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July 8, 2009

What Kind of Mother Leaves Her Kids?

Divorcing dads give up custody every day. Increasingly, so do moms. So why are they judged more harshly for it? Three women tell their story.

mothers without custody of their kids

Maria Housden sees her children every other weekend.

Photo Credit: Annabel Clark

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During her 15-year marriage, Maria Housden played the role of suburban mom. She shuttled her three kids to playdates and made sure a balanced dinner awaited them upon their return. But as much as she loved her children, something just didn't seem right. "It started as a restlessness. I had this feeling that I could write a book, that I'd like to travel the world," Housden recalls. It didn't help that Housden's husband, Claude, routinely criticized her housekeeping and child rearing. The marriage was starting to fray.

Then, the unthinkable happened: In 1994, the couple lost a child, 3-year-old Hannah, to kidney cancer. Initially, Hannah's battle galvanized them, and a year after she died, Housden gave birth to her fourth child, Madelaine. But gradually, the couple's tenuous reconciliation began to give. "Hannah's death made me realize life is too short. At what point do you say, 'This isn't working?'" she declares. Three years later, Housden filed for divorce.

While Housden and her husband desperately sought an amicable custody arrangement, she didn't want to be tied to New Jersey, where they had lived. Housden longed to write about the devastating experience of losing a child, an undertaking that would require intense reflection — and freedom from the daily grind of raising three kids. It was Claude who first suggested that he retain physical custody. But the idea horrified her. "Are you crazy?" she yelled. "What kind of mother makes that decision?"

Unable to sleep that week, Housden realized that she was letting her fear of what the neighbors might think — "that I was incompetent or that I didn't love my kids" — dictate what was best for her family. While the children needed stability, she needed time to process what had happened to her. Shortly after, she agreed to give up physical custody. She moved to an apartment three miles away from her children so she could see them on weekends.

But just a year later, Housden, who'd fallen in love with a writer she met while on a retreat, moved across the country — to San Francisco — to be with him. (They wed in 2000.) While her daughters were too young to comprehend the distance, her eldest, Will, then 12, was crushed. "I kept telling the kids that I'd see them as often as I had before," Housden says. True to her word, she drained her savings flying back and forth every other weekend.

Housden spent her days writing, as vivid recollections of her late daughter came flooding back. In the summer of 2000, with just $300 left in her bank account, Housden sold the proposal for Hannah's Gift for $250,000. The book has been translated into 15 languages and optioned for film, affording Housden the ability to take her kids to London, France, and the Bahamas. She acknowledges that while her ex supplies the structure, she brings the adventure — a role she relishes. "The joy of my life has been providing those experiences for my kids. Their lives are bigger because of it," she explains.

Housden's second book, Unraveled, published in 2005, tackled her agonizing decision to forgo custody. "I did something divorced fathers are expected to do every day. But when a mother does it, it's abandonment," she says, recalling a stinging radio interview in which a caller suggested she be sterilized. Housden, who has since divorced and moved back to New Jersey, says her kids, now ages 13, 15, and 21, have embraced their custody arrangement — they live with her every other weekend and over summers. "Even now I still have moments where I ask them, 'Is all of this OK with you?'" she adds. "They say they have the best of both worlds. This really works for our family."


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