When I started Perils of Divorced Pauline, I thought I was a freak of nature, the only mother I knew on the brink of losing custody of her child (which, in fact, happened this past June). During the course of writing about my custody battle, I found other custodially-challenged mothers, such as my writer friend Sophia Van Buren, who lost custody not because they were unfit, but because they lacked the funds and often the emotional stamina to sustain custody battles with their more moneyed, more litigious exes.
In my case, I had primary physical custody of my son for seven years, years that my ex spent trash-talking me. My son developed serious behavioral problems and when he became a teenager, it was no longer feasible to keep him in the house. So I sent him to live with his dad–for awhile.
My ex-husband sued me for full custody. My attorney informed me that, not only could I lose physical custody permanently, but I was also in danger of forfeiting my legal rights because the judge could decide I wasn’t able to make good decisions for my son if he wasn’t living with me. After a few sessions with the–male–custody evaluator, I began to suspect my custodial goose was cooked. The evaluator spent our meetings telling me how much my virtually brainwashed son wanted his dad to have custody, how he loved his stepmother and hated me and his stepfather. The evaluator also told me that in cases of extreme conflict between exes, he sometimes awarded full custody to one parent.
When I consulted with a female forensic psychologist I knew, she paled when she heard the name of my evaluator. “I don’t trust him,” she said. “He doesn’t interview collaterals. He makes up his mind on the basis of a few meetings with parents and children. If he’s this biased already, get out. His report could be damaging if it gets in front of a judge.”
Panicked, I settled out of court. I gave my wealthy ex what he wanted: full physical custody and sole decision-making power over medical, therapy and school issues. I had spent six figures without ever having my case tried in court. My son was falling apart from the stress. And I looked like the living dead, barely sleeping or eating. I was terrified of going bankrupt, going completely gaga, and destroying my son’s mental health.
Despite my own experience, and those of the non-custodial mother community, I still believed I was an anomaly.
How many good mothers lose custody of their children?
That question inspired psychologist and expert courtroom witness Phyllis Chesler to write Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody. This impeccably researched book–originally published in 1986 and now updated for the 21st century–provides an historical overview of divorce and custody.
Chesler’s work blows apart the myth that mothers “always” get custody. She maintains that women “win” custody when men don’t fight for it. When men do decide to fight, however, they usually win–70% of the time, according to Chesler’s studies.
In writing the book, Chesler states: “I wanted to understand why we take custodial mothers for granted but heroize custodial fathers, why we sympathize with noncustodial fathers but condemn noncustodial mothers, and why we grant noncustodial fathers the right to feel angry or sad but deny noncustodial mothers similar emotional ‘rights.'”
Chesler explains that, historically, women had no rights. Until the 20th century marital property, including children, belonged to the husband. If a woman chose to leave a marriage, or if her husband decided to leave her, she was entitled to nothing. Left with no home and no means of support, these mothers were hardly able to fund a custody battle.
The author paints a nuanced picture of the psychology of custody. According to Chesler, many women who find themselves sued for custody grew up as abused children or disenfranchised in some way. Not surprisingly, they went on attract abusive mates or co-create life situations in which they lacked power.
Women with a background of abuse are often short on money and a solid support network. Already vulnerable, these women–many of them suffering from PTSD–can start to look unhinged going through the pressure cooker of a custody evaluation. They frequently come across as shrill, histrionic, fragile, and paranoid. They rub attorneys, custody evaluators, and judges the wrong way. Seeing custodially-challenged mothers at their worse, players in the family court system erroneously believe that these women are crazy when they are actually exhibiting signs of trauma.
Then wouldn’t the same be true of men, you ask? Wouldn’t men also appear bonkers during a custody battle, causing judges to rule against them?
Not if they know they’re going to win.
Chesler details cases of abusive ex-husbands whose easy charm bamboozled family court workers and whose deep pockets gave them a confidence, and a means to keep fighting, that struggling single mothers lack. Combine this scenario with children who have been coached to reject their mother (in Chesler’s study, paternal brainwashing was orchestrated by 45% of judidicially successful fathers), and you have a custody battle that will ultimately be won by Dad–even if Dad has previously shown little interest in caring for children.
The author explores the parenting double standard that still exists in the 21st century. While women are expected to build their lives around their children, men who show even superficial interest in their kids are lauded as being wonderful fathers.
“Those fathers who fight tend to win custody, not because mothers are unfit or because fathers have been the primary caretakers of their children but because mothers are women and are held to a much higher standard of parenting,” Chesler writes.
Chesler also debunks Parental Alienation Syndrome, a controversial diagnosis exploited by the Men’s Rights Movement to invalidate mothers’ claims of abuse by the father. Chesler maintains that men as well as women make false claims of abuse, but the controversy surrounding the diagnosis and the psychologist who created it have caused evaluators and judges to disbelieve legitimate abuse allegations when they come from the mother and frequently award custody to abusive fathers.
Other factors that lead to good-enough mothers losing custody? Overworked, underpaid judges that don’t have time to properly hear a case. Lawyers who agree to represent fathers in “scorched-earth mode.” And an unwieldy family law system with no mechanism to put the kibosh on chronically litigious exes.
Although my own case mirrors Chesler’s case studies in many regards, I do not believe, nor does the author, that women are the only good-enough parents who lose custody. Some judges are biased towards mothers. I’m remarried and my current husband Atticus lost almost every time he showed up in court with his ex-wife because the judge felt mothers were more qualified to make child-centered decisions–despite the fact that Atticus’s ex had been dating a registered sex offender!
Whether you’re considering divorce, embarking on a custody battle, or trying to redefine your identity as a noncustodial mother, Mothers on Trial is a must-read.
Don’t go to court without it.