When Mothers Leave

I was watching a news report about a mother who had just returned from Iraq after many months away from her three small children.

It was a heartwarming reunion. Watching the hugs and tears, and with deep respect and admiration, there was still a small voice deep from the reaches of my own motherhood experience, that asked: "How do leave your children for such a long, dangerous, time?"

Women in combat. Women in space. Women taking national and international assignments for their companies. Women pursuing opportunities, passions and -- in the case of female soldiers -- a sense of patriotic duty. All of that, of course, is simply women following paths long open to men.

But is a society that is easily accustomed to women in challenging, male-dominated and even dangerous jobs equally comfortable when the separation those jobs demand involve leaving children behind?

Freedom of choice does not necessarily mean freedom from stigma. Extended absence from children simply does not raise our judgmental hackles for a father the way it does for a mother. For a father, it is likely seen as providing for his family or sacrificing for his country. For a woman, there is that nagging perception that she -- for whatever reason -- found something more important than her children.

Even though fathers are showing themselves to be effective and even excellent care-givers, when mothers leave for extended periods, there is a question: "Who's watching the kids?"

Travel a little further along the continuum of choice over children and you encounter walk-away mom. She lives apart from her children by choice. She didn't lose them; she left them - for a dream, for a job, for a relationship, for the sheer need to rediscover a self she feels has been subsumed by family.

She showed up on the radar as a blip in the 80s and 90s, when a flurry of books had titles that captured feelings about mothers who break what we assume is one of nature's most powerful bonds: Mommy Doesn't Live Here Any More, The Absentee Wife and, simply, How Could You?

Various reports have called such departures everything from a trend to a phenomena. As a researcher myself, I know that trends spring easily from low base numbers.

Much of the evidence remains anecdotal -- although a U.K. survey put the number of walk-away moms there at 100,000, rising 12 percent a year. If the attention of social media is an indicator, there is a Face Book page called Against Mothers who Abandon their Children for No Good Reason." A quick read shows most of the posts come from children left behind.

Two years ago, an article in Marie Claire magazine ran a headline ladled generously with judgment: "What Kind of Mother Leaves Her Kids?" In fact, the article, by Lea Goldman, was simply a first-person exploration of motivations and experience.

One of the women profiled, author Maria Housden, left for the solitude she needed to process and write about losing a child. While away, she fell in love with a man, and moved across the country to be with him.

In her second book, Unraveled, Housden wrote about reaction to the decision to give up custody: "I did something divorced fathers are expected to do every day. But when a mother does it, it's abandonment." With the financial success of her books, she writes that her husband provides the structure, and she can afford to give her kids the adventure."

Another woman profiled by Goldman, Rebekah Spicuglia, says she married young, to the wrong man. They separated, and battled over custody of their young son. She rose from busing tables at the restaurant where they worked to acceptance at University of California, Berkeley. Rather than separate her son from a loving father and extended family, she gave him up. She also admits, she was intoxicated by the freedom the arrangement would give her.

She remarried and moved to New York, while her son continues to live in California. Today she says, many people can't process her decision. She told Goldman: " Mothers like me -- well, there isn't really a dialogue about us. People just don't even know how to talk about it."

Some women are breaking the motherhood mold by pursuing lives that take them away from their children for extended periods. Some -- far fewer -- are doing it by leaving their children to create new lives altogether.

Fathers forced to be away from their families for long periods elicit sympathy and even admiration for their sacrifice. For mothers in the same situation, the reactions are often more complex -- extending to maternal choice and even fitness. When fathers leave their families for good, we take comfort in the fact that the kids are still in mom's warm embrace. Mothers who do leave seem to violate some natural order; where to leave their children -- even in the care of a loving and capable father -- is to abandon them to fate.

Should they be judged differently?