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What It's Like to Be a Mother Without Residential Custody of Your Child

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My son has lived with his father, my fearless co-parent and former husband, full-time for 14 years, and only recently did I manage to ditch my iPhone for an hour-long yoga class.

I got divorced. My ex assumed residential custody. I never stopped being Mom. You don’t stop being a parent when your child is not in your presence. I’ve stayed connected. I remain an active part of my son’s life. I call him to see him off on the bus in the mornings, and FaceTime him at night. I see him in person as often as I can, and I phone in to every parent/teacher conference. I am not always there in person. I am always asking myself, “What else can I do?”

I am not atypical for a non-custodial Mom, or NCM. I’m actually very much the norm. Judges do not always side with the mom in a custody dispute anymore. Increasingly, fathers are asking for, and being awarded, residential custody. The old standard of “If you’re a mother and you don’t have custody you must be negligent or unfit in some way” no longer holds true. Today’s NCMs are dedicated parents actively involved in our children’s lives. We retain legal custody. We just don’t have residential, usually because we:

  • Voluntarily gave up custody to give their child a better life than what, on their income, they could afford.
  • Opted not to put their child through a custody battle.
  • Lost a custody battle because often, a custody battle comes down who has the most money to fight it with.

Meet Your Typical Non-Custodial Mom

Actually, meeting an NCM is not easy. When we’re with our kids, we’re entirely focused on them, reveling in that one, often hard to get, moment with the half of our hearts walking around outside our bodies. When we’re not with our kids, we’re very often too embarrassed by our situation to mention our children. We don’t want you to assume the worst about us.

NCMs also often feel guilty: horribly, awfully, guilty. Your typical NCM does not excuse herself for not being with her child every day. No matter that we did what was best for our children, we still feel like we left them behind.

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NCMs can’t be on the front lines, so we work behind the scenes: buying clothing, participating in school events, making plans for each visit, juggling schedules to attend school concerts and parent-teacher conferences. We pay child support. We even embarrass our kids from time to time. I once completely “ruined” my son’s life by making him take a zero when he lost his gym uniform five days before school ended for the summer.

Still, as non-residential custodians, we cannot be there 24/7. The idea of doing something else with the time we feel we should – and would if still married be – spending with our children stymies us.

So yes, it took me 14 years to shut down my cellphone for an hour. Exactly one hour, and then said iPhone was turned back on and I was checking messages. Had my son called? Had his father, aka TheEx, texted with an emergency? Was there a message from the school? Was I reassured when it turned out my absence had gone unnoticed?

Rome wasn’t built in a day.

Getty image by nadia_bormotova

Originally published: November 18, 2020
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