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July 8, 2009

What Kind of Mother Leaves Her Kids?

mothers without custody of their kids

Rebekah Spicuglia

Photo Credit: Annabel Clark

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When colleagues learn that Rebekah Spicuglia has a child, they just assume he's at home or in school. If she's feeling especially confident, Spicuglia, a communications coordinator for a Manhattan-based nonprofit, will clarify that, in fact, 11-year-old Oscar lives with his father 3000 miles away in Santa Maria, CA, outside Santa Barbara. That usually elicits puzzled looks, even the occasional grimace. Not mentioning Oscar at all spares her from having to correct false assumptions, relieving her of the need to launch a high-pitched defense. "Motherhood is the most sacred thing in our society," Spicuglia sighs. "Mothers like me — well, there isn't really a dialogue about us. People just don't even know how to talk about it."

Spicuglia was just 17 and living on her own when she hooked up with Oscar's dad, then a 23-year-old undocumented worker from Mexico who cooked in the restaurant where she bused tables. He was the first man she'd ever slept with. The intense physical attraction obscured their obvious differences — she loved to travel and practice her music (she plays piano and guitar). He was content working and hanging out. The pregnancy surprised them both, but they quickly agreed to keep the baby. "It sort of happened, just like that, no grand moment," Spicuglia recalls. "He said, 'We should get married.' So I said OK."

Ten days after Oscar's birth, they wed in a simple ceremony at the local courthouse. And yet their profound differences chiseled away at the relationship. Spicuglia, by then a film student at a community college, pushed for their young family to move to Los Angeles, where she could find work in the movie business. But Oscar's father, who had clocked in at the same kitchen for eight years, preferred the familiarity of Santa Maria. "It was very painful, and I knew it wasn't going to work out between us. But I didn't want to spend my life there," Spicuglia recalls. The pair separated in 2000. Oscar stayed with his mother, but saw his father daily.

The informal custody arrangement hit a snag when Spicuglia was accepted to Berkeley as a transfer student. The hitch: It would be months before she could secure family-friendly housing. "I couldn't imagine turning down this prestigious university," she says. Oscar, then 3, moved in with his dad while she settled in at Berkeley. It took 18 months for Spicuglia's name to come up in the university's family housing wait list. By then, Oscar's father, who had already earned his citizenship, refused to let the boy go. Angry and frustrated, she considered hiring a lawyer. But the prospect of taking Oscar away from his loving father and extended family rankled. Plus — though admitting it startled her — she craved the freedom. "This is the part that's so hard to talk about. But secretly, inside, it was the most exciting thing. If he was living with his father, I would be free to do what I wanted to do," she confesses. For nearly two weeks Spicuglia agonized before finally agreeing to give Oscar's father physical custody.

Almost immediately, she suffered an identity crisis. Could she turn off her maternal instincts? Would they just go away? Emotionally spent, she fled to New York that summer, sublet a room from some jazz musicians, and immersed herself in the boho lifestyle. "I had to think about what the world was opening up to me," she explains. Spicuglia dated, played guitar, and explored the city between shifts as a waitress. She told virtually no one about her failed marriage and 5-year-old son. "I just bottled it up and related to people as who I am, not who I was," she recalls.

Two years ago, Spicuglia, who has since remarried, moved to New York permanently. Though she and Oscar talk regularly and visit every few months — "He's flown by himself a dozen times!" — she struggles to maintain a presence in her son's life. For a while now, she's been fighting her son's school to be listed as one of his emergency contacts, which she's entitled to under the joint-custody deal. And every fall she pleads with a new set of teachers to send her updates on Oscar's academic progress. "People just assume that if you're not the custodial parent, you won't be as involved," she says. "You have to pound down doors and go begging for updates."

Spicuglia has never discussed her custody decision with Oscar — he's still too young, she says. But she's confident that the unorthodox setup has helped create a sensitive, open-minded child. In Santa Maria, he is the nucleus of a tight-knit, churchgoing Mexican family. In New York, he's an explorer, sampling the city's vast wonders — from street fairs to symphonies in the park. "He's a really happy kid," she says, "with a very rich perception of life."


It used to be that courts automatically deferred custody to mothers following a divorce. Today, judges weigh the "best interests of the child," which could mean awarding custody to the wealthier parent or keeping children in the community in which they've grown up. (Few judges, for example, would let a mother whisk her kids off to another country.) While fathers are making inroads, mothers still win custody in roughly 70 percent of divorce cases. Here, the three main arrangements:

Joint custody: Both parents have an equal say in major decisions — like schooling, religion, and medical care — regardless of where the child resides.

Physical custody: Determines which parent maintains the child's primary residence and oversees the day-to-day care.

Sole custody: One parent has exclusive say over the child's rearing and residence. The other parent may get visitation rights but has no legal standing in the decision-making.

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