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Rahna Reiko Rizzuto: Becoming an Excellent Dad

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You might remember the story of Hiroshima in the Morning author Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, the mom who left her kids to go on an extended research trip to Japan and realized she no longer wanted to be a full-time mom. We invited Rizzuto to guest-blog for us to share the reaction to the book, and the double standard that holds moms and dads to different rules.

These days, when I say that I did not expect the ferocious response to my story of nontraditional motherhood, people laugh. I knew, of course, that in our culture motherhood is sacred.  It is also fraught.

I am a woman who was scared of the role of “mother” and my own mother’s seemingly perfect example. I had children anyway, out of love and compromise with my husband. I am a woman who got a divorce and had to find a new way to be with her children, love and support them, without living with them. Accused of abandonment and judged as unnatural by people who don’t know me, I wrote an essay on Salon.com to show that I was still a mother, and a good one, maybe even a better one for being allowed to shape my time with my children. But many readers could not see beyond the headline, or beyond their own personal nightmare of the mother who does not love, the mother who leaves.

Many women wrote to thank me. They shared their own decisions and their struggles against what society, and family, and their own inner guilt was telling them they should do. I also confronted a virulent anger; people, mostly men, trying to punish me. They called me all the worst names men have for women, likened me to a mass-murderer, prophesied dire and ugly futures for my children.

What is a woman’s place? Why are we so eager to judge mothers, and ourselves, based on a belief that self-sacrifice equals love? Why is the well-being of children paramount, while the well-being of the mother is not important at all?

How many devoted mothers have told me, “I am last. My children are first, then my husband, then my clients or the PTA or my community, and at the end of the day, when I am getting ready for bed and making my long list of things to do tomorrow, I realize I have done nothing for me, and there is nothing on tomorrow’s list either”?

I am speaking of mothers, not parents.

Fathers are supposed to leave the house, travel for work, come home just before bed, with luck in time to kiss their children good night. Men’s work, their personal fulfillment, is considered a contribution to the well-being of their families. I am not saying this is all that men are; I am saying that, as a society, this is all we require them to be.  If a man does not help his child with homework, feed his child dinner, get him up, teeth-brushed, fed and washed in time for school, we do not call that father “evil” or “human garbage.” And when parents divorce, if the father moves out, down the street and spends consistent, quality time with his children, he is still a good Dad.

I do feed the children. I do oversee the homework. I am at all the school functions, attend the baseball games and performances, talk through the day with my sons, and collaborate closely with their other parent. I am with them three times a week, and I love them completely. I am, it seems, an excellent Dad.

My transformation from a reluctant would-be parent to an excellent one was long (more than 15 years now).  It has included judgment, personal guilt, fragile negotiation, trial and error, and lots and lots of love and forgiveness.  It is not a model; it is a personal journey that continues to twist and turn.  In this, I am lucky, since models failed me. I have not failed my two sons, though, and that is perfect motherhood to me.

Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s memoir, HIROSHIMA IN THE MORNING is about her attempt to redefine what it means to be a mother, and her exploration of what it means to live with the fallout of war.  It was named a National Book Critic Circle Finalist this year.  She teaches at Goddard College and can be found at www.r3reiko.com.

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