Good Luck, Mother

August 01, 1994|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- Imagine what we would be telling Jennifer Ireland if she were on welfare, if she were another entry in the log of unwed teen-age mothers whose futures grind to a halt before they get started.

A social worker would urge her to get back to school. A welfare reformer would warn her that under the new plans she has only two years to get off the dole. If she protested that she wanted to stay at home with her preschooler, someone would point her to the nearest child-care center.

But Jennifer didn't go on welfare. A mother at 16, she spent some rocky high school years living at home, and won a shot at a future.

Last fall, she went off to the University of Michigan with a full scholarship and 3-year-old Maranda. She found a place to live and licensed day care. And in return for this rare good fortune, the 19-year-old is paying the stiffest of penalties: A judge has taken away custody of her child.

Last week Judge Raymond Cashen of Macomb County ruled that Maranda should go to her 20-year-old father, David Smith. ''The mother's academic pursuits, although laudable, are demanding,'' he wrote, ''and in order to complete her program it necessitates the leaving of the child for a considerable portion of its life in the care of strangers.''

Jennifer Ireland was guilty of committing day care.

By comparison, what special asset did the father have? What met the high standards required by the law to justify a change of custody after three years?

David is a part-time student at a community college, with a part-time job mowing lawns. He sued for custody after she sued for child support. But his winning card in this custody fight was this: his mother.

Mr. Smith lives at home with his mother, a full-time homemaker who promised care for her grandchild. As Judge Cashen put it, ''Under the future plans of the father, the minor child will be raised and supervised by blood relatives.''

Were there other things on Judge Cashen's mind? He preferred David's permanent address to Jennifer's transient life in student housing. Indeed, he found the father's house, not the mother's presence, the best source of ''stability and permanency.''

The father's lawyer, Sharon-Lee Edwards, says that Jennifer was ''the most unfit mother that I have ever seen.'' The mother has charged the father with domestic violence.

But the judge specifically said that ''they stand equally in their capacity and disposition to give the child love, affection and guidance.'' In his eyes the dispute was between a mother's and father's child-care arrangements, between day care and grandma, between strangers and blood relatives. And his choice has sent a chill down the spine of those ''blood relatives'' known as mothers who are trying to make a better life for themselves and their children.

In our culture, the growing pressure on women to work coexists anxiously and sometimes angrily with the ancient preference for mothers to stay at home. On the job, single mothers are often compared to working women without children. But more than occasionally, in courtrooms, they may be compared to women without jobs. Nancy Polikoff of American University, who has studied the shifting terrain of custody decisions, calls this ''the fungible mother theory,'' the notion that one mother or stepmother or grandmother will do as well as another. Better, if she's at home.

Judge Cashen's judicial bench has one leg firmly in the 1990s, another in the 1950s. He believes that he ruled in the best interest of the child. Instead, he may have ruled in the best memory of his childhood.

But if child care is an acceptable standard for severing custody, if day care is the reason for taking a child away, then working mothers do indeed face an escalating risk from every direction.

Julie Field, the director of the University of Michigan's Women and the Law clinic that is filing Jennifer's appeal in this case, asks the question of all of us: ''What does this judgment say to professional mothers like me? What does it say to women on public assistance who are told to go out and get a job?''

This is what it says: You better watch out.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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