Although mothers still received no wages for their work at home and far less than equal pay for equal work outside the home, and although most fathers had yet to assume an equal share of home and child care, divorced fathers began to campaign for equal rights to sole custody, alimony, and child support and for mandatory joint custody.
Fathers’ rights activists—both men and women—picketed my lectures, threatened lawsuits, and shouted at me on television. “Admit it. Ex-wives destroy men economically. They deprive fathers of visitation and brainwash the children against them.
Fathers should have rights to alimony and child support. Joint custody should be mandatory. We’ve already convinced legislators and lawyers, judges and social workers, psychiatrists and journalists to see it our way.”
Indeed, as we shall see, they have.
By 1991, more than forty states had shared-parenting statutes in which joint custody was either an option or preference, and most other states had recognized the concept of joint custody in case law.
The mothers began to find me. Would I testify on their behalf? Marta consulted me as a therapist. She said she was “depressed” and “wanted to kill herself.” Weeping, she told me, “For fifteen years my children were my whole life. I did everything for them myself. Six moths ago a judge gave my husband exclusive custody of our children. How could this nightmare ever happen? At first, I thought they’d come back to me on their own. But they haven’t. Why should they? I have a small one-bedroom apartment. Their father was allowed to keep our five-bedroom house. He gives them complete freedom and the use of their own credit cards. I work as a salesgirl for very little money. Is this a reason to go on living?”
Carol, a complete stranger, asked me for money. “My husband kidnapped our six-year-old son two months ago. It’s what they call ‘legal’ kidnapping. We’re only separated, not divorced. I need money to hire a detective to find them. I need money to hire a lawyer once they’re found. I only have six hundred dollars in the bank. And I’m four months pregnant.”
Rachel, also a stranger, mailed me a description of her custody battle. She entitled it “A Case of Matricide in an American Courtroom.” Rachel had a “nervous breakdown” after she lost her battle for child support, custody, and maternal visitation.
In 1977, when I myself was six months pregnant, I decided to study women and custody of children. The theme had claimed me.
Over the next eight years, I formally interviewed more than three hundred mothers, fathers, children, and custody experts in the United States and Canada and in sixty-five countries around the world. On the basis of these interviews, I conducted three original studies and six original surveys for the 1986 edition of this book. I wanted to understand why we take custodial mothers for granted but heroize custodial fathers, why we sympathize with noncustodial fathers but condemn noncustodial mothers, and why we grant noncustodial fathers the right to feel angry or sad but deny noncustodial mothers similar emotional “rights.” I also wanted to compare what noncustodial mothers and fathers actually do and contrast it with how they perceive themselves and are perceived.
Must custodially embattled mothers be viewed only as victims? Can such mothers also be viewed as philosophical and spiritual warriors and heroes? Gradually I came to view them as such. Under siege, “good enough” mothers remained connected to their children in nuturant and nonviolent ways. They resisted the temptation to use violent means to obtain custody of their children. This is one of the reasons they lost custody. But they never disconnected—not even from children whom they never saw again.
The 2011 Update
What’s changed since I first started researching and writing about custody battles?
Documented domestic violence does get factored in somewhat more than before. Where real assets exist, judges have the power to award more of them to mothers and children. Fewer mothers and fathers automatically lose custody or visitation because they are gay or because they have high-powered careers. However, certain injustices (crimes, really) that I first began tracking in the late 1970s have now gotten much worse. For example, battered women are losing custody to their batterers in record numbers.
Children are being successfully brainwashed by fathers, but many mothers are being falsely accused of brainwashing. Worse: Children who mandated reporters—physicians, nurses, or teachers—report as having been sexually abused by their fathers are usually given to those very fathers. The mothers of these children are almost always viewed as having “coached” or “alienated” the children and, on this basis alone, are seen as “unfit” mothers.
I understand that this sounds unbelievable. But it is still true. The mothers of raped children, who are also described as “protective” mothers, are seen as guilty of “parental alienation syndrome.” The fact that this concept, first pioneered by Dr. Richard Gardner and widely endorsed by fathers’ rights groups, has been dismissed as junk science does not seem to matter. Most guardians ad litem, parenting counselors, mediators, lawyers, mental health professionals, and judges still act as if this syndrome were real and mainly find mothers, not fathers, guilty in this regard. In 2010 the American Psychiatric Association was still fighting to include a new disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: the parental alienation disorder, to replace the debunked parental alienation syndrome.
In 2009 and 2010 more than fifty mothers from twenty-one U.S. states and a number of foreign countries all shared their stories with me. Their cases took place between the late 1980s and 2010. Some cases are still ongoing.
In some instances, I spoke with the mothers in person or at length on the phone. Some mothers filled out questionnaires, but many also sent additional narratives and documentation. Some mothers sent me eloquent, beautifully written, full-length memoirs. Some write pithy but equally heartbreaking accounts of their marriages and custody battles.
Custody battles can take a very long time. They range from only several years to more than fifteen or twenty. They may have profound legal, economic, social, psychological, and even medical consequences for years afterward, perhaps forever.
Going through a custody battle is like going through a war. One does not emerge unscathed. Yes, one may learn important lessons, but one may also be left broken and incapable of trusting others, including our so-called justice system, ever again.
With a few exceptions, most of my 2010 mother-interviewees said that the system was “corrupt” and that lawyers and judges don’t care about “justice,” are “very biased,” or can be “bought and sold.” These mothers said that social workers, mental health professionals, guardians ad litem, and parent coordinators—especially if they were women—actively “disliked” and were” cruel and hostile” to them as women. (Perhaps they expected women to be more compassionate toward other women. In this, they were sadly mistaken.)
Also, many mothers found that female professionals were often completely taken in by charming, sociopathic men (“parasites,” “smother-fathers”), dangerously violent men, and men who sexually abused their children.
Perhaps the mothers who sent me their stories were married to uniquely terrible men who used the court system to make their lives a living hell; perhaps mothers who did not write to me had the good fortune to have been married to and divorced from far nicer men.
Good fathers definitely exist. Some fathers move heaven and earth to rescue their children from a genuinely mentally ill mother but do not try to alienate the children from her. If the mother has been the primary caretaker, some fathers give up custody, pay a decent amount of child support (and continue to do so), and work out a relationship with their children based on what’s good for both the children and their mother. These men exist. They do not launch custody battles from hell.
And good fathers are also discriminated against in a variety of ways in the courtroom. For example, mothers who are independently wealthy or who come from powerful families can and do custodially persecute good-enough fathers. That is the subject of another book. And, when fathers do assume primary-caretaker obligations, traditional judges may view them unfairly as “sissies” or “losers.” Liberal judges will award them custody in a heartbeat.
For this 2011 edition, I also reviewed hundreds of legal decision, which I obtained through LexisNexis and which all commenced and/or were resolved in the last quarter century. I interviewed lawyers and judges. I clipped articles about custody battles that appeared in the media from 1990 to 2010. Some were celebrity cases; others concerned high profile international kidnapping cases; some were about one spouse’s murder of the other during the course of a custody battle.
When I was researching the 1986 edition of Mothers on Trial, joint custody was a totally new idea. Now, as I’ve previously noted, “shared parenting” or joint custody (defined in a variety of ways) is the preferred norm. Joint custody is seen as fair, progressive, feminist, and in the child’s best interest—even though a number of recent studies have shown that under certain conditions joint custody may be harmful to the children involved. Other studies conclude that we cannot prove that a particular custodial arrangement is either helpful or harmful to children.
For example, according to a 1989 study, “a link was consistently found between frequency of visitation/transitions between parents and [child] maladjustment.” The study also found that “children shuffled more frequently between parents were more exposed to and involved in parental conflict and aggression and were more often perceived by both parents as being depressed, withdrawn, uncommunicative, and/or aggressive.”
A 2003 study found that “alternating custody”—for example, week on, week off—“was associated with ‘disorganized attachment’ in 60 percent of infants under 18 months. Older children and adults who had endured this arrangement as youngsters exhibited what the researcher described as ‘alarming levels of emotional insecurity and poor ability to regulate strong emotion.’”
Nevertheless, from the 1980s on, the entire national court system and its various helpers believed that joint custody was the preferred way to go.
As we shall see, joint custody research in the twenty-first century is a minefield of dangerous biases, conflicting conclusions, and outright lies.
The View from the Bench
While lawyers and judges are quick to say that joint custody should not apply where there is domestic violence and incest, they are often the ones who do not believe that domestic violence and incest exist all that much. And, although lawyers and judges also say that joint custody may not work in “high-conflict divorces,” that does not mean that they still don’t encourage or even order it.
From their point of view, if everyone walks away with something, there is less likelihood that their decision will be appealed or that the case will continue to stall. One judge said, “Maybe this will actually force these warring parties to grow up and learn to compromise for the sake of their children.”
Thus, the role of “parenting coordinator” and guardians ad litem has increased considerably. Many mothers view them as impoverishing agents because they are ordered to pay for their services.
Talk to some good judges—those who are hardworking, experienced, and not corrupt—and you will find that their concerns are far different from those who consume the mothers who appear before them. Judicial concerns are not those of the plaintiffs or defendants. What you will hear is about how important it is to move the cases along, how huge the backlog always is, and how impossible it is to spend too much time on any one case. Judges are annoyed, even contemptuous, when rich people can afford to pay for a long, drawn-out trial. They understand that the working poor have no such luxury, and, at both conscious and unconscious levels, the judges may resent this disparity and despair over the arrogance of the rich. One judge said, “Rich people fight over everything. Even if they don’t need it, they will prolong the case in order to ‘win.’ It can be a second boat, a third home, a million dollar piece of art over another. They are spoiled children and I only pity their real children.”
Talk to judges and listen to them speak, and you will realize that judges do not feel responsible for the perpetual logjams that frustrate, enrage, and impoverish mothers. In fact, judges feel that they too are victims of a system that does not pay them that well. They feel it does not allot resources for the necessary number of judges. The system is beyond bursting at the seams. In addition, the matrimonial bench is utterly devalued because it concerns “families,” “mothers,” and “children,” all of whom are not high on the priority totem pole.
Most judges are overworked and underpaid compared to what the lawyers who appear before them are paid. Judges are not given the proper time to really hear a case. They are forced into forcing plaintiffs and defendants to accept limited, far-from-perfect settlements, because that will close the case and get it off the judge’s roster. They opt for hard-and-fast compromises in the interest in moving a case along.
From the point of view of a “protective” mother whose child is being molested, there can be no compromise. Allowing a pedophile father or a domestically violent husband to have access to his former spouse or child endangers both mother and child. Such mothers protest. They will not play ball. Their relationship to their children is not a corporate-like entity. It is “all or nothing” as far as they are concerned. They resist for as long as their money holds out—and then they go pro se
Their resistance to compromise is viewed as proof of “narcissism” or “mental instability.” The mother who insists on not compromising is also viewed as annoying, difficult, impossible, unrealistic, and perhaps even dangerous to the smooth functioning of an already overburdened system.
Unless she has unlimited funds, it will cost her lawyer hundreds of thousands—maybe even millions—of dollars to fight for an uncompromised settlement. Some mothers fully expect their lawyers to do so, and when lawyers cannot, or refuse to do so, a mother will often turn on them and sue them for malpractice. “Protective” mothers view a lawyer who needs to make a living as a traitor and a sellout.
Mothers do not understand how to divide a baby in half or share parenting with an absent, neglectful, or abusive father. Judges do not see it as dividing the baby in half at all. One judge pointed on, very reasonably, that in order to keep the nonprimary caretaker involved in a nonembittered way, the judge must give him or her some things to do.
“But what if this father has never taken any responsibility and does not know what he is doing?” I asked.
“All the more reason to bring him in. It can’t be good for a child to have no contact with the nonprimary-caretaker parent.”
Please note the careful, automatically gender-neutral language that one might initially view as a feminist step forward. And it is—except that such language usually “disappears” the much harder work that mothers (primarily caretakers) have undertaken, the higher standards to which they are held, and the nonprimary caretaker’s failure to take primary-caretaking responsibility during the marriage, not just after the divorce.
The judge continued, “Why punish a child because their nonprimary-caretaker parent did not function as a caretaker in the past?
As the child grows, nonprimary-caretaker parents can offer the child different opportunities.”
The judge was right, and yet she was absolutely committed to the following myths: (1) sane, good parents are ultimately going to do whatever’s in their child’s best interests; (2) all divorcing and custody-battling parents are equally crazy and have to be forced into better behavior; (3) mothers routinely allege battering falsely; (4) mothers are crazier and more difficult to deal with than fathers; and (5) mothers, not fathers, tend to “alienate” the child from the other parent.
These are all myths.
Myth 1: Are divorcing parents really “reasonable grown-ups”? Many parents are far from ideal, even far from adequate. What is known as a “high-conflict” divorce does not involve parents who have their child’s best interests at heart. They are often more concerned with their own interests.
Myth 2: Sometimes a father is a charming sociopath. Just as we have no way of distinguishing rapists from non-rapists, we have no easy way to “spot” a pedophile, a parasite, or a wife beater. Sometimes a mother is genuinely sadistic, abusive, or bipolar. This is more quickly spotted, diagnosed, or even assumed by laypeople in the court system. Thus, if a mother has been losing sleep over the possibility of losing her children and/or is exhibiting the normal human response to being battered or terrorized at home, she may also be stigmatized by the belief that women are naturally “crazy” and “impossible.”
Myth 3: Most mothers do not allege battering falsely. Some, a minority, do.
Myth 4: Mothers are not necessarily “crazier” than fathers; some are. However, facing the end of a marriage, the probable poverty it may entail, plus a possible custody loss, is a far greater stressor for mothers than for fathers. It does make them highly nervous, vigilant, overly demanding, unrealistic, and prone to engaging in self-sabotaging tactics. Men tend to recouple more quickly; women don’t.
Many fathers, on the other hand, are more capable of treating a custody battle as just one more businesslike venture. This style is more compatible with what lawyers and judges need. Thus, even if the father is a secret drunk or drug addict, an embezzler, an active philanderer, and a whoremonger and/or treats his wife and children coldly, sadistically, and abusively, these facts will not necessarily come into play in a custody battle.
Myth 5: According to most research and statistical data and my own interviews, it is mainly fathers who brainwash and kidnap children, not mothers. Fathers falsely claim “parental alienation” when it is not true; yet they are believed. Mothers claim brainwashing when it is true, but they are not often believed.
I do not view matrimonial lawyers as the main or sole problem. True—some lawyers are grossly incompetent and fail their female clients in every way: by misadvising them, sleeping with them, and prolonging their cases unnecessarily for monetary reasons. But it is also true that many lawyers serve their female (and male) clients effectively, even nobly.
Lawyers do not cause men to impoverish, batter, or abuse their wives and children; lawyers themselves are often hobbled by a system of laws and by a courtroom pace that is glacial. One cannot blame lawyers because it is enormously expensive to wage a high-conflict divorce. Some women expect their lawyers to actually pay for their divorces and feel betrayed when lawyers will not or cannot do so. With some exceptions, our government will not and cannot subsidize the cost of high-conflict divorces for the parent, usually the mother, who is without resources in a country where money does buy one’s chance to obtain justice, however imperfect.
Custody cases are also very stressful and difficult for the judges involved, many of whom try very hard to do the right thing. The law is not able to cure sociopaths or psychopaths; sometimes compromising with the devil is, unbelievably, the only possible solution. A judge might only be able to “save” one child—not all three. A judge might be able to save a child from the probable horrors of state care by allowing custody to remain with one far-from-perfect parent.
Having said this, I would like to stress that both judges and lawyers, as well as the entire courtroom cast of characters (guardians ad litem, parenting coordinators, mental health experts, social workers, state agency employees, and the police) have acted in tragically anti-mother and anti-child ways. While feminist progress led to more women on the bench and to more female attorneys, many female professionals have shown very hard hearts toward the mothers whose fates are in their hands. So have their male counterparts.
For this 2011 edition of Mothers on Trial, I have given honorable discharges to six previous chapters, although I’ve preserved some of the material throughout the book. I’ve also added eight new chapters in addition to this introduction. The new chapters include “Court-Enabled Incest in the 1980s and 1990s,” “Court-Enabled Incest in the Twenty-First Century,” “Legal Torture from 1986 to 2010,” “Contemporary Legal Trends, Part I,” “Contemporary Legal Trends, Part II,” “What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Divorce: A Private Consultation with Divorce Lawyer Susan L. Bender,” and a section of resources.
Immediately after first publishing this book, I coordinated a Senate briefing in Washington, D.C., that was attended by some hand-selected custodially embattled mothers, as well as then Congress, now Senate members Barbara Boxer and Chuck Schumer. Together with the National Organization for Women of New York State, I also coordinated a national speak-out about women’s losing custody of children, which took place in New York City in the spring of 1986. Hundreds of mothers traveled from around the country to “speak out,” and many legislators, judges, and lawyers also participated in panels. I videotaped this event but, as yet, have not made these precious videos available to the public. I also appeared on network television programs together with “my mothers,” where we all said amazing things and were fairly well received. Women began organizing similar speak-outs elsewhere; I spoke at several in the United States and Canada the following year.
In 1984 a new nonprofit organization, ACES (the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support), was launched. It now has forty thousand members and one hundred sixty-five chapters in forty-five states.
In 1988 Monica Getz founded the New York-based National Coalition for Family Justice, which offers ongoing support groups for divorcing and custodially embattled mothers. Their mission statement reads in part as follows: “To identify problems and advocate for system changes in the divorce and family court systems in order to make them fair, user friendly, accountable, and affordable; to provide victims and children involved in domestic violence situations with crisis intervention, information, support, legal access, and advocacy.” They do not provide pro bono lawyers. But, in conjunction with the National Organization for Women in New York State, they have hosted important hearings and conferences.
In the mid- to late 1980s, “protective” and custodially embattled mothers also began running away from husbands who were sexually assaulting their child or children. Such mothers were almost all captured and jailed and lost custody of the children they were trying to protect.
By the early twenty-first century, custodially embattled mothers, including battered and “protective” mothers, had begun to form organizations that now meet annually and monthly. In 2003 Dr. Mo Therese Hannah began a new organization, an in 2010 Dr. Hannah coordinated and hosted the seventh national Battered Mothers Custody Conference. More than five hundred women travel from around the country each year to attend it. In 2010 they began a quilt project, Children Taken by the Family Courts, which is modeled after the AIDS quilt. They have asked mothers who have legally lost their children to provide a commemoration panel. Dr. Hannah has also published a book, Domestic Violence, Abuse, and Child Custody: Legal Strategies and Policy Issues.
In addition, many mothers throughout the Western world have created listserv groups and websites in which they tell (and keep updating) their own outrageous and heartbreaking stories in the hope that this information might help other women. Some ex-wives have become divorce coaches. Some mothers (including those whose interviews are contained in this book) became matrimonial lawyers and mental health professionals dedicated to helping mothers and children. Some researchers have tried to document ongoing injustices in family court.
Yes, custodially battered mothers whose children are being sexually abused have organized more visibly than mothers who have “merely” been impoverished and legally tormented and who must also share custody of their children with men who hate them as ex-wives and do not respect them as mothers.
On Mother’s Day 2010, a peaceful, silent vigil was held at the White House. In the somber spirit of the U.S. suffragettes, American mothers—along with the Argentine Mothers of the Disappeared, Turkey’s Saturday Mothers, the German Rose Street Women, and the Liberian women who stopped a civil war—gathered at the White House to “ask our President to meet with us and to help stop the systemic removal and oppression of our children by family court.”
What Mothers Have to Say
What to Do When a Custody Battle Invades Your Life
“First, take a deep breath and calm down. Save your strength for the long haul. Find out what all your options are. Find a therapist for some immediate support.”
“Any mother involved in a custody struggle is the one who’s on trial. You’ll need people to hold your hand, to hold you, to take care of your kids, to cook a meal, to say ‘I care.’ You’ll need people to keep telling you that you’re sane and that you have rights. Find those people now.”
“Never leave home without taking your kids with you—not if you’re fighting over custody. Don’t leave your kids behind to take a weekend vacation. If you’ve just been beaten up and you’re on your way to the hospital, you’d better take your kids along.”
“You’ll need to be on permanent good behavior in order to fight this fight. Your husband or someone will always be breathing down your neck spying on you and trying to make your life miserable.”
“I allowed things to get very bad before I started fighting back. I would never have waited so long if I knew what I know now: that for me not fighting was worse than fighting.”
“If you open up a power struggle with your husband, be prepared to learn how to win. Don’t go on believing that your husband won’t lie and manipulate to cheat you. He will. If he doesn’t, his lawyer will. In order to win on their turf you’ve got to be as rotten as they are. Being fair means you’re going to lose.”
“Keep a record of how often your ex-husband visits and whether he’s on time or late. Tape-record your phone conversations with him so you’ll remember everything. Record any threats he makes to you. Record what he does with the kids. Do they come back unfed, unwashed, late? Are they suddenly critical or distant from you? That could be a sign of brainwashing.”
“Organize your family photos into a ‘Mom and Kids’ showpiece album. Reconstruct a diary of what you did with and for your kids from your old calendars or appointment books. You’ll have to prove that you’re a good mother.”
“No matter what happens, no matter what they say, never let any social worker or lawyer or policeman make you doubt yourself or your self-worth.”
“Believe that you’re stronger than you think you are. Become very assertive about getting what you need from others, but depend only on yourself. You have the most to lose and the most to gain.”
“Once you’re married and a mother, it’s too late to think about how to win a custody battle. The time to think about whether and how you should become a mother is long before you’re pregnant and definitely before you marry.”
“Read the marriage contract. Talk to previously married or still married mothers who are living in poverty or who have lost custody of their children. Maybe it’s more realistic not to have children at all—or to have them through woman-controlled anonymous artificial insemination. But the state can still take your child away if you forge a check, work as a prostitute, use dope, sell dope, kill your violent husband in self-defense, or refuse to do whatever your state welfare worker wants you to do—if you’re economically depended on the state. If your own mother doesn’t like how you’re raising your child, she can call in the state against you. This happened to me. I won. But I never sleep easy.”
“Consider adopting a child as a single mother. I know a number of women lawyers who have chosen this route. And don’t marry or partner up. Not with a man, not with a woman.”
On Hiring a Lawyer
“Get a copy of your legal bill of rights. Refer to it when you’re talking to your lawyer. Interview more than one lawyer. Be prepared to leave a lawyer who doesn’t treat you well and to sue him or her for legal malpractice.”
“Once you’re involved in the court system, you must ask your lawyer’s advice about everything. You can’t start a new job or love affair without first weighing the legal consequences involved. You must assume that everything you do can and will be used against you.”
“Your lawyer isn’t God. He or she is your employee. Don’t let your lawyer pressure you into anything ‘temporarily’ that you wouldn’t want permanently.”
“Talk to other women who’ve been through custody battles. Find a lawyer who’s experience in custody battles, not just in matters of divorce.”
“Don’t let your lawyer convince you that joint custody is the ‘answer.’ It isn’t. My ex-husband wanted to be the one who’d live with our kids in the house or, failing that, he wanted the judge to order that the house be sold. Then, once the cash from the sale of the house ran out, and I really had to struggle economically, that’s when my ex stopped paying child support. He told the kids that ‘he didn’t have to pay because they lived with him half the time.’ The kids had a much higher standard of living with him than with me. Gradually, they began to live with him full time. Then he moved two thousand miles away to take a very well-paying job. I still have joint custody. I just can’t afford to take my ex back to court or to travel four thousand miles a week in order to exercise my joint custody decree.”
“It’s important to find a good woman lawyer. Treat her with more respect than women usually treat each other. Don’t expect her to be your friend. Expect her to treat you with respect and to use the law vigorously and creatively on your behalf.”
What to Tell Your Children
“In a custody battle, children challenge maternal authority right away. Don’t let them do this. Remind them that you’re still their mother, even if you’re fighting with their father.”
“If one parent is blatantly destructive to the children, it’s the job of the other parent to say so, loud and clear. I don’t believe that cover-ups are good for children.”
“If the state takes you away from your kids, tell them that you love them and always will. Tell them that you’ll always be their mother. Tell them you’ll be out looking for them as soon as you can. Tell them whatever happens, it’s not their fault.”
“I kept quiet for too long. I didn’t believe it was right to involve kids in private adult matters. But my kids needed to hear my point of view too. They needed to know that I loved them too and would fight for them. They also needed to know that I would keep loving them no matter what happened.”
“My children really want to leave me. I fought this for a long time. I should have let them go. They already had my love. They couldn’t have their father’s love if they lived with me.”
What Is a “Fit” Mother or Father? An “Unfit” Mother or Father? Who Decides?
What are our standards for parental fitness? Who determines such standards? Are they the same for both mothers and fathers and for all classes and races? Judith Arcana, in Every Mother’s Son, describes the “idealized mother [as] a woman who is boundlessly giving and endlessly available. She is truly present to her son. The idealized father is practically invisible; he is almost never available, rarely giving; his sparse favor and scarce presence to his son become miraculous and precious when they do appear. He is like the unknowable Judaeo-Christian father-god, who is the epitome of this idea.”
Mothers are expected to perform a series of visible and invisible tasks, all of which are never ending. Mothers are not allowed to fail any of these obligations. The ideal of motherhood is sacred; it exposes all mothers as imperfect.
Fathers are expected to perform a limited number of tasks. They are also allowed to fail some or all of these obligations. In addition, fathers who do anything for children are often experienced and perceived as “better” than mothers, who are supposed to do everything. The ideal of fatherhood is also sacred; it protects each father from the consequences of his actions.
Father-starved and father-wounded sons (and daughters) rarely remember, confront, or publicly expose their absent or abusive fathers. Arcana also notes that we mothers watch our young boys go from expecting to be cherished and nurtured by their fathers to the sullen and bitter understanding that dad will not come across. And then, so powerful is society’s sanction of that “ideal” paternal behavior, we see our sons come to an acceptance so complete that they will defend their fathers even against the criticism and anger they’ve expressed themselves. And all along, the boy will not—or cannot—confront his father. Young sons will not push their fathers the way they’ll push their mothers—they learn early that dad’s affection, such as it is, is tenuous and conditional. Most boys understand all this before they are 12 or 13 years old.
When a father fails his paternal obligations, we don’t necessarily view him as an example of all fathers, nor do we automatically hold other fathers “accountable” for one father’s failure. We may be horrified when a father abuses or kills his child, but we first view him as the exception among fathers.
Or we make excuses for him. He didn’t mean to hit, molest, rape, hurt, maim, or kill his child. He is a man. Men are violent and don’t know their own strength.
Or we blame his wife. Perhaps she “drove” him to it. How could any mother leave her child alone with such a man? Where was she when her child was being hit, molested, raped, hurt, maimed, or killed?
When a mother does irresponsibly abandon or savagely abuse her child, we are truly stunned and terrified. How could a mother of the human race “act like a man”? How could both biology and culture fail to ensure maternal pacifism under stress?
When one mother neglects or abuses her child, we tend to hold all mothers accountable for her failure. One mother’s “crime” forces all mothers to prove—to themselves and to everyone else—how unlike Medea they are and how like the Virgin Mary they are.
After reading several news accounts of maternal suicide and infanticide, I read about a mother who failed in her double suicide attempt. She succeeded in killing her child but failed to kill herself. Plunging headlong out the window, she “merely” broke every major bone in her body instead.
I wanted to visit her in her hospital bed. After many phone calls, I was made to understand that her own mother refused to see her and that her husband had vowed never to speak to her again. Women who knew her and her husband tried to dissuade me from seeing her. Women said, “Don’t make a heroine out of her. She’s a real sickie. You wouldn’t have liked her. None of us did. She’s broken her husband’s heart. He’s a wonderful man.” Others said, “Her husband was about to leave her. She knew that her son would follow his father, sooner rather than later. The bitch just couldn’t let go. Why didn’t she die instead of her son?”
Voices without mercy; voices determined that no one comfort her on her cross. This mother was viewed not as human, or even as psychiatrically ill, but as an evil monster, a “loathsome thing,” a “Medea.”
I am always amazed that Medea’s knife, unseen onstage, looms so much larger in our collective memories than Agamemnon’s knife, with which he kills his daughter, Iphigenia, or Laius’s mountaintop exposure of his new-born son, Oedipus. The infanticidal fathers apparently leave no bloody footprint, no haunting shadow.
Are contemporary mothers and fathers as abusive to their children as parents presumably once were in the past? Historians have described medieval European and colonial American children as essentially their family’s “servants.” A girl was her mother or stepmother’s domestic servant and her father’s companion and nurse; a boy was his father or stepfather’s agricultural servant. Both boys and girls were often apprenticed out at young ages. Their wages belonged to their fathers.
According to psychoanalyst Alice Miller, child rearing in the West was a form of “poisonous pedagogy.” Harsh parental punishment was defended for its being “for the child’s own good”:
A sophisticated repertory of arguments was developed to prove the necessity of corporal punishment for the child’s own good. In the eighteenth century, one still spoke of [children] as “faithful subjects” . . . child rearing manuals teach us that: “Adults are the masters (not the servants) of the dependent child; they determine in godlike fashion what is right and what is wrong; the child is held responsible for their anger; the parents must always be shielded; the child’s life-affirming feelings pose a threat to the autocratic adult; the child’s will must be ‘broken’ as soon as possible; all this must happen at a very early age, so the child ‘won’t notice’ and will therefore not be able to expose the adults.”
In Puritan New England, child rearing was synonymous with “breaking” a child’s (sinful) “will”:
Every child was thought to come into the world with inherent tendencies to “stubbornness, and stoutness of mind”: these must be “beaten down” at all costs. One aspect of such tendencies was the willful expression of anger which was, by Puritan reckoning, the most dangerous and damnable of human affects. Children must therefore be trained to compliance, to submission, to “peace.” To effect such training, drastic means were sometimes needed. Puritan parents were not inclined to spare the rod; but more important than physical coercion was the regular resort to shaming.
Mothers worked hard and had little “child-centered” time to spend alone with each child. Although mothers (or women) were exclusively responsible for birthing and rearing children, they were not considered “expert” in this area. “Students of child-rearing literature in England and America tell us that in the 16th and 17th centuries the father was depicted as the important figure in the rearing of children, as well as being the ultimate authority in familial matters. In fact, most of the manuals of these centuries directed advice to fathers.”
In the mid- to late eighteenth century, male experts began to address mothers directly. Formerly viewed as vain and without souls, mothers were now viewed as their children’s moral guardians.
Mothers of the middle class were encouraged to experience biological motherhood as the source of their greatest pride and joy. The influential Jean-Jacques Rousseau viewed motherhood as a personal religious calling:
The true mother, far from being a woman of the world, is as much a recluse in her home as the nun is in her cloister. . . . [A good mother] will not be willful, proud, energetic or self-centered. In no event should she become angry or show the slightest impatience . . . she must be taught, while still very young, to be vigilant and hard-working, accustomed at an early age to all sorts of constraints so that she costs [her husband] nothing and learns to submit all her caprices to the will of others. . . . She serves as liaison between [the children] and the father, she alone makes him love them.
Throughout the nineteenth century, male experts continued to urge women into motherhood as a religious calling. However, these experts insisted that “instinctive” (emotional, “soft”) maternality was harmful to children. They advised mothers to behave in more “manly” ways.
By the twentieth century, male experts told mothers to give up breast- feeding, to feed their infants only at rigid intervals, not to pick up their crying babies, and to toilet train them as soon as possible. Some male experts advised mothers to “bond” with their infants immediately at birth. According to these experts, if mothers didn’t “bond” with or didn’t “let go” of children perfectly enough, they doomed them to “neurosis.” According to psychiatrist Ann Dally, mothers were tyrannized into believing that it was “dangerous” to leave their children “even for an hour.”
We do not know how many women actually succumbed to the tyranny of the male experts. Enslaved or impoverished mothers did not have the time, the literacy, or the resources to act on scientific opinion; wealthy and royal mothers continued to delegate their maternal responsibilities. (Perhaps some royal and impoverished mothers felt guilty about this.) Middle-class mothers were in a position to be most easily tempted by expert promises.
The church fathers always assured mothers that they were important and irreplaceable. They also tried to convince men that it was anti-God and anti-church to divorce their wives or abandon their children.
The scientific fathers shared these churchly beliefs. However, they also promised mothers “control” over the outcome of their maternal labors and over children at home in lieu of “control” over armies, parliaments, churches, or banks.
What about fathers? Did they matter at all beyond their legal acknowledgment of sperm and economic support of families? Did it affect children badly, or at all, if fathers were absent, distant, or tyrannical? What is a “good” or a “good enough” father?
According to our state and church fathers, a “good” father is someone who legally acknowledges, economically supports, and teaches his children to obey the laws of state and church. The scientific fathers failed to consider the paternal role. When pressed, one twentieth-century expert said, “The first positive virtue of the father is to permit his wife to be a good mother. In the child’s eyes the father embodies the law, strength, the ideal, and the outside world, while the mother symbolizes the home and household. . . . The only thing one can usefully demand of the father is to be alive and stay alive during his children’s early years.”
Some scientific fathers went to great lengths to deny the existence of “bad” fathers. Psychoanalysts, for example, were actually more eloquent about the rivalrous impulses of sons than about the murderous deeds of fathers. Most psychoanalysts rarely paid attention to real-world “facts” or held real fathers responsible for anything they did—or failed to do.
Psychoanalysts and other, more popular child-development experts failed to acknowledge their own expert fathering as “responsible” for an increase in maternal guilt and for turning mother blaming into a “science.” For example, the phrase maternal deprivation terrorized countless mothers in the twentieth century. A woman who “maternally deprived” her child was a “bad” mother. Dr. John Bowlby first used this phrase in 1951 to describe what happened to children whose state father had institutionalized them.
Bowlby did not condemn the state father for “depriving” his institutionalized children, nor did he (or his popularizers) hold the state responsible for the crimes such children might commit in the future. The sins of the state fathers were used to control maternal behavior. The specter of “maternally deprived” children kept mothers guilty and sleepless. (State orphanage employees and members of Parliament slept quite soundly.)
Popular accounts of child abuse invariably focus on the “sensational” episode as opposed to the more entrenched forms of child abuse. A male homosexual child molester makes ready headline copy; his more numerous male heterosexual counterparts remain invisible.
A single school or a large church involved in the sexual abuse of children becomes a scandal; the high incidence of male heterosexual abuse of female children, including paternal incest, is denied or minimized.
What exactly is child abuse? Is physical child abuse increasing in America? Most incidents of physical child abuse are probably never reported. Nevertheless, the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect reports a “dramatic increase” in child abuse.
Naomi Feigelson Chase found that, historically, “serious” child abuse was either underreported or atypical. Chase and Leontine Young attempt to distinguish between severe physical neglect—lack of adequate or regular feeding—and moderate neglect, which includes lack of cleanliness, lack of adequate clothing, and failure to provide medical care.
They also point out that physical neglect is not the same as physical abuse, which, in turn, may be either moderate or severe. According to Young, the prolonged physical and psychological abuse of children constitutes a category all its own, as does child murder: “Severe [physical] abuse is consistent beating that leaves visible results. Moderate abuse occurs when parents beat children under stress or when drunk. [Those in the] severe category are unable to be helped. The abusing parents’ hallmark is deliberate, calculated, consistent punishing without cause or purpose.”
In 1978 Dr. David Gil analyzed the thirteen thousand reported cases of physical child abuse in the United States. Of these, 3 percent were fatal; less than 5 percent “led to permanent damage”; 53 percent (6,890 cases) were not serious; 90 percent “were expected to leave no lasting physical effects.”
These studies of reported child abuse were almost always correlated with extreme poverty, severely “deprived” parental childhoods, mental illness, overburdened and isolated single motherhood, and unrelieved or profound stress.
In view of the high incidence of and extraordinary stress associated with single motherhood and the great amount of time mothers have to spend with children, it is significant that both Gil and Chase found no evidence that mothers “abuse” their children any more than fathers (or boyfriends) do. On the contrary. According to Chase, “a mother or stepmother was the abuser in 50 percent of the incidents and the father or stepfather in about 40 percent. Others were caretakers, siblings, or unrelated perpetrators. However, since almost a third of the homes were headed by females, fathers had a higher involvement rate than mothers. Two-thirds of the incidents in the homes where fathers or stepfathers were present were committed by the father or stepfathers; while in homes with mothers or stepmothers, the mothers and stepmothers were perpetrators in less than half the incidents that took place.”
Researchers studied pregnant mothers who were potentially “high-risk” physical child abusers. All these mothers were young, poor, unwed, and going through with unplanned and unwanted pregnancies. The study found that, as expected, one-quarter of the children was abused psychologically. The researchers explained this abuse in terms of the mothers: they had received no “maternal nurturance” in childhood. The psychologically abusive mothers “don’t know how to be nurturing. Instead of giving to the child, they look to the child to satisfy their own needs for nurturance and love, and the child cannot provide.”
This study actually shows that 75 percent of “high-risk” mothers do not psychologically or physically abuse their children and that “high-risk” mothers need emotional as well as economic support in order to mother properly. The study focuses on maternal, not on paternal, abuse.
Researchers have no control over how their work is viewed or used. This study (and others like it) are used to “indict” mothers in the public imagination, to incite middle-class or married mothers to paroxysms of time-consuming guilt, and to justify the state’s custodial or reproductive punishment of poor, unwed mothers.
Mothers do not physically or sexually abuse, abandon, or neglect their children as often as fathers do. Several statistically sophisticated studies have confirmed that it is mainly men—fathers, grandfathers, stepfathers, boyfriends, older brothers, uncles, and male strangers—who physically and sexually abuse both mothers and children.
How many fathers and adult men beat or rape mothers? No one really knows. Research suggests that anywhere from 15 to 50 percent of all mothers in America are physically battered and/or raped by their husbands or live-in boyfriends.
Some studies (and common sense) suggest that wife beaters also tend to abuse their children physically, sexually, and psychologically. The sons of wife beaters often become wife beaters; their daughters often become battered wives.
How many fathers sexually abuse their own genetic or legal children and grandchildren? No one really knows, though a number of first-person and clinical accounts about paternal incest have been published and publicized.
In the past, according to incest researchers, two to five million American women were paternally raped as children; one in every seven or one in every five American children was the victim of paternal incest or of male sexual abuse; 19 percent of all American women (one in six) and 9 percent of American men were sexually victimized as children. Other studies have shown that perhaps 20–25 percent of American girls were sexually abused in childhood and that 30–50 percent of their abusers were male members of their own family.
It is my impression that the majority of unfit mothers do not kill, torture, maim, rape, or abandon their children outright. The majority of unfit mothers seem physically to neglect and psychologically to abuse their children.
Mothers do spend more time with children than fathers do. Mothers also turn up in emergency rooms alone with battered children. The sight of a mother accompanying a child with a broken arm or a suspicious burn is sickening and impossible to forget.
We do not ask, “Why is she here alone?” or “Where is the child’s father or other adult member of his family?” We do not comment, “Maybe the father (or a man) actually beat this child, and she’s confessing in his place,” or “Perhaps the absence of a supportive husband ‘drove’ her to it.”
Still, it is my impression that when an unfit mother does physically abuse her child, she may do so less forcefully, less often, and less fatally than her paternal counterpart. (There are many exceptions among drug-addicted and mentally ill mothers.)
Physically neglectful or physically violent mothers are more closely and critically scrutinized than physically abusive fathers are. Such mothers have also often internalized certain maternal ideals. Whether they achieve or fail them, they are aware of, and often guilty about, their imperfect or failed maternal performance.
Clearly, children are equally endangered by equally physically violent parents whether they are mothers or fathers. However, women in general are more rigidly socialized into nonviolent maternal behavior under stress than men are.
Female socialization, the experience of pregnancy and childbirth, maternal practice, and the social “watchdogging” of mothers all tend to reinforce maternal physical nonviolence. Children tend to be physically safer with most mothers most of the time. Sara Ruddick observed that most mothers are (objectively) “powerless” women who find themselves
embattled with weak creatures whose wills are unpredictable and resistant, whose bodies [they] could quite literally destroy, whose psyches are at [their] mercy. . . . I can think of no other situation in which someone with the resentments of social powerlessness, under enormous pressures of time and anger, faces a recalcitrant but helpless combatant with so much restraint [author’s italics]. It is also clear that physical and psychological violence is a temptation of maternal practice and a fairly common occurrence.
What is remarkable is that in a daily way mothers make so much peace instead of fighting, and then when peace fails, conduct so many battles without resorting to violence [author’s italics]. I don’t want to trumpet a virtue but to point to a fact: that non-violence is a constitutive principle of maternal thinking, and that mothers honor it not in the breach, but in their daily practice, despite objective temptations to violence.
Children are potentially more physically endangered by fathers, whose socialization as men has predisposed them to flight or physical violence under stress and has forced them into a fierce dependence upon obedience from wives and children. Fathers, as men, are not closely “watchdogged” within the house; in a father-idealizing and father-absent culture, they are romanticized by children. (This dynamic allows children to deny paternal violence against them or to blame themselves when it happens.)
Both nature and culture have prepared women to mother in physically nonviolent ways under very oppressive conditions. Some observers romanticize the female ability to do this; others lament it as a virtue by default. Most mothers are usually able to absorb frustration, humiliation, unemployment, poverty, celibacy, and extreme loneliness without abandoning, seriously abusing, or murdering their children. As such, mothers as a group are rearing their children as well as can be expected of the human race to date.
Does a child physically need his or her father or father figure during pregnancy or childbirth, during infancy, or at some point later in childhood? Common sense and personal experience confirm that men and women do not have the same physical relationship to children.
It is crucial to remember that many children grow up without any fathers or father figures. Studies suggest that such children are no different from children with fathers—if severe impoverishment is not confused with paternal absence. Perhaps few children are physically fathered whether they live with fathers or not.
It is also clear that fathers have an effect on children whether they are absent or present, that fathers may influence a child directly or indirectly, and that paternal influence can be “advantageous, disadvantageous, or neutral.”
A number of feminist theorists and researchers have written about the psychological importance of “fathering” and about men’s potential ability to “nurture.” Such researchers have tried to show that a “good “father is potentially as good as (or similar to) a “good mother.”
These studies have essentially shown that white, middle-class, well- educated fathers can, under experimental conditions, “bond” with infants and can perform many of the physical and emotional tasks of “maternal nurturance.”
However, studies also show that “good enough” fathers tend to spend radically less time with infants, toddlers, preadolescents, and teenagers than mothers do; that fathers tend to “play” with children rather than physically to “service” them; and that fathers tend to “mother” children for comparatively short periods of time.
In real life, some (married) fathers are indeed physically “nurturant” to their children. However, unlike most nurturant mothers, such fathers are unwilling or unable to “nurture” children all day, every day, for all the years of each child’s childhood.
Fathers do not get pregnant. They do not give birth to, breast-feed, or routinely take care of newborn infants. Traditional fathers and mothers do not view these tasks as men’s province.
Researchers have found that “good enough” fathers are not able or willing to do what “good enough” mothers must do physically in related areas in order to maintain family life. For example, past studies confirmed that American wives did 70 percent of the housework, whether they were employed outside the home or not.
In their study of American couples, Drs. Philip Blumstein and Pepper Schwartz found that married men had such an intense aversion to house- work that when wives insisted they do it, intense acrimony and a greater probability of divorce resulted.
Even if a “good enough” father is unemployed, he does much less house-work (and child care) than a wife who is a full-time employee outside the home. One of my interviewees said, “My ex-husband was once unemployed for about a year. I taught full time and rushed home at three, collected the kids, shopped, and cooked dinner. I was very tired by the time I put the kids to bed and finished the dishes. I begged him to cook dinner. He refused. After much battling he agreed to cook every Friday night. He finally cooked dinner about twice a month. We all had to praise him and eat everything. I had to clear the table and do the dishes. Everyone said I had to be very understanding because he wasn’t employed.”
Of course, a father may be able to earn more money or physically lift more weight than a mother can. Such (innate and cultural) abilities may have nothing to do with satisfying the daily physical needs of children directly or with satisfying these needs in a physically nonviolent way, especially at times of parental stress.
Is physical punishment always a form of child abuse? Is a slap the equivalent of a broken arm? Is physical abuse the most serious form of child abuse? Is a child who is made to feel “unloved” or “unworthy” more severely abused than a child who is physically punished?
What do we know about psychological mothering and fathering? “Good enough” fathers may be psychologically cold, cruel, demanding, rivalrous, ambivalent, smothering, and abusive toward their sons and psychologically seductive and incestuous toward their daughters. A “good enough” father may also be infinitely more psychologically patient, understanding, relaxed, and generous to his children (especially to a daughter) than a mother may be.
“Good enough” mothers may be psychologically cold, cruel, demanding, rivalrous, ambivalent, smothering, and abusive toward their daughters (and to a lesser extent toward their sons). They may also be either more positively— or negatively—“maternal” toward their children than a father may be.
Drs. Joseph Goldstein, Anna Freud, and Albert J. Solnit have noted that the “best” parent-child relationship is both “positive” and “negative”; that it “fluctuates” over time; that “wanted” children may be “excessively valued” to their detriment; and that “good” parents cannot guarantee ideal child development even when they are their child’s psychological parents—that is, present and active in daily and physically caring ways.
Most parents do not view the psychological abuse of children as an epidemic with “devastating” consequences. According to psychoanalyst Alice Miller, most parents unthinkingly “murder their children’s souls.” Parents suppress their children’s “vital spontaneity” by the “laying of traps, duplicity, subterfuge, manipulation, ‘scare’ tactics, withdrawal of love, isolation, distrust, by humiliating and disgracing the child, scorn, ridicule, and coercion even to the point of torture. The former practice of physically maiming, exploiting, and abusing children seems to have been gradually replaced in modern times by a form of mental cruelty that is masked by the honorific term child-rearing.”
Miller may or may not be right. However, she rarely distinguishes between paternal and maternal behavior. She merges what mothers and fathers do (and don’t do) into “parental” behavior. Also, Miller’s psychologically high standards, while admirable, are rarely applied to fathers—or to mothers of all classes and races.
Unless or until we (and the “experts”) are prepared emotionally to judge all parents by the same standard, several conclusions are in order about how most mothers and fathers behave today.
Mental health experts, like the rest of us, tend to blame mothers, not fathers, for any problems a child may have; to praise fathers, but not mothers, for the good they may do; and to have one set of expectations for mothers and another, lesser set for fathers. Experts also tend to pathologize mothers when they fall short of idealized expectations of motherhood.
Seattle attorney Martha O. Eller notes a disturbing trend: “We are very disheartened by social workers’ and psychologists’ willingness to ignore issues of domestic violence, over-emphasize the value of a working father and under-value the contributions of a full-time homemaker, and [their] general tendency to despise a woman for having boyfriends without carefully inquiring of the father along the same lines. The [child] guardians ad litem, including psychologists, tend to evaluate the mothers harshly, even more so than the judges.”
Some mental health professionals have encouraged fathers to consider co-parenting or joint custody as their right and encouraged mothers to consider co-parenting or joint custody as their obligation, both of which are “in the best interests of the child.” Unbelievably, mental health professionals tend to trust what a father tells them and to distrust almost everything a mother says. They routinely minimize male violence and routinely pathologize the normal female response to violence. For example, read the following evaluation from a Michigan case:
The mother presents as a tense, suspicious person rigidly fixated on her ex-husband’s so-called potential for child abuse. She and the maternal grandmother, an overly intrusive, controlling woman, have convinced this child to fear her father. While the father admits to engaging in mildly inappropriate fondling behavior with his young daughter and to an incident of “joyriding” with her, I believe these were isolated occurrences and would not occur if the father-daughter relationship was stabilized. The father’s continuing inability to pay child support should not be used to deprive him or his child of their relationship. I recommend visitation to the father and therapy for the mother to help her deal with her pathological dependence on her own mother.
Here is an evaluation from a New York case:
The mother claims that her son has been terrorized by his father during so-called drunken rages. She claims that the father allegedly threatened to kill the boy’s dog if his son didn’t obey him. The wife claims she has been battered and that her husband tried to control her every waking hour. I don’t see this. She is too self-confident, too bossy. This woman has her own business and earns more than the father does. The father has been in treatment for alcoholism and says he is now recovered. He lives with the paternal grandparents, who are prosperous. The boy needs to live with male role models, his father and grandfather, especially since his mother has a career and is obviously hostile to men.
It made no difference to either evaluator—one a man, the other a woman—that both fathers were verified as having been treated for mental illness and alcoholism, had been fired from jobs for “losing their tempers” and for repeated absences, and had often “disappeared” from home. That both mothers had been their children’s sole support, psychologically and economically, and had sought help from the police, hospitals, and, in one case, a shelter for battered women. None of this impressed the evaluators. Incredibly, these reports—and they are typical—found the mothers “guilty,” the fathers “innocent.”
How can one fight such an incredible catch-22?
At some level, the evaluators do believe that the fathers have done some- thing “wrong,” but they don’t want to penalize them for their actions. In fact, when allegations of paternal violence are believed, the father is then exonerated by virtue of having a mental illness. While male mental illness is seen as either temporary or amenable to “therapeutic” intervention, women are often seen as suffering from near-permanent mental illnesses. Judges have been reluctant to order a wife batterer or child abuser out of the house or into jail; based on such psychiatric evaluations, they have instead ordered violent fathers into therapy or mediation. Violent or mentally ill fathers rarely lose their rights to visitation or custody; mothers, however, do. The following paragraphs are from an Illinois case and a Rhode Island case, respectively:
I guess I had a post-partum depression. I was always so tired, but I couldn’t sleep. What if I fell asleep and my babies needed me? I was all they had. I might not have needed pills or a two-week stay in a hospital if my husband had helped or allowed me to hire someone for the twins. When I put myself into a mental hospital, my in-laws persuaded my husband to move in with them, start divorce proceedings, and take custody away from me. Twice, when I and my parents, who finally decided to help me, tried to see my babies, my in-laws physically threw us out. The third time they had us arrested. The police threatened us. The judge said I was too sick to be a mother.
My ex-husband is charming, well-dressed, well-spoken, and comes from a very powerful family. He first beat me two weeks after we were married. The beatings continued. When I was pregnant, he kicked me so hard between the legs that he broke my water. I gave birth prematurely. During that beating I grazed his arm with a fork. I also pressed charges. He said I’d gone too far and I’d have to be punished. On the basis of his version of what I did with the fork, the custody psychiatrist stated that I was the abusive spouse. The psychiatrist pre- scribed a minimum of three years of therapy to cure my violence. He recommended that I have limited, supervised visitation and that sole custody go to my ex-husband and his live-in housekeeper. The judge agreed. I haven’t seen my child in three years.
“Good enough” mothers behave (and are trained to behave) differently toward children from the way “good enough” fathers do. Most mothers give birth to children after successful pregnancies.
Most “birth” and adoptive mothers do not physically abandon or physically abuse their children once they have gotten involved in caring for them.
Some mothers do physically neglect their children. A small (and unknown) percentage of mothers sexually abuse, torture, and kill their children.
All other things being equal, the majority of mothers physically nurture and support their children adequately, continuously, and in nonviolent ways.
All mothers are psychologically imperfect. Some are also psychologically abusive.
Most fathers are trained to neglect their children physically. Many fathers physically abandon their children. As we have seen, perhaps one in seven fathers (and stepfathers) sexually abuses his daughters; perhaps 50 percent of fathers economically abandon their children.
All fathers are psychologically imperfect. How many are also psychologically abusive? Most? Some? Few?
In a woman- and mother-hating culture, it is emotionally difficult or psychologically forbidden to acknowledge female or maternal superiority even—or especially—in the areas of female “specialization.” In a man- and father-idealizing culture, it is emotionally difficult or psychologically forbidden to acknowledge male or paternal inferiority even—or especially—in the areas of male nonspecialization. These are two of the reasons we “forget” that a “good enough” mother is different from a “good enough” father.
As adults, we respond “indignantly” to news of an abused child. We experience child abuse as something extraordinary, not ordinary; as something that other parents, mainly mothers, do; not as something that our own parents, or fathers, once did to us; not as something that we as parents do to our children; and not as something that fathers allow to happen to large numbers of children in their name and without their protest.
As adults, we confuse images of maternal psychological imperfection with maternal psychological and physical unfitness. For example, the idea of a mother’s locking her child into a room arouses our rage and a deep sense of heartbreak. (Why? Were we all once left in rooms alone? If so, do we think that this constitutes “child abuse”? Does it?)
The idea of a mother’s verbally tormenting or refusing to speak to her child at all or the idea of a mother’s neglecting or beating her child provokes the greatest fury and terror in us. (Why? Did our mothers or fathers beat us? If not, why do we so empathetically identify with the image of an abused child? Are we by nature altruists?)
As children, none of us could escape or protest whatever minor or major abuse we suffered at maternal and paternal hands. Now, in one mighty adult voice, we vent our long-suppressed fury at the mother in the child-abuse headlines. She is utterly evil and can never be rehabilitated. (How can she be? She is a “stand-in” for so many mothers.) She is very powerful. This time she must not escape us.
Given male violence (or indifference), how can our own mothers accept or defend the way things are? (And they do, they do. . . .) How can our own mothers bear to hear our cries and do nothing? How can they leave us alone in the tiny rooms of our lives?
Given male violence and our fear of it, we scapegoat mothers instead. (They are trained to “take it” without killing or abandoning us.) Given male violence and our fear of it, we ask: How dare any mother refuse to become pregnant? How dare any mother have an abortion or abandon, abuse, or kill a child—because if she can, then there is no respite on earth, no one to bear the brunt of our imperfections, and no one to save us. We, the innocent, are damned.
Medea—not Jason, not Creon—is still the one we blame.
In summary, an ideal mother is very different from an ideal father. A real mother is also different from a real father. Traditionally, an ideal mother is expected to choose married motherhood for her future at a very young age. She is expected to become pregnant, give birth, psychologically “bond” with her children, and assume bottom-line responsibility for her children’s physical, emotional, and economic needs. She is also expected to behave in physically nonviolent and psychologically self-sacrificing ways.
Nevertheless, this female socialization into and practice of motherhood is devalued and taken for granted. We experience the same parental abuse as “worse” when a mother performs it. We condemn mothers more than fathers for failing the parental ideal, for performing parental work inadequately, for being psychologically imperfect, and for being physically abusive.
With such double standards and anti-mother biases, what kind of custodially challenged mother would automatically be viewed as a “good enough” mother? (A person might say, “There must be something wrong with her. Why else would her husband or the state challenge her?”)
Do judges, priests, politicians, psychiatrists, or social workers view unwed, imprisoned, or “career” mothers as maternally fit? Would they view their custodial victimization as unjust? Do white married mothers or white social workers view nonwhite or welfare mothers as maternally fit?
Most custodially challenged mothers blame themselves for being imperfect. What kind of custodially challenged mother would view herself, or be viewed by other challenged mothers, as a truly “good enough” mother?
I decided to study sixty custodially challenged, predominantly white mothers who had internalized the Western ideals of motherhood and were demographically similar to the majority of divorced white mothers in America. These sixty mothers were custodially challenged in every geographical region of the United States and Canada between 1960 and 1981. In addition, I interviewed fifty mothers who were black, brown, yellow, and red. Some, but not all, were part of this study. They are very much a part of this book.
In general, the sixty mothers I studied married as virgins—or they married the first man they slept with. They both married and gave birth at relatively young ages. They assumed the bottom-line domestic, emotional, and primary child-care responsibilities of traditional marriages. In general, these mothers stayed at home until their youngest children were of grade-school age. Both psychologically and physically they put “work” or a “career” second to motherhood.
During our interviews together, these mothers casually and matter-of-factly described performing at least twenty-five very specific maternal domestic and child-related chores—quite separate from domestic chores that are husband related.
As I noted in the introduction, I was exploring a worst-case scenario.
Could a “good enough” mother ever lose custody? Could she lose custody to a relatively uninvolved or abusive father? Could this happen more than once? Could this happen often?
In my book Women and Madness, I allowed each of my sixty interviewees to establish what would ultimately be a collective portrait of the mental health profession. I employed this approach with custodially challenged mothers.
However, I also interviewed fifty-five fathers who battled for, won, or gave up custody. These independent interviews confirmed many of my conclusions about the range of paternal custodial motives.
The study you are about to read is a study of “good enough” mothers. Unbidden and silent, the mother Medea accompanied me to each interview.
Reprinted with permission from “Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody,” Revised and Updated Second Edition by Phyllis Chesler. Text copyright 2011 Lawrence Hill Books, an imprint of Chicago Review Press. Published by Lawrence Hill Books, an imprint of Chicago Review Press (distributed by IPG). Available in stores and online.