The Friday round-up mentioned Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s piece on Salon.com, 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.