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 Comment

  1. 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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