Shame and the non-custodial mom

single dad loose custody

According to Census data, there are more than 3 million single-father-headed U.S. households.

That suggests there are approximately as many non-custodial moms.

Why are moms the non-custodial parent?

Included in those women are mothers who chose to have minority time sharing with their children.

These are women who are unable to be with their children for at least 50% because of work obligations, incarceration, mental illness including depression, addiction, or charges of abuse.

These are also moms who were found by a court to be the lesser of two parents, and only awarded “visits” with her own children.

Those are the facts. But admit your assumption when you hear that a mother is the non-custodial parent:

You assume she is unstable, an addict, negligent, suffering from mental health issues or otherwise fucked up.

And most likely, a mom without primary custody of her kids is more likely to be in worse mental state than a dad. To wit:

According to Census figures, in 2011, 32 percent of custodial fathers didn’t receive any of the child support that had been awarded to them, compared with 25 percent of custodial mothers.


Dads tend to earn more than moms, because, well, men earn more than women.

Also, as Mona Chalabi of told NPR:

For a father to become the custodial parent, very often the mother might not be in a particularly good position. She might be struggling to find work. She might have drug problems. There can be all kind of issues there. […] That might play into the ability of those noncustodial mothers to actually make those child-support payments.

That may be the facts now, and it is certainly the stereotype.

But we need to face our prejudices, for ourselves and each other, and relinquish any shame or judgement attached to women who opt out of the role of stay-at-home, full-time, primary parent. That is not only dated, and does not serve individual women (as stay-at-home moms are more prone to depression, anger, vulnerability to domestic violence, and poverty, especially after a marriage or relationship ends), but holds women back collectively.

No matter the reason, the shame and judgement placed on minority, non-custodial moms is grave. Even if it is by her own choice.

A mom chooses to be non-custodial parent

A 50/50 mom shared this on Millionaire Single Moms, a Facebook group I run:

I hate to admit it, but motherhood has been very difficult for me. I love my daughter beyond all reason, but as a ‘thinking’ woman, it has taken away a part of my spirit. I can’t help but feel a deep resentment that I gave up so much of my life and very identity. My ex and I have 50/50 custody of our 8-year-old and I’m starting to consider asking him to shoulder more of the parenting burden.

Immediately other moms chimed in, sharing their own feelings about depression, overwhelm and secret wishes they had more help — including from their kids’ dads. I shared how my own feelings have shifted over the years,  from being devastated to be away from my babies for a moment, to encouraging my ex take them way more our custody agreement stipulated.

Of course it can be very, very desirable to be the non-custodial parent. Parenting is grueling work, emotionally taxing, and requiring of great sacrifice. That is why men choose it every day.

And then there are men who despise being relegated to minority-time parent, yet are forced into that role by a court system stuck that adheres to 1950s rules: Mom cares for babies, and is dependent on a breadwinning man.

No matter: All men as the minority parent is a culturally sanctioned role. Mom as the majority parent is the cutlurally sanctioned role.

Both are sexist.

Both are less-good for kids, per the research.

Moms as minority parents are judged, guilted and shamed for being incompetent mothers, damaged women, broken people.

What if no one had to make that hard choice? What if no one had to suffer the shame, or the guilt of choosing, or forced to be to be the minority parent?

What if no one had to struggle under the burden of being a primary, 70% or 80% or 100% parent?

After all — most moms will tell you — no one asked them if it was convenient or preferable to be the majority parent. That momentous task was forced upon them by way of sexism.

What if we all just signed up for 50/50 parenting [exceptions for abuse of course!], and called it a day?


Shared parenting alleviates moms from guilt

To the original comment at the top of this post:

It is so ingrained in us that mothers are to assume primary residence, custody and care of children, that it is a real source of shame and stigma when they are not.

This shaming extends to moms who have equally shared parenting time.

Here are some messages I’ve received from moms about 50/50 parenting schedules:

I’m in the process of divorce and 50/50 parenting makes sense to me, but all the women around me are aghast that I would be OK with being away from my kids all that time. They say things like, “OMG, I could never be away from my kids all that time!” and “Do you really think that is good for the children to be apart for you for so long?” Emma, the pressure is real!

When I tell people my ex and I share parenting time equally, they look at me like I have two heads. I get all kinds of comments about how they would never allow it, and how much they would miss their kids. I know their comments are uneducated, but they still get to me sometimes. It’s like living my life is an act of aggression on their motherhood.

In other words, the shame and guilt are real, including for women who get it and share parenting equally.

Takeaway: Don’t expect this to be easy. We are in the middle of a social revolutions, and mothers with shared parenting arrangements, or seeking 50/50 parenting, are the foot soldiers.

That said: Shared parenting is key to relieving guilt and shame for non-custody moms.

Equally shared parenting removes custodial and non-custodial titles, since time and responsibility become 50-50

On a persona level, this kind of sharing is so cathartic — when you’re a single mom there are so many things that can contribute to feeling of shame — the end of a marriage, pregnancy outside of marriage, not enough money, feeling like you’re not doing enough for your kids, or that you’re totally alone in a world of married people.

One thing I’ve learned by sharing my own story on my blog is that if I experience it or feel it, other people do too. I’m not so special that my feelings are unique.

And that gives me comfort.

What are you thinking and feeling? What are your feelings of shame as they relate to being a single mom? Do you wish you had less time with your kids? Were the non-custodial parent? Share in the comments.

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  1. I too am a non custodial mother. Although my children are 24, 26 and 29 and all college graduates I still feel the “Sting’ of having to share this with people. I was not a bad mother, I was not an addict, I had a great job. I took 8 years off and stayed home with all 3 of my children until they were of school age. My ex’s parents have money. That should say it all. They owned the house we lived in and had me removed. They hired his attorney (the best around) who argued since I had no stable place for the kids, I should not have custody. I could not afford an attorney. This happens more often than people know. I was ordered to pay child support, which I did as long as I worked. After my divorce and losing my kids I began suffering severe anxiety and depression. This caused me to lose jobs and I bounced around from place to place. I am still in arrears and have now been found in contempt of court for non payment. I have no job! On top of that, I remarried in 2014 and as a result of this court action and the state taking 3 of his tax returns in a row even after filing the injured spouse form, we separated. So what little income I had (that he would allow me to have) is gone. My children are now helping me make the payment to avoid jail. They are paying their own child support! I have always heard how men get so shafted in a divorce. There are many mothers who have it much worse. We just don’t talk about it. Thank you for this article and a chance to tell a little bit of my story.

  2. I have wanted for the last year to write about this exact topic. I am a female non custodial parent who was forced by my ex husband to have a jury trial for custody of our two small children. For four years, I had been the stay at home Mom and he was a C level country singer traveling around the country for work. The jury was told lie upon lie upon lie and I was not put back on the stand to refute any of the lies due to my attorneys decision. My ex won primary residence of the children and they now live 624 miles away from me. Because I do not reside within 100 miles of my children, my ex uses that against me and I am often begging for my right to see my children. He denies phone calls from me to them and speaks badly of me around them. I can see how easy it would be to just give up. Stop fighting with my ex and only be a small part of my children’s life because of the emotional abuse I take just trying to beg for information about their daily life and time so I can see them. I have a small rental in the city and state that they live in and I either fly or drive twice a month to pick them up for a short weekend. If I resided within 100 miles of my children I would have 50/50 custody; but because I don’t I am begging every other weekend to have 2 additional nights with my own children whom I only see twice a month now. If it is convenient for my ex he “allows” it; but only of it is convenient for him. He believes that because he was awarded primary residence that he is the superior parent and because he wasn’t able to spend as much time as he wanted with the children during our divorce that what I am experiencing currently (not being allowed equal parenting time and no co parenting at all) is what I deserve. He is very punitive and I am often retaliated against if I try to exert any of my rights. My fear is that if I try to take him back to court for more of a 50/50 parenting plan while residing more than 100 miles away that he will ask me for child support since I don’t live where he and the kids live. I can’t afford child support in addition to traveling twice a month to spend time with my children. I can’t imagine living this type of life for an extended period of time and nor do I believe that any of this is in the best interest of my 5 year old and 7 year old children. Kids should have more rights too. I hope by joining this community I might find some support and healthy options to handle what has happened to my family.

    1. There are bad parents on both side of the equation. I’m surprised, though, that you were not able to fight the significant move. I think it’s pretty standard language in Illinois that anything more than 25 miles from the original residence takes a court order that the other parent can object to. I’m guessing it’s too late for you with that…

      I’m sorry for your situation. Don’t give up. I understand there’s alot to consider…but have you thought about just moving? I know it would not be ideal, but it would most likely be in the best interests of the kids.

      If I can also suggest, forget about lawyers and do most of the work yourself. They don’t care about the kids or you…but they do care about your bank account. The only problem is that most judges look down on pro-se clients. But my experience speaks to the mounds of money spent with little outcome I would not have gotten myself. There’s a ton of information on the internet…you can even read the state divorce law. This may also not be feasible if you are living so far away and have to go to court often.

      good luck!

  3. Thank you Emma for a great article. It’s a shame, though, we have to wait for change from the Legislature in most states before real change occurs. I’m still waiting for it in Illinois.

    Now if we can just get the horrid lawyers, who care more about how much they bill than children, out of the equation divorce could be a relatively simple, painless, and equitable process for everyone involved.

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