Leaving the Family Behind: Is There a Double Standard for Women?

Rahna Reiko Rizzuto may have been judged harshly for her decision -- but abandonment can hurt kids, no matter which parent leaves

In her new memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning, author Rahna Reiko Rizzuto writes about her decision to leave her two young sons with her husband of nearly 20 years after their divorce -- a choice she acknowledges has prompted some to criticize her as being ‘selfish’ or a bad mother.

But is that criticism fair? Rizzuto argues that her kids, now teenagers, are well-adjusted and didn’t suffer from her choice to move away initially -- in fact, she’s said publicly that their relationship improved. And she argues that her choice to leave her family and give up primary custody wouldn’t be judged so harshly if she was a man.

“My problem was not with my children,” she wrote, in a recent Salon.com essay, “but with how we think about motherhood… we punish the very idea that there are other ways to be a mother [besides being a full-time caretaker].”

It is true that women are often held to a higher standard for nurturing, caretaking and overall parenting than men. In fact, fathers can spend a fraction of the time with their kids and still be deemed a good dad, while moms who spend a lot of time at work may be judged negatively for expressing a passion about something besides their children. Still, neither parent can escape the negative effects that come with stepping out of their childrens’ lives -- even if it’s only for a few years.

Rizzuto may have a stronger relationship with her sons now, but when a parent who was present disappears from a child’s life, it is called abandonment, and it is never good for a child. Once Rizzuto left, she has said she only had occasional contact with her kids for years -- she was essentially uninvolved -- which fits the description of abandonment. Though she has reappeared in her children’s lives, the damage is done. Abandonment is traumatic. Many children who have been left suffer depression and anxiety as kids and as adults. Being abandoned often leaves a child with emotional scars that can last a lifetime and can be particularly detrimental to their own ability to be trusting and intimate down the road. A father who does the same is just as culpable. Perhaps because it is more common for a father to leave than a mom, we as a society are less outraged; but we shouldn’t be.

The double standard of higher expectations for mothers is born out of traditional roles but may be linked to biological hard-wiring. Women bear children and nurse them, which has led to an (often true) assumption that women are the primary parent. But the fact is both parents create the stable and unconditionally loving environment that a child thrives in. The loss of either parent, by emotional unavailability or physical distance, is a substantial loss for a child.

While most mothers have ambivalence about mothering at some point, those feelings usually don’t result in her leaving the family. Moms may have thoughts at times like “This is too hard, I wish I could do something else.” That those thoughts are normal, and they’re often coupled with feelings of joy, wonderment and pleasure at being a mother. However, if this ambivalence goes unexamined there is more of a tendency to act out on those feelings, perhaps as Rizzuto did. Or it could turn into anger at your kids, your spouse, or feelings of intense guilt and shame. When a mother can accept that it is normal to have some mixed feelings -- and it is -- she is more able to manage them.

A woman shouldn’t choose what kind of mother she is going to be based simply on society’s definition of motherhood. In fact, it would be better for all mothers if we could stop judging and criticizing each others’ choices in order to justify our own. But I also hope that choosing to be your own kind of mother and being unfairly judged for that doesn’t get confused with abandoning your child because of Rizutto’s story. Mothers need to realize that mixed feelings about mothering are normal and we shouldn’t judge each other over that. But being present in a child’s life -- whether you’re the mother or father -- is a critical part of being a parent, however you define it.

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