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.
I talked about my views recently on Michel Martin’s Tell Me More  NPR segment dissecting Working Mother’s advice for moms whose marriages face troubled times. There is plenty to get fired up about here on a grand societal fairness scale – the gender bias is outrageous, the latest quicksand for moms trying to juggle work and family. But in my mother’s heart, the personal outweighs my feminist outrage: how do YOU make sure you and your kids stay together even if your marriage collapses.
Most importantly, do everything in your power to stay out of court. Even the most balanced, caring judge may have only a few minutes to rule on your family’s future. Our court system doesn’t have the time or resources to parse the true best interest of the child in contentious divorce trials. How can a stranger, trained in dividing property, assess the complicated, nuanced dynamics of a family?
“The legal system doesn’t have a big, warm, fuzzy heart,” says Julie Michaud, a 40-year-old entrepreneur who lost custody of her 7-year- old son and 5-year-old daughter when her marriage dissolved. “The family court system is no place for a family,” Michaud advises.
Another mom from my kids’ school heard me on NPR. After nearly 20 years of marriage, during which time she stayed home with her kids, she’s now in the middle of an ugly divorce. She’s smart, savvy, well-educated and big-hearted – just the kind of woman I’d want working as my political representative, lawyer, teacher or doctor. “You know what?” she told me today, tears in her eyes. “Thank GOD I stayed home. Because if I worked, he’d be using it against me right now.”
If you’re contemplating divorce, be smart and strategic long before you file papers. Make sure your love for your children is highly visible whether you work in your house or the White House; don’t assume your involvement is apparent to outsiders if most of your care giving happens behind closed doors. Because of her long work hours, Julie Michaud’s neighbors and kids’ teachers rarely saw her with her kids, even though she arranged play-dates and made lunches and doctors’ appointments and cared for the children in the mornings and tucked them into bed at night. The judge gave her stay-at-home husband primary custody after reading affidavits signed by these teachers and neighbors.
Having a “strategy” for navigating divorce and child custody may sound frostily Machiavellian, a self-centered concern when something as important as a marriage is collapsing. But you know better than anyone what’s in the best interest of your children and yourself. Being smart about navigating a custody battle may simply be the next class in modern moms’ work/family juggling education.