Moms are moms, many believe. No matter what, a mom is always a mom first, everything else second, third, fourth … but a mom, first, always.
Not Rahna Reiko Rizzuto.
Rizzuto had what she considered the job opportunity of a lifetime. She wanted to take it, and her husband thought she should. But, it required a six-month stay away from her kids. Many mothers would turn it down, based on this alone; other mothers may take it, but would count the moments until they could see their kids again; still others may enjoy their brief sabbatical, but ultimately cherish the time they have with their kids all the more.
During her time away from her family, Rizzuto says, in the Salon article, “Why I left my children,” that she realized, “My husband is the one who wanted kids. But I learned I didn't have to live with them to be a good mother.”
In 2001, Rizzuto left her three-year-old, her five-year-old and her husband of 20 years, to live in Japan for six months, to interview survivors of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. Ultimately, the six months would extend to a lifetime.
Rizzuto’s marriage crumbled under the stress.
“It was a matter of months -- perhaps two -- when my husband and I began fighting long distance,” Rizzuto writes in the article. “Our marriage ran aground on expectations, promises and old habits. Shoulds. What we should be doing, what we should want, what we should do or say. We had been together since I was 17. We had spent more of our lives together as a couple than we had apart. And we destroyed our marriage in less time than it takes a credit card company to report you for nonpayment.”
Many marriages fall apart when they are placed in a position to be reexamined; there is little unique about that, really. But, what is shocking many observers is how Rizzuto came to view her own children.
“But when they arrived in Japan to live with me four months after I left,” Rizzuto wrote, “I was the one who was in trouble. They were happy -- in love with their father and with me -- thrilled with the temples and the trains and the samurai castles and the bean cakes shaped like fish. I was in ‘mommy shock.’ Without a strong marriage to support me, after four months alone and in a new country I had grown to love but was only just beginning to understand how to navigate, I had no idea what to do with these bouncing balls of energy. Even feeding them, finding them a bathroom, was a challenge.”
After a mere four months on her own, Rizzuto found that she no longer wanted to be a “full-time mom.”
“I never wanted to be a mother,” she said. It was her husband, she said, who wanted children, wanted a family. Not her. But, she insists, her problem is not with her children; it is with ideas of society about motherhood.
“About how a male full-time caretaker is a 'saint,' and how a female full-time caretaker is a ‘mother.’ It is an equation we do not question; in fact we insist on it. And we punish the very idea that there are other ways to be a mother.”
After her marriage failed, Rizzuto chose to give her ex-husband primary physical custody of the children. She has joint custody, and lives down the block, within walking distance of her teen sons. And, she went from feeling that she may be a failure as a mother, to believing that she is a good mother to her children.
“My trip to Japan changed me. I went from being uncertain, ambivalent, loving but overwhelmed, to being a damned good mother. My marriage failed, and I gave primary physical custody to my husband. But I kept joint custody, and I did not take the house in Hawaii and jump a plane into the sunset. I moved down the block and began the long, hard work of proving to my children, and myself, that I am here.”
Rizzuto’s memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning, is available in bookstores and online.
Read Rizzuto’s full article in Salon here.
Image: The Feminist Press