The Heroic Mothers of Lost Children
By Phyllis Chesler
Just as the Argentinian mothers of the Plaza de Mayo boldly demonstrated on behalf of their missing children known as the “desaparecidos,” (both young and adult children disappeared by a military junta)–just so are American mothers crying out and publicly demonstrating about their lost children.
Yes, I am talking about children who are lost to their mothers, and mothers who are lost to their children due to the most profound and toxic bias against women in the American family court system.
These mothers have often been chronically and severely battered. I am talking about broken bones and welts and scars and near-deaths–I am talking about mothers who themselves have been tortured and whose torture has been witnessed, daily, by their young children; but I am also talking about heroic mothers who have desperately tried to protect their children from being beaten and raped by sadistic, sociopathic fathers who then invariably and unbelievably receive sole custody when such allegations are aired in a courtroom.
I have been battling the Great American Custody Wars ever since the mid-1970s. I could not believe what was happening to mothers then—and when I broke the news in the mid-1980s, few people believed me.
The prevailing myths were that women had an unfair advantage in custody battles and that men were discriminated against. This was not true then and it is not true today.
People also believed that only unfit mothers lost custody and that only very fit fathers obtained it. Mainly, the opposite is true.
No one believed that courts actually enabled or legalized incest or removed children from very competent mothers and gave them to exceptionally violent fathers—and then savagely restricted a mother’s access to them.
As I have written in Mothers on Trial: The Battle For Children and Custody, battered and protective mothers are seen as crazy and evil for daring to suggest that a perfectly charming father–that any father–could do such things. From the guardian ad litem to the court appointed forensic to the social worker to the judge–most still believe that mothers are unbalanced, lying, “alienating” the children from their fathers; they must be punished for going against the default patriarchal control of women’s and children’s bodies.
And, although there are exceptions, when the mothers run, they are invariably caught and jailed and will rarely again ever have custodial access to the very children they have tried so hard to protect. If they are lucky, they will have limited supervised visitation for which they will have to pay.
Yes, in America, all across the country. And yes, it is far, far worse in non-Western and tribal countries where a father and his family literally owns his children and the woman who birthed and cared for them.
I have been doing this work for 41 years now. I am thrilled that more and more mothers and their advocates are finding their political voices and that I have lived to see it.
I am saddened, sobered, that a political movement is necessary, that such matters have not improved–and that most of our iconic Second Wave feminists have not shouldered this burden down the decades. Abortion rights yes; motherhood rights, not so much; children’s rights, even less. Yet these rights and these fights are really all closely connected.
Thus, if you want to know where the “real” grassroots feminist movement is now–just come to the annual Battered Mothers Custody Conference now going into its thirteenth year. Dr. Mo Hannah began this twelve years ago, and the mothers who have been abused–not only by their battering, often pedophile husbands, but by the legal system as well–gather here to gain strength, join forces, tell their stories, listen to each other as well as to their advocates, strategize, demonstrate, lobby.
This year we met in Albany. The mothers tell stories that are enraging and heartbreaking; but they are no longer silent. After a three day conference, many took buses to Washington D.C to demonstrate at the Capitol Building on Mother’s Day and to lobby Congress today.
I showed a small part of the historic and first-ever 1986 Custody Speak-out which I coordinated together with Noreen Connell of NOW-NYS. I am now committed to getting this material fully digitized and posted online.
I am thrilled that expert advocates such as Lundy Bancroft, Holly Collins, Jennifer Collins, Nancy Erickson, Rose Garrity, Barry Goldstein, Mo Therese Hannah, Toby Kleinman, Dorchen Leithold, Patrice Lenowitz, Maralee McLean, Wendy Murphy, Connie Valentine, Garland Waller are here, speaking out, with brilliance and creativity.
This is Part One of a Series.
Dr. Phyllis Chesler is an Emerita Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies and the author of sixteen books including the best-selling Women and Madness, Mothers on Trial, Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman, and An American Bride in Kabul. She is a co-founder of the Association for Women in Psychology (1969) and the National Women’s Health Network (1975).