Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Non-Custodial Means Keeping Your Mouth Shut


I am no longer part of the Mom Club. Think of how many times you see the word "mom" in the grocery store. That's how many times a day I am reminded of what I am not. My sons are now 25 and 20. We are completely estranged from each other. We saw each other last in 1997 and it wasn't good.

I was the non-custodial parent. Please note that I was not declared non-custodial; I was declared non-primary because I worked all day and my husband stayed home with the kids and that's the way it worked in West Virginia in 1996. The courts first decided who was the primary caretaker, and then assigned custody to the primary. Some say that would never happen in another state, say, Michigan, where I grew up, but I don't think that's true. At the time of my divorce, a co-worker asked if the courts took the kids away from me because I left (I did indeed leave). I hope her nose falls off, I really do.

I left at about 10:30 on a Friday night in early December when my husband and oldest son were out, my father-in-law (who lived with us) was watching TV, and my youngest was asleep. I put my youngest to bed myself after reading to him and then packed up my clothes, my dictionary, my thesaurus, and most of the stuff I'd ever written. I left a note on the bed for my husband, composed that day at work, telling him to not hassle my parents, and that my paychecks were now going by direct deposit to my own account. Money was always very important to him.

I left the way I did because everything went to hell the day before. On Thursday, my husband and I had lunch after a joint counseling session, one of three or four that I managed to endure. Each time I bared my soul, and each time he took mental notes and accused me of lying. This particular day at lunch, I decided to quit my lying. I came clean with the revelation that I felt nauseous when we had sex. It was almost worth it to shut him up for a moment. But it wasn't worth it when I got home from an evening class.

My husband, my father-in-law and my oldest son were waiting for me in the kitchen with their arms crossed when I walked in the door, clearly loaded for bear. "Let's talk," said my husband. "No," I said and beat it back to the bedroom. No good. My husband and oldest son followed me. My husband shut the bedroom door, turned to my son and said, "Son, your mother says she feels sick to her stomach when we have relations. What do you think of that?" to which my 14-year-old son replied, "Why, I would be shocked and dismayed" before bursting into tears.

I looked at the telephone on the dresser and wondered "who do I call for help and how do I ask?" Could I call the sheriff and say, "Help, my husband is being mean to me"? I had no faith that help would arrive if I picked up the phone. If I pick up the phone, will I be allowed to make a call or will the receiver be knocked out of my hand? If only I could have sat back and crossed my arms and laughed at my husband, cool as a cucumber, above it all. But then, would he have taken one of his guns from the places he hid them and shot me and claimed self-defense? It could happen. He often traveled with a gun. I had no faith in justice for a crime like that, either. But I had to do something to stop the agony and to save my oldest from this thing that his father had set in motion and that I could not see how to fix.

It was the light-bulb moment. I knew that I had never mattered, not really. I was a means to an end, financial and emotional, and he'd never seen me as more than a part of his plan. He'd never loved me because he couldn't. He looked so small and far away and he was trapped inside of himself. He couldn't see me. He couldn't see what he'd done to the people around him. And so at that moment, nothing else mattered except my own survival. I knew that within 24 hours, after suitable apologies and groveling on my part to throw him off the scent, I would be out of there. For good. Except for a few botched visits that followed this leave-taking.

The first "visit" was ridiculously dramatic. The day after I left, my then-husband called my mother who called me to tell me that my oldest son had run away. I called the local women's shelter to ask for advice. They told me to call the police, have my husband removed, and enter the house. I brow-beat some friends to come with me (no one wanted to go with me - can you blame them?) and we arrived at my house. Waiting for me were my father-in-law, one of my husband's friends, and the two kids. They tried to give me a piece of jewelry that their dad had bought for me, but they were angry too.

"I'll never forget the sight of my father being taken away by the sheriff," growled my oldest, "Never."

Apparently the ex had put up quite a fuss but I told the police about the guns, so I'm sure they weren't taking any chances. Once I was inside, my father-in-law and the friend began tearing around the house, making phone calls to the kids' dad, answering the phone when he called, taking directions. The boys were so miserable and I was so terrified that I took them both by the hands, walked over to my father-in-law, and said, "I will never take these boys away from you. Do you understand that?" And then I left. I felt even stupider than before -- here I had bothered the sheriff and what had I done? Had I asserted anything? Had I stepped up to the plate? No. I wanted out.

The second "visit" was appointed by the Magistrates Court located in the dismal basement of the country court-house. I stood on the front porch of my own home at my appointed time and when my oldest opened the door, I joked and said, "Hi! It's your non-custodial parent! May I come in?" He almost smiled, I swear it, but as that long day drew on and I did some laundry while I was there, my unease did nothing but grow. The phone rang constantly -- it was the kid's father, calling to check and to see what was going on. I tried to watch cartoons with my youngest.

"I'm sorry," I said.

"Sorry?" he responded, then began poking me in the chest with his index finger while he said "Sorry, sorry, sorry!"

His father had done the same thing not two weeks earlier. Meanwhile, my oldest had arranged for the members of his band to come to the house and practice. They arrived, looking at me with unreadable expressions. My oldest suggested that I take my youngest to the mall, that it was "ok" for me to do so. I took my youngest out to the mall. When we got back, the phone rang. My youngest answered it. "Yes," he told his father, "I saw you there at the mall." Later, this incident would be used an example of how I took the kids to the mall without permission, not as an example of being stalked.

Oh I was set up, my friends, set up all the way down the line, set up from the first day I met him. It was so clear and true now, or true at least to me. Our whole lives together had been spent in his preparations for just such a moment, when I would leave him and when he would wreak his vengeance. I completely freaked and ran out the door, spilling the few possessions I had collected as I ran. My youngest son stared at me, shocked, when I hugged him and kissed him for the last time ever, his body stiff, the hug and kiss not returned.

It seemed to me that my children spoke with their father's voice and his intimidation loomed over every face-to-face. I myself called off subsequent visits (we tried at McDonald's another two times) after it became clear that they would always proceed under his terms. I wasn't strong enough to fight and my lawyer knew it. This knowledge of my own weakness reinforced the notion that I deserved everything I got and that -- oh by the way -- I hated myself. I mean, not enough to commit suicide, but I did hate myself.

I used to visit a non-custodial moms' group on the Web, but it wasn't for me. Women were always posting sentimental poems about being angels in their kids' lives even if they didn't live with them. I couldn't even try explaining that I never saw mine, that I had rolled over and accepted the totally ridiculous divorce conditions. Future visits, if any, were left up to the kids' discretion and I knew that they'd never ask to see me. To do so would incur their dad's wrath. Sometimes I think the worst part for my sons must be the security question for any kind of bank account or membership. "Mother's maiden name" is often a choice, like "City of Birth" or "Name of Pet." Even if they choose not to use that option (I'm sure they don't), it must piss them off every time they see it. As they get older and have more accounts, they're going to see that question more often and it's going to piss them off even more because they hate me.

Today, over ten years later, I've started admitting to people that yes, I do have children. When pressed, I explain that no, I never see them. And when people hand out pictures of their kids, I no longer want to scream at them for committing an unspeakable act. This is a recent development. According to my therapist, the farther I get away from the trauma, the easier things get. Trauma? Really? Here I thought I was just scum. If it weren't for the love of my friends and my dear Jack, the husband of my heart, I would know I was scum.

Oh, and I don't get drunk on Mother's Day anymore either, a condition I used to schedule in my planner. And I promise not to scream in your face if you want to show me pictures of your progeny. I give you my word as a former club member.

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thank you for this piece. it was brave, quality writing. I'd love to see more!
Wow, I really admire your honesty and your bravery. So many mothers subsume themselves into motherhood at the expense of their sanity, their physical health, their very lives. I completely understand how you had to save yourself, and I pray that someday your children will wake up and see how they were manipulated and want you in their lives again. You would have been a much worse role model for them had you stayed around being a doormat.
I was pulled in by these words, by the sheer emotion spilling forward in every line...
While this piece was extremely poignant, as a mother of three children, I cannot fathom giving them up like this. I just don't understand. But I am sorry for what you've missed out on. Terribly.
Your piece has touched me in a way I can't really describe. The rage and sadness are palpable, and I'm not likely to forget your story anytime soon. If motherhood is a club defined by self-doubt and sacrifice, you are still a card carrying member. There's no reason to believe that as your children mature and start families of their own that they won't initiate a relationship with you. In fact, there's every reason to believe that they will. I never came close to forgiving or understanding my own parents until I became one.
Thank you for writing that. You are a very brave woman
You have so much courage ... I am awestruck. Thank you for writing what must have been a very difficult piece, and for being brave enough to share it with the world.
This is one of the most powerful essay's I've read. Wow. Thanks for making me take a long, hard look at my own assumptions about non-custodial mothers. And I hope you are able to re-connect with your sons.
I found myself nodding along, understanding all to well. Thank you for writing.
I'm sure in editing this piece you had to leave a lot out, after all you couldn't tell us everything. But it's a shame that you left out the goodbye to your children the night you left (I'm sure if you left your husband a note, you also left one to each of your sons), and the reason you couldn't take the boys with you when you left the man you feared so much), and the fact that you actually had permission (you must have, right? Surely you wouldn't have scheduled an in-home visit with two children and then left one of them unsupervised with his friends because HE said it was okay?) and your continued efforts throughout their lives to contact your boys (I'm sure you didn't actually leave it entirely up to them to contact you, knowing that they couldn't without angering their manipulative father). I would have liked to have read that complete story, but I had a hard time getting past the holes in this one to feel any empathy for anyone but those poor kids. I am glad you've gotten the therapy you needed to recover from your trauma. I hope your boys can say the same.
I, too, am a non-custodial mother. My daughter is 16, and I left her father (like your ex, a dominating, manipulative intimidator) when she was 22 months old. I chose to let her father raise her because he was older (13 years) and more stable (an accountant rather than a writer) than I. I have been actively involved in her life and have always been no more than 15 miles away, just to so that I could share her life. It doesn't matter; people still assume the worst and make insensitive, sexist comments. Non-custodial mothers (no matter how involved in their children's lives) are often treated like they're been criminally negligent/insane. I'm sorry for your loss, the grieving for which some people will never understand. You are not alone. Thanks for sharing your story.
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