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14 September 2012
KILDEN - Information Centre for Gender Research in Norway
Embarrassing silence, the “bad mother look” and open confrontation – these are some of the reactions faced by Norwegian women who do not live with their children after a break-up.
“What was wrong with me? There had to be something wrong. Most people think that if the father has the children full-time, then you’ve lost your case in court. Then you must either be a drug addict, an alcoholic or crazy.”
This is how Silje described the prejudice she faced in her daily life, and she was not alone in feeling stigmatized. When Camilla told the kindergarten teacher about the contact agreement, the woman burst into tears. Others became very upset.
“They don’t understand. They can’t understand. ‘Yes, but a mother! Children need their mother!’ They think that mum is more important than dad. I almost have to console people. My sister hears uglier things said about me. She takes a lot of crap on my behalf, and she finds it very exasperating.”
Mothers with contact rights
Silje and Camilla are two of the seven women interviewed by sociologist Grete Larsen about life as non-resident mothers in Norway. After breaking up with their partners, the women have had their children one day a week and every other weekend.
“This pattern of contact is so closely associated with men that many people don’t consider that there are women in the same situation,” says Larsen. Everyone she interviewed had signed the agreement in cooperation with the children’s father, and neither lawsuits nor personal problems had any impact on where the children would live.
Since this topic has hardly been touched on either nationally or internationally, a previously unknown world is being revealed as Larsen and Professor Anne Lise Ellingsæter give us insight into the daily life of non-resident mothers.
Don’t live up to expectations
“Women who have their children part-time are a group that doesn’t live up to the expectations or requirements placed on mothers. Little is known about why some women are in this situation, which is why there are so many myths about them. As one example, they are seen as bad mothers who have let down their children,” says Larsen.
Several of the mothers came to realize that the father’s home and surrounding network was the best alternative for the children when the break-up occurred. Moving, studies and demanding jobs were other reasons mentioned by the women. They were also concerned about avoiding conflict with the children’s father. Beate explained it this way:
“It was my concern for the level of conflict that ultimately made me give up the fight. So that there wouldn’t be ongoing conflict and so that we wouldn’t drag the case to court and things like that. [...] If I had won, the conflict would have just continued!”
“This is the situation that many men are also in. Some probably become weekend dads because they choose to give in before the conflict escalates and becomes completely awful,” says Ellingsæter.
“In the child’s best interest”
“The most important consideration was our child. So he could grow up in a place he had always lived, in his own environment.”
This statement was made by Turid, who like the other mothers was concerned about explaining her choice as being “in the child’s best interest”. This is a guiding principle established both in legislation and in norms related to divorce settlement in Norway.
”It was important for them to give a convincing explanation for why they didn’t live with their children. They emphasized that the arrangement had been made because they had their children’s best interest at heart, not their own. This is the most widely accepted explanation. And only then did they get any sympathy for the situation, at least from the younger generation. But the mothers felt at times it was both tiresome and unfair that they had to constantly explain themselves since, after all, others didn’t have to,” explains Larsen.
To cope with all the prejudice, some of the women chose silence as a strategy. They avoided talking about the contact agreement so they would not be pigeonholed.
An investment approach
Ellingsæter views prejudice against non-resident mothers in connection with the demands placed on the mothering role, which she believes are higher than ever before. She points to mum blogs and the public debate as two of several expressions of this.
“There is no longer talk of the ‘good mother’, but the norms associated with motherhood are hidden in an investment approach which says that you must invest money, time, yes, everything possible, in your children. For instance, you mustn’t drink or smoke during pregnancy, you should prepare baby food from scratch, and you should ensure that the children have the right leisure activities. It’s no longer enough that the children are clean and have decent clothes to wear. You also need to love them in the right way,” says Ellingsæter.
No “amusement park mum”
During the interviews it came to light that non-resident mothers were also affected by the many expectations of motherhood. They did their best to deliver and tried to normalize the somewhat special circumstances of their family situation. June put it this way:
“We do things about the same as we did before. Ordinary things in daily life. I decided rather early on that it isn’t going to be a circus when they are here.”
“The non-resident mothers defined themselves in sharp contrast to the ‘amusement park dad’. They didn’t want a situation where they had to think of things to do all the time or to ‘buy’ their children with fun activities. Instead they worked hard to incorporate daily life into their time with the children. They were very concerned about the word ordinary. They described themselves as ordinary mothers with ordinary families and ordinary rules, even though the framework around their lives was a little bit different,” explains Larsen.
Best to live with dad?
In a study from the 1990s on non-resident parents in Denmark, sociologist Mogens Nygaard Christoffersen concluded that it is better for children to live with their fathers after a divorce. His reason was in part that non-resident mothers do a better job of following up than fathers in the same situation, so that the children get more overall contact with both parents. This corresponds with the result of one previous Norwegian survey and with the mothers’ statements in Larsen’s qualitative study.
“The non-resident mothers made an intensive effort, especially when it came to investing time. They have a lot of contact with the children in addition to the time agreed to. Except for one, all of the mothers in the study talked with their children on the phone every day. They didn’t stop being a mother when the children went home to their fathers on Sunday evening, but instead maintained an active, close mothering role. They thought of themselves as full-time mothers even though they had their children only part-time,” says Larsen.
Gender-equal contact arrangement
Common to all the women in the study was that they had a fundamentally positive view of the caregiving abilities of the men, who had been engaged, committed fathers prior to the break-up. In addition, the women wanted to ensure that gender would not be the deciding factor when drawing up the best contact arrangement. One of them said it like this:
“It was important for me from the start that I not accept the premise that most people do, which is that women are better than men at taking care of the children. It could be that if you count, you’ll find that more women do the best job of looking after the children, but you can’t categorize people like that! [...] I wish that people would view fathers as better caregivers.”
Both Larsen and Ellingsæter point out that an engaged father and a gender-neutral view of a man’s caregiving abilities are essential for a change in the direction of more gender-equal parenting after a break-up. But what does a gender-equal approach to a contact arrangement actually look like? Like this, according to Camilla:
“It’s my private joke! I say this is what true gender equality looks like. When you get divorced, it could actually happen that the children end up living with their father instead of their mother.”
Translated by Connie Stultz