GIVING up custody of their children would be unthinkable for most women, but it was one of the best decisions Maria Housden has ever made.
Maria, 59, who lives in Virginia, dreamt of becoming a mum her entire life but the reality was a far cry from what she'd imagined.
A mum to four, Maria’s life and marriage came crumbling down around her – leaving her to question her entire existence and make a decision she had never dreamed of.
However, despite her taking a step back from motherhood Maria says that it is still one of the best experiences she has had in her life.
Speaking exclusively to Fabulous, she explains: “From the time I was a young girl , the first and most important thing that I wanted to do was to become a mother.
“I have loved being a mother my whole life and now I am a grandmother which has made me all the more richer.
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“It is just the best thing I’ve ever done and I’ve felt that way the whole time.
“It’s one of the reasons why I think my story is so interesting to people because there are different ways to live out our dreams.”
Before giving up custody of her children Maria’s life had been typical of many American women.
Maria had been a homemaker since 1987 following the arrival of her eldest Will, but the family’s world came crashing down in 1994.
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Maria and her husband Claude’s three-year-old daughter Hannah was diagnosed with kidney cancer, and after a year-long battle the couple tragically lost their daughter.
Maria recalls: “The death of our daughter Hannah was the pivotal moment for me.
“I had always believed that if you were a good person, bad things wouldn’t happen to you but when Hannah died it forced me to ask questions that I had never considered before about the direction of my life.
“Initially grief was an all-consuming process, but eventually it sent me to a more realistic direction in my own life.”
While Hannah’s illness initially brought the couple’s ailing marriage together, the death eventually took its toll and Maria divorced Claude in 1998.
There is no doubt in my mind that this was the best decision for us and our family. But not necessarily for all.
“At that time the decision that we made was as shocking to us as anyone else,” Maria says.
“Our happily ever after in practice was not possible or necessarily desired.”
As the couple prepared to part ways, they were faced with the inevitable dilemma of how to deal with custody of their children.
And Maria admits that she had serious concerns over how she would provide for her three remaining children Will, Margaret and Madeleine.
She says: “I had been a stay-at-home mother for 11 years.
“I had no idea how I was going to support myself let alone my children as a single parent.
“It was actually my husband who suggested the arrangement that we ended up making, he had a stable job and income and he suggested that he would be the parent to take main custody.”
Initially Maria was horrified by the idea.
“When he first suggested that I literally freaked out,” she recalls.
“I called my attorney and my sisters and told them that he was trying to take the kids away from me.
“I couldn’t even imagine it.
“But one night I bolted upright in bed and I asked myself what I was afraid of, and the answer was, what other people would think.
“So I stepped back and realised that if this was the best and right thing for our family that’s what we’re going to do.
“My initial reaction was to be horrified – what kind of mother would do that, right? As it turns out I was one of them.”
I did what every divorced father is expected to do and they’re not accused of abandoning their children.
It wasn’t just Maria and Claude who agreed that this was the best decision for the family.
“When we divorced my son was 11 and he was old enough at that point to be part of the decision and he chose to stay with his dad for all kinds of good reasons,” Maria says.
“The most hurtful part of the experience for our children was the reaction that came from other parents who were judging the situation from their standpoint.”
While Maria was anticipating some disapproval, she in no way expected the amount of backlash she was subjected to.
She says: “I never expected everyone to be OK with the decision but I didn’t expect the extreme reaction.
“I did what every divorced father is expected to do and they’re not accused of abandoning their children.
“Are we saying it’s never OK for the father to be the primary carer because that’s our knee-jerk reaction?
“We have willfully ignorant double standards.
“If my name was Mark instead of Maria then we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
The couple reached an agreement whereby Maria was given visitation every other weekend and then the children would stay with her for the entire summer, allowing her to focus on her career as an author.
But while her decision to give up custody of her children certainly allowed her more freedom, she admits that it was by no means an easy one.
“It’s not a decision I would recommend,” she says, “It was more painful than I had originally steeled myself for.
“There is no doubt in my mind that this was the best decision for us and our family. But not necessarily for all.”
Fast forward 24 years and Maria says that her relationship with her children has never been better, and she has loved becoming a grandmother to her two granddaughters and insists she has no regrets.
“I have not regretted a single moment of my life. Every step has lead me to this point,” she says.
“We all wish that it could have been different but the decision has brought us closer together later in life and I would always choose to have that over anything else.
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“It felt less of a loss and more of a curious adventure and we keep moving forward.”
Maria, is the author of HANNAH'S GIFT: Lessons From A Life Fully Lived and UNRAVELLED: Life As a Mother (HarperCollinsUK).
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