Sunday, January 6, 2019

The Case of the Bad Mother

What do you know, she has the perfect life. 

We are always intrigued to read about people who have perfect lives, because we don’t believe that anyone has a perfect life. It’s an illusion, one that has been fostered by… whomever you feel like blaming.

Having a perfect life is not an issue. It should not be an issue. The real issue, as Washington Post advice columnist Carolyn Hax astutely points out is: does she have good character? And that must inexorably raise the issue of: is she a good mother? We will save all reflections about perfect character for another time and place.

The situation is simple and easy to understand. She with the perfect life is the divorced mother of a twelve year old boy. She shares custody with her ex-husband. This requires her to live in the vicinity of said ex-husband.

Now, however, she with the perfect life, has been offered a dream job promotion, in a faraway city. Apparently, she is an immigrant and has made her way in America. We do not know what she does or how good she is at it. All such considerations fall by the wayside when placed next to the quest for perfection.

Her problem is: if she takes the new job she will have to abandon her son. That is, she will need to ask him whether he wants to stay with his father or to move away with his mother. She suspects that he will choose the former option. We would note that if she is such a world beater on her job now, she probably does not have oodles of time to devote to caring for her son.

As for the decision, the son will probably choose to remain in his neighborhood, with his friends, with his school, his coaches, his familiar spaces. 

But, she reasons, it’s a dream job. She is dying to take it. She does not care quite as much about how her son will feel for being abandoned by his mother. Surely, she has less than perfect character.

Here is the letter:

I immigrated to marry a man I'd dated for four years. It was an incredibly toxic and abusive relationship, and I finally managed to leave after 11 years. I was unemployed and without family or friends.

After two years I've found an amazing job and have done brilliant work in my community and my new country. I'm literally receiving awards for my work. Our 12-year-old child has not only adjusted but thrived. We co-parent well and actually maintain a very solid friendship. I'm even friends with his new partner. I'm surrounded by loving friends and "found" family. I'm in a loving, supportive relationship.

All in all, life is perfect.

But. I've been offered my dream job 12 hours away. During our divorce we agreed our child has a say in his living situation should I move. I'm pretty confident he will choose to stay in his hometown, but hopeful he will choose to move with me.

I've made peace with it. The logistics aren't that hard to manage. But I feel guilty. Society judges absent mothers so harshly. I'm worried about him having the support and compassion he needs.

I'm worried I'm abandoning him and he will end up with weird issues.

I feel justified after so many years of abuse and sacrifice that I deserve to chase my own dreams.

But am I being selfish? A bad mother?

We cannot judge whether or not she was the perfect wife, but we suspect that her bad marriage was not just her ex-husband’s fault.

Anyway, Hax rises to the occasion on this occasion.  The woman, who calls herself “Woman on Hold” is a bad mother. She is contemplating abandoning a child. We do not know where she was born and have no notion of the culture in which she was raised. But, we do know, with Hax, that she is a bad mother.

Hax begins by pointing out that this bad mother has every right to feel her feelings, but that it is empty posturing:

You have an amazing job and loving friends and “found” family and your child is thriving and you’re in love and you’re a ... Woman on Hold”?

They’re your feelings to feel, of course, but I see room — as in, pristine acres of rolling landscape — for you to reframe your view of your life, if you really wanted to do that.

And, of course, Hax sees that the bad mother is waiting for Hax to tell her to chase her dreams, and to tilt at windmills, in the new job… twelve hours away. Let’s be clear for an instant. Twelve hours away is not in the United States. It is not in Europe. It’s more like Argentina or Hong Kong.  It is far, far away. We are not talking about the possibility of weekend visits.

Hax was just warming up. She continues:

And you won’t get a you-go-girl (or, alas, a bad-mother) answer from me, because to treat this as an issue of society and judgments — and misogyny, if that’s what you’re implying — sounds like a cynical dodge.

Just facts: The price you pay for a bad decision here won’t be charged to your public-image account — it’ll come straight from your kid’s emotional health. And he didn’t choose to be born or move anywhere or marry badly.

Yet, as you yourself describe your decision, it will take either his mother or his father out of your son’s day-to-day life, because “I deserve to chase my own dreams.”

How is this not selfish?

She notes that the woman is not compelled to move away… which would change the calculus… but has options. Besides, Hax points out, if she is that good at her job, then surely she will find a way to be promoted regardless. For my part I think that Hax is a bit naïve here, but still, the point is well taken. And it might help prevent her from hurting her child:

If you really are just talking about dream-fulfillment beyond your current perfection, then your decision feels heavily optional. Like, second-cherry-on-a-sundae optional. I’d say this about any dad or mom who has viable and non-soul-crushing local employment options and whose affected child is just 12.

The chances you’ll have other dreamy career opportunities, especially if you’re “brilliant” at it: excellent.

The chances your child will have another crack at childhood: zero.

And finally, Hax arrives at the most salient point. This bad mother is dumping the decision on a twelve-year-old boy. And she is doing so after putting him through the trauma and disruption of a divorce:

And I can’t believe I’m only now getting to this (the issue is deceptively complex): You’re also dumping a horrific choice on your child. Who, presumably, has just found stability after being put through a wringer by his parents’ abusive marriage and divorce. “So, which parent can you do without? Take your time, Honey.” Seriously.

And, you’re doing this just as he has one foot on the threshold into adolescence, one of the most dizzying, unnerving and impressionable times of our lives.

One promising element is that you’re even torn about it. You don’t say so yourself, but your peace-guilt-worry pretzel does. Your asking this question does.

Of course, the only one whose vote counts is your son. So, again, my advice is to give yourself an honest, non-self-serving answer to the baseline question: Will he grow up to respect your reasons or will he look back and say, “She shook my whole world? For that?”

Frankly, I find it encouraging that an advice columnist offers such a sensible response to a woman who is clearly going off the rails. A perfect life does not necessarily give her any moral sense. And that said columnist is willing to risk the feminist furies… who surely see the case differently.


Sam L. said...

Twelve hours away: By car or by plane? I presume car, but she does not say. By plane could (almost certainly would) be out of the U.S., but I personally am 2+ hours from an airport, so I'd factor that in. And then there's the "abusive marriage" charge, which we have no information on. All in all, moving would be hard on the son.

Anonymous said...

Just one question: Would people feel the same if it were the father following a career opportunity? Just curious.

Anonymous said...

I read Hax for years. She's brilliant. A Harvard grad, by the way, though nowadays that's not much of a compliment. But she's head and shoulders above many of the 'advice columnists' out there, with the possible exception of one or two (very different, but eminently worth reading are the advice columns of Cheryl Strayed when she was writing under the byline 'Dear Sugar'). But yeah - Hax is great.

Dan Patterson said...

A mother's first job is to parent her children. To put anything in front of that is supremely selfish and irresponsible, so yes she should feel guilty.

Zaggner said...

If she is giving her son the option, shouldn't he have ALL the options to choose from which would include both parents staying put?