The Parent Trap: Yes, I Chose to Let My Kids Live With Their Dad. No, I’m Not a Bad Mom.

by Sophia van Buren

She sat there on the couch across from me, arms crossed, chin slightly jutting out from her face, her sharp features contorted into a look of disapproval.  Her pale blue eyes looked sternly into mine, like a mother admonishing a child.  It was a look I’d seen before, many times.

Every mother, every woman who found out I’d let — chosen, you could say — my children live with their father, had given me this look.  Not all of them had taken it to this level of uncensored judgment, which lingered on her face while she spoke to me.  Not all of them said exactly what was on their minds, but today, Kara did.

I sighed.  Here we go again.  I’d been battling my own inner demons of guilt and regret since I’d let the children go to live with Mike months earlier.  The young woman across from me on the couch was only echoing questions I had often posed to myself.

Almost daily, an inner war was being waged within my own head about what was best for the kids, what was best for me, what they needed, and what I needed.  I never seemed to find that calm, still place of assurance that I’d done the right thing.  I constantly played an imaginary recording of what phantom critics might say about me, and the choices I’d made.  I imagined the worst and put those words into their mouths before I heard them come out – things like “What kind of mother would give up her children?” and, “She must be unfit.  No decent loving mother would abandon her babies.”  Maybe they thought I’d abused or neglected them.  Or maybe they thought I did drugs, or I’d chosen to be a prostitute instead of volunteering for the PTA.  Maybe they thought I’d run off with another man, leaving my children and their father behind in a hazy wake of selfish smoke.

We had all been had been drinking wine that afternoon.  After a few glasses, the questions I supposed she’d been wondering to herself, ever since I started showing up in her mix of friends with Noah, were given voice.  She’d asked Daniel, I was sure, maybe even Emmett, but as Noah’s best friends, they must have either completely avoided the questions, or had never interrogated Noah.  Men were different than women in that respect, I thought.  Men seem to trust the choices and decisions of other men rather unconditionally.  Women, in my experience, seemed more apt to judge each other and question each other’s motivation, and almost try to find fault, if at all possible.  Sometimes women were each other’s harshest critics.  The Bachelors had not asked me why I was the non-custodial parent – it didn’t seem to occur to them.  They accepted me into their fold, no questions asked.  I assumed they believed if Noah liked me, they would too.

Their girlfriends, however, were another matter.  I had, in some ways, replaced the girl Noah had been dating, who some of them had recently travelled with to Europe with for a wedding.  The girlfriends seemed slightly leery of me.  I felt like I had to prove myself to them, to win them over.  Being an older woman, a single mom without custody of her children, was not a good start.

“Divorce is hard on children.  I think married couples should do everything they can to stay together.  Kids don’t need the stress of a broken home.”

I knew Kara was trying to enlighten me, but she was only echoing the voices that had bounced around in my head for years.

“How could a parent not be with their child?  I just don’t understand it.  I’d do anything and everything to keep my family together.”

I smiled blandly and nodded.  I’d gotten good at smiling and nodding, politely deflecting people’s judgment.  I had heard Kara’s disapproving lecture before.  In fact, I had imagined far worse things people might think about me and my situation.  But the hardest part of taking it on the chin, of letting people think I was a shitty, uncaring, heartless excuse for a mother was knowing what had really happened, and realizing, because the whole story was so crazy and unbelievable, that it wasn’t worth trying to explain.  I wasn’t about to start saying, “Before you give me that look one second longer, I need five hours of your time to make you understand the entirety of what really happened,” to every woman that gave me a sideways look when they found out I was a non-custodial mother.  Even if I did, would anyone believe it?  How could anyone possibly understand it, without having lived through it?

All of it — from the Big Bang, to losing my house, to not knowing if the kids would have health insurance — who should I tell my story to in order to make things better, let alone get off the hook from the “Perfect Mothers (and Future Perfect Mothers) Club?”  It seemed preposterous, even to me, that a seemingly normal, happy, suburban family would blow up in the style and fashion my family did.  I didn’t have the time to explain all the details, and even if I did, it was embarrassing, much too personal, hurtful, and exhausting.  Reopening wounds I still didn’t fully understand was something I wanted to avoid.  Instead, I let people think what they would.

Like many before her, I did not try to correct Kara.  She was young (in her early 30s), well-educated, recently married, and her parents had probably provided a very secure upbringing and future.  She didn’t have a clue what I’d been through (how could she?), and I didn’t fault her for that.  The wine had emboldened her, and the questions she had kept to herself for at least a couple months were spilling forth, unguarded, chased closely by her strong opinions.  She was resolute in her harsh examination of my scruples.

Noah walked into the living room to see me sitting on the small chair in Emmett and Christine’s living room, only to hear Kara ruthlessly questioning me.  He immediately came over and sat next to me, putting his arm around my shoulder.  I leaned into him.

“Hey, Emmett, do you mind if I put on a record?”

He quickly changed the subject, and before getting up, searched my face for signs of anger, sadness, or self-consciousness.  He was worried about my being cornered and put on the spot, but I was numb to those feelings by now.  Kara didn’t mean any harm, and I knew it.  She was just asking what most people wanted to ask, but were too polite to do so.

The week before, I’d visited Claire and Jackson’s school to meet with their teachers for parent-teacher conferences.  The teachers were polite, but somewhat reserved in their interaction with me.  I couldn’t help but think about how different the meetings were from when I was a stay-at-home wife and mother.  I imagined that when a divorced dad went to his children’s school conferences, the teachers would be impressed.  A “good” divorced dad was defined by the fact he was still involved with his children at all – that he picked up the kids on his weekends, paid child support on time, and not much more than that.  If a mother, however, perfectly fulfilled the same duties, something must be seriously wrong with her.  Or at least, there must be some drastic reason why she didn’t have physical custody.

Claire had shown me around her classroom, explaining the science projects the class was collectively working on, the garden they had planted just outside the classroom door, and the chapter books she was reading.  She took me into the hall to show me her artwork, a painting and writing project about heroes.

Her painting was of a tall blonde man.  She’d sketched herself holding hands with her dad, and had written in careful fourth-grade cursive, “My Daddy is My Hero.”  Seeing that stapled to the wall on bright, red butcher paper struck a chord of irony in me, and made me momentarily dizzy.

“Beautiful work, Honey,” was all I could say.

There was no way my children could know what had transpired.  No way the teachers could know, or the other children’s parents.  When I stood behind Wanda at Jackson’s tee ball game, as she handed out cupcakes with frosted tops designed to look like whipped cream baseballs, I just stood by, feeling helpless and worlds away from being a “good mother.”

The unfairness of my plight often stuck in my throat like a giant hairball of emotion, and I choked down the urge to scream out to Wanda, as she looked at me smugly with her after-game treats for my children in front of their friends.  I wanted so badly to tell her the truth.  But I never did.  I had made the decision to bite my lip.  I’d always admired that superheroes and the strongest characters in the Bible and literature never let their missions be interrupted by misperceptions that people or society might hold of them.  Every hero has a choice – to face the darkness or be consumed by it.  People judged Batman harshly at first, but he just kept doing what had to be done anyway.  Hellboy was resigned to the fact that, although he looked like a monster, he was the hero, and saved the exact people who were afraid of him or condemned him.

I felt like the Hellboy of moms standing there, behind the other parents, as Wanda handed out her cupcakes at Jackson’s game.  I felt like a mutant, an undercover mother, stripped of the matching sweatsuit-and-keds uniform.  Instead, I wore high heels and a fitted business suit to the field, having come straight from work.  Making me stand out even more was the fact I didn’t have my own folding sports chair or a spot on the roster indicating which day I was supposed to bring snacks for the kids.  I was displaced.  I was on the outside, looking in, at my children’s lives, no longer a part of the “Mommy Sorority.”  That part hurt, but I tried to remember to look at the bigger picture, which was the wellbeing of my children.  And every time I could make it to one of their events, I watched them closely to make sure they seemed happy and well-adjusted.

My responsibilities now included not only trying to navigate the waters of being a non-custodial mother, but also how to survive, and hopefully succeed, as a career woman.  I had to live a new life, and I wasn’t very keen on explaining to people what my former life was like, let alone how I’d ended up here.

I looked at Noah gratefully as he veered the conversation away from Kara’s interrogation.  I’d been turning the other cheek for awhile now.  The kids’ dad and Wanda had called me selfish, and an irresponsible parent.  According to Mike, he was the ideal father figure, and a much better parent than I was.  He looked like it to the unknowing public, too.  But Noah knew the whole story.  He knew me.  Not only was he being protective, but I knew that to him, I was brave, smart, and a loving mother, even though I felt like a mutant-mom.  He thought of me as the opposite of a “bad mother,” and I loved seeing myself through his eyes, as a courageous woman who would do whatever it took to protect the unknowing little ones around her.  He knew I was misunderstood, and he was protective of me and my reputation.

Kara didn’t look ready for the conversation to be finished, but everyone had followed Noah’s cue.  She got up from the couch and headed to the kitchen.  The record Noah had put on was still playing.  Thom York’s voice carried throughout the apartment…

“I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo, what the hell am I doing here?  I don’t belong here.”

Silently, we all sipped our wine and shifted uncomfortably in our seats, wondering if we’d had too much alcohol, or not enough.

Short URL: http://www.a2politico.com/?p=13201

9 Comments for “The Parent Trap: Yes, I Chose to Let My Kids Live With Their Dad. No, I’m Not a Bad Mom.”

  1. A month ago I let my 15 year old go live with his dad. Hardest thing ever!

    • Read my posts, be strong, dont expect to be treated nicely, and just pray that her common sense will kick in at an older age.

      I am not being harsh, but the fact her father has not said at fifteen you will live where we see fit (regardless parenting should be equal even after divorce) shows that she has now got the signal clear and loud, I can do whatever I want.

      The unfortunate thing is that if she does get into trouble it will be your fault for abandoning her which is not the case at all, again be strong.

      Thinking of you and sending a hug across the miles.


  2. My situation is very peculiar. I live with my ex. I have not been able to find work and currently enrolled in school (start in 2 weeks) my kids and I have been through the ringer. I have two beautiful kids. Boy 4 in October and girl 2 this August. I’ve been dealing with my demons for many years. Since I was preteen. I became a mother at 24. I’ve battled addiction and am still overcoming it. I have depression. Many medical issues that cause extreme pain. Its very hard and taxing emotionally with two toddlers. These are factors that play in my head as to why they are better with their dad. Other reasons are their dad is stable. Owns his home. Secure job. Strong family upbringing. My life is a mess. Unstable. No job. No money. Car just broke. My kids mean the world to me. Their dad has been pestering me about giving him full custody. Won’t ask for child support. Says they are better off with him because my life is so upside down. I argue with him no ill never give them up…..but in my mind I know he is right and it kills me. I know I’m a good mom. My babies tell me this everyday. I’m scared to death that if I give in and give him this they will hate me. I know in order to give my kids everything I never had and a happy life I need to fix me. I’m just really scared of what’s going to happen. This story and all of yours made me realize I’m not alone in this decision. We currently live in Ga. But I have a great opportunity in school and career in kansas….I don know what to do or if this is what’s best. I’m so confused In order to explain every detail of the last 6 yrs of he’ll I’ve been through I would need many hours. Can anyone help shed some light….

  3. I am so glad I found this, today my daughter left to live with her father, my son already lives
    there. I have brought them up on my own for fifteen years, (18 and 14 years old) through that time
    I have always been there haulted my own career and ensured they never went without anything.

    Their dad, highly successful in his career has taken early retirement with a pension that as was his wage is excellant.

    I was always the one that held the lower end of the scale financially, stood back whilst on his six yearly visits to the children and gasped at the gifts, clothes and gadgets they arrived back with.

    A new house has been bought the childrens bedrooms have been decorated to their taste and kitted out with the best technology teenagers could ask for. No chores are to be completed for pocket moneyand boundries are not in place.

    My home became a battle ground, my childrens behaviour extreme, my life was a constant mine field of nagging and trying to reinstall the values my children grew up with.

    Today, I let the feelings of resentment go, I know that in time, things will sort themselves out but honestly, I heard the words from my ex husband that I know I am going to hear from various people for many years to come, what sort of a mother, lets her children go.

    I know the answer will come straight from my heart, a mother who loves them dearly, who has had to let them make their own choice, and stand back, a mother who has not put her grief onto them but assured them that I will always be here, regardless, a mother who truely loves her children more than herself.

    • Unfortunately, I have to add to my own post. Things have went from bad to worse, I had been seeing my daughter three times a week. I had a family wedding to attend in London but still had her on the Wednesday night and took her to school on the way to the airport. We had a great night, both putting facepacks on her helping me choose outfits etc, things where honestly great. I left strict instructions that she had not to be in the property whilst I was away (both my children have a key). I arrived back on the Sunday frantic even before I entered the door, I had been trying to contract her from the Saturday night (initally it was to tell her that David and Victoria Beckham where eating at the next table to us), I received a text from her father at 1am saying that she had no credit on her phone and stop hounding her. When I entered my home, it was trashed, went to see myneighbours and they confirmed that the party had went on till the early hours and it was my daughter. My partners work phone was broken, my rent money was missing, (always put in the same safe place during the month), I am self employed, I get paid per job. All the beds had been slept incigarette burns no alcohol at all left in the house, and the worst in my eyes my underwear drawer had been upturned, this to me was complete violation. Her father when contacted said she was at home, her friends mother said that her daughter was staying at his, my daughter slipped up in one phone call and said everyone thought I was at home and they all said they where staying there bla, bla. I could get no answers from anyone. The next weekend my partner got vile texts from my ex saying he slept with me, texts to my phone that he was going to destroy me etc. We drove over only to find that we who had been woken out of a sober sleep where confronted with a drunk man and a mouthly daughter, telling us we where scum and that is one of the nice words. I have not heard from my daughter since even when we asked her that night to come home until he was sober. I have been told by my children through my ex to drop dead and never contact them again. My heart is broken I have tried to be the calm one the accepting one, but I have now experienced parental allienation to its altimate level. The pain, is like nothing I have ever experienced, I know have a partner who has told me “no more” , I love you but I can take no more if they get back in touch you need to make a choice, and to be honest I can see his point, how can I not, but how can I be tough in loving my children, that to me is alien.

      • I googled “Should I let my kids live with their dad” and this story came up. I read through the comments and saw yours. I have no wise words for you, but wanted to send warm thoughts of support. The advice I have been getting is to take care of myself and they will come around.

  4. I really needed this today. Like many of you I go back and forth between guilt, sadness and an i coing thé Wright thibg. Its unheardof for the mother to be a non custodial parent and if you aren’t you are always label unfit. I have a son who regardless I may not agree with on everything he wants to be in his son life. It’s something they both need and if my time for now is to be summer time and every other major holiday then I’m fun as long as my son knows we love him even though we are apart. Thank you ladies.

  5. Ladies, keep your chins up. It takes a strong mother to actually do what’s best for the kids. The looks I get are interesting, ranging from disgust, confusion, jealousy (seriously!), to the wide range of judgments. I am a non-custodial mother and it eats me up that our child sees Dad as the ever mighty hero and I’m a second-class citizen, relegated to peripheral parenting. But it was the best decision that I could make, based on the information I had at the time.

    We are NOT alone!

  6. Yours is the first that I can completely relate with. I chose to let my kids live with their dad, not because I am a bad mom but because I want what is best for them. I live with guillt everyday, saddness, its unbelievable heard but when I talk to them each day I know they are happy and even if I am not – I am happy knowing they are. Feeling the need to explain to all who give me a dirty or unknowing look is inevitable, but its to no avail, as you said. Thank you for reassuring me that I am not alone.

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