Why I Left My Kids


[Note: if you haven't already seen the controversial article here on Shine that quotes me extensively, (I am not sure how you missed it) about Rahna Reiko Rizzuto and abandoning children, read this first and then go look. More than 15,000 comments as of this writing. Join the fray!]

I have four children. On the summer solstice in 2008, I drove away from them in a car packed with everything I owned, leaving my three younger children behind to live with their father (my oldest already lived on her own). It was the hardest thing I have ever done. It was also the best thing I have ever done.

How can someone do this? How can a mother leave her children?

I was supermom. I did all the things you are supposed to do as a mother - except a hundred times more. I sacrificed so my kids could have a great life. One problem - I was married to an abusive jerk. I finally left the marriage to save myself but that was like jumping from the frying pan into the fire. The abuse got worse, this time through the court system. I tried everything I could to make it better. Finally, I did what hardly anyone has the courage to do. I stepped back so my children's father could step up and be a better man. I moved away so my kids would have one home. I sacrificed being with the people I love most in the world - my children - so they could have a better life.

I rocked the supermom thing. Organic, attachment-parenting, stay-at-home Super Awesome Mommy Extreme. I left a ten-year career in upper-level property management to be at home with my babies after marrying an airline pilot. (My older daughter, from my first marriage, didn't have it so lucky; I loved my work but hated that I missed out on her early childhood, so I loved that I could stay at home with my younger three.) I threw myself into stay-at-home motherhood with gusto. A sample:

  • Wrote letters to my older son Nathaniel, journaling for him for two years after he was born.

  • Studied infant and child nutrition and made my own baby food from organic ingredients.

  • Breastfed my three younger children 24/7, on vacations and in public places, for well beyond the recommended six months - with my daughter Serena, for more than three years.

  • Survived on four hours sleep a night for years so that whoever was the youngest child at the time could sleep with me and feel safe and loved.

  • Read stories and sang songs, often making them up on the spot, for hours a day.

  • Researched the best education choices and drove hours a day to get my children to the Waldorf schools that would best support their needs.

  • Drove all over our semi-rural eastern Pennsylvania county to get fresh milk, grass-fed beef, and organic produce so my children would have the best nutrition possible.

  • Wrote a children's adventure novel just for my kids, staying up until 2 am to write and reading a chapter a night at bedtime the next day.

  • Planned family vacations to interesting and educational places.

  • Discovered that processed snacks were unhealthy so I stopped buying them - even the organic kind - and made my own bread, cookies, muffins, bread, desserts and crackers.

When my youngest son Eric was born, everything amped up a notch. Eric has Down syndrome and was extremely fragile. Failure to thrive. He nearly died and I had to be super vigilant. Suddenly I had to worry about a heart defect, thyroid fluctuations, low weight gain, and the hours of home therapies Eric needed to combat his vast developmental delays. I did this all while trying to maintain a normal life for Nathaniel and Serena. My hours of research increased tenfold. Oh, and I wasn't allowed to mention the fact to anyone, not even family, that Eric had this major chromosomal defect - that would affect his entire live and all our lives profoundly - until he was a year old. Eric's father wouldn't let me.

See, I was doing all this, being Super Awesome Mom, alone. I was married to a man I loved, but he was an absentee father. When he wasn't away from home, often out of the country, working as an airline pilot, he was home-but-not-home. Working on one of his obsessions. Before we met he had an adopted son to another woman, and for several years of our marriage he made that family's life hell by dragging them through court after court and lawsuit after lawsuit, chasing something judge after judge told him he had no legal right to. When a court finally barred him from continued vexatious litigation, he turned his obsessive energies to creating a driveway to our property, what would someday be an engineering marvel if only he could pull it off. I lugged my children up a steep hill under construction for years while he rented backhoes and moved piles of dirt from one place to another without actually constructing anything. His connection to his children? Minimal. I was alone.

Not only was I alone, but I was isolated. I wasn't allowed to have friends. I was questioned when using the internet. I was constantly told I was too sensitive, wrong, making things up in my head. It took me a year after I left to realize this had been abuse. I was abused. I was married to an abusive obsessive-compulsive man. But because of my previous failed marriages I was determined to make this one work. If only I tried harder, I thought, was a better wife, things would get better. They never did.

In 2005 I finally mustered the courage to leave my marriage and moved to a fresh start in beautiful, light-filled Colorado with my three children and with the help and blessing of my soon-to-be ex. He immediately changed his tune and continued abusing me, now using the court system as a weapon through a horrendous custody battle. He lied about me and about himself to two psychologists and in courtroom after courtroom. I told the truth and was abused. The court sided with the liar and took my children from me, giving them to a man who never spent time with them and barely parented them, unless I agreed to move back to Pennsylvania and take on joint custody. I was devastated. I could not leave my babies. Moving back to Pennsylvania felt like giving up a dream of a better life, but I did it for my children. I had no other choice. My kids were devastated too at being made to leave their home, their friends, and their new life.

Money was a huge issue during the two years I tried to make joint custody work. Funds from my ten-year marriage were fast depleting from constantly defending myself in court and trying to give my kids the standard of living they were used to. I was ten years out of the work force and ten years behind in my skill sets as a property manager. I could not rely on any semblance of a regular schedule, so all jobs - even at minimum wage - were out. Who would hire a woman who had no way of knowing when she could even work? I had to work with what I had. I am a good writer, so I applied for blogging jobs. Soon I was spending my available time writing about parenting at Babble.com. Available time? Three days a week, I had three hours in the morning while everyone was at school, assuming no one was sick that day. I also had nights after 10pm, after all my kids were in bed. Unless someone had a nightmare. Or a pressing life question. Or needed a drink of water. Or couldn't sleep. I was spending hours per day, all my available "free" time, making just $30-40 a day. Hoping things would get better.

My kids were severely stressed. My older son Nathaniel, who has an excellent memory of the most minute details back to the age of two, cannot remember Christmas that year. Every year before and since, yes. That year is a blank. My daughter Serena remembers being sick a lot that year, calling it "emotionally sick." I was stressed and worried, so they were too. My ex was angry and hurt, and repeatedly attacked me through the court system. I could barely bring myself to speak to him face to face since he could barely conceal his disdain and anger toward me. Of course my kids felt this. The situation felt hopeless. The court would not support me. I had to find a way out, something that could bring change to all of us.

I thought of the unthinkable. I would move away. It wasn't running away - no, it was creating a space for change. It took me a year to convince myself it could work. I would remove myself from the situation. The unending conflict between us would subside. My absence would mean that this abusive man could change his patterns, step into the void I created, and be a real father. My children would find their wings and learn to be independent. I could create a career and contribute meaningfully to the family child support pool. By moving away and sacrificing being with the people I loved most in the world, I could make their lives better.

For months I prepared. I taught my children how to cook so they could carry on my Saturday pancake tradition and make nutritious meals for themselves instead of the processed snacks and candy their father served. I sent links to au pair services to my ex to help him find someone to stay with our children when he was away flying. I made the necessary legal arrangements to pay child support. But on the day I left, trying to keep from sobbing as I waved from a loaded car to my children - my babies - none of us knew how this would turn out. There was no roadmap.

The first year apart was horrible. Everything reminded me of them. I cried every day. I felt like a failure as a mother. My whole identity - the woman I had been for ten years, stay-at-home Super Awesome Mommy Extreme, was being torn apart. I had made a huge sacrifice and wondered in every moment if it was the right choice. Was I hurting my children? Would they be happy? Did I do the right thing? And who was I, if not Super Awesome Mommy Extreme? (I wrote a column about that first year over at Literary Mama.)

I always had a spiritual focus in life since I was a teenager, but now I dived more deeply into my inner Self. I needed to find meaning in the pain I was feeling. I wanted to use my experiences as a mother to grow as a human. And I wanted to try to help others. My work as a writer dried up (the internet is a capricious beast) and I was faced with trying to make a living from my spiritual life. I have gifts to share. I have made mistakes. I have learned from my experiences. I am still learning in each moment. I decided to use my life and the compassion I have learned through living it as a way to help others, and that is what I offer as a spiritual advisor.

Now I can see the path ahead more clearly. My kids spend a couple of weeks with me in my Pacific Northwest home every summer, to see where and how I live, and I visit them in PA when I can. We talk for hours on the phone every week. We IM and Facebook in between. I never had this much undivided time with them as a mother of three. We all agree that the way things are is not the way we would wish - I miss day-to-day life with my kids every day, and I know they miss me - but we still feel connected. I listen to their hopes, dreams, and ambitions and offer a heart, an ear and myself. Does it matter that we are 3000 miles apart? Of course it does. I would be lying if I said it didn't. But as my 11-year old told me recently, we are still connected and that it what matters most.

Questions People Like to Ask Me

How Could You Leave Your Kids With That Jerk if He Was So Abusive?

Yes, he was abusive to me. Yes, it was a huge leap of faith to leave my children with their father after all the things he did to me and after trying so hard in custody court to keep him from taking them from me. Yes, I have wondered if leaving was the right choice. But you know what? Even though I still rarely communicate directly with him (he had me served with lawsuit papers last year on the day before I went in for cancer surgery; I am still angry about that) I hear anecdote after anecdote from my children that he is stepping up and making good choices for the family. He supports our son's desire to study abroad next year. He made arrangements for our daughter to have female support through Big Brothers/Big Sisters. He attends Down syndrome support groups. No, he doesn't parent the way I did, but I believe he loves our children. If I thought he didn't, deep down, I never would have left. No matter what.

Who Is Taking Care of Your Kids?

My ex's older brother, uncle to my kids, left retirement in Florida and moved in with my ex and our children right after I left. Unmarried, never had kids. Like everything this is subject to change. I am rooting for an au pair. Meanwhile, my kids mostly take care of themselves and make their own meals (including for Eric), because Dad is now attending law school in addition to being a pilot.

How Old Are Your Children?

Fifteen, eleven, and seven. Nathaniel, Serena, Eric. My older daughter Jess, 27, lives near them. Eric has Down syndrome and attends a not-very-mainstreamed program in public elementary school. Nathaniel and Serena both went to private Waldorf school when we could afford it but switched to public school in 2007. They are both involved, exceptional students who have big plans for their lives. I think they are all amazing beings.

Why Did You Abandon Your Children? Are You An Advocate for Abandonment?

I did not abandon them. I did not walk away. I made the heartrending decision to live apart from them so their lives would be more stable and so they would be happier. It was a responsible choice and it was what is working for my family but I don't wish it on anyone. I wish there was more support for families.

You Left Your Special Needs Child With an Absentee Father? Why?

Eric, my youngest, breaks my heart a little. Since he has Down syndrome, he is unable to speak to me on the phone. We see each other on Skype but mostly he performs for me then and is silly; we don't have deep philosophical conversations the way the others and I do and I can't really know how he is. He speaks a little but is difficult to understand. Our communication had always been intuitive, on a heart level. I so wish I could see him more. I miss his hugs. Nathaniel and Serena look out for him and have taken over most of his care. Everyone agrees that he seems happy. I don't know yet what his future looks like.

You Changed Your Name? I'm Confused

I changed my name from Karen Murphy to Talyaa Liera in October 2010. All my life I had never felt connected to the name Karen. I was making a fresh start in recovering from life-threatening cancer and wanted to mark the transition to who I am becoming. I wrote about it here. Most of my internet writing was under my old name, Karen Murphy.

How Can You Live With Yourself?

Frankly, I question this choice all the time. Who wouldn't? It goes against our cultural ideal of motherhood. But does any of us have a crystal ball and know what our choices will result in, ten years down the road? I can't tell you how things will turn out in the future for any of us, but I think this is working for now. If that changes, I will re-evaluate and make a new choice.

What Kind of Mother Are You?

I am not Super Awesome Mommy Extreme any more. I let go of that. It was suffocating me anyway. Who can be that super indefinitely, without losing something? Sacrifice sucks. What I am now is aware. Open. Human. I think that's all any of us can truly aspire to be.