Everyone remembers that “Cosby Show” plot arc where Denise brings home her new husband, Martin, and — in an even more surprising twist — his 3-year-old daughter, Olivia. Since Raven-Symone was patently adorable, it was easy to gloss over the circumstances that resulted in “flaky” Denise becoming a custodial stepmother. Denise described Martin’s ex-wife, Paula, as “all over the place” and “unable to handle parenthood” because she “didn’t know what she wanted out of life,” which made Cliff and Claire roll their eyes so hard it’s a wonder they didn’t permanently cross. The scene was played for comic effect, but the notion behind it — that, on occasion, mothers believe what’s best for their child is to be with their more stable parent: the father — was a serious one. In the initial episode, Claire’s tone was judgmental, as she wondered what kind of mother would “just up and leave her child.” But later, when Olivia’s mom actually appeared on the show (played by Victoria Rowell), the “Cosby Show” took yet another opportunity to put a human face on a situation that’s not as unusual — or as awful — as we may think.
We’re most familiar with mothers as non-custodial parents in cases where abuse, neglect, or addiction leads to her loss of her parental rights. These cases are easier to understand than when a mother “just up and leaves her child.” When a mother willingly decides to grant temporary or permanent primary custody to her child’s father or another relative, because she feels ill-equipped to handle the rigors of motherhood, she’s labeled as selfish and irresponsible. And, when her reasons for opting out of custodial parenthood are about pursuing personal goals, selfishness certainly seems like a valid observation. But what of the irresponsibility?
If a woman believes she can handle motherhood and decides afterward that she isn’t cut out for it, it may be more irresponsible for her to maintain custody than to relinquish it, especially if her main reason for continuing to raise the child is a fear of societal or family judgment. If the father is more confident in and certain about his role as a parent, and if he’s willing to take on the responsibility of custody, the most responsible choice may be to let the child remain with him.
Divorce is another instance in which mothers occasionally grant custody to the father. In a series of profiles in Marie Claire, noncustodial motherhood is examined in the aftermath of divorce:
[Maria] Housden’s second book, Unraveled, published in 2005, tackled her agonizing decision to forgo custody. “I did something divorced fathers are expected to do every day. But when a mother does it, it’s abandonment,” she says, recalling a stinging radio interview in which a caller suggested she be sterilized.
For the blog, Love Isn’t Enough, Tami Winfrey Harris pointed out the ways in which black non-custodial motherhood is either stereotyped or ignored, including in Marie Claire‘s series:
… The article does not extend that stereotype-busting to women of color. In profiling three white women… it implies that noncustodial moms of color are “unfit mothers” (think Halle Berry in “Losing Isaiah”). By completely leaving out noncustodial moms of color, it implies they could not find any loving, responsible moms of color making this difficult decision. (It also, by extension, feeds into the stereotype of fathers of color as deadbeat dads.)
Certainly, when many hear that a mother does not have primary custody of her child, they rush to a Claire Huxtable level of indignancy and judgment. But every case is different. Some mothers opt for joint custody, others for visitation. In most cases it seems clear the decision is not a light one or borne only of a desire to “be free” of the responsibilities of parenthood.
Do you know any non-custodial mothers? Do you give mothers who don’t have full custody of their children an automatic side-eye?