Mothers on Trial: a Book Review

When I started Perils of Divorced Pauline, I thought I was a freak of nature, the only mother I knew on the brink of losing custody of her child (which, in fact, happened this past June). During the course of writing about my custody battle, I found other custodially-challenged mothers, such as my writer friend Sophia Van Buren, who lost custody not because they were unfit, but because they lacked the funds and often the emotional stamina to sustain custody battles with their more moneyed, more litigious exes.

In my case, I had primary physical custody of my son for seven years, years that my ex spent trash-talking me. My son developed serious behavioral problems and when he became a teenager, it was no longer feasible to keep him in the house. So I sent him to live with his dad–for awhile.

Big mistake.

My ex-husband sued me for full custody. My attorney informed me that, not only could I lose physical custody permanently, but I was also in danger of forfeiting my legal rights because the judge could decide I wasn’t able to make good decisions for my son if he wasn’t living with me. After a few sessions with the–male–custody evaluator, I began to suspect my custodial goose was cooked. The evaluator spent our meetings telling me how much my virtually brainwashed son wanted his dad to have custody, how he loved his stepmother and hated me and his stepfather. The evaluator also told me that in cases of extreme conflict between exes, he sometimes awarded full custody to one parent.


When I consulted with a female forensic psychologist I knew, she paled when she heard the name of my evaluator. “I don’t trust him,” she said. “He doesn’t interview collaterals. He makes up his mind on the basis of a few meetings with parents and children. If he’s this biased already, get out. His report could be damaging if it gets in front of a judge.”

Panicked, I settled out of court. I gave my wealthy ex what he wanted: full physical custody and sole decision-making power over medical, therapy and school issues. I had spent six figures without ever having my case tried in court. My son was falling apart from the stress. And I looked like the living dead, barely sleeping or eating. I was terrified of going bankrupt, going completely gaga, and destroying my son’s mental health.

Despite my own experience, and those of the non-custodial mother community, I still believed I was an anomaly.

How many good mothers lose custody of their children?

That question inspired psychologist and expert courtroom witness Phyllis Chesler to write Mothers on Trial: The Battle for Children and Custody. This impeccably researched book–originally published in 1986 and now updated for the 21st century–provides an historical overview of divorce and custody.

Chesler’s work blows apart the myth that mothers “always” get custody. She maintains that women “win” custody when men don’t fight for it. When men do decide to fight, however, they usually win–70% of the time, according to Chesler’s studies.

In writing the book, Chesler states: “I wanted to understand why we take custodial mothers for granted but heroize custodial fathers, why we sympathize with noncustodial fathers but condemn noncustodial mothers, and why we grant noncustodial fathers the right to feel angry or sad but deny noncustodial mothers similar emotional ‘rights.'”

Chesler explains that, historically, women had no rights. Until the 20th century marital property, including children, belonged to the husband. If a woman chose to leave a marriage, or if her husband decided to leave her, she was entitled to nothing. Left with no home and no means of support, these mothers were hardly able to fund a custody battle.

The author paints a nuanced picture of the psychology of custody. According to Chesler, many women who find themselves sued for custody grew up as abused children or disenfranchised in some way. Not surprisingly, they went on attract abusive mates or co-create life situations in which they lacked power.

Women with a background of abuse are often short on money and a solid support network. Already vulnerable, these women–many of them suffering from PTSD–can start to look unhinged going through the pressure cooker of a custody evaluation. They frequently come across as shrill, histrionic, fragile, and paranoid. They rub attorneys, custody evaluators, and judges the wrong way.  Seeing custodially-challenged mothers at their worse, players in the family court system erroneously believe that these women are crazy when they are actually exhibiting signs of trauma.

Then wouldn’t the same be true of men, you ask? Wouldn’t men also appear bonkers during a custody battle, causing judges to rule against them?

Not if they know they’re going to win.

Chesler details cases of abusive ex-husbands whose easy charm bamboozled family court workers and whose deep pockets gave them a confidence, and a means to keep fighting, that struggling single mothers lack. Combine this scenario with children who have been coached to reject their mother (in Chesler’s study, paternal brainwashing was orchestrated by 45% of judidicially successful fathers), and you have a custody battle that will ultimately be won by Dad–even if Dad has previously shown little interest in caring for children.

The author explores the parenting double standard that still exists in the 21st century. While women are expected to build their lives around their children, men who show even superficial interest in their kids are lauded as being wonderful fathers.

“Those fathers who fight tend to win custody, not because mothers are unfit or because fathers have been the primary caretakers of their children but because mothers are women and are held to a much higher standard of parenting,” Chesler writes.

Chesler also debunks Parental Alienation Syndrome, a controversial diagnosis exploited by the Men’s Rights Movement to invalidate mothers’ claims of abuse by the father. Chesler maintains that men as well as women make false claims of abuse, but the controversy surrounding the diagnosis and the psychologist who created it have caused evaluators and judges to disbelieve legitimate abuse allegations when they come from the mother and frequently award custody to abusive fathers.

Other factors that lead to good-enough mothers losing custody? Overworked, underpaid judges that don’t have time to properly hear a case. Lawyers who agree to represent fathers in “scorched-earth mode.” And an unwieldy family law system with no mechanism to put the kibosh on chronically litigious exes.

Although my own case mirrors Chesler’s case studies in many regards, I do not believe, nor does the author, that women are the only good-enough parents who lose custody. Some judges are biased towards mothers. I’m remarried and my current husband Atticus lost almost every time he showed up in court with his ex-wife because the judge felt mothers were more qualified to make child-centered decisions–despite the fact that Atticus’s ex had been dating a registered sex offender!

Whether you’re considering divorce, embarking on a custody battle, or trying to redefine your identity as a noncustodial mother, Mothers on Trial is a must-read.

Don’t go to court without it.


About perilsofdivorcedpauline

I am a survivor of a world-class gnarly divorce. My dastardly ex-husband is suing me for full custody of my son, and more time with my daughter. He’s super-rich and I’m super-not. You get the picture.
This entry was posted in Divorce, Custody, and Parental Alienation and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Mothers on Trial: a Book Review

  1. I would suggest parents never go to court at all if if can be avoided. There is a YouTube called Roccos story about a father who went that route and thoroughly regrets it. People and parents need to understand that the legal system is not our friend. It is also not an enemy but every time you enter it the mentality needs to be defense mode.

    Your story breaks my heart. Mine is just as heart breaking on the custodial mom side. Our world is in a mess. The kids suffer and the cycles repeat.

    Knowing what you know now, besides never marrying who you had kids with what might you have done differently that you think could have helped? Did you want shared custody? Do you think your x just wanted to win or just wanted to hurt you?

    Do you think the new wife is a co conspirator or just along for the ride?

    I think parenting means 50/50 child custody if things do not go well. I think that is every parents moral right and responsibility. I know it is not always completely practical but parents should be expected to share and make things work. I loved the story on how modern families are making it easier on children by house swapping so the children never have to be up rooted.

    That is a far cry from winner take all full custody take overs. A child needs both biological parents. Not just a role model figure from both sexes. It is a shame when courts are left to try and make sense out of the messes people get themselves into.

    Was there pre marital counseling before this unholy union took place? These night mares can be avoided but we have to raise a radical generation who understands how.

    • SingleMamma:

      I agree — it’s best never to go to court for so many reasons, particularly the damage to the kids. The author of this book interviews a divorce attorney who refers to vengeful exes as operating in “scorched-earth” mode. My ex definitely operated from that position. With people like that, you will never win. As for his wife, I think she just went along because she didn’t want to ruffle his feathers — she saw what that does!!

      I don’t think there’s much I could have done differently, other than not have married him. But then, I wouldn’t have my kids, which is unthinkable, even with all that’s happened.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Jenny says:

    Mothers really do get blamed for everything. And, once there’s a divorce, often the mother becomes persona non grata in the previous social circle, while the sad sack single dad is invited everywhere. For some reason, a single woman is considered a threat and a reproach, but a single man is a tragedy and an opportunity. I have joint custody of our daughter, and I’m always amazed at the kudos he gets for all the activities he plans, etc. Meanwhile, she hasn’t showered, he never buys her deodorant, and she’s exhausted. It feels like one parent always has to undo the other’s garbage upon getting the kid back. And I had a good divorce.

    I will definitely recommend this book to divorcing friends and acquaintances. Thanks for writing the review.

  3. I have said this several times before and believe it to be true.

    Divorce irrevocably changes all parties involved. There are no winners. No matter what happens, both parties, no all parties meaning children included, will be affected by divorce for the rest of their lives.

    Once one party gets a lawyer, the other party must also get a lawyer. Once somebody does this, the entire game changes. Getting a lawyer represents unto itself a complete breakdown of communication and going the legal route is in effect a declaration of war. I’m not blaming one side or the other, I am simply stating reality. If the two parties cannot communicate or cannot mediate between themselves, bringing in somebody else to arrive at a conclusion is necessary. But by its very definition, a 3rd party represents a failure of the two parties to successfully arrive at a mutually acceptable conclusion themselves.

    As I’ve said elsewhere: getting married was a joy, being married was wonderful, getting divorced sucks.

    If there is any glimmer of hope, a divorce lawyer told me that in his experience, only 10% of divorces he’s worked on have been truly contentious. The other 90% had both parties remain civil and arrive at a mutually acceptable settlement. This lawyer himself is divorced. He told me that he and his ex-wife took a trip to New York together to visit their daughter adding that since the divorce, they have managed to become friends. A glimmer of hope for the 90% but let’s not forget there is still the 10%.

  4. Cathy Meyer says:

    My son got into some trouble and spent the night in juvie. He was there about 18 hours. I was told I could come to “court” the next morning and he would be released to me. I showed for court the next morning and his father was there. I have no idea how he even knew about the situation.

    His father had seen him once in six years. No Christmas gifts, no birthday cards or gifts, no emails, no phone calls. Nothing but one quick lunch date during that six year period. Is it any wonder my son was “troubled?”

    My ex had retained an attorney, the attorney had a petition for custody accusing me of abuse and the judge was all ears. He had no interest in the fact that this was a father who had not seen his child in over five years or the fact that there had been virtually no contact.

    The judge said, in light of this new “evidence I’m inclined to release the boy into his father’s custody.” There was no “evidence” just unsubstantiated accusations but that didn’t matter. My son left that day to go live with his father and stepmother.

    My ex was ordered by the judge to allow me weekly contact with my son and visitation twice a month. It was 10 months before I spoke to or saw my son again.

    That is the short version. I battled my ex relentlessly for over a year. He had more money and more stamina and his only motivation was to beat me down, to use the court system to heap more abuse onto me and he used his child as a weapon.

    My son has been back home with me for nearly two years. His father ignores his calls, doesn’t respond to his emails…no contact at all. He no longer has any use for his son.

    And I often wonder about that judge. I wonder if he ever gives my son a second thought. I wonder if he will ever understand the negative impact he had on his life. I wish I could tell him that he took away my ability to trust anyone involved in the judicial system when it comes to the best interest of my child.

    It isn’t something you recover from.

    • Cathy, I am (cyber)speechless after this story. I am so so sorry for you and your son. I’m with you: I don’t trust anyone in the family court system. There are many, like your judge, who do an ungodly amount of damage based less on facts and more on a skewed perspective.

  5. Cathy Meyer says:

    Oh, and, my attorney told me that fathers who fight for custody in my state win 64% of the time.

  6. dlcrawford says:

    Thank you for your sharing what I am sure is still an ongoing nightmare you just find makes less and less sense as time passes, the seperation from the children (regardless of faith, jumping thru hoops, & praying every chance pissible justice will be served prior too the perminent damage caused by a corrupt system I am sure was created with good intentions. Just like most other government interference without proper information, time, resources, or a clue what truly is in the “best interest of any child, parent, siblings, & extended family that is impacted when indifference, un-founded alligations by other parent, or lack of real interedt in factual basis for their interference causes such emotional, financial, physical, & social destructiion and once the judge makes a common, very open for one parent to easily immediately go into gross contempt without the courts, gov paid employees who are suppose to care, & certainily no court-appointed representative who claims to have a competent, education, & adocate for said party yet isn’t ever reachable by phone, cannot recall facts of case, or even how many children are involved much less their names, ages, emotional stressors from custody changes and although I am as competent, much more legally in my right to be assigned custodial parent, & have in every scenario done co-parenting courses, attempted using a mediator, a councelor, or even bribing him for more than the pathetic e.o.w. visits & Wed afternoon ‘diner visits’ lasting a whole 3.5 hrs for past 4 yrs now! I understand I am not meant to understand everything life throws at me, grew up believing our country, courts, laws, & ideals protected Americans that lived within the bounderies set, even proudly served in the Navy for 8 yrs with many Medals, LOA, LOC, and overall respect from all I served with in a busy ER oon a Naval Hospital, even earned first female too be assigned to paramedic crew, while serving as a section leader, patient advocate, instructor for many certification classes, & I could go on about the respect I got while active duty, but adjusting to civillian life again wasn’t as positive, & my choice in relationships followed suit, & ultimently my whole belief system failed me miserably and nowadays I question my perspective, my scope of umderstanding, & have been unjustly deprived my supposed rights per state and federal laws, I am terrified to re-file custody modification request (especially unable to pay another $5000/retainer fee for an attorney incompetent and ended up disbared-only too late to prevent the damage his lack of ability to file simple motions based on well-documented, supported evidence of his contempt all along) & I only got ordered to pay a unreasonable support order for a 100% service-connected, unemployable, disabled, yet competent to care for my daughters, while he makes $20/hr as unlicensed “mechanic”, insisting on anyone from a now condemed daycare to a girlfriends 17 yr old male cousin h.s. drop-out now living in his home, & even a 16 yr old neighbor over summer break to care for my girls vs. me having that opportunity in a 50/50 legal decison-making, joint custody, with his assigned custodial parent as his family is wealthy, very socially-connected in our town, & I sadly do not have local family nor access too limitless financial resources, live-in (strangers to me) girlfriend and her various coming and going family members. So, if I wasn’t emotionally affected from our 4 yr relationship where I was abused far to often to keep track, & ambushed by his stealing my girls, dog, van, clothes, with a knowingly false alligation I proved incorrect the same day he initiated his removing me from my life with support of an ignorant, biased, uneducated (at any level in my opinion), DHS Caseworker, causing me almost 2 yrs of proving alligation after alligation unfounded and never having chance to even try pointing finger his direction while defending my own character and fitness. When they vacated with mentioned custody, they said parenting-time was not their concern and washed their very dirty hands of another family they helped destroy. So, I hage yet to be involved as more than a part-time, mistreated infront of my girls all the time, role in their lives. I am so close to giving in, moving out-of-state, & trying to get at least winter, spring, &/or summer break assigned time with them vs 4 nights/month and no involvement in discipline, education, religious exposure to church, or am I even called if one of the girls needs to leave school early due to illness etc. That priviledge is given to his girlfriend or mother.

    I love my dauhters more than words can convey and undergone some tribulations I never would’ve thought I’d manage to survive (not gracefully but have survived)! But I am losing the strength, patience, courage, & each time I do see my girls now, I consistently see his poor ethical influence on them and am actually fearing my one day losing it and taking matters of protecting them into my own hands as going through the proper chain resulted in only making him more violent and never even arrested or even questioned despite photos proving physical injury unexplainable, my doing everything the police advised I do and followed up with dhs and their dropping the ball as well. Since then, I get more and more irritated, short-tempered (though not expressed infront of my children or giving him excuse to cause me further trouble). I’ve never been physical or out-of-control of my actions yet but Gods grace has served me well until I had proof of his abusing my girls without a single adult caring other than me. Now I simply pray he doesn’t do what will certainally result in my loss of freedom, any credibility I don’t have, & cause my third daughter (who I have sole custdoy of) loss of her only parent and contact with her sisters I bet.

    Sorry for the sad, poor me story! Honestly, there isn’t anyone I have otherwise to vent too so I spend much time on-line staying updated on new laws, policies, practices, cases of destroyed lives, changes in legislation locally, but all my documentation, notes, recorded calls, legal copies of orders ex is in clear contempt of… But until someone cares to listen, read, or investigate my legit concerns, it just wastes space in house. I could fill 4 file cabinets with papers I’ve collected regarding my loss of parenting my precious girls. I sometimes get tempted to just throw it all out with weekly trash. But so far, haven’t.

    God bless you and your family,

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