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? 

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  • lynn

    I’m a non-custodial mom to my 16-year-old son. My first husband and I divorced when he was 2 and I had physical custody. When my son was 13, he decided he wanted to go live with his dad and I let him even though it broke my heart. He’d been wanting to for awhile. I’ve always thought it was extremely important for black boys to be close to their fathers — especially in this racist society, especially when they are approaching manhood. He got along well with his stepdad (my 2nd husband) but was always closer to his dad.

    I was a good mom and during those first 12 years he had a very happy, healthy childhood. Now he is a great teenager (honors student, athlete, cleancut, never in trouble) and his dad and stepmom are doing a great job with him. Still I miss him a lot and it makes me sad even though I think it was a good choice. My son and I have always been very close and still are.

    People automatically assume though that if you are a mother not living with your child then that child must have been taken away or something because you were neglectful or abuse, on drugs or whatnot. So generally, I do not broadcast that my son does not live with me because I do not want to get the side eye from people’s assumptions. I feel embarrassed like I have to explain myself and since I don’t want to get into a whole big story with acquaintances or strangers I generally keep this information to myself.

  • Arne

    I never thought about it this way until reading the article, but my great-grandmother was a non custodial mother. She moved from the country to the city to work, taking what work she could get to support her daughter, since my grandmother’s father was not in the picture. She ended up as a nanny, and couldn’t reasonably take my grandmother with her. So, her mother, my great-great grandmother, raised my grandmother. She was the woman my grandmother called “Momma,” instead of her own mother. I never really put the whole thing together while they were both still alive, and now that they aren’t, there’s a lot of the story that’s missing. But it was definitely, as I heard it, as a choice my great-grandmother made for the well being of her child, rather than something she was forced into.

    The only other non custodial mothers I know were required to give up custody or had family step in just a few steps before the law would have.

  • stephanie davies

    I spent two years as a non-custodial mother. After having been a stay at home mom for seven years, I decided to leave my verbally and emotionally abusive alcoholic husband, and he punished me for it by using his financial power to take our children from me. He did this with the mere filing of a document through the courts, which put me in the position of having to fight him in court to get our children back (approx. cost of $10,000 or more), despite the fact that I was granted custody in the divorce. I did not have the money to fight him. His court filing did not allege abuse, neglect, addiction, or anything else concerning against me; it merely said that there had been a change in the parents life that made this change necessary. The big change he was so concerned over? I moved 15 miles away. The bottom line was that he was controlling and vindictive, and he was upset by finding out that I was dating, though four years had passed since the divorce.

    He had my kids for TWO YEARS over this, and though I felt confident I would surely win, if I could simply be heard by a judge, I couldn’t afford an attorney to represent me through countless hours of filings, discovery, etc., so that I COULD be heard. Those two years were the most painful of my and that pain was so compounded by the automatic judgement of anyone who didn’t know me. I felt I was defending myself from the moment I met anyone, because I knew they wondered what I must have done to lose my children. Even upon explaining my situation, it still seemed as if people thought it couldn’t be that simple, a court would never allow that, there HAS to be more to it.

    I did get my children back, thank God, and a wonderful attorney I found, but my heart will forever ache for all the women enduring what I did. And there are MANY of them.

    • Hi Stephanie, your story has touched me and I’d like to speak with you via email or facebook or whatever you’re comfortable with.