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Working Mothers Fight For Custody Too

Mothers Day Movie 1934Apparently women are sometimes not automatically being given custody of their children in a divorce. According to Working Mother magazine, this is because they are — wait for it — working mothers.

A recent Family Focus column in Working Mother magazine begins with the statement, “Due to shifts in traditional roles, working mothers now face even tougher challenges-including unparalleled custody wars.”

There are so many things in the article that irritated me, so I’m going to pick out a few choice quotes and react.

The article describes a woman named Julie Michaud, who is going through a divorce. She goes to a custody hearing. And despite the fact that she is a woman, she is not awarded custody of her two children. She was a working mother, and she feels that she was penalized for that.

“Julie sat helpless as Mark’s lawyer argued that he was the one who arranged the playdates, took the kids to the pediatrician and volunteered at their schools.”

The reason she “sat helpless” was because the lawyer was TELLING THE TRUTH, according to “affidavits from teachers and neighbors attested to [her husband's] hands-on involvement in their daily lives.” An affidavit isn’t a friendly guy named David. (“Affable”, get it?) It’s a “sworn statement of fact.” Which means that if the affiant is lying, they could be charged with perjury.

Even so, Julie was mad because her “long hours at work meant that people in the community didn’t witness just how much parenting she did out of view. No one saw the lunches she packed every morning, the all-nighters she pulled when the kids were sick. ‘If I could have done things differently,’ Julie says today, ‘I would have made myself super-visible.’”

Both parents here deserve a Chris Rock-style “What do you want, a cookie?” Oh, so you were parents? How nice for you. I know this is a custody battle and both sides need to make their case. But “I would have made myself super-visible”? C’mon.

Not only does Julie not receive the custody rights she feels she deserved, she has to pay this schmuck alimony!

“There was more: Julie had to pay $850 a week in child support and $450 a week in spousal support. She stopped listening. All she could think was I’m being punished for supporting my kids, while there’s this guy who refused to work.”

Sounds like a great marriage. But seriously, is she complaining about paying alimony? Heather Mills got $50 million from Paul McCartney in exchange for not writing “Hey Jude”. A woman paying a man spousal support should not be seen as a step backwards.

The best line is this one:

Forced into the workforce—or into the primary breadwinner role—more moms are spending increased hours outside the home to pay the bills. Now collateral damage of the recession, will these women ultimately be penalized if it comes to a custody battle?” (emphasis added)

“Forced into the workforce”? Forced? What happened to making decisions? Do the folks at Working Mother believe that women should stay home with the kids while the man supports the family financially? “Ugg not change diapers. Ugg real man! Ugg go hunt mastodon.” Are women who are in “the primary breadwinner role” just “collateral damage of the recession”? Ellen Kullman of DuPont, Lynn Elsenhans of Sunoco — both CEOs of huge corporations — are they just “collateral damage”?

Now, there is a very real issue being discussed in the Working Mother article. Answering the question, “will these women ultimately be penalized if it comes to a custody battle?” Kim Voichescu says, well, yes.

“The 35-year-old former civil engineer turned law student has spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to get physical custody of her two teenage sons. ‘My ex’s attorney questioned my ability to care for my children based on my extensive work schedule,’ she says. ‘During the trial, he called into question my mothering abilities and asked, How could someone who is so career-oriented be a nurturing mother? After the lawyer raised these doubts about her devotion to her kids, Kim had to ask the court for a break to compose herself. ‘We supposedly live in a modern age, and yet I had to justify my nurturing abilities because I have a job?’” (emphasis added)

I agree. If a woman is being told that she is not a good mother because she works “outside the home” as the saying goes, that is clearly wrong. But it is also possible that a man could be viewed as the better parent by a family court judge. (And an article that actually questions the idea that a woman might have to pay spousal support to a man shouldn’t use the phrase, “We supposedly live in a modern age,” even if it is a quote.)

The Working Mother article does make a good point about the double standard of working mothers versus working fathers, a phrase that in my experience is never used. Psychologist and divorce mediator Ken Neumann tells the magazine that, “Working mothers have a really bad deal because they have to do everything. We don’t put that kind of pressure on men except in unusual circumstances.” And Loyola Law School professor Charlotte Goldberg told Working Mother that this is “more than a simple role reversal” and “the courts haven’t fully grasped the many roles of working mothers.”

Again, I agree. But what does that mean? Should women get whatever custody arrangement they want because they are women? Isn’t that a backwards attitude?

One of my personal pet peeves is when women cast themselves in a stereotypical role. There are plenty of people around who will do that for them. There are many professions where women are still not paid the same as men, for example (although the gender pay gap is getting narrower, at least in London).

Also, one of my favorite clichés is “the devil is in the details,” because that is usually true. Maybe Julie Michaud’s husband was a lazy bum. Maybe Kim Voichescu did indeed get a raw deal in court. (Ms. Voichescu certainly received crappy treatment from some people, according to an article in Brain, Child Magazine.) Another detail is the various custody laws; Working Mother has a brief primer on The Language of Custody. The point here is that if you believe, as I do, that women are entitled to the same rights as men, you also have to accept that men might, at times, take over the role that a woman traditionally handled. A man might even be a better parent, at least in the view of a family court judge.

(Working Mother does offer the other side of the gender coin with the much shorter Custody Battle: Dad’s Story written by Philip Lerman. He says that “dads are fighting back” against “the gender-based stereotypes that render them the second most important parent.” Divorcee Ben Oshman was asked in court “Yes, but who’s going to cook them dinner?” — by a judge. Which shows that yes, sometimes men are discriminated against too. Then again, we pretty much run the world. Maybe that’s why this article isn’t as long as the first one.)

At the end of the Working Mother article, University of Missouri—Kansas City School of Law professor Barbara Glesner Fines makes the best point of all. “The question shouldn’t be ‘How can I get or win custody?’ but rather ‘How can I make sure this re-formed family will function in a way that is good for the kids?’ Divorce is just the beginning of a lifetime of parenting your children with this other person. You’ve got to make that work.”

Of course. Very sensible. The rest of it, not so much.

Source: Working Mother magazine

Image: Archive.org

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