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July 8, 2009

What Kind of Mother Leaves Her Kids?

mothers without custody of their kids

Elle Hull in her London apartment.

Photo Credit: Jason Florio

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After she and her husband split in 1999, Elle Hull packed up her three girls (the eldest from a prior relationship) and moved from Virginia to Illinois, where she found work as an administrative assistant. She and her daughters, who ranged from ages 2 to 11, barely scraped by. Things got so bad that Hull sent her oldest to live with the girl's father in Missouri, while her two youngest daughters shuttled to New Jersey for weekend visits with their dad, who lived in a comfortable home with a spacious yard. It was hard not to be resentful. "My ex had taken a great deal of time after our divorce to get back on his feet. Here I was, eking by because the girls needed me," Hull says.

Within a year of the divorce, Hull began toying with the idea of giving custody to her ex. She casually floated the idea to her daughters, who delighted in the prospect. "It's the last thing you want to do, because you sort of hate this person," she explains. "But you think, This is in the girls' best interest. I'll go back to school, get a decent career, and be a better mom."

In October 2001, Hull got engaged to her London-based boyfriend. The idea of a fresh start in the U.K. tantalized her. Yet she felt defensive about her plans when she proposed them to her ex-husband. "This isn't me running off because I met a great guy," she insisted to him. "I really think you're more stable, financially and emotionally, right now."

Two months later, Hull's ex arrived for the girls. "I gave them big hugs and told them they're going to have a great time with Dad, that I'd be seeing them soon," she recalls. The girls watched their mother waving them off just as she did when they boarded the bus for school. Holding back tears, Hull shuffled back to her half-empty house and distracted herself with her own impending move.

That first year abroad, Hull vacillated between bleary-eyed enthusiasm for her new home and marriage and interminable longing for her girls. It took a year before they settled into a routine of weekly calls and seasonal visits. Soon after, Hull enrolled in law school. "There's no way I could have done it as a single mother," she declares. "They'd never understand why Mommy has to study for an exam. They'd say, 'Where's dinner?'"

Like many noncustodial moms, Hull is hesitant to disclose her situation to acquaintances. Invariably, she's asked whether she misses her kids. "What an asinine question. Of course I miss them," she fumes. She has endured equally biting remarks from her girls. Hull recalls the first time they came home and called their father's girlfriend "Mom." She bit her tongue and let the remark slide. When they're older, she thought, they'll understand.

Update: This year, Hull and her ex-husband agreed that she would reassume custody of her younger daughters, now ages 15 and 12. To ease their transition in the U.K., Hull stopped working and is preparing to move the family into a bigger home. Hull says she's better equipped now to handle the challenges: "There was an emptiness I felt on a daily basis without the girls. Now life feels full again."


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