Some stereotypes die harder than others. One of the most enduring is the widespread perception that women who give up custody of their children are horrible mothers.
Rebekah Spicuglia lives with that perception every day. For many years after she relinquished custody of her son to his father, she tried to avoid even discussing the topic. But as more and more women make the socially unorthodox decision to give up primary custody of their children, Spicuglia has found that people are gradually coming to understand that sometimes the best thing a mother can do for her child is let go of them.
“Telling people that I was a noncustodial mom — I found it to be a conversation stopper,” Spicuglia told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Wednesday in New York. “For a long time, I didn’t really feel comfortable talking about it.”
Mothers currently retain custody of the children in approximately 70 percent of divorces. But even though that’s the majority, that still leaves a large and growing number of women who do not retain custody.
“The more I talk about it, the more I find that people’s eyes are open to the reality — which is that over 2 million noncustodial moms are in America right now, and it is definitely increasing,” Spicuglia said. “People are recognizing that fathers can be amazing primary caregivers, and we shouldn’t sell men short.”
Spicuglia is one of several women profiled in a Marie Claire magazine article about the growing phenomenon of noncustodial mothers. Joanna Coles, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, said that response to the story has been generally positive.
“I think this is a story that’s been gradually creeping up. It’s increasingly a trend, especially as society becomes less judgmental of men who want to step into that role,” said Coles, who joined Spicuglia on TODAY. “We’ve had a few people who are just like, ‘I’ll never understand it. It’s insane. What kind of mother is doing this?’ But I think it was very important to lift the taboo on it and to say these are real stories that happen to real people, and the children are just fine.”
Spicuglia said that’s the case with her son, Oscar, who was born when she was just 18 years old. Spicuglia married her son’s father, a restaurant worker in Santa Maria, Calif., and started taking classes at the local community college.
But she wanted to build a career and travel. Her husband, on the other hand, wanted to stay at home surrounded by his extended family and working in the job with which he was familiar and comfortable. When Spicuglia was accepted as a student at Berkeley, her husband did not want to move, and she didn’t want to give up what could have been her one chance for a top-level education.
So she moved alone to Berkeley, leaving Oscar, then 3, with his father. At first, she was racked by guilt over her decision, but with time came to see it as the best way to ensure Oscar’s well-being.
Another woman profiled in the magazine, Maria Housden, would agree. She gave up custody of her children when she divorced 11 years ago, and, like Spicuglia, she found it to be a traumatic decision.
Housden had also married young, at age 20, and would have four children. But problems in the marriage began to show when her oldest daughter, Hannah, was diagnosed with cancer just a month before her third birthday. One year later, Hannah was dead and Housden was devastated. Though she stayed in the marriage for three more years and had additional children, the marriage had begun to deteriorate.
In a separate story reported by TODAY’s Natalie Morales, Housden said it was her husband who suggested that he become the primary caregiver when they divorced. Having grown up with the image of a stay-at-home mom as being her only proper role, Housden had trouble comprehending the idea.
“My first reaction was, I was horrified,” Housden told Morales. “What I was afraid of was what other people would think: What kind of mother would leave her kids?”
Like Spicuglia, Housden met with open hostility when she finally made the decision to be a noncustodial mom. She remembers walking into a school meeting and having conversation stop when she passed. “It was like this zone of silence as I walked through the room,” she said.
Spicuglia told a similar story to Vieira about giving up primary custody to her husband when they divorced. Now living in New York, she sees Oscar, who is 11, during school holidays and he spends his summers with her. She remains on good terms with her former husband, and his support of the arrangement is vital.
“We have a great relationship,” Spicuglia told Vieira, speaking of her son. “He spends school vacations with me. He’s here during the summer and on Christmas break. We also communicate all the time. We call, we text, we have a very active communication.”
She still meets with resistance and disapproval from some. When she asked to be listed as an emergency contact for her son at school, she said, a vice principal was openly hostile to her. On the other hand, the school’s principal was supportive.
The ambivalence on the part of others, particularly other women, is understandable, said clinical psychologist Judith Sills, who joined the conversation.
“Women are quick to judge other women as mothers even if they go to the office, so you can imagine if they’re giving up custody,” Sills told Vieira. “It comes from a very serious emotional place. We have a very deeply held social feeling that the mother-child bond is sacred, and good moms protect and nurture their children.”
But perception doesn’t always jibe with reality, she went on. “The fact is, some good moms can protect their children best by recognizing someone else is the better parent,” Sills said. “Maybe at this moment; maybe they’re emotionally overwhelmed; maybe to get financially on their feet; maybe because in a divorce, mom is desperate to leave the house, but she knows the kids need stability. That is the ability to make a rational individual decision against a social tide. It takes a lot of strength.”
More from TODAY.com
Reporter Miles O'Brien: Losing arm after accident is 'mind-boggling'
PBS correspondent Miles O'Brien has spent his career reporting on scientific breakthroughs. Now, he'll be the participant ...
- Forgotten? Syria's littlest victims struggle to survive
- Experts weigh in on missing Flight 370
- President Obama zings Zach Galifianakis on 'Between Two Ferns'
- Snag a husband in college? Not so fast, 'Princeton Mom,' parents say
- Reporter Miles O'Brien: Losing arm after accident is 'mind-boggling'
Sills said that children look at such situations differently than adults. For adults, it’s about social norms; for children, it’s about whether they have a happy and stable home, regardless of which parent they’re living with.
Spicuglia asked that before people judge, they consider that there are a lot of factors at play.
“I think that the important thing to remember is that child custody decisions are very complex, and every family situation is different,” she said.
In her case, it’s worked out well. “Our story is not a sad one,” Spicuglia assured Vieira. “It’s a story of a happy family that makes it work.”
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints