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Navigating Life As A Noncustodial Mom

Most weekends, my $43,000 salary was going toward rental cars, hotels, and eating out with Cameron. During those years, I never took a formal vacation – my vacation was spending time with my son.
Jennifer and son Cameron
Jennifer and son Cameron

I am a mom of a 19-year-old son and a 20-month-old daughter. My children are the loves of my life. Every day, they inspire me to contend for their future even as I contend for my own.

Just like the 18 years that separates them, raising each has been dramatically different. My experience with my son was as a noncustodial mom, and my journey with my daughter is as a single mom. I’ve had 19 years to reflect and process my experience with my son, and since there is still an incredible stigma for noncustodial moms, I want to shine light on that aspect of my life.

I remember the clinic I visited when seeking to confirm my pregnancy. I was transitioning from my junior year in college to my last year. I was scared and wondered what the future held for us both.

Cameron was born in my hometown of Columbus, Ohio, on April 19, three weeks prior to my May 6 graduation. On May 5, the two of us traveled all night via Greyhound to Rochester, New York, so I could participate in my graduation from the University of Rochester. Later that day, my mom joined us in Rochester, and the three of us flew back to Columbus after I earned, what some have called, my freedom papers.

From the day he was born, Cameron did everything fast; he learned to talk and walk around 15 months and was completely potty-trained by 18 months. His firm command of the English language stunned our family and friends. A former colleague and friend admitted that she thought I was lying when I recounted at work the things Cameron would say to me. Her skepticism was erased the day we visited her home and Cameron, who was out of our immediate sight, disappeared into one her bathrooms. When we found him, he was cleaning it. We asked him why he was cleaning, and he replied rather directly and simply, “Because it was dirty.” He was 2 years old.

Cameron’s upward trajectory was thwarted when his father and I went through a nasty custody battle. I was a new mom full of ambition yet earning $43,000 per year. Cameron’s father was newly married and, as a pharmaceutical sales rep, earned more than $90,000 including bonuses. The court proceedings eventually ended, but not before we were granted joint custody. Due to the 90-minute distance between our respective homes, Cameron’s dad, who lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, gained residential placement for school purposes. Imagine my surprise when the day after our custody trial ended, I learned Cameron’s dad was moving from Cincinnati to Indianapolis, Indiana – three hours from my home in Columbus.

I desperately wanted to be present in Cameron’s life and began making the long trek to Indianapolis three weekends per month. Most weekends, my $43,000 salary was going toward rental cars, hotels, and eating out with Cameron. During those years, I never took a formal vacation – my vacation was spending time with my son. Whether it was sunny, raining, or snowy, three Fridays out of every month, I was on the road to and from Indianapolis. Occasionally my mom, dad, or other family or friends would ride with me. On the weekends when I traveled alone, I often cried the entire way to Indianapolis and the entire way back to Columbus.

I had one recurring question during these trips: Why?

“Why would God give me a son, only to take him away?” “Why was another woman able to spend more time with my child than I was?” “Why had God forsaken me and my child.”

To this day, I do not know why my employer, the Service Employees International Union District 1199, did not terminate me. I spent most days crying or walking around like a zombie. When my son visited for school breaks or holidays, I would take him into the office with me, and everyone from my boss to my colleagues welcomed him. For a nonreligious organization, SEIU District 1199 showed me more love than many churches afford their parishioners.

My life as a noncustodial mom was different than most 20-somethings. I often missed out on hanging out with friends because I was on the road, attempting to see my son. My priorities were different too. During the 2008 presidential election, I had an opportunity to meet Barack Obama who was visiting our local union office in Cleveland. It was my weekend to be with Cameron, and while I knew Mr. Obama was likely to be the first African-American president, I knew my kid was counting on seeing me. So, I skipped the event, and while I was the communications director for the union, my bosses and senior staff understood.

So, I made the Columbus-to-Indianapolis trip repeatedly from 2004 until 2011, when I moved to Washington, D.C. At that time, I went from driving to flying to Indiana, and shifted from three weekends to two weekends per month, and then to one weekend per month. As part of my relocation package, I asked my employer, which by that time was the international SEIU, to pay for two roundtrip tickets for me to fly to Indianapolis. Fortunately, they obliged my request.

While my career was on an upward trajectory, I held a deep sadness inside. I spent years in therapy trying to carefully manicure my life. I cautiously shared the details of my life and of my parental arrangement with friends.

I was strategic about which birthday parties for my friends’ and families’ kids I would attend. I had to prepare for how I would answer questions about Cameron, and I knew watching moms and dads with their kids would be triggering. Even the most benign inquiry into mine and Cameron’s well-being could send me into a tailspin of self-doubt, depression, and anxiety.

Eventually, I learned to cope with not having my son with me daily by throwing myself wholeheartedly into my work. When Cameron was with his dad, I worked like a maniac. By working excessively, I limited the amount of time I could spend ruminating about my life, my son’s well-being, and the future that awaited us both.

Working was self-medicating, but at the time, it is what I needed to survive. I am now learning that overwork creates its own set of challenges. I am recalibrating what it means to be a contributing team member without working to excess. In fact, as a single mom, I am learning that my ability to show up well-rested and fully present is dependent on me addressing my history of over-work.

I can’t say life is perfect, but I am a hell of a lot further than I thought was possible. I have published a book, traveled the world, developed into a public relations expert and been called upon to advise socially-conscious executives and celebrities. Most importantly, I have a wonderful relationship with my son, and by God’s grace, will reclaim the time I lost with him.

Navigating life as a noncustodial parent was difficult, but through faith and a wonderfully-committed village, I arrived on the other side. Today, I can speak from a place of power while dealing with the younger me with compassion and grace.

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