Ten years ago I publicly shared my story for the first time: my experience of being a noncustodial, long-distance mom and the unique challenges I faced in mothering my son from so far away, being recognized, and finding community. This led to an interview in Marie Claire, the Today Show, and many other opportunities to raise media visibility about the gendered stigma noncustodial moms face. Though tragedy has since struck our family, I am still moved by letters I receive from women who are eager to connect and see more of our stories told. Re-publishing this on Mother’s Day, with gratitude again to the women in my life who have inspired and sustained me. The original essay below, “Mother’s Day, Observed,” appeared on May 9, 2008.
Mother’s Day brunch at Jack’s Restaurant had a line out the door. I was barely 18, weeks from graduating high school, but living on my own and bussing tables to pay the rent. As my boyfriend—mi novio—cooked omelets in the country kitchen, another cook, my future brother-in-law, pinned a carnation to my shirt. “Happy Mother’s Day, cuñada.”
Suddenly I realized, surrounded by a mix of strangers and unexpected new family, that this special day was mine now, to celebrate. But I was young, and few people knew I was pregnant—so I kept it to myself. And so it began: passing as an “ordinary” woman, with a secret joy pinned to my breast.
Excitement kicks on the rare occasion I get to talk about my son Oscar, a thrill that for many years was more of an anxious dread. I have spent my entire adult life in various metropolitan areas, surrounded by undergrads and Sex-and-the-City crowds (translation: single, childless). It’s partly my youth, partly the city life I’m living, but how people look at me changes once I reveal that I am a mom. Surprise, curiosity, and mixed feelings.
This is because Oscar lives 3,000 miles away with his father, a non-traditional arrangement that somehow makes the best of things, yet a physical distance that is completely foreign to most parents. At first mention of Oscar, another parent will ask what school he goes to—and our experience of mothering has so little in common, conversation comes to a standstill. I suddenly feel compelled to share intimately, to validate difficult choices and thereby keep questions of my maternal instincts at bay. I want to lay the foundation for later conversations that will move beyond the leftover pain and get to the remaining joy. My confessionals are exhausting, however, and I’m often not sure whether I have said too much or too little. I have sometimes found that it is easier to not even mention Oscar. Except it has never been that easy.
I am a mom—it’s part of my identity, and I work hard at it daily. Yet as a non-custodial, long-distance mom, I have often felt I lacked bragging rights as I struggled for recognition from his school, from other parents, and even from those closest to me.
Coming of age in a town with one of the highest teenage pregnancy rates in California, and marrying into a large Mexican family, this isolation was not a problem in the beginning. I quickly made friends with other mamas as my fellow honor student friends moved on to university. I went to community college—doing homework at the park, in the McDonald’s playground, anywhere my son could be kept safely and happily occupied. But life has a way of intervening, and soon miles separated me from the immediacy of being a parent.
It wasn’t until recently that I began to feel comfortable again in my own mama-skin. For that, I must credit the women I now have around me—I never had a sense of community until I started working in feminist circles that gave me supportive environments in which to live and work. I am inspired when I have the opportunity to see moms, highlighted in all our diversity. I remember so vividly the first person who immediately “got” me once I’d shared my story—the first time I felt free to talk about Oscar and myself without caution. I realized how withdrawn and protective I had been as she joked about “outing” me as a mom to a friend of hers.
I appreciate coming together as a community to honor our mother figures. Because it’s in the middle of the school year, I do not get to spend it with Oscar. But it is a special day for mothering, regardless of the distance. I can show my son the importance of meaningful gestures—not for my own sake, but so that he understands who he is, as he grows into a thoughtful, responsible person, generous in spirit and rich in love. Oscar and I have learned to value every moment, and like other children and mothers, we will look back together, every Mother’s Day, and reminisce on the intertwined nature of our history.
Rebekah Spicuglia is a writer and bereaved mother. For 15 years, she has worked in film, public relations and strategic communications for nonprofit social change organizations on a wide range of issues that impact people of color, women and LGBTQ communities. Rebekah is now program manager for Family Story and newly living in Atlanta after more than a decade in NYC.