Culture in Mind

Mental health, culture, and ethnicity

Long-Distance Mothering

When career trumps motherhood and Dad is the residential parent

I am tired of the so-called Mommy wars - the battle between mothers who have paid employment outside the home and women whose primary place of work is inside the domestic sphere. There really is no 'war' despite the philosophical, moral and economic debates that are used to support the choices of women that feminism engendered. And there has yet to be a body of literature called, 'The Daddy Wars'.

That said, the mommy wars do exist. And frustratingly so. Feminism was to give us a choice to do what we want as women - not bound by social structures or stereotypes but inspired by social and cultural freedoms. The data has been in and it hasn't much changed: despite all those freedoms, women are still stuck in the second shift doing more domestic chores than men, even though that balance has changed over the years.

With Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In organization that is funded by her book: Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead bringing the discussion of women's home time back into the firing line, women are again exploring what their role should be at home and at work and trying to explain why despite the increasing levels of women's education, there has not been a corresponding increase in female leaders in the corporate sphere. Of course, leadership need not be in the corporate sphere for women to have power as it could be argued that this is a male way of defining power. But nevertheless, this has led me to consider the women who, for reasons of their career, maintain a separate residence from their child, who live with their fathers. This choice can be made in a marriage or after a separation.

These mothers are particularly vulnerable to the judgement of other women who wonder how any loving mother would choose to leave their child behind to pursue a career opportunity - a choice many men make when they take long-term posts far away from home. However, Dads are expected to make sacrifices in their relationship with children and Moms are expected to choose children above all. And while Dads will get compliments on their abilities to parent alone, Moms will often be the subject of judgement, anger and even vitriole if she chooses to willingly gives Dad the primary parenting responsibility. There is not much difference between this choice and sending a child to boarding school, except that instead of boarding school, the child(ren) are with their father.

These choices are tough ones but many families find a way to make them work. But these are women who are 'leaning in' to career success. And as a mother who has had a teenaged daughter who lived with her father in another state for several years, there are lessons that I have learned for maintaining relationships with one's child when forced to live hundreds or thousands of miles apart.

Here are a few key strategies for making these long-distance parenting arrangements work:

  1. Maintain regular open lines of communication. It is important to have a communication routine that makes children feel a sense of safety and security through the consistency. It is also key to have teachers, medical professionals and other key people in your child's life to send duplicate emails and other communication to both
     parents so everyone is in the loop and your child knows that it is difficult to play one parent against another. How you communicate should also be structured - whether it's Skype, text, phone - as per your preference.
  2. Try to avoid question and answer in communication. Children often feel as if they are being 'interrogated' and though the non-residential parent simply wants to know what's going on, having a more natural conversation about interests etc will often lead to the information that you seek. If the child is a teenager, reticence is to be expected.
  3. Develop in advance a routine visitation schedule - long weekends and other school holidays being the default. Competitive sports routines may present a challenge because games often occur on holidays. It may require that the mother visits during these periods, even though spending days watching games does not allow for much 'parenting' or 'quality time'.
  4. The temptation is to be the 'fun' parent because of the desire to engage in 'activities' together but sitting still in a shared space and doing what you would have normally done if at home, provides a sense of normality and reduces the 'competition' between the primary care giver and the non-residential parent.
  5. Be open and honest about the length of time the geographical distance will be a feature of family life. If parents are working towards being in the same town, state or country then let the child(ren) know that is the plan. If the plan is going to be a long-term arrangement, then normalizing routines is really important to reducing the anxiety these relationships can create.
  6. Lastly, though it may be difficult, guilt should be avoided. The comments of other people and the general social disapproval for 'mommy absence' makes this really difficult. But choosing what's right for your family, for your happiness and thus for the happiness of your family is not a choice that should cause guilt.

In the end, each woman and her family must choose what is best for her and her family. There are many ways to raise a child and many ways to be happy. No apologies, shame or guilt are needed.

Ruth C. White, Ph.D., M.S.W., and M.P.H., is the author of Bipolar 101 and is an associate clinical professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California. 

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