Rahna Reiko Rizzuto says that she never wanted to be a mother.
"I had this idea that motherhood was this really all-encompassing thing," she explained on the Today Show, where she was talking about her new memoir, "Hiroshima in the Morning." "I was afraid of being swallowed up by that."
Ten years ago, when her sons were 5 and 3, Rizzuto received a fellowship to spend six months in Japan, researching a book about the survivors of Hiroshima. Four months in, when her children came to visit, she had an epiphany: She didn't want to be a full-time mother anymore. When she returned to New York, she ended her 20-year marriage and chose not to be her kids' custodial parent.
Now, Rizzuto is an author and a faculty member at Goddard College in Vermont, where she teaches in creative writing. Her boys are teenagers—and, she says, they're fine. In fact, their relationship not only survived her leaving, but "has improved."
"I had to leave my children to find them," she writes in an essay at Salon.com. "In my part-time motherhood, I get concentrated blocks of time when I can be that 1950s mother we idealize who was waiting in an apron with fresh cookies when we got off the school bus and wasn't too busy for anything we needed until we went to bed. I go to every parent-teacher conference; I am there for performances and baseball games."
But when that 1950s mother she describes as ideal had to cope with parenthood 24/7, she didn't get to pick and choose which parts to be present for. The idea that a mother could love her children and still choose to leave them to pursue her own goals is the antithesis of being a 'Tiger Mother'—Amy Chua ignited a fiery debate with the release of her book about being a perfection-demanding Eastern-style parent, omnipresent in her daughters' lives. It also goes against our culture's definition of motherhood. But it shines a light on a glaring double standard: When a man chooses not to be a full-time parent, it's acceptable—or, at least, accepted. But when a woman decides to do so, it's abandonment.
The decision isn't an easy one to make, no matter how you feel about parenting. "It took me about a year to decide once the idea came to me," says Talyaa Liera. In 2008, she chose to move 3,000 miles away from three of her four children (her oldest is an adult and out on her own). "At the time I was a heavily involved, attachment-parenting Waldorf mom. I did the whole family bed, breastfeeding-into-toddlerhood, baby-wearing thing. I was at home with them for 10 years before their father and I split up, and stayed at home after that, trying to create a writing career to support myself."
After a lengthy custody battle and two years of joint custody, she realized that her ex-husband (a pilot with an erratic schedule) wasn't going to change, and her situation wasn't going to change, unless she decided to change things for herself. "I realized that by being so nurturing, I was in some ways keeping my children from growing to their potential," she says. "We talked about it for months and we prepared together, not really knowing what being 3,000 miles apart might look like or feel like."
When the time came to get in her packed car and drive away, she says, she felt "very mixed."
"Yes, there is a sense of relief. I would be remiss if I did not admit that," she says candidly. But there was also pain: "I used to avoid Target, for instance, because it made me think of shopping for my daughter Serena. Little moments like that, and everything comes flooding in."
Now a spiritual adviser who writes at Polaris Rising, Liera wrote about her experiences as a non-custodial parent at Literary Mama and Parenting Without a Manual. Her children are 15, 11, and 7 now and, after more than two years of long-distance parenting, Liera says she misses them but feels very connected to them. "Now we stay in touch by phone, IM, Skype a few times a week," she says. "I hear about their lives and give support."
"I have been a mother since I was 20," she points out. "I did not have the life a normal 20 year old would have. While I don't regret that, I knew that I now have the opportunity to reconnect with who I might have been then, but with all the tools and skill sets I have learned through motherhood. I have the unique opportunity most women don't get to have, of being able to truly create the life I wish to have, do something in the world that makes a difference, and model this kind of independence for my children."
After Amy Chua's story went viral, many women said they felt they needed to adopt a bit of the tiger mom mentality, that maybe they were a little to lenient with their kids. In any case, it's evident that there's no one-size-fits-all when it comes to motherhood. But does striking out on your own or being a "Hiroshima Mom" take free-range parenting to an extreme?
"This is the question people will ask me. The question that curls, now, in the dark of the night," Rizzuto writes in "Hiroshima in the Morning." "How do any of us decide to leave the people we love?"
Sounds like a good measure of rationalizing going on here. I think she has taught her boys a lot. Kids are resilient and can take a lot of bruising. IMHO her whole story is a sad commentary on our current society.
As a Christian I approach the issue of faithfulness differently than she did. I am not blameless but I try to remember Ps. 15:4.
Sounds like some folks still practice child sacrifice.
Yeah, I have to say that I find the whole thing creepy. (I didn't read "Tiger Mother" but heard a number of interviews with the author and found that creepy as well.)
However, I do agree with the sentiment that our society generally excuses men who abandon their children. It is simply the truth that you don't get emotional invective against men who behave in a similar way.
But I think that I'd argue not that women should be free to abandon their children, but that we should more frequently name it as wrong when men do it. It's one thing to not have a mother or father in the picture for whatever reason (death, imprisonment, a decision to have a child as a single parent). It's quite another to have a parent actively abandon their child(ren).
Pam, I agree with you on the double-standard in reference to fathers. Recently, someone who has spent her life in social service said to me that as a society we simply do not realize how many problems with so many children stem from absentee or neglectful fathers.
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