"Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody"
Published August 05, 2011 on FoxNews.com
This is a book that cried out to be written. I first heard that cry in the mid-1970s and, after years of research, published the first edition of “Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody” in 1986. At the time, the book created a firestorm and was widely, if controversially, received.
In the last twenty-five years, there have been some improvements, but matters have decidedly worsened. The book you are holding has been revised and updated and brought into the twenty-first century.
Myths about custody still abound. Most people still believe that the courts favor mothers over fathers—who are discriminated against because they are men—and that this is how it’s always been.
This is not true.
For more than five thousand years, men—fathers—were legally *entitled* to sole custody of their children. Women—mothers—were *obliged* to bear, rear, and economically support their children. No mother was ever legally entitled to custody of her own child.
During the nineteenth century, pro-child crusaders gradually convinced the state that young children required maternal “tenderness”—but only if their mothers were white, married, Christian, and moral. The children of American slaves, of Native American Indians, of immigrant, impoverished, sick, or “immoral” parents—all were untenderly appropriated by slave owners and by the state. They were clapped into orphanages, workhouses, and reformatories or farmed out into apprenticeships for “their own good.”
By the turn of the century, a custodially challenged American mother enjoyed an equal right to custody in only nine states and the District of Columbia—and only if a state judge found her morally and economically worthy of motherhood. Until the 1920s, no American mother was entitled to any child support. Since then, few have received any.
The maternal presumption was never interpreted as a maternal right. The maternal presumption has always been viewed as secondary to the child’s “best interests”—as determined by a judge. This “best interest” was always seen as synonymous with “paternal rights.”
The contemporary fathers’ rights (or fathers’ supremacist) movement, which has been wildly successful in instituting joint custody and false concepts such as “parental alienation syndrome,” is also a throwback to the darkest days of patriarchy. It is not the modern, feminist, progressive movement it claims to be. Individual men may indeed be good fathers, and, like good mothers, they too may encounter discrimination and injustice in the court system. What I am talking about here is an organized political, educational, and legal movement against motherhood that has turned the clock back.
This book is about what it means to be a “good enough” mother and about the trials such mothers endure when they are custodially challenged. This book is not about happy marriages or happy divorces—it is about marriages and divorces that erupt into wild and bitter custody battles.
By now, many books have been written about the role of caring and responsible fathers, about male longings for a child, and about a child’s need for fathering. This book clarifies the difference between how a “good enough” mother mothers and a “good enough” father fathers. It clarifies the difference between male custodial rights and female custodial obligations.
Since Mothers on Trial was first published in 1986, thousands of mothers have called or written. “I’m in your book,” they say. “It’s as if you knew my story personally.” “You showed me that it’s not just happening to me, that it’s not my fault.” And, “Can you help me save my children?”
In the first edition of Mothers on Trial, I challenged the myth that fit mothers always win custody—indeed, I found that when fathers fight, they win custody 70 percent of the time, whether or not they have been absent or violent. Since then, other studies, including ten state supreme court reports on gender bias in the courts, have appeared that support most of what I say. (The Massachusetts report actually confirms my statistic of 70 percent.)
Although the majority of custodial parents are usually mothers, this doesn’t mean that mothers have won their children in a battle. Rather, mothers often retain custody when fathers choose not to fight for it. Those fathers who fight tend to win custody, not because mothers are unfit or because fathers have been the primary caretakers of their children but because mothers are women and are held to a much higher standard of parenting.
Many judges also assume that the father who fights for custody is rare and therefore should be rewarded for loving his children, or they assume that something is wrong with the mother. What may be wrong with the mother is that she and her children are being systemically impoverished, psychologically and legally harassed, and physically battered by the very father who is fighting for custody.
Today more and more mothers, as well as the leadership of the shelter movement for battered women, have realized that battered women risk losing custody if they seek child support or attempt to limit visitation. Incredibly, mothers also risk losing custody if they accuse fathers or physically or sexually abusing them or their children—even or especially if these allegations are supported by experts.
An ideal father is expected to legally acknowledge and economically support his children. Fathers who do anything more for their children are often seen as “better” than mothers, who are, after all, supposed to do everything.
The ideal of fatherhood is sacred. As such, it protects each father from the consequences of his actions. The ideal of motherhood is sacred, too. It exposes all mothers as imperfect. No human mother can embody the maternal ideal perfectly enough.
Given so many double standards for fit mothering and fathering and so many anti-mother biases, I wanted to know: Could a “good enough” mother lose custody of a child to a relatively uninvolved or abusive father? How often could this happen?
I first interviewed sixty mothers who had been their children’s primary caregivers, were demographically similar to the majority of divorced white mothers in America, and had been custodially challenged in each geographical region of the United States and Canada.
On the basis of these interviews I was able to study how often “good enough” mothers can lose custody when their ex-husbands challenge them. I was able to study why “good enough” mothers lose custody battles and how having to battle for custody affects them.
On the basis of these interviews and on the basis of additional interviews with fifty-five custodially embattled fathers, I was able to study the kinds of husbands and fathers who battled for custody, their motives for battling, and how and why they won or lost.
I was also able to study the extent to which the custodially triumphant father encouraged or allowed the losing mother access to her children afterward.
To repeat: Seventy percent of my “good enough” mothers lost custody of their children.
Today the same experts who once tyrannized women with their advice about the importance of the mother-child bond appear, in the context of custody battles, ready to ignore it or refer to it, if it all, as of only temporary importance. They view the mother-child bond as expendable if it is less than ideal or another woman is available. Perfectly fit mothers are viewed as interchangeable with a paternal grandmother or a second wife.
In 1975 New York judge Guy Ribaudo awarded sole custody of two children to their father, Dr. Lee Salk. Their mother, Kersten Salk, was not accused of being an “unfit” mother. It was clear that Kersten, not Lee, had reared their children from birth “without aid of a governess” and that Lee would probably require the aid of a “third party” housekeeper-governess were he to gain sole custody. The judge used an “affirmative standard” to decide which parent was “better fit” to guide the “development of the children and their future.” Kersten Salk’s full-time housekeeping and mothering were discounted in favor of Lee Salk’s psychological expertise and “intellectually exciting” lifestyle. Lee was widely quoted as saying the following: “Fathers should have equal rights with mothers in custody cases and more and more fathers are getting custody…The decision in Salk v. Salk will touch every child in America in some way. It will also give more fathers the ‘incentive’ to seek custody of their children”
This case swept through public consciousness; it was an ominous warning, a reminder that children are only on loan to “good enough” mothers. They could be recalled by their more intellectually and economically solvent fathers.
Although mothers still received no wages for their work at home and far less than equal pay for equal work outside the home, and although most fathers had yet to assume an equal share of home and child care, divorced fathers began to campaign for equal rights to sole custody, alimony, and child support and for mandatory joint custody.
Fathers’ rights activists—both men and women—picketed my lectures, threatened lawsuits, and shouted at me on television. “Admit it. Ex-wives destroy men economically. They deprive fathers of visitation and brainwash the children against them.
Fathers should have rights to alimony and child support. Joint custody should be mandatory. We’ve already convinced legislators and lawyers, judges and social workers, psychiatrists and journalists to see it our way.”
Indeed, as we shall see, they have.
By 1991, more than forty states had shared-parenting statutes in which joint custody was either an option or preference, and most other states had recognized the concept of joint custody in case law.
The mothers began to find me. Would I testify on their behalf? Marta consulted me as a therapist. She said she was “depressed” and “wanted to kill herself.” Weeping, she told me, “For fifteen years my children were my whole life. I did everything for them myself. Six moths ago a judge gave my husband exclusive custody of our children. How could this nightmare ever happen? At first, I thought they’d come back to me on their own. But they haven’t. Why should they? I have a small one-bedroom apartment. Their father was allowed to keep our five-bedroom house. He gives them complete freedom and the use of their own credit cards. I work as a salesgirl for very little money. Is this a reason to go on living?”
Carol, a complete stranger, asked me for money. “My husband kidnapped our six-year-old son two months ago. It’s what they call ‘legal’ kidnapping. We’re only separated, not divorced. I need money to hire a detective to find them. I need money to hire a lawyer once they’re found. I only have six hundred dollars in the bank. And I’m four months pregnant.”
Rachel, also a stranger, mailed me a description of her custody battle. She entitled it “A Case of Matricide in an American Courtroom.” Rachel had a “nervous breakdown” after she lost her battle for child support, custody, and maternal visitation.
In 1977, when I myself was six months pregnant, I decided to study women and custody of children. The theme had claimed me.
Over the next eight years, I formally interviewed more than three hundred mothers, fathers, children, and custody experts in the United States and Canada and in sixty-five countries around the world. On the basis of these interviews, I conducted three original studies and six original surveys for the 1986 edition of this book. I wanted to understand why we take custodial mothers for granted but heroize custodial fathers, why we sympathize with noncustodial fathers but condemn noncustodial mothers, and why we grant noncustodial fathers the right to feel angry or sad but deny noncustodial mothers similar emotional “rights.” I also wanted to compare what noncustodial mothers and fathers actually do and contrast it with how they perceive themselves and are perceived.
Must custodially embattled mothers be viewed only as victims? Can such mothers also be viewed as philosophical and spiritual warriors and heroes? Gradually I came to view them as such. Under siege, “good enough” mothers remained connected to their children in nuturant and nonviolent ways. They resisted the temptation to use violent means to obtain custody of their children. This is one of the reasons they lost custody. But they never disconnected—not even from children whom they never saw again.
The 2011 Update
What’s changed since I first started researching and writing about custody battles?
Documented domestic violence does get factored in somewhat more than before. Where real assets exist, judges have the power to award more of them to mothers and children. Fewer mothers and fathers automatically lose custody or visitation because they are gay or because they have high-powered careers. However, certain injustices (crimes, really) that I first began tracking in the late 1970s have now gotten much worse. For example, battered women are losing custody to their batterers in record numbers.
Children are being successfully brainwashed by fathers, but many mothers are being falsely accused of brainwashing. Worse: Children who mandated reporters—physicians, nurses, or teachers—report as having been sexually abused by their fathers are usually given to those very fathers. The mothers of these children are almost always viewed as having “coached” or “alienated” the children and, on this basis alone, are seen as “unfit” mothers.
I understand that this sounds unbelievable. But it is still true. The mothers of raped children, who are also described as “protective” mothers, are seen as guilty of “parental alienation syndrome.” The fact that this concept, first pioneered by Dr. Richard Gardner and widely endorsed by fathers’ rights groups, has been dismissed as junk science does not seem to matter. Most guardians ad litem, parenting counselors, mediators, lawyers, mental health professionals, and judges still act as if this syndrome were real and mainly find mothers, not fathers, guilty in this regard. In 2010 the American Psychiatric Association was still fighting to include a new disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: the parental alienation disorder, to replace the debunked parental alienation syndrome.
In 2009 and 2010 more than fifty mothers from twenty-one U.S. states and a number of foreign countries all shared their stories with me. Their cases took place between the late 1980s and 2010. Some cases are still ongoing.
In some instances, I spoke with the mothers in person or at length on the phone. Some mothers filled out questionnaires, but many also sent additional narratives and documentation. Some mothers sent me eloquent, beautifully written, full-length memoirs. Some write pithy but equally heartbreaking accounts of their marriages and custody battles.
Custody battles can take a very long time. They range from only several years to more than fifteen or twenty. They may have profound legal, economic, social, psychological, and even medical consequences for years afterward, perhaps forever.
Going through a custody battle is like going through a war. One does not emerge unscathed. Yes, one may learn important lessons, but one may also be left broken and incapable of trusting others, including our so-called justice system, ever again.
With a few exceptions, most of my 2010 mother-interviewees said that the system was “corrupt” and that lawyers and judges don’t care about “justice,” are “very biased,” or can be “bought and sold.” These mothers said that social workers, mental health professionals, guardians ad litem, and parent coordinators—especially if they were women—actively “disliked” and were” cruel and hostile” to them as women. (Perhaps they expected women to be more compassionate toward other women. In this, they were sadly mistaken.)
Also, many mothers found that female professionals were often completely taken in by charming, sociopathic men (“parasites,” “smother-fathers”), dangerously violent men, and men who sexually abused their children.
Perhaps the mothers who sent me their stories were married to uniquely terrible men who used the court system to make their lives a living hell; perhaps mothers who did not write to me had the good fortune to have been married to and divorced from far nicer men.
Good fathers definitely exist. Some fathers move heaven and earth to rescue their children from a genuinely mentally ill mother but do not try to alienate the children from her. If the mother has been the primary caretaker, some fathers give up custody, pay a decent amount of child support (and continue to do so), and work out a relationship with their children based on what’s good for both the children and their mother. These men exist. They do not launch custody battles from hell.
And good fathers are also discriminated against in a variety of ways in the courtroom. For example, mothers who are independently wealthy or who come from powerful families can and do custodially persecute good-enough fathers. That is the subject of another book. And, when fathers do assume primary-caretaker obligations, traditional judges may view them unfairly as “sissies” or “losers.” Liberal judges will award them custody in a heartbeat.
For this 2011 edition, I also reviewed hundreds of legal decision, which I obtained through LexisNexis and which all commenced and/or were resolved in the last quarter century. I interviewed lawyers and judges. I clipped articles about custody battles that appeared in the media from 1990 to 2010. Some were celebrity cases; others concerned high profile international kidnapping cases; some were about one spouse’s murder of the other during the course of a custody battle.
When I was researching the 1986 edition of Mothers on Trial, joint custody was a totally new idea. Now, as I’ve previously noted, “shared parenting” or joint custody (defined in a variety of ways) is the preferred norm. Joint custody is seen as fair, progressive, feminist, and in the child’s best interest—even though a number of recent studies have shown that under certain conditions joint custody may be harmful to the children involved. Other studies conclude that we cannot prove that a particular custodial arrangement is either helpful or harmful to children.
For example, according to a 1989 study, “a link was consistently found between frequency of visitation/transitions between parents and [child] maladjustment.” The study also found that “children shuffled more frequently between parents were more exposed to and involved in parental conflict and aggression and were more often perceived by both parents as being depressed, withdrawn, uncommunicative, and/or aggressive.”
A 2003 study found that “alternating custody”—for example, week on, week off—“was associated with ‘disorganized attachment’ in 60 percent of infants under 18 months. Older children and adults who had endured this arrangement as youngsters exhibited what the researcher described as ‘alarming levels of emotional insecurity and poor ability to regulate strong emotion.’”
Nevertheless, from the 1980s on, the entire national court system and its various helpers believed that joint custody was the preferred way to go.
As we shall see, joint custody research in the twenty-first century is a minefield of dangerous biases, conflicting conclusions, and outright lies.
The View from the Bench
While lawyers and judges are quick to say that joint custody should not apply where there is domestic violence and incest, they are often the ones who do not believe that domestic violence and incest exist all that much. And, although lawyers and judges also say that joint custody may not work in “high-conflict divorces,” that does not mean that they still don’t encourage or even order it.
From their point of view, if everyone walks away with something, there is less likelihood that their decision will be appealed or that the case will continue to stall. One judge said, “Maybe this will actually force these warring parties to grow up and learn to compromise for the sake of their children.”
Thus, the role of “parenting coordinator” and guardians ad litem has increased considerably. Many mothers view them as impoverishing agents because they are ordered to pay for their services.
Talk to some good judges—those who are hardworking, experienced, and not corrupt—and you will find that their concerns are far different from those who consume the mothers who appear before them. Judicial concerns are not those of the plaintiffs or defendants. What you will hear is about how important it is to move the cases along, how huge the backlog always is, and how impossible it is to spend too much time on any one case. Judges are annoyed, even contemptuous, when rich people can afford to pay for a long, drawn-out trial. They understand that the working poor have no such luxury, and, at both conscious and unconscious levels, the judges may resent this disparity and despair over the arrogance of the rich. One judge said, “Rich people fight over everything. Even if they don’t need it, they will prolong the case in order to ‘win.’ It can be a second boat, a third home, a million dollar piece of art over another. They are spoiled children and I only pity their real children.”
Talk to judges and listen to them speak, and you will realize that judges do not feel responsible for the perpetual logjams that frustrate, enrage, and impoverish mothers. In fact, judges feel that they too are victims of a system that does not pay them that well. They feel it does not allot resources for the necessary number of judges. The system is beyond bursting at the seams. In addition, the matrimonial bench is utterly devalued because it concerns “families,” “mothers,” and “children,” all of whom are not high on the priority totem pole.
Most judges are overworked and underpaid compared to what the lawyers who appear before them are paid. Judges are not given the proper time to really hear a case. They are forced into forcing plaintiffs and defendants to accept limited, far-from-perfect settlements, because that will close the case and get it off the judge’s roster. They opt for hard-and-fast compromises in the interest in moving a case along.
From the point of view of a “protective” mother whose child is being molested, there can be no compromise. Allowing a pedophile father or a domestically violent husband to have access to his former spouse or child endangers both mother and child. Such mothers protest. They will not play ball. Their relationship to their children is not a corporate-like entity. It is “all or nothing” as far as they are concerned. They resist for as long as their money holds out—and then they go pro se. Their resistance to compromise is viewed as proof of “narcissism” or “mental instability.” The mother who insists on not compromising is also viewed as annoying, difficult, impossible, unrealistic, and perhaps even dangerous to the smooth functioning of an already overburdened system.
Unless she has unlimited funds, it will cost her lawyer hundreds of thousands—maybe even millions—of dollars to fight for an uncompromised settlement. Some mothers fully expect their lawyers to do so, and when lawyers cannot, or refuse to do so, a mother will often turn on them and sue them for malpractice. “Protective” mothers view a lawyer who needs to make a living as a traitor and a sellout.
Mothers do not understand how to divide a baby in half or share parenting with an absent, neglectful, or abusive father. Judges do not see it as dividing the baby in half at all. One judge pointed on, very reasonably, that in order to keep the nonprimary caretaker involved in a nonembittered way, the judge must give him or her some things to do.
“But what if this father has never taken any responsibility and does not know what he is doing?” I asked.
“All the more reason to bring him in. It can’t be good for a child to have no contact with the nonprimary-caretaker parent.”
Please note the careful, automatically gender-neutral language that one might initially view as a feminist step forward. And it is—except that such language usually “disappears” the much harder work that mothers (primarily caretakers) have undertaken, the higher standards to which they are held, and the nonprimary caretaker’s failure to take primary-caretaking responsibility during the marriage, not just after the divorce.
The judge continued, “Why punish a child because their nonprimary-caretaker parent did not function as a caretaker in the past?
As the child grows, nonprimary-caretaker parents can offer the child different opportunities.”
The judge was right, and yet she was absolutely committed to the following myths: (1) sane, good parents are ultimately going to do whatever’s in their child’s best interests; (2) all divorcing and custody-battling parents are equally crazy and have to be forced into better behavior; (3) mothers routinely allege battering falsely; (4) mothers are crazier and more difficult to deal with than fathers; and (5) mothers, not fathers, tend to “alienate” the child from the other parent.
These are all myths.
Myth 1: Are divorcing parents really “reasonable grown-ups”? Many parents are far from ideal, even far from adequate. What is known as a “high-conflict” divorce does not involve parents who have their child’s best interests at heart. They are often more concerned with their own interests.
Myth 2: Sometimes a father is a charming sociopath. Just as we have no way of distinguishing rapists from non-rapists, we have no easy way to “spot” a pedophile, a parasite, or a wife beater. Sometimes a mother is genuinely sadistic, abusive, or bipolar. This is more quickly spotted, diagnosed, or even assumed by laypeople in the court system. Thus, if a mother has been losing sleep over the possibility of losing her children and/or is exhibiting the normal human response to being battered or terrorized at home, she may also be stigmatized by the belief that women are naturally “crazy” and “impossible.”
Myth 3: Most mothers do not allege battering falsely. Some, a minority, do.
Myth 4: Mothers are not necessarily “crazier” than fathers; some are. However, facing the end of a marriage, the probable poverty it may entail, plus a possible custody loss, is a far greater stressor for mothers than for fathers. It does make them highly nervous, vigilant, overly demanding, unrealistic, and prone to engaging in self-sabotaging tactics. Men tend to recouple more quickly; women don’t.
Many fathers, on the other hand, are more capable of treating a custody battle as just one more businesslike venture. This style is more compatible with what lawyers and judges need. Thus, even if the father is a secret drunk or drug addict, an embezzler, an active philanderer, and a whoremonger and/or treats his wife and children coldly, sadistically, and abusively, these facts will not necessarily come into play in a custody battle.
Myth 5: According to most research and statistical data and my own interviews, it is mainly fathers who brainwash and kidnap children, not mothers. Fathers falsely claim “parental alienation” when it is not true; yet they are believed. Mothers claim brainwashing when it is true, but they are not often believed.
I do not view matrimonial lawyers as the main or sole problem. True—some lawyers are grossly incompetent and fail their female clients in every way: by misadvising them, sleeping with them, and prolonging their cases unnecessarily for monetary reasons. But it is also true that many lawyers serve their female (and male) clients effectively, even nobly.
Lawyers do not cause men to impoverish, batter, or abuse their wives and children; lawyers themselves are often hobbled by a system of laws and by a courtroom pace that is glacial. One cannot blame lawyers because it is enormously expensive to wage a high-conflict divorce. Some women expect their lawyers to actually pay for their divorces and feel betrayed when lawyers will not or cannot do so. With some exceptions, our government will not and cannot subsidize the cost of high-conflict divorces for the parent, usually the mother, who is without resources in a country where money does buy one’s chance to obtain justice, however imperfect.
Custody cases are also very stressful and difficult for the judges involved, many of whom try very hard to do the right thing. The law is not able to cure sociopaths or psychopaths; sometimes compromising with the devil is, unbelievably, the only possible solution. A judge might only be able to “save” one child—not all three. A judge might be able to save a child from the probable horrors of state care by allowing custody to remain with one far-from-perfect parent.
Having said this, I would like to stress that both judges and lawyers, as well as the entire courtroom cast of characters (guardians ad litem, parenting coordinators, mental health experts, social workers, state agency employees, and the police) have acted in tragically anti-mother and anti-child ways. While feminist progress led to more women on the bench and to more female attorneys, many female professionals have shown very hard hearts toward the mothers whose fates are in their hands. So have their male counterparts.
For this 2011 edition of Mothers on Trial, I have given honorable discharges to six previous chapters, although I’ve preserved some of the material throughout the book. I’ve also added eight new chapters in addition to this introduction. The new chapters include “Court-Enabled Incest in the 1980s and 1990s,” “Court-Enabled Incest in the Twenty-First Century,” “Legal Torture from 1986 to 2010,” “Contemporary Legal Trends, Part I,” “Contemporary Legal Trends, Part II,” “What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Divorce: A Private Consultation with Divorce Lawyer Susan L. Bender,” and a section of resources.
Immediately after first publishing this book, I coordinated a Senate briefing in Washington, D.C., that was attended by some hand-selected custodially embattled mothers, as well as then Congress, now Senate members Barbara Boxer and Chuck Schumer. Together with the National Organization for Women of New York State, I also coordinated a national speak-out about women’s losing custody of children, which took place in New York City in the spring of 1986. Hundreds of mothers traveled from around the country to “speak out,” and many legislators, judges, and lawyers also participated in panels. I videotaped this event but, as yet, have not made these precious videos available to the public. I also appeared on network television programs together with “my mothers,” where we all said amazing things and were fairly well received. Women began organizing similar speak-outs elsewhere; I spoke at several in the United States and Canada the following year.
In 1984 a new nonprofit organization, ACES (the Association for Children for Enforcement of Support), was launched. It now has forty thousand members and one hundred sixty-five chapters in forty-five states.
In 1988 Monica Getz founded the New York-based National Coalition for Family Justice, which offers ongoing support groups for divorcing and custodially embattled mothers. Their mission statement reads in part as follows: “To identify problems and advocate for system changes in the divorce and family court systems in order to make them fair, user friendly, accountable, and affordable; to provide victims and children involved in domestic violence situations with crisis intervention, information, support, legal access, and advocacy.” They do not provide pro bono lawyers. But, in conjunction with the National Organization for Women in New York State, they have hosted important hearings and conferences.
In the mid- to late 1980s, “protective” and custodially embattled mothers also began running away from husbands who were sexually assaulting their child or children. Such mothers were almost all captured and jailed and lost custody of the children they were trying to protect.
By the early twenty-first century, custodially embattled mothers, including battered and “protective” mothers, had begun to form organizations that now meet annually and monthly. In 2003 Dr. Mo Therese Hannah began a new organization, an in 2010 Dr. Hannah coordinated and hosted the seventh national Battered Mothers Custody Conference. More than five hundred women travel from around the country each year to attend it. In 2010 they began a quilt project, Children Taken by the Family Courts, which is modeled after the AIDS quilt. They have asked mothers who have legally lost their children to provide a commemoration panel. Dr. Hannah has also published a book, Domestic Violence, Abuse, and Child Custody: Legal Strategies and Policy Issues.
In addition, many mothers throughout the Western world have created listserv groups and websites in which they tell (and keep updating) their own outrageous and heartbreaking stories in the hope that this information might help other women. Some ex-wives have become divorce coaches. Some mothers (including those whose interviews are contained in this book) became matrimonial lawyers and mental health professionals dedicated to helping mothers and children. Some researchers have tried to document ongoing injustices in family court.
Yes, custodially battered mothers whose children are being sexually abused have organized more visibly than mothers who have “merely” been impoverished and legally tormented and who must also share custody of their children with men who hate them as ex-wives and do not respect them as mothers.
On Mother’s Day 2010, a peaceful, silent vigil was held at the White House. In the somber spirit of the U.S. suffragettes, American mothers—along with the Argentine Mothers of the Disappeared, Turkey’s Saturday Mothers, the German Rose Street Women, and the Liberian women who stopped a civil war—gathered at the White House to “ask our President to meet with us and to help stop the systemic removal and oppression of our children by family court.”
What Mothers Have to Say
What to Do When a Custody Battle Invades Your Life
“First, take a deep breath and calm down. Save your strength for the long haul. Find out what all your options are. Find a therapist for some immediate support.”
“Any mother involved in a custody struggle is the one who’s on trial. You’ll need people to hold your hand, to hold you, to take care of your kids, to cook a meal, to say ‘I care.’ You’ll need people to keep telling you that you’re sane and that you have rights. Find those people now.”
“Never leave home without taking your kids with you—not if you’re fighting over custody. Don’t leave your kids behind to take a weekend vacation. If you’ve just been beaten up and you’re on your way to the hospital, you’d better take your kids along.”
“You’ll need to be on permanent good behavior in order to fight this fight. Your husband or someone will always be breathing down your neck spying on you and trying to make your life miserable.”
“I allowed things to get very bad before I started fighting back. I would never have waited so long if I knew what I know now: that for me not fighting was worse than fighting.”
“If you open up a power struggle with your husband, be prepared to learn how to win. Don’t go on believing that your husband won’t lie and manipulate to cheat you. He will. If he doesn’t, his lawyer will. In order to win on their turf you’ve got to be as rotten as they are. Being fair means you’re going to lose.”
“Keep a record of how often your ex-husband visits and whether he’s on time or late. Tape-record your phone conversations with him so you’ll remember everything. Record any threats he makes to you. Record what he does with the kids. Do they come back unfed, unwashed, late? Are they suddenly critical or distant from you? That could be a sign of brainwashing.”
“Organize your family photos into a ‘Mom and Kids’ showpiece album. Reconstruct a diary of what you did with and for your kids from your old calendars or appointment books. You’ll have to prove that you’re a good mother.”
“No matter what happens, no matter what they say, never let any social worker or lawyer or policeman make you doubt yourself or your self-worth.”
“Believe that you’re stronger than you think you are. Become very assertive about getting what you need from others, but depend only on yourself. You have the most to lose and the most to gain.”
“Once you’re married and a mother, it’s too late to think about how to win a custody battle. The time to think about whether and how you should become a mother is long before you’re pregnant and definitely before you marry.”
“Read the marriage contract. Talk to previously married or still married mothers who are living in poverty or who have lost custody of their children. Maybe it’s more realistic not to have children at all—or to have them through woman-controlled anonymous artificial insemination. But the state can still take your child away if you forge a check, work as a prostitute, use dope, sell dope, kill your violent husband in self-defense, or refuse to do whatever your state welfare worker wants you to do—if you’re economically depended on the state. If your own mother doesn’t like how you’re raising your child, she can call in the state against you. This happened to me. I won. But I never sleep easy.”
“Consider adopting a child as a single mother. I know a number of women lawyers who have chosen this route. And don’t marry or partner up. Not with a man, not with a woman.”
On Hiring a Lawyer
“Get a copy of your legal bill of rights. Refer to it when you’re talking to your lawyer. Interview more than one lawyer. Be prepared to leave a lawyer who doesn’t treat you well and to sue him or her for legal malpractice.”
“Once you’re involved in the court system, you must ask your lawyer’s advice about everything. You can’t start a new job or love affair without first weighing the legal consequences involved. You must assume that everything you do can and will be used against you.”
“Your lawyer isn’t God. He or she is your employee. Don’t let your lawyer pressure you into anything ‘temporarily’ that you wouldn’t want permanently.”
“Talk to other women who’ve been through custody battles. Find a lawyer who’s experience in custody battles, not just in matters of divorce.”
“Don’t let your lawyer convince you that joint custody is the ‘answer.’ It isn’t. My ex-husband wanted to be the one who’d live with our kids in the house or, failing that, he wanted the judge to order that the house be sold. Then, once the cash from the sale of the house ran out, and I really had to struggle economically, that’s when my ex stopped paying child support. He told the kids that ‘he didn’t have to pay because they lived with him half the time.’ The kids had a much higher standard of living with him than with me. Gradually, they began to live with him full time. Then he moved two thousand miles away to take a very well-paying job. I still have joint custody. I just can’t afford to take my ex back to court or to travel four thousand miles a week in order to exercise my joint custody decree.”
“It’s important to find a good woman lawyer. Treat her with more respect than women usually treat each other. Don’t expect her to be your friend. Expect her to treat you with respect and to use the law vigorously and creatively on your behalf.”
What to Tell Your Children
“In a custody battle, children challenge maternal authority right away. Don’t let them do this. Remind them that you’re still their mother, even if you’re fighting with their father.”
“If one parent is blatantly destructive to the children, it’s the job of the other parent to say so, loud and clear. I don’t believe that cover-ups are good for children.”
“If the state takes you away from your kids, tell them that you love them and always will. Tell them that you’ll always be their mother. Tell them you’ll be out looking for them as soon as you can. Tell them whatever happens, it’s not their fault.”
“I kept quiet for too long. I didn’t believe it was right to involve kids in private adult matters. But my kids needed to hear my point of view too. They needed to know that I loved them too and would fight for them. They also needed to know that I would keep loving them no matter what happened.”
“My children really want to leave me. I fought this for a long time. I should have let them go. They already had my love. They couldn’t have their father’s love if they lived with me.”
Reprinted with permission from "Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody," Revised and Updated Second Edition by Phyllis Chesler. Text copyright 2011 Lawrence Hill Books, an imprint of Chicago Review Press. Published by Lawrence Hill Books, an imprint of Chicago Review Press (distributed by IPG). Available in stores and online.
Phyllis Chesler, Ph.D. is an emerita professor of Psychology and the author of fourteen books, including "Women and Madness" and "Woman's Inhumanity to Woman." She may be reached through her website at: www.phyllis-chesler.com
Visit original publication website: Mothers on Trial by Phyllis Chesler
(Updated and revised for the 21st century)
Mothers On Trial Facebook Page
07/21/2011 - The Women's Room Radio Program (about thirty minutes)
Gina sits down with author Phyllis Chesler to talk about her book "Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody" as well as what drove her to write more than fifteen books relating to women's rights. They also talk about the history of custody and custody battles and how the have changed over the years. ~Link
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