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Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, writer, at home in Brooklyn. (Michael Falco for the Globe and Mail)
Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, writer, at home in Brooklyn. (Michael Falco for the Globe and Mail)

Why one mom doesn't regret leaving her kids for her career Add to ...

She is the mother who admitted she never wanted to be one, even though she has two sons. When she and her husband split up, she chose to give him primary custody.

Is she a brave woman who is confident enough to do what she wants and not bow to cultural expectations?

Or is she a selfish mother who is somehow "unnatural," the word her critics have used to vilify her?

American author Rahna Reiko Rizzuto launched a firestorm when she wrote a controversial essay for Salon.com called "Why I Left My Children" earlier this year, based on her memoir, Hiroshima in the Morning.

"As a society we value women for their caretaking roles," the 47-year-old mother of two boys, 12 and 14, says. "We have created such a cult around caregiving and love that I think we often confuse the two. So now you have to prove you love someone by taking care of them. It doesn't happen that way for men."

Her decision to escape the daily realities of motherhood had its beginning in 2001, when she left her home in Brooklyn to take up a six-month fellowship in Japan. She was gathering material for a novel about survivors of the Hiroshima bombing, but another story of transformation "kept insisting that I write it," she explains.

The memoir would be her story of gaining clarity about what she wanted in her life, how she got to where she was, and how she could move forward. She uses her own transformation to parallel the stories of Hiroshima survivors, who began to speak more passionately about their experiences in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, which happened while she was there. "We are all constantly rewriting the stories of our identities," she explains.

Her husband, an architect she calls Brian in the book, was supportive of her leaving. She had been a stay-at-home mom of the boys, then aged 3 and 5, even though she had always said she didn't want children, and that if she agreed to have them, he would take on the caregiver role.

"That was our deal," she says emphatically in a phone interview. "But he hadn't been the primary parent as of yet, because I had kicked in with making homemade baby food and all that." While she was at home with the children, she wrote fiction when she had time. Her previous book is an award-winning novel, Why She Left Us, published in 1999.

"I think in retrospect I really was eager to get away," she admits. At the time, though, all she thought about was the story of Hiroshima survivors. Half-Japanese, she has a great aunt who had been in Japan just after the bombs were dropped. But once she was away from her family, "you see all the things you had to do that you don't have to do any more. The absence of it was really palpable."

She had also lived a sheltered life, growing up in a small town in Hawaii with a traditional stay-at-home mother and two siblings. She went off to college with her childhood sweetheart who became her husband. By the time they separated, they had been a couple for 20 years.

In Japan, "I realized I was stronger than I thought. I could do more."

Her husband, meanwhile, wanted her home. "He wasn't a controlling person really, but we did have very set expectations of each other because we had been together for so long ... He kept saying that he was waiting for things to go back to the way they were."

He and the children joined her at the four-month mark. The final two months were a disaster. Without proper childcare, she was unable to continue her work. Her husband expected her to revert to full-time mom. Resentment grew.

Six months after their return, she moved into an apartment down the street, leaving the boys in the marital home with their father.

So why did she have children, if, as she admits in the Salon article, she never wanted to be a mother?

Pressure, she says. Her husband wanted kids, and after seven years of marriage, she agreed. "How could I look at this man, who I wanted to be with, and say, 'I won't give you the life that you want?' " Friends, too, insisted that she would love motherhood, that it would transform her in positive ways.

And a transformation did occur. "I totally bonded with my children and they didn't annoy me, but I didn't get any writing done either," she says ruefully.

The cultural double-standard incenses her. "For a man, if he goes to work and works hard, that's his contribution. But a woman or a mother has to fulfill all of her caretaking/love roles before we say, 'Okay, well, if you have any free time then you can go and do this and work elsewhere.'"

And of course, divorced men who give up primary custody of their children aren't likely to get death threats, as she has.

Still, her rejection of motherhood would be hard for any child to absorb. "I said I didn't want to be a mother because I was afraid of the traditional motherhood role," she responds defensively. Her sons spend time with her two nights a week and a day every weekend. "They know they are loved and have a good relationship with me," she says. "I am trying to teach them that you can love someone absolutely and not give your life to them absolutely."

And while she acknowledges that motherhood has taught her a lot about herself, "you can get self-knowledge in other ways…You might go off to the Peace Corps or live in another country and find that softening, that compassion, that complexity in life, that sense of love and connection."

On Mother's Day, her boys will be with her. They will cook pancakes or waffles together. If it's nice out, they'll go for a walk through the botanical gardens. "I'm a better mother because I'm not concerned with 'shoulds'," she says. "Now that I'm divorced and I have them for specific amounts of time, I can give them my full attention when I have them."

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