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Video: Why one woman walked away from motherhood

  1. Transcript of: Why one woman walked away from motherhood

    MATT LAUER, co-host: All right, Al , thank you very much . When we come back, one woman's controversial decision to leave her husband and two young sons to pursue her career. We'll talk to her right after this.

    MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: Back at 8:09. This morning on TODAY'S FAMILY , redefining motherhood or running from responsibility. A new debate has erupted in the wake of one woman's memoir about leaving her marriage and her two young sons. We're going to talk to her in just a moment, but first NBC 's Mara Schiavocampo has details. Good morning, Mara .

    MARA SCHIAVOCAMPO reporting: Well, good morning, Meredith . Rahna Reiko Rizzuto is painfully honest about her views on family, revealing that she never wanted children , as well as her struggles with being a good mother while staying true to herself.

    Ms. RAHNA REIKO RIZZUTO (Author, "Hiroshima in the Morning"): And this is the day I left. This is me.

    SCHIAVOCAMPO: For author Rahna Reiko Rizzuto , old memories can be painful ones. Ten years ago, the married mother of two got a six-month fellowship in Japan , an opportunity of a lifetime to do research for a book. Although Rizzuto 's kids visited her in Japan , their time apart made her realize she didn't want to be a full-time mom anymore.

    Ms. RIZZUTO: I realized that I had lost myself a little bit and I wanted to give myself more priority.

    SCHIAVOCAMPO: When she returned home, Rizzuto ended her 20-year marriage, leaving behind her two young sons, just five and three, and admitting she never even wanted children .

    Ms. RIZZUTO: I didn't want to be a mother . And that was because I had this idea that motherhood was this really all-encompassing thing and I was afraid of being swallowed up by that.

    SCHIAVOCAMPO: Rizzuto poured her story onto paper, penning the memoir " Hiroshima in the Morning," detailing the collapse of her family and the criticism she faced for leaving.

    Ms. RIZZUTO: There were friends that I had who wouldn't talk to me anymore. I left my children . It was unacceptable. Absolutely, you know, it didn't -- it didn't matter what the reality was. And it was a really -- it was a really sad time.

    SCHIAVOCAMPO: Rizzuto 's situation is rare. Less than 4 percent of children live with their father only. Still, experts say many mothers do feel overwhelmed and are judged differently than fathers.

    Dr. GAIL SALTZ (Psychiatrist): I do think that society says that mothers should in some way be more present than fathers, and that's a double standard. However, I think that it's important for both parents to be present and emotionally available to their children .

    SCHIAVOCAMPO: Today, Rizzuto lives down the street from her boys, now teens, sharing joint custody with her ex-husband. She describes their time together as quality time .

    Ms. RIZZUTO: I am able to pay attention to them in that block of five or six hours or whatever it is in a way that I wouldn't otherwise be able to.

    SCHIAVOCAMPO: While it may not be a traditional arrangement, she says it's one that works for her.

    Ms. RIZZUTO: We have to have the freedom to decide what it is we're going to do and how it is we're going to shape our motherhood, to shape our lives.

    SCHIAVOCAMPO: One woman redefining motherhood and her own life. Rizzuto 's ex-husband has since remarried. Her memoir about her time in Japan and leaving her family has just been named a finalist for the prestigious National Book Critics Circle Award . Meredith :

    VIEIRA: Mara , thank you very much . Rahna Reiko Rizzuto is with us now along with Argie Allen , a relationship therapist and director of clinical training at Drexel University . Good morning to you both.

    Ms. RIZZUTO: Good morning.

    Ms. ARGIE ALLEN (Director of Clinical Training, Drexel University): Good morning.

    VIEIRA: Reiko , as you might expect that your story has generated a lot of response from our viewers in terms of e-mails. Some of it supportive, some people very supportive of you, but many more, I think, critical, criticizing you for, in their view, being selfish about your decision. What do you say to those people?

    Ms. RIZZUTO: Well, you know, I think we are very fierce about our motherhood and what we expect mothers to give to people. And I think that we should be focusing more on children . And I think that -- it's quite possible that some of those people are worried about my children . You know, they're...

    VIEIRA: They would argue that you were not focusing on your children , and that's the problem.

    Ms. RIZZUTO: Right. And that, you know, I would say to them, first of all, that my children are fine. They're not traumatized and I think they have a great -- they have a great life. They have -- they have two households. They have -- they have everything they need. And it's just -- the trick is that it's not coming from the people that people think that it should be coming from. My -- the father is doing what I would call the heavy lifting. He's getting them up in the morning, but they have all of that. So I'm able to provide them something different.

    VIEIRA: When you went to Japan originally in 2001 , this was research for a book.

    Ms. RIZZUTO: Mm-hmm.

    VIEIRA: You didn't intend to leave your family. That wasn't the point. You'd never traveled before then.

    Ms. RIZZUTO: No, no, not at all. It was kind of a -- surprising how life changes in that instant, but the idea was that I had a great opportunity. My husband was very supportive and really encouraged me to go, which I thank him for. And they were going to come out and everything was going to go back to the way it was. It's just that interestingly when I got to Japan , there was kind of a space around me where I wasn't defined anymore in the way that I would be in the US, where people had these expectations. And I grew in ways that I didn't expect. And then I had to kind of reassess what I wanted in my life.

    VIEIRA: And deal with that. Argie , we posted a poll on the TODAY Mom 's Blog asking if moms could leave their kids for six month.

    Ms. ALLEN: Yeah.

    VIEIRA: Much less leave them and get divorced and separated from them. Seventy-two percent say they wouldn't leave their kids, 28 percent said they would. What do those numbers say to you?

    Ms. ALLEN: Yeah. Yeah. It says that often in our culture we're really judgmental. And we think that there's one way to mother or there's one way to parent. The truth is that there's not. There's all forms of mothering and parenting that can be really good. And we've got to figure out what works best for that mother so that they can give the best to their children . And if that's neglecting themselves, I have to say that oftentimes that then means they're under this denial that they're giving their best to their children and their families and the truth is that they may not be.

    Ms. RIZZUTO: Mm-hmm.

    VIEIRA: You now see your children on a regular basis.

    Ms. RIZZUTO: I do. Absolutely.

    VIEIRA: You've redefined motherhood for you.

    Ms. RIZZUTO: Mm-hmm.

    VIEIRA: Do you think you are a better mother to your children now than you were when you were there full-time?

    Ms. RIZZUTO: I do. I really -- I do. I don't -- you know, when they're with me, we're together for six hours. We're doing homework, we're cooking, we're talking about what's going on in the day. I'm not on e-mail, I'm not like going out with friends. We really have this time that is quality time and they do really appreciate that.

    VIEIRA: And what if you'd never gone to Japan ? What do you think would've happened? Same thing, or no?

    Ms. RIZZUTO: You know, I think probably not. It's hard to know, but I think that I was very caught up in the life that I was in and I might not have looked up and it might have taken me many years to say whoa, I did that thing that I didn't want to do, which was give up my life for someone else.

    Ms. ALLEN: Yeah, yeah.

    VIEIRA: But ultimately, Argie , I'm going to ask you, now her children , they're teenagers, and I'm not trying to put anything on them.

    Ms. RIZZUTO: Mm-hmm.

    VIEIRA: You say the relationship is good. But might these kids have some residual, you know, feelings, emotional feelings about the fact that their mother left?

    Ms. ALLEN: Yeah. They may have some residual feelings about that. And the therapeutic process is helpful, they need to maybe talk about that. But at the end of the day , if she's feeling or these children are feeling like they've got the best of their mom and the time span and the quality time that she's spending with them now, then they need to process that and then they can figure out what worked for them so that they can go on to be productive human beings, you know, and adults, in their own parenthood.

    VIEIRA: All right.

    Ms. RIZZUTO: Yeah.

    VIEIRA: Reiko , thank you, Rizzuto , very much.

    Ms. RIZZUTO: Thank you very much .

    VIEIRA: It is a very compelling book and beautifully written, I must say.

    Ms. RIZZUTO: Thank you.

    Ms. ALLEN: Yes.

    VIEIRA: I think people should read it first before we judge anything.

    Ms. ALLEN: Yeah.

    VIEIRA: And Argie Allen , thank you, as well.

Submitted by Elizabeth Koke  /  UGC
Cover@Hiroshima in the Morning (Feminist Press 2010)
TODAY books
updated 3/2/2011 4:40:59 PM ET 2011-03-02T21:40:59

Reiko Rizzuto reflects on her decision to leave her family, her husband and two small children, to study in Japan. While she is away, Rizzuto sees her marriage begin to crumble as she questions her role as a wife and mother. Here's an excerpt.

Prologue: Leaving

I can tell you the story but it won’t be true.

It won’t be the facts as they happened exactly, each day, each footstep, each breath. Time elides, events shift; sometimes we shift them on purpose and forget that we did. memory is just how we choose to remember.

We choose.

It begins in our house, on the top floors of a nineteenth century brownstone. I’m sitting at our long dining room table across from my husband Brian, my two, brightly-pajamaed sons asleep — finally — after slipping downstairs for water, and then just one more kiss between the banisters. The year is 2001, the place New York City, and in the quiet of the last, warming days of May, I am making a list.

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I am a list maker, a super-organizer who measures her success in life by how many of the items she’s checked off. This is who I’ve always been, and it’s never occurred to me to question it. It occurs to me only that I have a goodbye party to throw for myself, which will involve a twenty-five-pound pork butt, Hawaiian rock salt, and ten yards of purple plumeria-patterned fabric that I’ve ordered on the internet but has yet to arrive. If I think about plates, about feeding fifty of my dearest friends who will come to wish me well, I will not have to think of this trip of mine — my first trip away, my first trip alone, my six-month long “trip” to the other side of the world.

Brian watches me busy myself. And then the question: “Why are you going to Japan?”

I lift my eyes — the answer so obvious that it hardly seems possible his question is real. It is, in fact, impossible to consider his question, to glimpse just the broad shoulders of his doubt before it escapes into the shadows, to hear the bass notes of sadness in his voice. Impossible because these things would trap me.

Even looking around my home would hold me here.

I will come to believe, months from now, that life is a narrative. That who we are, what roles we choose — that these are deliberate characters we create to explain what we did and find a way to face tomorrow. That memory is not history. That we rewrite ourselves with every heartbeat. At this moment, though, my life is still a given. It does not — despite the contradiction of reality — change. My life is what surrounds me; I subsist on it so entirely that I can’t begin to see it. The air I breathe is the air that still shimmers in the spot, just above me, where my enormous belly and I once stood on a scaffold, in a bikini top and a pair of baggy sweat-pants, spackling the ceiling three weeks before my oldest son was born. I still draw sustenance from the echoes over the kitchen floor where my children love to dance during dinner. Echoes that shrink, cool, fade but do not, even over lifetimes, completely disappear. I am more than anchored to my world; I am tied tight like Gulliver by the tangle of past poses and years — mine, Brian’s, my children’s — toe here, breast, belly button, wedding ring. In the room, in the trophies from every trip Brian and I have taken since we were teenagers, there are so many flags that say we were there, and there, and there. There are decades of a life that’s far more tangible than I am. And it’s not just the there, the good life, that I am dangerously, paradoxically blind to — it’s the lack of my own identity, the utter, unqualified we.

Instead, I take inventory: I have stocked the freezer with food, put all the “to do” papers together for my sons’ upcoming school year; I have rearranged our babysitter’s schedule so Brian will be able to get to work on time and won’t have to race home in the evening. He was there when I did these things. When I found the ad for the fellowship, he was the one who urged me to apply. I had rejected the idea: it was too unplanned for, this grant that would not be awarded for a year and then could be postponed for another. It was not absolutely essential. Six months to live in Japan, to do whatever I wanted, when I only needed three weeks, a month at most to do some research for my book. And yet. How else would I get to Hiroshima? The thought kept sneaking back, tangling my feet. There was an urgency growing — inexorable and obscure — even though I had no visual, of Japan, of absence, of myself, to guide my journey. I was the one who raised the idea in the first place, and though I could not picture myself leaving, still, I filled out the paperwork.

And then I won.

Brian had plenty of help with the children. And, he himself pointed this out, he had always promised to be their primary caretaker, so he owed me a chunk of time. Once the decision was made — the lying on the couch together, the press of flank to flank and Brian’s assurances, not even whispered, that everything would be fine, he could handle it, they would come visit, maybe even for half the time — it became oddly easy to forget the fact that I’d never lived on my own, for six days let alone six months. That I had never lived in a foreign country, spoken another language; I’d never set off without a plan tucked carefully in my pocket and an extra copy posted on the fridge. Something about this opportunity had exploded all my patterns of behavior: I, the domestic center — the mother of babies, really, of small boys ages three and five—came to see no portent in leaving my family with four telephone numbers in my backpack and not many more Japanese words in my head. But in my own rush to manage, and his inclination to ignore what’s in front of him and hope for the best — “how” had been the only question until this moment.

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“Because I got the grant,” I replied.

In Brooklyn, in 2001, I was making a list. I knew I was leaving, but if I had known how thoroughly my life would shatter over the next six months, into gains just as astonishing as the losses; if I knew I was saying goodbye to the person I was that night, that decade, that lifetime; if I understood I was about to become someone new, too new, someone I was proud of, who I loved, but who was too different to fit here, in this particular, invisible narrative that I was sitting in but couldn’t feel, would I still have gotten on the airplane?

This is the question people will ask me. The question that curls, now, in the dark of the night.

How do any of us decide to leave the people we love?

From "Hiroshima in the Morning" by Rahna Reiko Rizzuto. Copyright © 2010
Reprinted by permission of Feminist Press.

© 2012 MSNBC Interactive


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