When Working Works Against You in Custody Court.

by Leslie Morgan Steiner


Washington, DC is filled with working moms. The city’s plethora of women outnumbers men even before kids appear on the scene. Young women work in the White House and on Capitol Hill and in journalism and law and as teachers and doctors and government employees. As a result DC has myriad moms who keep on working after they have children, or who transition back into jobs after staying home with kids.


I stumble across incredible current or former working moms every day at school or on my sidewalk: DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, Democratic fundraiser and strategist Nancy Jacobsen, National Public Radio host Michelle Norris, Washington Post columnist Carolyn Hax, ABC TV producer Rebecca Cooper, and real estate mogul Nancy Taylor Bubes. These moms have high-voltage jobs, are passionately involved in their kids’ lives, and have wonderfully supportive partners. Every time I see one of these DC mamas I feel like giving the Pink Power fist-pump salute: “You Go, Girl!”


But a recent article in Working Mother magazine, Custody Lost, ripped a visceral, emotional gash in my working mom pride.


“When it comes to heartbreaking custody wars,” writer Sally Abrahms explains, “people inside and outside the courts say that the growing number of breadwinner moms means more working mothers are fighting an unprecedented uphill battle” in divorce situations when custody of the kids is at stake.


The article reports that 2.2 million moms in this country do not have primary physical custody of their children. With men suffering 75% of the layoffs of the recent recession, one in every four wives earns more than her husband. More dads are at home with kids. Even working fathers play a larger role in kids’ lives, spending three times as much time per day with their kids vs. their own fathers a generation ago. Great news, right? However, according to Working Mother, sometimes this translates into family court judges deciding that working moms do not deserve custody of kids when marriages fail.


Women have historically gotten raw deals in family court. Many moms lost out economically in divorce because we were willing to sacrifice financial equity to protect children from messy court shenanigans or to ensure custody of our kids. But today’s twist, at least for some, is that our success at work makes us vulnerable to ex-husbands, aggressive divorce attorneys and overworked judges who claim that moms don’t merit joint custody if we’ve put our careers “in front” of our kids – even if we work to put food on the table for our families. It’s the old “mommy wars” stereotype: moms who are willing (or just able) to sacrifice their earning power must somehow be more loving, “better” mothers than women who work outside the home, despite a complete lack of evidence correlating employment status with maternal love.


leslie morgan s...

Leslie Morgan Steiner

Very true but that's not what's happening here. Working women are being punished for supporting their families and themselves economically. What's wrong with JOINT custody????


I hate to say this but if women want men to be hands-on dads and equal partners, then we are going to have to also realize that means Dad may want to have full custody of the kids. We can't have it all our way.

Men have constantly put their careers “in front” of their kids — making many SAHMs quite happy — and most of them got royally screwed in divorce court. Women who choose to be career women should not be held to a different standard, should they?

Maybe the kids are better off with the dad or maybe mom and dad can figure out a way to have joint custody. But to assume that moms should have sole custody when we're changing the working landscape is ridiculous.


This really is a tough Mommy War, isn't it? I feel bad for moms, but I feel for the 75% of the dads out there that have lost their jobs. It took my husband nearly two years to get a job after being laid off in 2008.