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More Working Moms Are Losing Custody

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Working mothers are losing custody of their children with increasing frequency, according to a startling article in the December/January issue of Working Mother magazine.

woman hugging her kids

Single Mom Seeking: "This is a wake-up call to families that have lost track of their priorities in this difficult economy," says Suzanne Riss, editor-in-chief of Working Mother, the voice of 2.4 million working moms.

With women poised to outnumber men in the workforce for the first time in American history -- and men bearing the brunt of recessionary layoffs -- dads are increasingly taking over primary child-rearing duties -- a key consideration in child custody cases.

Among the article's top findings:

  • 2.2 million mothers in America don't have primary physical custody of their children, and this number has been rising steadily.
  • Fathers seeking sole custody in a contested case win at least 50 percent of the time.
  • Fathers are requesting joint or primary custody more and more. Over the past decade, the number of fathers awarded custody of their children has doubled.

"The shifting custody landscape is alarming to working moms, many of whom say they work primarily to provide a better life for their children," Riss says. "Women are surprised to learn that time spent in the office is increasingly being viewed by the courts as evidence that they're less involved in their child's day-to-day care."

Say what?

For starters, Riss explains, "Judges and lawyers will tell you that the family court system is not equipped to handle these personal family matters."

Because courts are so overwhelmed, "judges want to do as little as possible -- unless the child is in danger."

And that often means that "the judge will say, 'keep the status quo,'" Riss explains. "So, if the dad has lost his job, and he's taking the kids to school -- because Mom is the primary breadwinner now and she's now working long hours -- that's the status quo."

"Even if moms are saying, 'You don't see that I'm waking up at 5 AM and staying up at night to read bedtime stories and make school lunches,' the courts can't see the nuances."

Indeed, gone are the days when mothers of children under age seven would get custody under the "Tender Years Doctrine."

"The courts are no longer saying, 'Mommy knows best.' Now it's 'Who's more involved with the kids day to day?'"

Of course, on the positive side, it's great that more fathers "are stepping up to the plate," Riss says. "But unfortunately, in a custody case, emotions often take precedence. Some couples are so estranged and angry ... that they'll try to get sole custody."

Riss stresses, however, that there is a silver lining here: "This is a wake-up call for moms and dads to be better parents -- and to remember the best interests of your kids."

We'd love to know: If you're divorced, what does your custody agreement look like?

next: Did You Marry the Right Person?
47 comments so far | Post a comment now
Black Iris November 20, 2009, 6:29 AM

Actually, I think whoever is the primary caregiver should get custody of the kids. I don’t think that’s discriminating against working women. Discrimination is saying that an at-home dad can’t get custody because he’s a man and so we “know” his wife is really doing the care.

Ignoring the work of at-home parents when you award custody would be discriminating against at-home moms, too.

The only thing I would add is judges should look at the history of who has been the primary caregiver, not just the immediate situation.

michelle November 20, 2009, 10:54 AM

What a cr*p story. No evidence to support any of the scaremongering claims. Those 2.2 million moms who don’t have primary custody? How many of those are actually mothers who are in jail and/or whose kids are in foster care or with the grandmother? I challenge these people to come up with any hard evidence — and a quote from a celebrity divorce lawyer doesn’t count.

Joel November 20, 2009, 5:20 PM

You say, “judges want to do as little as possible — unless the child is in danger.”

I have to strongly disagree. Even in cases where the child is being abused and or neglected, the courts are giving custody to the abusive parent. The courts are not interested so much in who is the primary care giver, or who has been the primary care giver or if the child is in danger or not. It has become a gold mine for attorneys, judges, minors counsels, and all the other extra people they can drag into the case. “The best interest of the child” does not exist in todays Family Courts.

Annette November 20, 2009, 5:46 PM

This is a good article. Thank you for posting how many women don’t have custody. The only problem I see, is that I don’t believe it’s because they work full time, or they work too much. There seems to be a new trend brewing, much like a war on motherhood.

Logical December 11, 2009, 2:31 PM


“Women are surprised to learn that time spent in the office is increasingly being viewed by the courts as evidence that they’re less involved in their child’s day-to-day care.” “Say what?”

Well, this is what father’s have dealt with over the past 30 years.

It was all assumed logical when you were “drinking the kool-aid” the family courts spewed. I mean, as long as the “unfairness” was aimed at others, but as is true with anything, when it suddenly becomes YOUR issue, the unfairness is unsettling…

Don’t worry about the millions of humans who have had their children removed from their lives…until of course, you may fall victim to same archaic laws. Then shout with conviction. Welcome, better late to the party than not at all.

Logical December 11, 2009, 2:37 PM

As a side-note, both parents are responsible for the care of the child. One stays at home, the other works. To say one is primary…that just works to justify stepping on specific people. But that line is blurred with an equal work force. Unless a specific reason of endangerment is involved, or specific request of the parents, all divorces with children should end with 50/50 shared parenting. No “custody,” no “visitation,” no other negative words to describe the “other” parent. Both are necessary to the upbringing of a child whether you want to believe it or not.

rugbymom January 12, 2010, 8:49 AM

Good post! I love it. It is about stinking time! This should have happened 20+ years ago when I was a child. Custody was just given to the mother and sometimes that was not in a child’s best interest. I am glad to see judges taking more than just the sex of an individual into consideration when choosing a custodial parent. As it should be.

Pamala January 12, 2010, 2:33 PM

Yeah I’m sorry but people were okay with this when it was happening to the fathers but now that it’s happening to mothers suddenly it’s wrong. Big double standard there.

tennmom January 12, 2010, 5:20 PM

Pamala has a point.
The mother is NOT always the best choice of custodial parent, whether she works at home or outside of the home. An uncle of mine is a good example of that. His ex-wife stayed home. She was (and still is) a horrible parent. After the divorce (uncle with full custody) she told her 3 children she was living in Texas (4 years passed without them seeing her) when in fact she was only 2 counties(45 minutes) away the whole time.
A sister-in-law of mine had problems, faked a suicide attempt to get attention. Brother-in-law has had full custody of his sons for 14 years.
Any custody case should be about the best interest of the child(ren).
That said, though, just b/c the father has lost his job & is able to stay home while his (ex) wife is still working is no reason to award unemployed dad custody.

evan January 12, 2010, 5:55 PM

I agree with both Pamala and tennmom WHOLE HEARTEDLY

so when you were screwing dads over its ok but not that things are fair and your not getting your way your freaking out? double standard is pretty much what that is and if you dont mind a double standard then…well perhaps you should stay in the home and cook and clean all day? i mean its only fair right?

mercaties January 12, 2010, 5:58 PM

Thank god my husband and I aren’t getting divorced anytime soon, we would have to cut our kids in half. My husband works days and I work nights that way one of us is always working or at home with our kids. I wonder which one of us would be considered the primary caregiver and provder? LOL!

Tracy January 12, 2010, 6:01 PM

Included in that statistic is the 50/50 custody arrangement. This IS what is best for the children and far to many mom’s (7 out of 10)try to cut father’s off from their children. These changes (other than awarding the children to the unemployed dad)are a welcome change. OMG how I wish that the courts stepped in when I was a kid. My father lived in the same area for most of his life. My mother on the other moved me all over the country for the sake of her career. No exaggeration here, by the time I was 18 I had had 22 addresses. If the courts had been concerned about my well being I would have lived with my father.

Beth February 2, 2010, 12:45 PM

This issue is why it took me almost 3 years to finalize my divorce. I was not looking for sole custody, but I was looking for primary physical custody. On the other hand, my ex wanted sole physical AND legal custody. I believe that my ex’s renewed involvement in the day to day parenting of our son was only motivated by the fact that he was trying to “punish” me for wanting a divorce. I believe he also did this because he was willing to spend the money to draw this out as long as possible.

My ex husband and I work in similar fields with similar work & travel schedules. But when our son was born, my ex was more than happy to let me carry the majority of the day to day parenting duties on top of working full time. I would leave after him in the morning to wait for the babysitter and get home before him at night so she could leave at a decent hour. When I would beg him to pitch in more, he would say he couldn’t because of his job. He was an SVP with 15+ years seniority, so that seemed unlikely.

When I finally told my ex that I wanted a divorce, miraculously he was able to change his commute & schedule so that he was around more for the day to day stuff, taking advantage of my now longer commute due to a new job. So now he was the one who left later in the morning and came home earlier at night. And this actually worked in his favor. By the time we made it in front of the judge, it was looking like my ex would be able to argue he did 50% of the work even though it was only for the 1 year leading up to the court date. The fact that I had done the majority of the work for 4 years prior to that meant very little in the eyes of the judge.

The ONLY reason why the whole thing finally ended & ended in my favor was because my ex lost his job. Although he certainly would have had more time to spend with our son, he would not have been able to afford it financially and he could no longer afford to drag his heels on the divorce. But it took many hours of lectures from HIS lawyer to finally convince him of that.

We finally settled out of court. I have primary physical custody and we have joint legal custody, which is what I wanted in the first place. He has final decision making on health, I have final decision making on education. I have the ability to relocate — but only 1 time within my immediate geography and once I move I have to stay there until my son graduates from high school. (I proposed all of this in the beginning & my ex vehemently refused to agree, which is another reason why this took so long).

But now that its all done, I can focus on helping my son adjust to his new lifestyle and make sure he continues to have a good relationship with both of us as his parents. And that’s what’s most important to me.

AJ March 9, 2010, 4:50 PM

50/50 is not always in the best interest of the child. Unless the kids are staying in one home all the time and the parents are the ones going back and forth between two houses I think its cruel and disruptive for the children.

I am so thankful I was awarded sole custody of my 2 children. I was thankful that I had an amazing lawyer through Legal Aid of NE! I couldn’t afford the high profile, fathers rights lawyer my girls father hired. He had never been involved in their day to day care and left because it was too much responsibility but than asked for sole custody, mainly to not pay child support. I was lucky that my youngest daughters pediatrician and GI doctor testified and waived their fees. Without luck I might have 50/50 custody or only visitation! I didn’t have money to pay a big lawyer or the biased guardian ad litem he requested and paid for. My girls could be living half their time (or more) with a man who doesn’t understand why its not ok to leave a baby in a crib alone while you go on a 20 minute walk with the dog or why you cant leave a 2 year old sleeping in a car while you snowboard!

I know it was close in my case and it breaks my heart to know that a lot of the time the decisions the courts make are not in the best interests of the children. This new trend isn’t a step forward for anyone because many judges aren’t making their rulings with complete information or for the right reasons!

LL March 11, 2010, 1:37 PM

Having lived it(grown up now), going between houses was bad but losing my father would have been worse. I don’t see why my mom should have had majority custody just because she was more involved beforehand - she was able to be involved because of my dad’s income, and became much less involved after the divorce left both parents with less time. I think 50/50 should be the default unless there is abuse involved or one parent doesn’t want that much custody. Also,

LL March 11, 2010, 1:46 PM

Parents who seek sole custody in nonabusive situations are only thinking of what’s best for them, not the child. They want to replace the other parent with whoever their new partner happens to be - Tell me this - If someone kidnapped your children and replaced them with some other children, would you be ok with it? How is it any different with parents?

anonymous! April 10, 2010, 10:41 AM

Well I can certainly relate to this topic and this is how it happened for me. My ex-husband was not a very devoted father the whole time when my children were little, he would not keep a job, he stole, he drank, and his buddies were his prime motivation on the weekends not me or the children. I told him to get out when I got sick of the alcohol, verbal and mental abuse, not to mention I ended up going to work because he would not keep a job. I was still breast feeding my baby girl. Boy how this has all backfired on me. When we got divorced he was more involved with the kids, however I will admit, he seemed to have more of an interest in them when I was not involved, that is all great. About 3 years ago I reduced my hours at work so I could be around them and spend more time with them, as I could never get him to do anything extra, but when he wanted custody he became super dad. Now my teenage son and I had an altercation, and I called him for help, bad mistake, he took that and used it against me and pushed for custody of all of my children, all the while I had just broke my arm, and my dad was on his deathbed with lung cancer. He is giving my son a truck, he is giving them money. I hired an attorney just to be told that they are teenagers and they have rights. So after arm twisting by him and my two boys, an attorney for me, an attorney for the children, I let my boys go live with him temporarily against my heart and my wishes. They were involved in a car crash last month and I drove by the ambulance not knowing it was my sons. Their dad calls me two hours later to tell me after he called everyone else. I was livid. To be a mother and not know what is going on especially a car crash, that has devastated me. I am learning that no one is on my side fast. Not the courts, my children, I have protected them and hid all of the things that man has done to only have it bite me in the a… And I don’t know where this is going, I just know that I have always been there for them and can only pray that, well naturally I want them back home with me. I am one of these parents that does not want to miss a thing a minute of their time, ever. I just don’t get it? He is bribing them or is brainwashing them I don’t know. Is there an alter motive? Any suggestions for me? I miss them so much….

Anonymous September 16, 2010, 9:02 PM

I know alot of women would like to believe that a woman who doesnt have custody of their child is unfit, but Im here to tell you its not true. My ex husband left my child & I when my son was 2. I had full custody & he saw our son every so often. Well 6 years later I get remarried & he gets custody due to lies that he told the evaluator. EVERYONE who knows me personally can not believe it. so im not an unfit mom.

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