Friday, April 15, 2011
Over lunch with the Editor of a regional food magazine recently, he looked up after we’d been talking about potential articles for 2011.
“Sophia, the last time I saw you, you said you have another blog about parenting? I’d love to hear more about it.”
I hesitated. I put down my fork and took a sip of water, contemplating whether or not I should tell him more. If I did, I would surely get “the look.” It never fails. I’ve received this look hundreds of times since my divorce. It is characterized by a dark shadow of doubt and shock across the face of the person I’m talking to when I first explain to them that I am a non custodial mother.
They look at me like I am wearing a poop suit.
The frozen, nervous smile…the thousand-yard-stare…or (my favorite) the flared nostrils, clearly offended, as if suddenly smelling something putrid, all the while trying to pretend no such thing is occurring. I immediately sense my captive audience steeling themselves, racking their mental archives for how to catalogue me as a person, what to think about me now, and what to say to me. Clearly, I am no longer the person they thought I was. Upon seeing and meeting me, I am easy to categorize as a professional, nice, and normal mother who works outside of the home. In the bleachers at my kid’s softball games, the mommy sorority accepts me into their fold — until, that is, they learn that I only have my children every other weekend. Then, they casually turn away, just slightly, just enough to close me off from the conversation. I’m no longer wearing a fitted pencil skirt and heels.
I am downwind, trying again to make my poop suit stylish.
I saved Paul from his momentary shock. I bailed him out (which I don’t always do, depending upon whom I’m facing) by explaining “The best way to describe my brand of motherhood is to say I’m the divorced dad.” People aren’t accustomed to meeting a mother who doesn’t have full physical custody of her kids. Often, when a woman fesses up to having her kids even as little as 50% of the time after a domestic split, she’s branded as irresponsible, selfish, or unfit. For a really long time, I avoided the subject. I know other non custodial moms who feel the same way I do from their comments, almost always left anonymously on my blog. Here is a recent example, posted after an entry on A Non Custodial Mother Blog titled, When Mommy Has to Man Up :
“Thank you so much for this blog, if I could write, it’s what I would say. My life was ripped apart without 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!” – Anonymous
When Lee Block sought out other women to interview for her Huffington Post article about non custodial mothers, she said the vast majority of them would not give their names. There is a stigma and shame associated with not having your children full time. The label “bad mother” is one that is often pinned on us.
I’d hoped my “divorced dad” explanation would help Paul wrap his mind around my situation without having to go too much into the details of my situation. It’s a long story to tell. I reassured myself that people understand the stereotypical divorced dad role. Invariably, if you are a man who is divorced and doesn’t have full physical custody, no one is really surprised. It may be unfair that our society is so accustomed to the traditional and entrenched stereotypes of how families are supposed to divvy up the responsibilities after divorce, but, even with 2.2 million non custodial mothers in the U.S. today, it certainly doesn’t feel like a sea change is coming any time soon. Minds and hearts are slow to adapt to new concepts and models about something as primal as parental roles.
Paul caught me by surprise, though. I had been quick to assume that his look of shock equated to distaste or disapproval. I’ve conditioned myself to expect that response over the years. Instead, he began to tell me the story about his childhood, about being raised by a single mother during a time in our society when that was also not considered a normal or acceptable way to raise a family. His initial look of shock, he said, was his surprise in meeting a woman who had an alternative view of parent roles.
As we finished our last few bites of dessert, I felt a kinship with Paul. Our common ground went beyond our love for food, writing, wine, and restaurants. We both had experiences in non-traditional parenting situations, and I wondered if it is time to reconsider the possibility that more people could be open seeing these matters in a new light.
We wrapped up our lunch and parted ways, and Paul smiled at me. I felt reassured and confident. Walking to the car, I caught my reflection in a window – that’s me in the skirt and heels.
I even smelled nice.
This post originally appeared on The Post Divorce Chronicles blog.