Did Marie Claire forget about non-custodial moms of color?

written by Anti-Racist Parent contributor Rebekah Spicuglia

Last week I was profiled in a Marie Claire article (August 2009 Issue) titled “Moms Giving Up Custody” or “What Kind of Mother Leaves Her Kids?” (http://www.marieclaire.com/world-reports/news/latest/mothers-giving-up-custody).  I fit the model of what MC was looking for to challenge the stereotypes about noncustodial moms because I had willingly (albeit reluctantly) relinquished custody of my son without a court order because it was the right, loving choice in his best interest, the best choice I could make under the circumstances.  As parents divorce every day, there is an inevitable division into custodial and noncustodial parenting roles, and unfortunately it is in divorce that the gendered expectations our society has around parenting are most obvious.  If a woman does not have custody of her kids, the stereotypes are that she is an unfit mother (think Britney Spears) or that she is selfish in abandoning her kids for a new life.
MC’s article does a great deal to expand the narrative of noncustodial moms beyond the tabloid and really questioning our gender bias (the subtitle of the piece reads, “Divorcing dads give up custody every day. Increasingly, so do moms. So why are they judged more harshly for it?”)  However, the article does not extend that stereotype-busting to women of color.  In profiling three white women (and mostly white children, though my son is half-Mexican), it implies that noncustodial moms of color are “unfit mothers” (think Halle Berry in “Losing Isaiah”).  By completely leaving out noncustodial moms of color, it implies they could not find any loving, responsible moms of color making this difficult decision. (It also, by extension, feeds into the stereotype of fathers of color as deadbeat dads.)  In fact, I personally know at least one woman of color who was in a similar position as I was; she also happens to be quite beautiful, with a Cinderella story she was willing to share with the MC editor — but I don’t think she was never interviewed even though I forwarded her info.
I am grateful to MC for publishing this piece, but I wonder if MC played into the stereotypes about white women and motherhood having more choices. I don’t want to de-emphasize the validity of a woman’s choice to be a noncustodial mom, because that is a very important conversation that we need to be having as a society.  But at least in my case, the MC piece over-emphasizes my “choice” in giving up custody (even using my desire for freedom in a pull-quote).  It presents the challenges I faced as explanation for my decision but didn’t fully discuss the truth — that had I been able to retain custody, I would have.  because there are also many related issues affecting custody that weren’t covered in the article – money, power, family ties, military service, domestic violence, sexual orientation, disability, etc.   

In sharing my story, it is my hope that other noncustodial moms will read it and realize they are not alone, and that we all rethink gendered assumptions around parenting.  The response to the piece has been incredible, reposted on many sites.  But it is unfortunate that MC focused exclusively on white mothers — this conversation must be inclusive.  Anti-Racist Parent is one of my favorite sites — would love to know what your readers think.

p.s.  On my NonCustodial Parent Community website, I work to challenge biases about noncustodial parents and to raise awareness about the issues families are facing every day, getting beyond the custody battle and really about parenting – maintaining regular communication with our kids, getting informed about our parental rights, keeping an eye on media coverage of our issues.  I created a 10-question, anonymous survey for noncustodial moms and dads that will help in this. The more respondents we can get the more useful the data.  The survey can be found on my website: http://ncpcommunity.com/

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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