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Mar 7 2011

Why You Shouldn’t Leave Your Children: (A Response to Rahna Reiko Rizzuto)

By at 12:12 pm

This is what happens when a mom leaves her two sons.

The Friday round-up mentioned Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s piece on, in which the author describes her decision to go to Japan for 6 months, leaving her two pre-school aged sons behind with their father. Rizzuto’s time overseas ended her marriage, but ultimately saved her relationship with her sons, or so she says. She currently lives down the street from her husband, who has primary physical custody.  Several times each week, the boys go to her house, and she helps them with homework, makes them dinner, and plays games or watches TV with them until they go home to Dad’s. Basically, Rizzuto gets to play grandma to her own children.  Good for her.

In case you didn’t pick up on it, I do have an opinion about the author’s decision to leave her sons.

I think what she did was wrong.

Now, before I explain (and explain I will), let’s review my parenting philosophy.  I tend to fall pretty much in the middle of the parenting continuum, and although I have my fair share of Mommy-related neuroses, I’m pretty mainstream.  However, I also think that there are about as many ways to raise a child as there are children to be raised, and we all mostly get it right, except when we get it wrong. But most wrongs are not so wrong, most parenting is good enough, and most kids grow up to be good enough people.

But my tolerance only goes so far.  I’m not ok with abuse or neglect, and I’m not ok with ditching your kids.  Not for months at a time, even if you never wanted to be a mother, and only agreed to do so after your husband “promised to take care of everything,” as Rizutto writes.  If you don’t want to have a kid, that’s totally fine, but if you do make the decision to become a mother, well, then buck up, buttercup, and do it.  To misquote Woody Allen (no paragon of parenting himself), 90% of raising kids is showing up.  Every day.  Even when you don’t want to.  I don’t care if the best you can do that day is plopping the kid in front of the TV with a hot dog (even if it’s not kosher) – at least you’re there.

Which brings me back to the grandma comment I made earlier. I’m glad Rizotto is still in her kids’ life to some degree, but the time when kids need you the most is when the shit hits the fan, literally and figuratively. It’s easy to be a good parent when everyone is healthy and happy and playing nice during family Yahtzee games. It’s much harder when your kid is vomiting in the middle of the night, or feeling hurt or angry or sad but can’t find the words through all of their tears.  The real of work of parenting doesn’t fall neatly into the afterschool hours, and our children need to know we’re going to be there to help pick up the pieces, whenever or wherever they may fall.

Now, I know life doesn’t always work out that way, and divorce, death, financial stressors, and a range of other factors may make it impossible for parents to always be available. In that case, however, kids need to be able to have a narrative about why their Mom or Dad wasn’t there. They need to be able to tell themselves, and others, that Mommy and Daddy separated, but it wasn’t because of me, and they still both love me very much. Or that Mommy isn’t here because she is defending her country, or she needs to earn money for the family, or whatever it may be. Now, I don’t doubt Rizutto’s love for her children, but what story will her kids tell? Her version of events is that she left because she never wanted to be a mother, and society’s pressures on how to be the right mother didn’t work for her. What useful narrative will her sons possibly take from that?

Mothers shouldn’t martyr themselves for their children – that’s not healthy for anyone. I believe you can be a good parent whether you work full-time, part-time, or choose to make child-raising your primary job. But each of these options would presumably allow for regular contact with your children, and a consistent engagement in their lives. Rizutto’s move to Japan didn’t. The social worker in me is aching to explain to you all the ways in which her sons’ sad phone calls were just the tip of the emotional iceberg; suffice it to say, generally speaking, voluntarily choosing to leave your children when they are so young will negatively impact them and how they understand the relationships of their lives for a long time.

Clearly, her parenting situation wasn’t working. I don’t begrudge her decision to change it, but I do question how far she went for so long.  Raising kids is damn hard, so please, structure your life however you need to in order to be as happy as possible. As long as you stick around.

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10 Responses to Why You Shouldn’t Leave Your Children: (A Response to Rahna Reiko Rizzuto)

  1. Carla says:

    Thanks, everyone, for sharing your thoughts. I think this dialogue is so important, and it’s always useful to be reminded that there are many, many ways to understand a situation.

    A few thoughts – first, if a father wrote the same post, I would judge him similarly. But, as many of you point out, a father taking off and then only sort of re-joining the family probably wouldn’t be news. And that’s a problem. I think fathers are just as crucial to families and children as mothers are.

    Also, while I agree with Rizzuto’s frustration regarding society’s view of motherhood, that doesn’t justify her actions. It’s not like she flew off to a foreign country right before having her baby – she knew what she was getting into in terms of American expectations, as flawed as they may be.

    Those are just a few thoughts… I’m sure I’ll have many more…

    • Sabra says:

      I’m with you on this one. I am remarried, but I am still a divorced mom. Their father chooses to be a part time parent (of course being the non-custodial parent doesn’t necessarily equal being a part time parent, but that’s how it works out quite often). I see no reason to excuse this woman just because men do it all the time. I am certain Rizzuto thinks she’s a great mother. I know my ex-husband thinks he’s a great father. I also know he’s wrong, and I strongly suspect she is, as well.

      Your analogy of her being like a grandmother to her own children is spot on. I know my kids are on their best behavior when they’re with their dad, because he’s skipped visitation often enough that they’re afraid he won’t pick them up when he should. There’s a good chance that Rizzuto’s long separation from her children–children whom she has now told the whole world she never wanted–has instituted a similar dynamic with them. Her family game nights sound an awful lot like my ex’s movie Sundays. It’s something he can brag about–Look, I’m taking them out to do fun things!–that isn’t really very meaningful from a parenting standpoint.

  2. Hollie says:

    Total crap. I’m sorry but, whether we like it or not, we still live in a society where the mother takes front stage. Children have to live in this “society” which will more likely than not, make them question the reasons of a mother leaving them behind. When I got married, I whole heartedly thought that I was a strong independant woman that married a man who valued me as such. Yes, this was true at first, bit the longer you are married it seems, the easier it is to “slip” into the “roles” of so called man and woman. Straight truth. Don’t have kids if you don’t want a COMPLETE 180 of your life!

  3. Sivan says:

    I’m also in the camp of not being completely with you on this one. Would your assessment have been as harsh if we were talking about a dad?

    I haven’t read the Rizzuto piece, so I’m not qualified to speak about this particular woman’s challenges but I think there are instances where a woman is best suited to care for her children after she’s managed to care for herself. I also think your qualifying her current relationship with her own children as a “grandma” relationship is really unfair. Nothing compares to the bond of a child with his parent(s).. whether they live together 24/7 or not.

    I agree that the effects of leaving one’s children can be severe and very damaging to the children. And, of course, my heart aches for the kids. But what position our we in to determine it’s still not the best alternative in certain circumstances?

    • Sivan says:

      sorry – typo “… are we in…” in the final sentence of my comment.

    • Carla says:

      Sivan – you wrote, “I think there are instances where a woman is best suited to care for her children after she’s managed to care for herself. ”
      I’m going to disagree with there. I think women should ALWAYS care for themselves first in order to best care for their children. (It’s the old oxygen mask on the airplane thing.) However, life doesn’t always work out that way, as we all know.
      But back to Rizzuto – I don’t question her need to reorganize her life, I just think that there can be a balance, and that going so far for so long was the wrong choice. I think she could have found other options that would have taken into account her kids needs a little more, while still meeting her own…
      At any rate, thanks for your thoughts!!

  4. T says:

    Have to say, C. This is one of the few times I wholeheartedly disagree with you. The only model for parenting is not mothering focused. Throughout time (and currently,) mothers and fathers leave their families for such things as military service, residency, migrant work, studies, projects. It sounds like her children were left in caring capable hands. Not all mother’s hands are most capable at raising and dealing with the day to day mucking up, insanity and dirtiness that can be childrearing. I know many mothers who had children during residency or Med school who had to be away for a month or months at a time. I know more than a few mothers who have left their children in care of family members for years at a time while they seek work in our country. These children are not unloved nor should they be led to believe that their mother (or father) doesn’t love them the right way because of their choices. I would not choose this for myself… But I can not judge another for such choices.

  5. julie stone says:

    This is a tough one for me. I “left” my kids to go to graduate school at Smith for the better part of 3 summers when they were 7, 8 & 9. I flew home many weekends, and of course for the mid-term breaks. Still, there has been a lot of maternal guilt. Even though they were with their dad, who is a teacher and has the summers off. I like your idea of the narrative.

  6. jos says:

    You know, I have mixed feelings about this. I think she did have an important narrative about why she left – to interview survivors of the atomic bomb. But once she left she discovered some things about her relationships and herself. I also wonder how we would judge a father who chose to do the same thing. This was such an interesting article. Carla, you are soo good at articulating your ideas — great reading.

  7. Jen LF says:

    I don’t know, Carla. As the product of a marriage that was over before I was born, and a survivor of two more ill-fated marriages of my mom’s, I’m not sure I agree with everything you’ve said. After reading Rizutto’s piece as well, I wonder if maybe her (temporary!) move to Japan was what put the final nail in the coffin of her marriage. What if she had stayed (both in the States and in her marriage) and her kids had suffered through what could have been a much longer decline? I honestly think that would have been much worse for them. Six months away is nothing in the long term.

    While my dad had other issues that made our relationship somewhat, ahem, fraught, I’m glad that I didn’t live through the breakup of my parents’ marriage in the same way that I lived through the breakup of my mom’s other two marriages. The tension that went with that was awful and memorable and definitely made a mark on me.


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