When a mother leaves

Women who don't live with their children are held to a higher standard than men, experts say

Mon, March 20, 2006




TORONTO -- "I'm not a deadbeat mom!"

"Jackie" makes the statement vehemently while telling her story and makes sure I know all the reasons why she isn't one.

Although I did not make such a suggestion, she feels the need to state it -- she's obviously sensitive that general society will label her unfairly.

This isn't surprising as Jackie is one of the few mothers who chose a route in life many may find hard to understand, often find shocking and have even called those who follow this route "unnatural" -- and worse.

When her marriage broke down, Jackie chose to leave her home and her children behind.

It's an unusual choice because it is generally accepted that when a marriage or co-habitation ends, it will be the husband who leaves his wife and children behind. Sometimes such men refuse to fulfil their financial and emotional obligations to their children and earn the label "deadbeat dads."


But, as Jackie explains in detail, this is not a label that applies to her in any way whatsoever, despite her unusual choice.

The 39-year-old Mississauga mother of two boys points out she's contributing fully, both emotionally and financially, to the upbringing of her young sons. She further explains that, as she has always been employed on salary and her husband was self-employed, her financial contribution has always been the major one.

"Despite it now being very tough financially for me, there's no way I wouldn't continue doing that," she says.

Explaining it to her children was a very difficult choice as her boys were only four and six years old at the time of the split. She says her husband threatened to disappear out of their life if she left and took them with her.


"They adored their father and, as I worked afternoons and being self-employed was flexible, he was Mr. Mom during that time. I felt that although I couldn't live with the marriage, why should my boys suffer?"

She moved into rented accommodations, leaving everything behind for them.

"It was very difficult starting from scratch again, buying the kids furniture and clothes," she says, "especially as I was still paying most of the bills at home."

Through a separation agreement and following divorce, Jackie was granted access every other weekend plus four weeks of holidays.

She says people around her were shocked but says her family knew her marriage was in difficulty and that her husband was a good father. She told them she didn't want her boys' lives disrupted.

Jackie maintains close contact with her children.

"The boys and I are very close," she says. "I make sure I'm involved in as much of their lives as I possibly can and we call each other all the time."

She worries about their reaction in the future (they are now 10 and 12 years old) when they form their own relationships, but "for now" she says all seems to be well with them.

Their father is now living with another woman who has two children. The only difficulty, says Jackie, is she sometimes feels left out of details about the children's well-being.


But she says she finds solace in the fact her boys seem well-adjusted to the situation and makes sure she spends plenty of quality time with them.

This is usually the case with women who leave, says Dr. Diana Gustafson, author of Unbecoming Mothers: The Social Production of Maternal Absence and professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, division of Community Health and Humanities, Faculty of Medicine.

"When such cases have been studied, it was found mothers will spend and invest more time with their children than fathers in the same situation."

Gustafson also points out it's been shown in studies that if a mother and child can maintain their emotional connection in such circumstances, they can actually have a longer-lasting relationship than mothers who live with their children.

"But society still views men and women very differently when this happens. When they talk about the mother/child bond, it almost takes on the significance of being umbilical. So when mothers leave, it's looked on as 'unnatural.'

"Women who leave their children are held to a higher standard than men. Society expects women to be responsible for their children's daily nurturing and welfare whereas men are looked on as responsible for their financial well-being."

But Gustafson says "maternal absence" around the world is statistically more common now as family structures become more varied.

"It's a challenging and complex issue but society has to adjust to a changing world."