Career vs. children: Women face difficult choice Custody Wars

March 13, 1995|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Sun Staff Writer

The tabloid headline said it all, summing up in just four words the child custody case that has grabbed the attention of working mothers everywhere: "BAD MOM, GOOD PROSECUTOR."

It seems that Marcia Clark, the O. J. Simpson prosecutor, has been put on trial by her soon-to-be-ex-husband, Gordon Clark, for spending too much time working and not enough time with the kids. The custody battle has struck a nerve in working mothers everywhere, prompting responses ranging from fear to rage. Along with several other recent court rulings, the Marcia Clark case has alarmed working mothers who are beginning to fear they may have to choose between their child and their job.

And such fears may have some foundation, say those who study gender and child custody. They cite an increasing number of cases in which judges appear more willing to rule against women based on the demands of their career:

* In Washington, a Superior Court judge decided Sharon Prost, an aide to Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, worked too many hours. The judge ruled last year that her two children should live with their father.

* In New York, a woman known only as Renee B. lost custody of her daughter last year when an appellate court decided that the unemployed father -- who repeatedly refused to pay child support -- was better able to care for the child because he was at home while his employed wife was at the office. The decision reversed two lower court rulings in the mother's favor.

* In Mississippi, Leasa Hackett, a flight attendant whose work took her away two nights a week, had to let her daughter live with her ex-husband two months ago when a judge ruled that his job as FedEx courier gave him a more regular work schedule.

* In Annapolis, a judge ruled last year that Christine Christner's son should live with his father, after her work required her to move out of state.

Some legal scholars contend that in custody cases that pit working mothers against working fathers, the courts may be applying a double standard.

"The reality is that nobody asks fathers whether they have careers, and their careers are in no way held against them in their custody fights," says Joan Zorza, senior attorney at the National Center on Women and Family Law. "But there is no question that judges see women who have a career as unmotherly and selfish, and they punish women for their employment."

Baltimore criminal defense lawyer M. Cristina Gutierrez empathizes with the plight of working mothers such as Marcia Clark. The single parent of two young children, she recently left a high-powered law firm to practice on her own, saying it would allow her to spend more time with her children. But she thinks the focus on the number of hours Marcia Clark works, or any mother works, should not be at the center of a custody case.

"If we are beginning an era where professional women are going to be judged as a parent by the number of hours they spend working . . . well, I think that's a terrible message to send," Ms. Gutierrez says. "What I hear from women, professional women like me, is real concern that somebody is going to watch them and evaluate the quality of mothering based on their work. Dads don't have to deal with the question of how his choice of career affects the quality of his fathering. Only women have to face these things."

But Phillip Dantes, a Baltimore attorney specializing in divorce and custody cases, says it's an issue that cuts both ways.

"The number of hours a parent works comes up with men, too, in custody cases," he says.

He now represents a successful dentist who is seeking custody of his children. "But because of the long hours my client puts in, his wife is now raising issues about whether he's got the time to spend with the children," Mr. Dantes says.

Sheila Sachs, a prominent Baltimore attorney who specializes in divorce and custody cases, says she has not yet handled a case in which the mother's employment was a major issue.

"But it's very easy to visualize," she says. "With the increase in two-career families, you can see the likelihood becoming greater and greater."

What she has seen, however, is the effect of cases such as those of Marcia Clark and Sharon Prost. "I see many more women looking over their shoulders. Women do not make career moves because of this."

The 'tender years'

Until the late 19th century, children were essentially considered the property of their fathers and, in the case of a divorce, fathers were generally awarded custody. About the turn of the century, this began to change with the "tender years doctrine," judicial decisions and state laws that held that it was in the best interests of children under 7 or 8 to be with their mothers.

Gradually, however, with the advent of the women's movement and gender-neutral laws, the courts began to abandon the tender years approach as unfairly gender-biased.

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