Sudbury, Mass. — Linda and her girlfriend dart around the kitchen, fixing lunch, while her mother and I talk. Like most teenagers, the two girls giggle a lot about almost anything, from soup to egg-salad sandwiches.
Like most teenagers, they of course have their serious moments, too. A couple of months ago, for example, Linda told her mother that she felt she hadn't lost a mother but gained a father.
She was referring to a big change in her life that happened two years ago when she and her younger brother left Sudbury, where they had always lived with their mother and stepfather, and moved to rural Vermont to live with their father. After raising the two children for more than 10 years, their mother had decided voluntarily to turn over court-awarded custody to her former husband and his wife.
''It was a painful decision,'' Ellen Kimball recalls, ''but at the time it was the best one I could make.'' She pauses, then adds, ''I still think it's working out fairly well.''
Mrs. Kimball's decision came after several years of chronic illness. She was physically and mentally ''burned out,'' she says, and had asked her former husband if he would be willing to take care of the children on a temporary basis while she recovered. When he countered by demanding permanent custody of his son and daughter, she thought it over for a while and finally agreed.
From that moment on, Mrs. Kimball says she felt set apart, ''stigmatized,'' as a non-custodial mother. ''My mother was upset, my father was horrified, and my friends were completely turned off.''
Isolated from her family and community, she wrote to a local newspaper about her situation and within days had received several letters from women who had made similar decisions. By June 1981, they had met and organized Mothers Without Custody.
Although there are an estimated 20 fathers' rights groups in the United States, Mothers Without Custody is the only support group for non-custodial mothers. Its 700 members include women who have lost custody of their children in court and those whose children have illegally been taken from them by former spouses. But the majority are mothers who have voluntarily given up custody.
''The story we hear from most of the women who contact us is that they had to give up custody of their children because they couldn't afford to raise them,'' Mrs. Kimball explains. ''They perceived that it was in the best interests of the kids for them to live with their fathers because they were the ones who were making the money.
''These women are generally thought to be terrible people or unfit mothers by society, but what many people don't understand is that keeping their children is not an option for many women. They find themselves thrust out in the world after a divorce, and they simply have no financial or emotional support.''
The purpose of Mothers Without Custody is not to lobby for joint custody or to teach women how to fight custody judgments in court - but to provide support, to help women come to terms with their decisions, and to show them how to maintain their roles as mothers even though they're not physically taking care of their children any longer.
Mrs. Kimball was divorced from her former husband when her children were one and two years old. Besides having to hold down three jobs to support herself and her family following her divorce, she was emotionally exhausted. ''There were many times when I felt real bitter and had a lot of rage,'' she recalls, ''but now that's all dissipated.''
Today she visits her children every three or four weeks, driving from Massachusetts to Vermont to attend open houses and school plays and to take her two teenagers on overnight trips. They in turn spend two months with her during the summer, as well as a number of school vacations.
Although the number of mothers who voluntarily give up custody of their children is still relatively small nationwide, Mrs. Kimball estimates that one of every 20,000 mothers now are living apart from one or more of their minor children. In their efforts to help those who join Mothers Without Custody, members often remind women that it's important to understand that they still are their children's mothers.
After remarrying a widower with three children, Mrs. Kimball says she realized she would never take the place of the children's natural mother, nor did she want to. ''My own experience taught me that a non-custodial mother doesn't have to feel threatened that another woman is going to take over her role as mother,'' she says. ''Now I tell my son and daughter to take what's good from their stepmother, who's a very talented woman. I feel that you have to let go of the jealousy and hatred, and see that each additional person to the original union is going to enrich the lives of the kids. And that's a perception I enjoy sharing with others.''
Inquiries can be addressed to Ellen Kimball, National Coordinator; Mothers Without Custody Inc.; Box 76; Sudbury, MA 01776.m