Short version of the story is this: Woman accepts a grant to live in Japan for six months doing research for a book she was writing. Between the time she left and the time her husband and sons joined her there, the marriage started to crumble. They wound up divorcing. She wound up giving her husband custody of the kids. And then she wrote a book about it. Because the Mommy Wars are big business.
Since it's such a touchy subject, I feel the need to tread very carefully. Do I think she abandoned her family to go to Japan on a research trip? No, and I do not understand why that's being emphasized so strongly, unless she never wrote the book she went there to write and flogging the separation is what's enabling her to not have to pay back the grant. Do I think that women have to be the primary custodial parent in order to be a good mother? No.
Still, it gets to me. There are so many things wrong with this. Gender politics are an issue here, but not in the way it's being claimed.
Let me explain. We are not supposed to vilify this woman because she is a woman. See, men walk away from their families all the time and supposedly we think nothing of it. Bullshit. I'm a divorced mom, albeit remarried, and I hang around other divorced moms (remarried and not) and believe you me, we think poorly of the men who walk out on their responsibilities. I'm not going to give Rahna Reiko Rizzuto a pass because we have the same sex organs. What would be shitty behavior from a man isn't saintly behavior from a woman.
Here's the thing. She is a part time parent by choice. Yeah, the boys walk down to her house "several times a week" and they cook dinner together and watch shows on Hulu. Know what? I'm calling bullshit on that, right here and now.
Y'all, this is a woman who never wanted to have kids. Who was afraid that being a mother would be the end of her personhood (I'll come back to that in a few). They had a "loving caretaker" before she went to Japan, one who was around enough to become part of their family. So, even when she was a full time mother--she wasn't.
But I am expected to believe that now that she's able to be a parent on her own terms (I'll come back to that too) she's a great mother. Suzy Fucking Homemaker. Bitch, please. Try that bullshit line on someone who doesn't share her kids with a part-time dad. Yeah, once upon a time the ex did cook the girls dinner (before he lived with his parents and then went to the homeless shelter) two nights a week and watch movies with them. Hell, even now he takes them to the park and to the movies.
You know what? It's not the same as actually doing the daily work of parenting them. Any adult who as a child sat at the window watching and waiting for the other parent to show up for visitation knows how it really works. You are on your absolute best behavior so that your parent will be sure to pick you up next week. Because to kids, time equals love. And a kid is going to do what they can to get that time, that love.
Here is what I deal with, as a full-time parent. I get the morning cuddles. I get the bulk of the hugs and the kisses. I also get the whining. I get to deal with the fights. I get to stand a child under the shower in the middle of the night to clean her up when she puked all over herself. I get to do the endless loads of laundry. I get to brush their hair amidst whining about the tangles. I get to field requests for help getting dressed while I'm showering. I get endless visits while I'm sitting on the toilet. I get the random stories. I get the rambling afternoon walks. I get to figure out how to finance all the things they want to do at school. I get to buy them shoes and clothes and books on puberty. I get to explain that we can't do X, Y, or Z because their dad is behind in child support again. I get to deal with school and all that entails--not just homework, but grades and classmates and even teacher interactions. I'm using the verb GET because I am very, very aware that every last bit of it is a privilege, from the kisses to the puke.
Know what else? I'm the one who consoles them when their dad doesn't make it. I'm the one who makes excuses when he shows up late or brings them home early. I'm the one who has to reassure them that their dad really does love them. I'm the one who lets them talk it out when they're upset because they STILL don't get time with only their dad. I'm the one who deals with the meltdowns because they don't get enough time with someone they love. I'm the one who tries to come up with a reasonable explanation for the latest bit of capriciousness (last year, Bobbie didn't get a gift from her dad for her birthday; this year Linda didn't).
I will admit I'm looking at this woman through the lens of my own experience. Because I know how this stuff really goes down in real life, rather than in the self-congratulatory world of memoirs. An ambivalent parent who does only what s/he has to do doesn't magically become June or Ward Cleaver once they're only a part time parent. See, this parent on your own terms thing...That doesn't start post-divorce. The patterns of behavior are there during the marriage, be the person in question male or female. My ex-husband was a parent on his own terms when he was still my husband. He was there only for the fun things even when he was there all the time. You don't have to be a noncustodial parent to be a part time parent, though that certainly facilitates things.
I also want to address this:
It raised a little issue for me that I have neglected to mention: I never wanted to be a mother.
I was afraid of being swallowed up, of being exhausted, of opening my eyes one day, 20 (or 30!) years after they were born, and realizing I had lost myself and my life was over.
Because, of course, motherhood swallows you up. You're never able to be yourself. You're always "So-and-so's mother" and that's just soul killing.
Fuck that noise. Being a parent can be hard. It can be exhausting. It can be draining. But you know what? If you lose yourself to any role, it's your own damned fault.
True story: every once in a while I let the minutiae of life overwhelm me. And I look up one day and I say to myself "What the hell, Sabra? Remember when you used to paint your fingernails elaborately? Remember when you wore all black and lounged around coffeehouses and wrote great short stories and shitty poetry? What happened with all that?" And I realize I miss the girl I used to be. But I also realize I'm not a girl anymore, I'm a grown woman. And I realize that I am still me and I can still do the things that make me , but I'm going to have to adapt it some. For example, I've got a baby who grabs my fingers and shoves them in her mouth, so I'm not sitting here with my fingernails painted Kelly green with coordinating glitter...I'm sitting here with my toenails thus done up.
So I've got no sympathy for "I need to not be a full-time parent 'cause I've got to maintain my own identity." I've got no sympathy for (and this is a direct quote) "I had no idea what to do with these bouncing balls of energy." You parent them, honey.
Again, I want to be very clear here. She doesn't annoy me because she's a noncustodial mother. I have a few friends who are noncustodial moms of one or more of their kids, and they are fucking great mothers. They are so thoroughly involved in their kids' lives that I didn't even know they were noncustodial parents until they told me. Know what these moms don't do, though? They don't go around telling everybody they're a "damned good mother." They don't have to, because it is self-evident.
Lots of things are.
Oh, and one last thing: Yeah, it really is supposed to be different for mothers. It is the mother to whom a child first attaches. It is the mother whose smell the child knows shortly after birth. These things mean something, or at least they should.