Crisis In The Family Courts


Posted in Uncategorized by abatteredmother on April 14, 2011

Michelle Bemiller 1*

1 Kansas State University

Copyright © 2008 Blackwell Publishing Ltd

Sociology Compass 2/3 (2008): 910–924, 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2008.00117.x


The non-custodial mother is an anomaly. She does not live with her children on a full-time basis, putting her outside of the dominant expectations associated with motherhood. Although there has been an increase in the number of non-custodial mothers in recent years, information on the experience of being a non-custodial mother is minimal. The majority of our knowledge of non-custodial mothers stems from research conducted during the mid-1980s through the 1990s. This research was primarily descriptive in nature, lacking theoretical density. This article provides an overview of research completed on non-custodial mothers over the past two decades, with attention to the family and the role of the courts. After reviewing past research, the current state of the field is discussed, and future research directions are suggested.


10.1111/j.1751-9020.2008.00117.x About DOI

Article Text

For well over two decades, scholars have examined the connection between being a woman and motherhood (Schur 1984; Glenn 1994; Hays 1996). Early research examined the quality of mothering and its effects on children. More recent research has focused on mothers’ activities and the meaning attached to motherhood, drawing attention to the intensive nature of mothering in western society (Hays 1996; Arendell 2000). Feminist scholars have critiqued this literature, arguing that our knowledge of mothers has been based on a white, heterosexual woman’s point of view (Collins 1990;Glenn 1994). As a result, recent motherhood scholarship has drawn attention to mothers who do not fit the dominant ideology of motherhood–mothers of color, working mothers, single mothers, lesbian mothers, and non-custodial mothers, to name a few. These mothers, often referred to as resistant mothers, do not fit neatly into the intensive motherhood paradigm (Garey 1999; Glenn 1994; Hill Collins 1987).

One such mother, the non-custodial mother, is the subject of this article. Although it is true that women still receive custody of children in the majority of custody cases, the custodial father has become more visible over the years. Despite the increase in the number of non-custodial mothers, little information exists on this population as Arditti and Madden-Derdich (1993), Arditti (1995), Fischer and Cardea (1981), and Greif (1987a, 1997) have noted. In an attempt to synthesize the scholarship on non-custodial mothers, this article provides an overview of research completed on non-custodial mothers over the past two decades, drawing attention to shifts in the scholarly coverage of these women. After reviewing past research, the current state of the field is discussed, and future research directions are suggested.

Non-custodial mothers: The 1980s and 1990s

The structure and content of research on non-custodial mothers is the product of social and political forces operating from decade to decade. The majority of our knowledge of non-custodial mothers stems from research completed during the mid-1980s through the 1990s (see Arditti 1995; Arditti and Madden-Derdich 1993; Babcock 1997; Chesler 1986; Christensen et al. 1990; Clumpus 1996; Dolan and Hoffman 1998; Edwards 1989; Ferguson 1994; Fischer 1983; Fischer and Cardea 1981; Fox and Kelly 1995;Furstenburg et al. 1983; Greif 1987a, b; Greif 1997; Greif and Pabst 1988; Herrerias 1984; Herrerias 1995; Hetherington 1993; Maccoby and Mnookin 1992; Meyers and Lakin 1983; Rosen and Etlin 1996; Santora and Hays 1998, Stewart 1999a, b; Zuravin and Greif 1989).

During this time, fathers started to receive custody of children in increasing numbers, placing non-custodial mothers under the social microscope. As indicated by the title of Harriett Edwards’ (1989) book, as more and more mothers lost or gave up custody of their children, the question on the minds of society was, How Could You? These thoughts, of course, were intimately connected with the notion that mothers should have primary custody of their children because of their nurturing and loving characteristics – these notions still permeate our society today, affecting the actions of both mothers and fathers. As a case in point, Cowdery and Knudson-Martin’s (2005) qualitative analysis of 50 couples pointed to an unequal division of childcare labor between mothers and fathers. This division of labor was created based on idealized beliefs about motherhood. As a result, mothers were intimately connected with children, whereas fathers were encouraged to step aside (see also Aldous et al. 1998). In these families, and within society at large, this lesser involvement of fathers was expected and tolerated (see also Hochschild 1989) because of the belief that mothers should, by virtue of their gender, be the primary caretakers of children. For mothers who do not have custody of their children, this ideology is problematic on a personal and social level.

In an attempt to better understand these mothers’ experiences of custody loss as well as their individual experiences as non-custodial mothers, scholarly research increased in the social sciences. The focus of this research ranged from individual experiences of mothers (i.e., social judgments and relationships with children) to structural processes that influenced women’s experiences (i.e., reasons for relinquishment and letter of the law).

One structural change that has led to women’s loss of custody is the family courts’ movement toward gender neutrality. The movement toward a gender neutral custody process emerged in the family courts around 1970 and gained momentum during the 1980s (Fox and Kelley 1995). Gender neutrality – the idea that both mothers and fathers can equally parent their children – challenged the historical notion that mothers are better suited to care for young children emotionally and physically than fathers (i.e., ‘the tender years doctrine’). As more women entered the workforce and the culture began to open up regarding parental roles, fathers started to become more active in caregiving. As a result, in family court, it was no longer assumed that mothers were the better parent and fathers began to seek and gain custody in increasing numbers (Fox and Kelley 1995; Greif and Pabst 1988; Greif 1995; Thompson 1983).

According to Chesler (1986), the by product of this ‘gender-neutral approach’ was a court system that privileged fathers’ rights over mothers’ rights as judges expressed their approval of fathers’ involvement while at the same time scrutinizing mother’s maternal responsibilities. Fathers’ suitability as custodial parents was further endorsed when economic stability was added into the equation. In a study completed for the American Bar Association, Mason (1997) found that custody decisions mentioned economic stability 46.5% of the time. Generally speaking, men have an economic advantage over women, putting women in a precarious position in custody cases.

Research by Babcock (1997), Chesler (1986), Greif and Pabst (1988), and Herrerias (1984, 1995) rigorously examined the experiences of non-custodial mothers through the lens of social psychology, social work, and symbolic interactionism. These works contributed a great deal to what we know about non-custodial mothers’ experiences during the 1980s on both an interpersonal and structural level. These are notable exceptions to what consisted mostly of descriptive studies that provided a great deal of background information about women’s experiences, but failed to rigorously examine women’s experiences through a theoretical lens.

Methodologically speaking, it is important to point out that the research completed during this time varied tremendously. Some studies used quantitative data collection methods, yielding large samples of non-custodial mothers (see Greif and Pabst 1988;Herrerias 1984), whereas other studies used qualitative methods involving interviews with small samples of non-custodial mothers (see Clumpus 1996; Ferguson 1994 for two examples of qualitative scholarship). In addition, differences also existed regarding survey instruments used during data collection (see Greif and Pabst 1988; Herrerias 1984). Because the quality and specificity of the data within these studies varied significantly, caution must be taken when comparing studies to one another.

That having been said, the studies completed during the 1980s and 1990s provided much needed insight into the lives of non-custodial mothers. Research focused on social beliefs about non-custodial mothers, reasons for relinquishing custody of children, relationships with children, adjustment to the status of non-custodial mother, and the family courts.


Studies during the 1980s and 1990s indicated that non-custodial mothers experienced a great deal of social stigma because of the loss of their children. In a comparison study of custodial (n = 14) and non-custodial mothers (n = 17), Fischer and Cardea (1981) found that mothers, regardless of their custodial status, felt that society had a negative view of women who had relinquished custody of their children. This study also found that over half of the non-custodial mothers had received negative reactions from friends and family due to the loss of their children.

In 1983, Fischer polled 34 respondents from the human development and family studies faculty as well as graduate students at a university in West Texas regarding attitudes toward couples with children and couples living childfree lifestyles (i.e., homosexual couples, cohabiting heterosexual couples, empty nest couples, married couples without children, couples who lost children to accidents, and non-custodial parents). Using a 7-point scale, respondents were asked to rank the categories on two dimensions: whether the situation was common or uncommon in society and whether society approved or disapproved of this lifestyle. Findings indicated that respondents thought society most disapproved of homosexual couples and non-custodial mothers.

In her study of 100 mothers, Edwards (1989) reported mixed results regarding non-custodial experiences. Some of the women in her study spoke of being stigmatized by family, friends, and acquaintances, whereas others pointed to the strong support that they received from people in their lives. Thus, not all women incurred harsh judgments because of their status.

Ferguson (1994) used two case studies to highlight the experience of being a non-custodial mother. Using these two cases as well as past literature, Ferguson pointed out that women are prepared for the role of mother through gender socialization from an early age. Furthermore, the mothers are blamed for children’s pathologies, are expected to be self-sacrificing, and experience inequality when they work in the paid labor force. These stereotypes, and the outcomes from these stereotypes, led to negative evaluations of non-custodial mothers and also affected women’s choices when relinquishing custody (see also Babcock 1997). Accordingly, Ferguson recommended support groups to help non-custodial mothers adjust to this role.

Using one on one interviews obtained through Mothers Apart from Their Children (MATCH), Clumpus (1996) explored the lives of 10 non-custodial mothers. Her goal was to understand how the social construction of non-custodial mothers as ‘unfit’ parents affected these women’s self-perceptions. Clumpus (1996) found that the non-custodial mothers in her sample perceived themselves as deficient and blamed themselves for their non-custodial status. Because of these perceptions, the mothers separated themselves from their children, family, and friends.

Using a convenience sample of 120 participants from the general population (60 male and 60 female), Dolan and Hoffman (1998) conducted a study of perceptions of parent custodial status using vignettes depicting persons as married parents, divorced parents with custody, and divorced persons without custody. Their findings indicated that participants were most likely to rate both mothers and fathers who were non-custodial parents negatively. However, over all other parental forms, non-custodial mothers were the most negatively evaluated parents in the study.

Babcock (1997) focused on the effect that non-custodial status had on the salience of identity and general self-esteem for non-custodial mothers. Her most important finding was that all of the 41 non-custodial mothers that were interviewed had experienced negative appraisals on at least one occasion. In order to compensate for these negative appraisals, Babcock deduced that the non-custodial mothers were attempting to fit the ideal model of mothering by altering their mothering role to more closely match social expectations of mothers. According to Babcock’s analysis, the mothers increased physical visitation and contact by phone and letter, showing their dedication to their children. When these efforts to be more like ‘traditional’ mothers failed, the mothers redefined their mothering role, becoming more like sisters, aunts, or friends to their children. The participants claimed that these relationships were mutually satisfying for themselves and their children.


Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, mothers gave up or lost custody of their children for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons included inability to financially support children, children choosing to remain with their father or another custodial caregiver, mothers’ emotional difficulties, and the courts’ view that fathers were the better parents – usually because of one of the reasons listed (Arditti and Madden-Derdich 1993;Fischer and Cardea 1981; Fischer 1983; Greif and Pabst 1988; Herrerias 1984;Meyers and Lakin 1983; Santora and Hays 1998; Zuravin and Greif 1989). These studies distinguished between voluntary and involuntary relinquishment of custody. In voluntary cases, mothers chose to give up custody of their children. In involuntary cases, the mothers were forced by the courts to give up custody due to their perceived inability to care for the children (Herrerias 1995). In a departure from these descriptive analyses, Clumpus (1996) examined the repercussions of lack of resources on mothers and children, finding that mothers felt that the unequal distribution of power between them and their ex-spouses led to their children becoming tactical pawns in their ex-husbands’ attempts to control the post-divorce relationship between them and their children.


For the most part, mothers were involved with their children after giving up or losing custody. Greif (1987b) found increased mother involvement when: (i) the father shared responsibility for the break-up with the ex-wife; (ii) custody was gained through mutual agreement; (iii) the father was earning the higher income; (iv) the father was raising one or two children (rather than three or more); and (v) the mother lived nearby. Using questionnaire responses from 1,136 custodial fathers, Greif found that 73 percent of fathers indicated that their ex-wives were somewhat or slightly involved with their children, whereas only 7 percent of the men indicated that their ex-wives were very involved. It should be noted that these findings were only indicative of face-to-face interaction; they did not account for contact by mail or telephone.

In a comparison of non-custodial mothers and fathers, Furstenburg, Peterson, Nord, and Zill (1983) indicated that mothers were more likely to have higher levels of contact with children than non-custodial fathers. Non-custodial mothers were more likely to visit their children regularly, to have overnight visits, and to write letters and phone the children. These results, however, should be looked at with caution given the difference between the sample of non-custodial fathers (n = 395) and the sample of non-custodial mothers (n = 28).

In 1984, Herrerias reported results from 18 page questionnaires collected from non-custodial mothers who lived in Texas, Oklahoma, and New York. Her findings indicated that upon relinquishment, roughly 97% of the 130 women in her sample maintained an active relationship with their children. The majority (71%) were happy with their decision to give up custody, and with their mother–child relationships. Nearly 77 percent described their relationships with their children as close and caring. Greif and Pabst (1988) analyzed 517 questionnaires that were disseminated to non-custodial mothers through the Parents Without Partners magazine and through the Mothers Without Custody organization. Findings indicated that mothers remained involved with their children after relinquishing custody. Out of 517 non-custodial mothers, roughly 23 percent of the mothers claimed to be very involved, 33 percent were somewhat involved, 29 percent were slightly involved, and 15 percent were not involved at all.

In an attempt to fully understand the relationship between non-custodial mothers and their children, the research in the 1990s focused on both quantity and quality of visitation. Although past research from the 1980s addressed the issue of quality to a degree, most of the attention focused on quantity of visitation, excluding parents’ actual involvement in their children’s daily lives and activities. As Greif (1997) noted, parents may pay child support and visit their children regularly, but this is not indicative of involvement in their children’s daily lives. For example, non-custodial fathers have been dubbed ‘Disneyland Dads’ because they do not actively participate in their children’s day-to-day routine (e.g., helping with homework), but instead engage in social and recreational activities (Hetherington 1993).

In two studies completed by Arditti, quantity of visitation was addressed, but quality of visitation was largely ignored. Arditti and Madden-Derdich (1993) found that over half of the 13 mothers in their study indicated that they saw their children several times a month and felt that the visitations went well, for the most part. Mothers did, however, report that they felt a decline in closeness with their children after the divorce.

Arditti (1995) argued that there are clear distinctions between non-custodial mothers and fathers, especially with regards to involvement with their children. The literature cited in this review pointed to the fact that mothers were much more likely to feel a connection with their children despite their living arrangements, and that they were more likely to try to maintain an active relationship with their children through visitation, phoning, mailing letters, etc. Although this article focused on the connection between mothers and children, involvement in children’s day-to-day lives was ignored.

In their work, Maccoby and Mnookin (1992) examined divorced families in California, showing that non-custodial mothers were more involved in day-to-day aspects of parenting such as buying clothes, keeping track of doctor appointments, and supervising homework than were non-custodial fathers. Non-custodial fathers also reported more problems monitoring their children’s activities during visitation than did non-custodial mothers.

Using the 1987 to 1988 National Survey of Families and Households, Stewart (1999a) addressed structural impediments to visitation activities (e.g., living far away from children and lack of finances), a finding that parents who lived further away from their children were less likely to see their children and when they did see their children were more likely to participate in leisure activities rather than school or organized activities. Parents with low levels of education were more likely to focus on leisure activities when they were with their children. Level of earnings had no impact on the choice to participate in leisure versus school activities. Overall, Stewart’s findings revealed that both non-custodial mothers and fathers have similar types of visitation patterns, leading to the conclusion that emotional issues and practical barriers make day-to-day contact with children difficult to maintain, regardless of parents’ gender.

In a similar analysis using the same dataset, Stewart (1999b) found that non-resident mothers were slightly more likely to maintain contact via phone and mail than fathers. About 30 percent of non-resident mothers talked to their children several times a week compared with 20 percent of fathers. She found no difference between how many times mothers and fathers saw their children during the year. Yet, overall, children spent significantly more weeks visiting non-resident mothers than fathers. Over two thirds of non-resident fathers reported never having had their children come to stay with them compared with half of mothers. Over one third of non-resident mothers reported that their child stayed with them for over one month in the last year, compared with only 14 percent of fathers.


Adjusting to and coping with the role of non-custodial parent can be a complex process. Scholarship during the 1980s and 1990s indicated that some women adapted quickly and coped well in their new parenting role, whereas others experienced difficulties associated with relinquishing their children. Greif (1987a) found that one third of his sample of 517 non-custodial mothers were comfortable being non-custodial parents, were comfortable telling people that they were non-custodial parents, did not feel guilty about their non-custodial status, felt the children were better off where they were (i.e., outside of mothers’ custody), and were satisfied with their relationship with their children. Focusing on these women’s experiences, Greif (1987a) found that mothers’ comfort was most highly correlated with their satisfaction with their relationship with their children, not feeling guilt, and believing that the children were better off with their fathers. Personal factors that were predictors of comfort included the choice to voluntarily give up custody, the reason the mother gave for the divorce (e.g., if she felt that the blame was shared she was better off), the reason why the mother did not have custody (e.g., mothers whose children wanted to live with their father were better adjusted), the stress at the time of relinquishment (i.e., mothers who felt less stress were better adjusted), mother’s religion (i.e., those with no religious affiliation felt more comfortable), and the way the mothers dealt with changes in their lifestyles (i.e., those who felt content with a changing financial lifestyle were more comfortable as non-custodial mothers).

In their book Mothers Without Custody, Greif and Pabst (1988) found that women who demonstrated the highest level of adjustment reported seeing their children often and having grown up in a family with liberal views on the role of mothers and fathers in children’s lives. Similar to Greif (1987a) and Greif and Pabst (1988), Edwards (1989) found that out of the 100 non-custodial mothers she surveyed, more than 90 percent expressed satisfaction with their decision to relinquish custody because they felt that it was in the best interests of the children financially, physically, and emotionally.

Fischer and Cardea (1981), on the other hand, found that mothers had a difficult time coping with their non-custodial status. This research indicated that non-custodial mothers were under a great deal of stress, were economically disadvantaged, and lacked a sufficient support system. Herrerias (1984) asked 130 women to reflect on their experiences with custody relinquishment. Twenty-two percent of these mothers regretted their custody decision, citing experiences with low self-esteem and non-psychotic depression.

Edwards (1989) found that the women in her study used a variety of coping tactics, some positive and some negative. Methods of coping included staying in contact with children, keeping a journal about their feelings, staying physically active, reading self-help books, using pills and alcohol, going to therapy, staying active with people, and staying busy.

Santora and Hays (1998) asked their 26 participants how they had coped with the status of non-custodial parent. The majority pointed to the need for a non-judgmental social support network composed of family, friends, other non-custodial mothers, and support groups to help them in adjusting to this role. When asked what they would recommend to other women in similar positions, the women recommended redefining one’s role as a mother, recognizing that this is a time for grieving, allowing this process to take place, using prayer and spirituality, educating oneself about women’s issues, and doing things for your children (e.g., making scrapbooks). Of the 26 women inSantora and Hays’ (1996) study, the majority (69 percent) experienced significant levels of anxiety and/or depressive symptoms, half reported significant health problems, and five of the women were using antidepressants.


The research of the 1990s began to focus on women’s experiences within the court system and how custody was actually determined within the legal system. As more fathers were awarded custody of their children, the reasons for this increase were explored as well as mothers’ visitation, child support, and overall treatment in the system. Using data from 509 divorce cases in Michigan during the early 1980s, Fox and Kelly (1995) examined who was most likely to receive sole physical custody in final court judgments. Their findings indicated substantial gender differences in the effects of socioeconomic and legal process variables on custody outcomes.

More specifically, they found that fathers were more likely to gain custody of older male children than female children. When shifting attention to socioeconomic factors in custody decisions, they found that mothers were more likely to be awarded custody of their children if they had a college degree. Education did not play a role in the court-based custody decision for fathers. Mothers’ income had no effect on whether or not she obtained custody. On the other hand, fathers with high incomes were less likely to have custody of their children. This was not because the court was unlikely to give higher income fathers custody, but was related to the high opportunity costs involved in being the sole custodial parent of a child or children. In other words, these fathers opted to not go for custody. Courts were less likely to give custody to unemployed fathers while women’s employment status had no effect on custody decisions.

Shifting to the legal process, findings indicated that when husbands were the plaintiffs in custody cases, they were more likely to obtain sole custody of the children (Chesler 1986; Fox and Kelly 1995). Fox and Kelly (1995) argued that this finding was indicative of the shift to gender-neutral custody outcomes. This study also found that when a court investigation took place regarding the children’s current living situation that fathers were more likely to gain custody of the children.

Using 1153 court case records from 10 Minnesota counties in 1986, Christensen, Dahl, and Rettig (1990) examined the differences in treatment of non-custodial mothers and fathers by the courts. Christensen et al. (1990) found that non-custodial mothers pay child support less frequently than non-custodial fathers. More specifically, out of 114 non-custodial mother cases, 38 mothers paid support. When non-custodial mothers paid child support, they also paid less child support than non-custodial fathers (i.e., 20 percent of their income versus 25 percent of fathers’ income). Upon closer inspection, it was found that non-custodial mothers pay less because of their disproportionately low incomes in comparison with men. More specifically, non-custodial mothers had a net yearly income that was about 63 percent of non-custodial fathers. Non-custodial mothers were likely to be employed in jobs with few fringe benefits and were also less likely to have pensions in comparison with non-custodial fathers.

To some degree, studies during the 1990s drew attention to the connection between child custody and domestic violence. Rosen and Etlin (1996), for example, found that judges were more likely to give custody of children to abusive fathers because of the assumption that battered mothers were unable to take care of themselves (i.e., could not stop the abuse) and therefore could not care for or protect their children.

The non-custodial mother: Current knowledge (2000 to present)

The descriptive studies conducted during the 1980s and 1990s provided much needed background information about non-custodial mothers. With the exception of Chesler (1986), Greif and Pabst (1988), and Herrerias (1984), these studies lacked theoretical depth. As research continued into the 1990s, similar trends continued until the middle of the decade. At this time, a more theoretically rigorous examination of non-custodial mothers’ experiences became apparent. In particular, Clumpus (1996) used a social constructionist framework to understand mothers’ experiences with social stigma, whereas Babcock (1997) examined social stigma through the use of identity theory. During this decade, we also saw a shift toward focusing more on structural forces that affect women’s experiences in the courts and during visitations with their children.Stewart (1999a) discussed how a mother’s economic situation as well as her living arrangements could impede her ability to see her children. Both issues are intimately connected to gender. Studies by Fox and Kelly (1995) and Christensen et al. (1990) also point to how gender and economic situation affects women’s experiences with custody and child support.

Studies on non-custodial mothers from 2000 up to today have been minimal. Bemiller’s (2005) recent qualitative study, used 16 one-on-one interviews to further understand the connection between being a woman and motherhood in Western society. This study explored how non-custodial mothers define and enact motherhood in a society that emphasizes that mothers should be the primary caregivers for children. Bemiller notes that non-custodial mothers are perceived as ‘deviant’ mothers because they live apart from their children most of the time and therefore are unable to be full-time, intensive mothers. As a result, non-custodial mothers struggled with their role as mother, vacillating between accommodation of dominant definitions of motherhood and resistance of the same ideology.

Other research has drawn attention to non-custodial mothers’ experiences within the family court system. Adding to past research on child support payments, Grall (2007) reported that non-custodial mothers’ and non-custodial fathers’ child support payments were comparable. The proportion of mothers (47.3 percent) and fathers (43.1 percent) receiving full payments of child support in 2005 were not statistically significant. In addition to Grall’s census report, a report from the National Organization for Women (NOW) documented women’s experiences with family court dysfunction in California (Heim et al. 2002). This report found corruption, denial of due process, and gender bias in the family courts. Similarly, The Wellesley Centers for Women published a report that examined violations of human rights laws and standards in the Massachusetts family courts. These violations included failure to investigate allegations of child abuse in contested child custody cases (Cuthbert et al. 2002).

In an attempt to further understand the effects of interpersonal violence (IPV) on custody outcomes, Kernic et al. (2005) completed a retrospective cohort study of 2,516 couples with children under the age of 18 years in Seattle, WA. The authors found a history of IPV in 11 percent of the cases that they examined. Kernic et al. (2005) found that mothers with a history of IPV were no more likely than comparison group mothers to be awarded child custody, although overall mothers in the study were more likely to be awarded custody of children than fathers. The authors also found that fathers who were known perpetrators of IPV were not expected to have third-party supervision during child visitation, but were often remanded to counseling. The overall findings of this study led to the conclusion that IPV is often not identified within the custody proceedings even when there is a documented, substantiated history of IPV present, and that there was a lack of strong protections ordered among cases where a history of substantiated IPV was known to exist.

Future directions

Although the scholarship of motherhood is alive and well within Sociology, the focus on non-custodial mothers has been limited. This article has provided an overview of some of the seminal studies conducted during the 1980s up to the present. As noted, the majority of the studies completed during the 1980s and 1990s were descriptive, lacking theoretical analyses (for exceptions see Babcock 1997; Chesler 1986; Clumpus 1996;Greif and Pabst 1988; Herrerias 1984). Although these studies provided important background information on these women, they did not theoretically frame their experiences, nor did they provide a detailed examination of social forces that affect non-custodial mothers.These omissions open up many possibilities for research with this population of women. One area that deserves attention is the social construction of motherhood for non-custodial mothers. With the exception of Babcock (1997) andBemiller (2005), researchers have failed to examine how non-custodial mothers define motherhood as well as how they enact mothering in light of the contradictions that exist between personal and social definitions of motherhood. It is important to understand how non-custodial mothers define motherhood and mothering because these definitions affect how they perceive themselves as women and mothers. How non-custodial mothers define and enact mothering may influence their day-to-day interactions with their children, ex-spouses, and family. It may also affect how they cope with the status of non-custodial parent.

Along these same lines, recent scholarship on motherhood has addressed the need to examine the diverse experiences of mothers in relationship to the intensive mothering paradigm. Non-custodial mothers provide a unique opportunity to examine accommodation of or resistance to the intensive mothering paradigm. Because these women do not live with their children the majority of the time, and because they are often in financially unstable situations, these mothers may have a difficult time intensively mothering their children (e.g., cooking for them, buying for them, and nurturing them). Bemiller (2005) has examined this issue with 16 non-custodial mothers, but further research must focus attention on non-custodial mothers and the intensive mothering paradigm.

Social stigma also warrants further examination. In her study of 100 mothers, Edwards (1989) reported mixed reactions regarding non-custodial mothers’ experiences. Some of the women in her study spoke of being stigmatized by family, friends, and acquaintances, whereas others pointed to the strong support that they received from people in their lives. Thus, not all women incurred harsh judgments because of their status. Babcock (1997), on the other hand, found that all of the women in her sample had experienced stigmatization, leading them to redefine the role of mother. Babcock argued that this redefinition of the mother role was connected to the social construction of motherhood. Further exploration into non-custodial mothers and social stigma would be useful. In particular, future research should focus attention on factors that lead some women to define their personal interactions as non-custodial mothers as stigmatizing while others do not. Like Babcock’s findings, new research may continue to find a connection between the social construction of motherhood and the definition of and internalization of stigma.

The relationship between custodial and non-custodial parents must also be explored. Past research has given this topic cursory attention, but has failed to discuss how the relationship between parents affects non-custodial mothers’ access to children and their feelings about motherhood. Although motherhood can be empowering for women (Collins 1987; Johnson 1988), it may also be viewed as disempowering if mothers do not have access to children. Given the barriers that some non-custodial mothers face when attempting to see their children, it is important to understand the short and long term effects on the family.

Last but certainly not least, research should continue to explore the connection between domestic violence and child custody in the family court system. Recent research has documented that fathers receive custody of children despite allegations of family violence (Kernic et al. 2005; Neustein and Lesher 2005; Rosen and Etlin 1996). To better understand how and why this happens research must continue to evaluate court processes and decision-making strategies. In particular, research should focus on court appointed custody evaluators, addressing how they handle contested custody cases that involve allegations of domestic violence.

The above-mentioned are only a few suggestions for areas of exploration. Research opportunities are numerous within this population of mothers. Future research should continue to explore the diversity of contemporary family life, contributing to our understanding of motherhood, fatherhood, and family as gendered social institutions.

Short Biography

Michelle Bemiller is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Kansas State University. Her research is located within the areas of gender, deviance, and criminology; she has authored or co-authored refereed articles and book reviews in these areas forSociological Focus, Journal of Family Issues, Gender & Society, Contemporary Sociology, and the Criminal Justice Review. She is currently completing a multi-method analysis of occupational burnout amongst sexual assault and domestic violence workers in the state of Kansas. She holds a BA in Political Science/Criminal Justice from the University of Akron, an MA in Justice Studies from Kent State University, and a PhD in Sociology from the University of Akron.


* Correspondence address: Department of Sociology, Anthropology, and Social Work, Kansas State University, 204 Waters Hall, Manhattan, KS 66506–4003, USA.


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Sociology Compass 2/3 (2008): 910–924, 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2008.00117.x

3 Responses

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  1. Laura Clark said, on July 24, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    Great information! Thank you so much!

  2. ncmdekalbga said, on February 20, 2012 at 11:58 pm

    Reblogged this on Non-Custodial Mothers in DeKalb County, GA ncmdekalbga and commented:
    Work that needed to be undertaken, thank you!

  3. ncmdekalbga said, on February 21, 2012 at 12:32 am

    It is about time that this subject is addressed on behalf of scholars, for inside are more facts that have been ignored. This is a good read, especially for anyone having an experience with or being a Non-Custodial Mothers DeKalb GA Well-worth your reading time. Thank you so much!

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