When Jean, like many young mothers, had been married for ten years with a nine-year-old daughter, she never thought she would leave her family behind. But when she had a chance to further her studies abroad, she brought it up with her husband. His reaction surprised her. He told her he didn’t care what she would do with her life, but she would not take their daughter anywhere. Left with no options, she decided to pack up and leave, following a girlhood dream. She didn’t expect to be demonised and almost kept away from her daughter after she was forced by circumstance to return to the country.
Mothers leaving their children, even with good reason, is stigmatised. When men leave their families to pursue career progression, they’re often praised. Gender stereotypes that have men typically as breadwinners perpetuate a culture where they are applauded for mental self-improvement, whereas women are expected to focus on their families well-being.
There is an expectation that women should forego any personal ambitions for their husbands and children. When they choose to leave their families for their own benefit, they’re vilified. They should have been glad for her return when Jean returned from her trip abroad. However, her closest relatives were unwelcoming and carried a sense of schadenfreude. Her former husband tried to bar her from seeing her daughter, and his new wife even threatened the little girl with never seeing her father again should she demand to go live with her mother.
If Jean had been a man, no one would be surprised if he had started a new family abroad. He could even be praised for it. On his return, his wife would be expected to accommodate and comfort him because his goals didn’t go according to plan.
Why is there a double standard when mothers leave their families?
Fathers and mothers leave their families almost as frequently as each other. However, it appears that mothers abandoning their children lose friends and their jobs and get further ostracised by their extended families.
When you consider the systemic injustice women face globally, it should be no surprise that sometimes women can’t bear the burden and responsibility of parenting. There are about 121 million unplanned pregnancies globally. With limited access to abortion worldwide, many women are forced to carry unplanned pregnancies to term. The lack of access to childcare may make many women decide to give up a child for adoption or send them to an orphanage or have them raised by their grandparents.
Research shows that approximately 606 million women can’t find work because of unpaid childcare. Women lose working opportunities when they get children and have no financial support from spouses or society. Expanding access to childcare could reduce instances of child abandonment where mothers feel the need to choose between their livelihoods and parenting.
If mothers had better access to family planning and later child care, there may be fewer instances of child abandonment because compromise would be much easier to manage. However, mothers still receive undue ire. Studies show that children still grow up with the same welfare when raised by single fathers, just as when raised by single mothers.
Does it need to be fixed?
1. Equitable childcare
Child abandonment is a symptom. The core reasons why mothers may abandon their children is because the pregnancy was unplanned, and they can’t bear the responsibility singlehandedly. In an equitable society, childcare would be provided to all who need it, and women wouldn’t feel unnecessary pressure regarding parenthood. Studies show that better access to childcare improves not only the mothers’ and children’s lives.
This includes having community-based care of children within localities funded by the state or local organisations. Women can pursue career goals, schooling, and other ambitions without giving up their families.
2. Better spousal support
As society evolves, the role of women in the home is becoming more demystified. Roles that were largely reserved for women are now considered universal life skills. Organisation, cleaning, or cooking aren’t delineated by gender. When husbands pitch in to help with the housework, this creates a more equitable home where one role isn’t placed on one parent’s shoulders. With such sharing, it’s easier for one parent to pursue an ambition because they know the other parent has things in hand.
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3. Better healthcare
Another reason why mothers may abandon their children is because of mental health problems such as depression or addiction. Poor mental health can lead to family conflict, suicide, self-harm, and substance abuse.
Read also: How Drug Addiction Can Harm A Relationship
But the lack of access to mental health care can lead to mothers abandoning their families because of their condition. The financial barriers, lack of mental health awareness, and social stigma of mental health make it difficult for mothers to remain in their roles. More often than not, they can’t get treatment and leave their families.
Ultimately, the role of the mother is difficult and requires more nuance when being considered. Women need more knowledge about motherhood other than the glamorised version presented by society. Motherhood is presented as an honour or a gift, which can be for parents who plan or want to be parents. Each case of abandonment is unique, but there are generalisations to be considered. Mothers leave their families behind just as much as fathers do, but there should be more grace when considering why mothers walk away.
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