Posted in: Motherhood & Custody
Published on Aug 05, 2011 by Phyllis Chesler
Excerpt from Phyllis Chesler's Book "Mothers On Trial"
This is a book that cried out to be written. I first heard that cry in the mid-1970s and, after years of research, published the first edition of "Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody" in 1986. At the time, the book created a firestorm and was widely, if controversially, received.
In the last twenty-five years, there have been some improvements, but matters have decidedly worsened. The book you are holding has been revised and updated and brought into the twenty-first century.
Myths about custody still abound. Most people still believe that the courts favor mothers over fathers—who are discriminated against because they are men—and that this is how it's always been.
This is not true.
For more than five thousand years, men—fathers—were legally *entitled* to sole custody of their children. Women—mothers—were *obliged* to bear, rear, and economically support their children. No mother was ever legally entitled to custody of her own child.
During the nineteenth century, pro-child crusaders gradually convinced the state that young children required maternal "tenderness"—but only if their mothers were white, married, Christian, and moral. The children of American slaves, of Native American Indians, of immigrant, impoverished, sick, or "immoral" parents—all were untenderly appropriated by slave owners and by the state. They were clapped into orphanages, workhouses, and reformatories or farmed out into apprenticeships for "their own good."
By the turn of the century, a custodially challenged American mother enjoyed an equal right to custody in only nine states and the District of Columbia—and only if a state judge found her morally and economically worthy of motherhood. Until the 1920s, no American mother was entitled to any child support. Since then, few have received any.
The maternal presumption was never interpreted as a maternal right. The maternal presumption has always been viewed as secondary to the child's "best interests"—as determined by a judge. This "best interest" was always seen as synonymous with "paternal rights."
The contemporary fathers' rights (or fathers' supremacist) movement, which has been wildly successful in instituting joint custody and false concepts such as "parental alienation syndrome," is also a throwback to the darkest days of patriarchy. It is not the modern, feminist, progressive movement it claims to be. Individual men may indeed be good fathers, and, like good mothers, they too may encounter discrimination and injustice in the court system. What I am talking about here is an organized political, educational, and legal movement against motherhood that has turned the clock back.
This book is about what it means to be a "good enough" mother and about the trials such mothers endure when they are custodially challenged. This book is not about happy marriages or happy divorces—it is about marriages and divorces that erupt into wild and bitter custody battles.
By now, many books have been written about the role of caring and responsible fathers, about male longings for a child, and about a child's need for fathering. This book clarifies the difference between how a "good enough" mother mothers and a "good enough" father fathers. It clarifies the difference between male custodial rights and female custodial obligations.
Since Mothers on Trial was first published in 1986, thousands of mothers have called or written. "I'm in your book," they say. "It's as if you knew my story personally." "You showed me that it's not just happening to me, that it's not my fault." And, "Can you help me save my children?"
In the first edition of Mothers on Trial, I challenged the myth that fit mothers always win custody—indeed, I found that when fathers fight, they win custody 70 percent of the time, whether or not they have been absent or violent. Since then, other studies, including ten state supreme court reports on gender bias in the courts, have appeared that support most of what I say. (The Massachusetts report actually confirms my statistic of 70 percent.)
Although the majority of custodial parents are usually mothers, this doesn't mean that mothers have won their children in a battle. Rather, mothers often retain custody when fathers choose not to fight for it. Those fathers who fight tend to win custody, not because mothers are unfit or because fathers have been the primary caretakers of their children but because mothers are women and are held to a much higher standard of parenting.
Many judges also assume that the father who fights for custody is rare and therefore should be rewarded for loving his children, or they assume that something is wrong with the mother. What may be wrong with the mother is that she and her children are being systemically impoverished, psychologically and legally harassed, and physically battered by the very father who is fighting for custody.
Today more and more mothers, as well as the leadership of the shelter movement for battered women, have realized that battered women risk losing custody if they seek child support or attempt to limit visitation. Incredibly, mothers also risk losing custody if they accuse fathers or physically or sexually abusing them or their children—even or especially if these allegations are supported by experts.
An ideal father is expected to legally acknowledge and economically support his children. Fathers who do anything more for their children are often seen as "better" than mothers, who are, after all, supposed to do everything.
The ideal of fatherhood is sacred. As such, it protects each father from the consequences of his actions. The ideal of motherhood is sacred, too. It exposes all mothers as imperfect. No human mother can embody the maternal ideal perfectly enough.
Given so many double standards for fit mothering and fathering and so many anti-mother biases, I wanted to know: Could a "good enough" mother lose custody of a child to a relatively uninvolved or abusive father? How often could this happen?
I first interviewed sixty mothers who had been their children's primary caregivers, were demographically similar to the majority of divorced white mothers in America, and had been custodially challenged in each geographical region of the United States and Canada.
On the basis of these interviews I was able to study how often "good enough" mothers can lose custody when their ex-husbands challenge them. I was able to study why "good enough" mothers lose custody battles and how having to battle for custody affects them.
On the basis of these interviews and on the basis of additional interviews with fifty-five custodially embattled fathers, I was able to study the kinds of husbands and fathers who battled for custody, their motives for battling, and how and why they won or lost.
I was also able to study the extent to which the custodially triumphant father encouraged or allowed the losing mother access to her children afterward.
To repeat: Seventy percent of my "good enough" mothers lost custody of their children.
Today the same experts who once tyrannized women with their advice about the importance of the mother-child bond appear, in the context of custody battles, ready to ignore it or refer to it, if it all, as of only temporary importance. They view the mother-child bond as expendable if it is less than ideal or another woman is available. Perfectly fit mothers are viewed as interchangeable with a paternal grandmother or a second wife.
In 1975 New York judge Guy Ribaudo awarded sole custody of two children to their father, Dr. Lee Salk. Their mother, Kersten Salk, was not accused of being an "unfit" mother. It was clear that Kersten, not Lee, had reared their children from birth "without aid of a governess" and that Lee would probably require the aid of a "third party" housekeeper-governess were he to gain sole custody. The judge used an "affirmative standard" to decide which parent was "better fit" to guide the "development of the children and their future." Kersten Salk's full-time housekeeping and mothering were discounted in favor of Lee Salk's psychological expertise and "intellectually exciting" lifestyle. Lee was widely quoted as saying the following: "Fathers should have equal rights with mothers in custody cases and more and more fathers are getting custody…The decision in Salk v. Salk will touch every child in America in some way. It will also give more fathers the 'incentive' to seek custody of their children"
This case swept through public consciousness; it was an ominous warning, a reminder that children are only on loan to "good enough" mothers. They could be recalled by their more intellectually and economically solvent fathers.
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, pread
We are not accepting comments at this time, please go to the Facebook page to generate discussion!