role.

Men who come through for their families, who have the integrity to do what is best for their children even when it’s not the stereotypical scenario, are generally revered.  A man who has custody of his children is often considered a hero because he is seen to not be shirking his responsibilities, like he is somehow going over and above his male duties.  But sometimes women who share or give custody to their children’s father should be given this same consideration.  Even though they are playing a non-traditional parental role, consider the possibility that these women are enabling their children to have a better life, as it was in my family’s case.


Perhaps it’s time to submit a new term and definition to Urban Dictionary:

“Mom Up.”

6 comments:

  1. Sophia:
    Thank you for creating this blog. I have felt alone and isolated in my situation as the non-custodial parent/mom. Your words describe the fragments of when my heart has broken at revealing to others my parenting arrangement. To compound my situation, a few years ago I married a man who relocated with his job, so my children live a few states away. I looked for a “meet up” support group in our new large metropolitan location. I was not successful. Please know, you are a glimmer of hope. I applaud you for giving voice to a situation that, I have to believe, is shared by many others. Recently my children, who have matured and are now more aware of circumstances leading to my decision, conveyed to me during their last visit that they understood the decisions I made. My heart still aches of course, but I am so glad t know I am not alone on this journey.

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  2. Anonymous,

    I think there is the stigma of guilt and shame associated with being a non custodial mother. I've wrestled with my decision for so long, and it's helped me a lot to write. The sort of sad thing is, I still write under a pen name, Sophia van Buren is my true voice but my secret identity. I do think though that I am getting stronger with each essay, and I am finding women like you, who email me or comment to say that they are going through this too. It helps to know we are not alone, and I honestly think, more women will be making choices like ours as society and the economy changes.

    I am glad to hear your children are beginning to understand. Mine are too! The patience of "standing down" and not "fighting" helps our kids so much more then putting them into the middle of our battle.

    I think if you like my blog, you might really like my book, that tells more about the story of what happened. Also, I have an idea for another blog entry that is about how we feel as women in the public eye when we don't have our kids full time. I'd love to quote your comment here if that's okay with you. Just email me at sophiavanburen@gmail.com or comment again anonymously.

    Thank you for your words, I think you are courageous.

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  3. Thank you so much for this blog, if I could write, its what I would say. I too was a stay at home mom who ran a daycare and I too was a little smug. My life was ripped apart with out my control like yours and after many years of struggles I relinquished my children to my ex husband and play the supporting role. I know those looks you talk about from other "mommies" who assume there is something wrong with me. What a relief to learn I am not alone!

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  4. I am so happy to find this blog. 15 years ago I got divorced and relinquished residential custody of my son to my ex. My ex is an attorney with a substantial salary and I knew that if I had custody, our son would see us fighting about child support and would be struggling financially with me. I have read many divorce cases where there is always a parent that takes a huge hit financially and I didn't want my son to suffer in this manner. So I chose to be the one to start over, get a new place and be the supportive parent. I pay for my son's needs when he is under my roof which has been every other weekend and one night a week for as long as I can remember. Unfortunately, now that he is almost 18, that schedule has flown out the window as he is very involved with school, music, friends and other activities, typical of any teen. The good news is because of my decision my son has had every opportunity available to him, has gotten to travel with my ex and has wanted for nothing. I work two jobs to try to also kick in for expenses when I am able to and to show that I would never turn my back on him. We talk or text every day and he tells me all the time about what is happening in his life. However, through the years there has not been a day where my heart was not breaking over this decision as I am not the one who got to tuck him in at night, make his lunches, go shopping with him or a zillion other things. His stepmom and his dad had those priveledges. Society has come a long way. But not on this issue. When I tell people I am not the custodial parent, I get looks like "how did you allow this to happen?" or "You are crazy!" My decision was based on what I felt would be best for my son. But nobody ever gives you a chance to explain your action. They just assume things. Beiing a non-custodial parent with a different set of finances also creates so much heartache. I wish I could do more for my son. I'm giving him as much as I can physically, emotionally and financially. I hope one day he understands why I did what I did. We have had a few talks about it now that he is older. He does say he appreciates all I try to do for him so I guess that is good. I just hope there is not some hidden resentment. Thanks for listening.

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  5. I just found this post when I googled noncustodial mom guilt. Thank you so much for writing this. It has helped me release some of my own guilt.

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  6. I've been on this painful, lonely journey for a long time. I am so glad to see there are others out there like me...

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