Ever notice how American culture vilifies non-parenting mothers, even those who are not bad moms?
Non-parenting mothers are women who have given birth but for whatever reason, did not parent or are not raising their children. Forfeiting the rights and responsibilities of parenthood, whether voluntarily or not, is rarely viewed kindly by others. Lose custody of your child/ren to Child Protective Services for any reason and you’re automatically viewed as a “bad mom.” Give up a baby for adoption and your stock doesn’t improve much, either. Even women who allow their ex to raise the kids while paying him child support often get a bad rep.
Women, it seems, aren’t allowed to not want to mother.
It’s a topic deftly explored in the recent film The Lost Daughter, which stars Oscar winning actress Olivia Coleman (currently on Netflix).
In it, a middle-aged divorcee grapples with questions of her own identity as she recalls her decision to leave her small daughters for what she felt was everyone’s best interests, at the time.
“Since distance imposed the physical impossibility of intervening directly in their lives, satisfying their desires or whims became a mixture of rarefied or irresponsible gestures, every request seemed light, every task that had to do with them an affectionate habit. I felt miraculously unfettered, as if a difficult job, finally brought to completion, no longer weighed me down” ― Elena Ferrante, The Lost Daughter
Here’s the painful truth: not every female capable of bearing a child is necessarily best-suited for the lifelong responsibilities of raising it. Not every mom who loves her children loves parenting. (And not every girl who gets pregnant actually signed up for motherhood.)
Yes, Non-Parenting Mothers can too be Loving Moms
These may seem like fighting words, but non-parenting moms are not all unloving nor neglectful. There are any number of (valid) reasons that mothers who dearly love their kids may opt not to parent them, whether temporarily or permanently (ie., age, incarceration, addiction, deportation, sexual assault, mental health issues, domestic violence/abuse, serial poverty, fractured attachment, terminal illness, CPS, trauma, lack of maternal instinct, etc., etc., etc.)
When deadbeat dads leave their kids behind, society largely shrugs it off. Neighbors shake their collective heads, then assume it’s the mother’s responsibility to raise the kids, anyway. However, if a mother opts out of parenting duties, folks then rush to launch GoFundMe campaigns to help the hapless father, while savagely maligning the character of the mother involved. (Why is that, anyway?)
For a female to find a higher calling in life than motherhood is so controversial, society typically gives a pass only those who are infertile. Yet our culture still expects even those women to somehow compensate by seeking out an orphan to love. States (like Texas) are passing laws making it ever-harder for women with unwanted pregnancies to avoid becoming mothers, but anyone who has ever placed a child for adoption can attest that their decision is widely questioned by others for years afterwards.
We know plenty of those ladies; the birthmothers Abrazo is privileged to work with here have been some of the best moms we know. They fiercely love the children they parent, as well as those they place. What they “gave up” here was the responsibility of raising their child/ren, but never the right to be forever honored as the first mom, the biological mother who made the adoptee’s very life possible.
Honor Thy Mother (Parenting or Not)
In her 12/7/21 NYT Magazine review (“Hollywood Loves a Monstrous Mommy”), reviewer Lydia Kiesling beautiully sums up the dichotomy of the non-parenting mother:
The mother occupies a bewildering place in American society, simultaneously omnipresent and irrelevant. Harried moms are enshrined in paper-towel commercials, while our political institutions show a Teflon-like resistance to addressing their material needs. It would of course be impossible for any one work to show this condition, this cruelty, in all its richness and iterations, but American art about mothers is rarely made or received with the necessary asterisk, one that acknowledges the labor of caregiving, the five-alarm fires that are raging in our personal lives and political spheres… (T)here is something cathartic about a mother who says not only, “I prefer not to,” but, “I cannot,” momentarily leaving the relentless work of caregiving to someone else. It’s both a fantasy of walking away and a warning about its costs. The urge to flee is in the air.
Yes, Hollywood may embrace the dramatic potential of non-parenting mothers. In real life, though, pro-life America pays lip-service to those who choose not to abort, while remaining strangely ambivalent about providing any actual support to girls and women who choose to put their unaborted babies up for adoption. (Even in the adoption community, “good birthmothers” are too often thought to be those who stand respectfully to the side after placement, deferring to the adoptive parents and only speaking when spoken to.) Both neglect to pay due respect to the non-parenting mother, in reality.
Open adoption enables women to opt out of parenting responsibilities without abandoning the opportunity to still offer nurture for the child/ren they place. The concept recognizes that adopted children will still need their birthmothers, long after the legal relationship between them has been dissolved by a judicial ruling. And it makes space for the adopting couple to welcome her continued presence in their family constellation, for their shared child’s very best interests.
Non-parenting mothers are still mothers, so please don’t write them off– because the children they birthed ultimately still need the gifts they have to share, if so allowed.