It was a sunny and warm Southern California afternoon as I browsed in a quaint antique shop. I was wearing my new high-waisted denim maternity shorts and felt supremely at ease, knowing the most important being in my life was with me wherever I ventured. This period of time was the closest the two of us would ever be, and I savored all of it. Life was good, and I was happy. It was May 14, 2006, and it was technically my first Mother’s Day.
As this year’s Mother’s Day approached, I wasn’t even sure I’d get to see my son at all. Welcome to my new life as a noncustodial mother.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a noncustodial mother typically has her child on a limited basis or only has visitation rights. In my own situation, it is the former. The mother-son dynamic we’d once shared quickly changed as a result of a co-parent’s marriage to someone out of state and a bureaucratic and capitalistic family court system.
Over the years, Mother’s Day has meant a lot to me. It’s been a time to celebrate my mother while also celebrating being one. I’ve lovingly collected handmade cards and gifts from the boy who made me a mom, but nothing has meant more than quality time. When my son moved out of state to live with his father a year and a half ago, with him went my most precious commodity – our time spent together, as well as the only identity I knew – being his doting and involved mom.
As a rookie noncustodial mother, navigating this new identity has been eye-opening and lonely, especially without a social forum that could understand what it feels like to mourn a living child. If you type “noncustodial mother” into Google the top results mostly point to legal jargon, attorney websites, and a few dated publications describing a noncustodial mother’s plight. However, there’s definitely more to the topic than what this search yielded.
The mainstream notion, exacerbated by depictions on television and movies, is that noncustodial mothers are likely abusive, neglectful, drug users or a combination of these. In reality, what these mothers are likely to be is emotionally and physically distressed from being separated from their children. To add insult to injury, they’re also stereotyped as a bad mother. The fact remains that there’s an undeniable need for social awareness, sensitivity, and, most of all, peer support for noncustodial mothers.
To be sure, noncustodial mothers aren’t the only parents suffering stigmatic social hardships. Noncustodial fathers and LGBTQ+ parents also experience their share of emotional and societal setbacks. However, the fact remains that noncustodial mothers endure a unique sense of shame.
These days, when I am fortunate enough to spend time with my son, there’s a strange phenomenon that unfolds. I am reunited with the original version of myself that has been dormant. I feel a sense of wholeness. I sleep with a sense of calm in my soul, and I wake up with a lightness in my heart that doesn’t exist outside of this space. Not only do I miss my son more than I can measure, I also miss the person I am when he is around.
According to the Census Bureau, in 2018 about 4 of every 5 of the 12.9 million custodial parents were mothers. That means 1 out of every 5 mothers are in my shoes. So where are we? While the stigma persists, these mothers are likely to remain in the shadows just trying to put one foot in front of the other. It can be difficult for a mother to admit to acquaintances that her child does not live with her anymore. It can be paralyzing to shout it from the rooftops for all to hear.
Whether on Instagram, Facebook or Meetup.com, social groups comprised of noncustodial mothers are difficult to come by. After discovering a link to a promising Facebook group, I discovered the content was no longer available. Even still, that defunct Facebook group of 1,500 is a far cry from the few million noncustodial mothers in the U.S.
For me, the pain of noncustodial motherhood is still quite raw. Gone are the days of spontaneous hugs or a kiss goodbye at school drop-off. The calendar is bare without his social activities and sports. I long for his thunderous footsteps descending the stairs, and I dread coming home to the exponentially louder silence.
Several months ago, on a call with my health insurance provider, I made a casual comment to the representative about my son and my new situation. I had no idea that making that statement would inspire her to share her own story about being a long-distance noncustodial mother. In that moment, I felt seen, heard, validated, and relieved. Unfortunately, the positive effect of that chance phone call has had to suffice. I have yet to meet another mom with that experience.
The stigma noncustodial mothers experience can’t be erased in a day, a week, or a month, but it can happen over time if we chip away at it. We must come out of the shadows and share our stories, the good and the bad. Any one of us noncustodial mothers is capable of preventing another from feeling like she’s on a deserted island. I am eternally grateful one such mother did that for me.
Yvette is a staff member in San Jose State University’s Lucas College and Graduate School of Business and a Public Voices Fellow for The OpEd Project and SJSU. She finds the most rewarding part of her job to be advocating for the student population. Yvette is an empath, naturally inquisitive and opinionated, and a friend to the environment.