The harsh criticism women face when they break the motherhood contract

The harsh criticism women face when they break the motherhood contract

The harsh criticism women face when they break the motherhood contract

Updated 9 October 2017, 8:15 AEDT

There's still an assumption that children always live with their mother.

It was a Sunday morning when Kate cooked blueberry pancakes for her three children and told them she was leaving.

She told them they would be staying in the family home with their father and she would move several hours away to Sydney.

When she finished explaining the reasons for her decision, her eldest son turned to her and said 'thank you for not making me choose'.

His words still make her weep.

Kate said she decided to leave because she believed it was best decision for everyone, especially her two sons and her daughter.

"I am very very proud of my decision, because I believe it's the best possible outcome given the scenario we were faced with."

What she didn't know that Sunday morning was what it would be like to live with the consequences of her decision.

"It is harder than you ever think it will be. It is indescribable the pain that you experience and the strength that you must find."

'My utopia'

When her children were young, Kate spent seven years as a stay-at-home mum.

"I was the P&C president. I worked in the school canteen. I cooked everything from scratch. It was my utopia."

When asked what she loved most about being a mother, she is quick to answer.

"I love it all. I love the whole kit and caboodle. I love the struggles. I love the love. I love the scent of my children. I love watching them grow. I love everything about them."

But things changed when her husband lost his job. She had to go back to work, and the marriage broke down.

Despite the separation, she and her former husband continued to share the family home and split the care of the kids 50/50.

This situation worked for a while. But eventually they both started dating again and their relationship deteriorated to the point where they were headed for family court.

"I actively made the decision to not engage in a custody dispute, to not engage in the family court at all, because I believe that the children deserve to have a positive relationship with both parents," Kate said.

Harsh judgement

After Kate made her decision she soon found out how harshly women are judged when they choose not to be the regular carer of their children.

"The reactions were vicious, venomous... and an absolute assassination of my character," she said.

When she first left, a neighbour told her children their mummy had abandoned them. Over the years, she's been told she's selfish. And at one point she intercepted a series of vicious emails in her workplace.

"I've been told I'm ruining my children's lives. Women have said: 'I'm not like you, I couldn't do that, my children come first no matter what'. That I have chosen my partner over my children," she said.

"I did what I believed was best for my children, and it was also about having needs of my own. I don't need to martyr myself to define my motherhood and my person. This is something expected of mothers, and it's not fair."

Kristal Kinsela knows first-hand how harshly a woman is judged when she makes the decision not to be the day-to-day carer of her children.

"Yeah, you feel it. You really do feel it and it's just an unacceptance, because it's okay for a man to do it but it's not okay for a woman'" Kristal said.

Two and a half years ago, when she made her tough decision to leave her children living with their father, some of her closest friends and family were very critical.

"I remember talking to my two best friends first and they both said 'how can you do this? mothers don't do that, you can't leave your kids.

"A lot of people attacked my career motivations and said that money came before my family.

"A lot of the criticism was focused on 'how could you do that? You're a mother, a mother needs to raise her children, that's your job, that's your maternal instinct'," she said.

But Kristal is clear, the changes in her family situation are simply a matter of geography.

"I am still a mother no matter if my kids are with me or not. I'm in Sydney where I need to be for my work and for my family, I've got family here, I grew up in Sydney. They [the children] just happen to be four and half hours away."

What is your experience with the motherhood contract? We're keen to continue the conversation about what happens when you find your motherhood journey doesn't go to plan. Email us at ladies@abc.net.au

Double standard

Both women agree that society is quick to criticise women who don't meet our expectations of motherhood, who seemingly break the motherhood contract.

Yet when a father sees his children once a month or every second weekend, he won't face anywhere near the same degree of criticism.

"The gender stereotypes and the discrimination is not equal and it's totally not fair," Kristal said.

Kate said the double-standard doesn't do anyone any favours.

"It's not unusual for a father to choose not to be the primary carer of their children, and, mostly, as a society we think that's reasonable.

"I don't think we should devalue a positive relationship between a child and their father. Children deserve both, they can have both."

I miss them every day

Kristal has learnt to brush off the comments and criticisms, but she still struggles at times.

"The hardest thing is just getting over my own guilt, because I miss them every day.

"My daughter needs me now. She's going through puberty and she recently asked me to come back and I told her that I couldn't and that was so hard to say," Kristal said.

Kate describes her decision as the toughest thing she could ever do, but it's one she stands by.

"In many ways it would have been a lot easier had I stayed and fought it out. Emotionally, that would have been an easier decision for me to make. But in the long-run I know it would have been harder for my children, harder for me.

"Yet, while I'm very confident in my decision and would make it again, my grief hasn't abated. I miss my babies. My grief never leaves me. Every morning I wake up and think 'where are my babies... that's right, they're not here'."

Lessons learnt

So how can we all be better allies to women — and their families — who find themselves in this situation?

"It's understanding that the role of a woman has evolved and it's different for everybody's different situations and not to be judgmental, but more accepting and understand that," Kristal said.

Kate agrees.

"Motherhood doesn't define women and it doesn't define mothers. It's definitely a massive part of who a woman is, but it's not everything. It's certainly not my entire identity, it's a massive part, but it's not everything," she said.