It's a classic scenario we all have seen. Husband and wife have a heated argument about their relationship. Maybe cheating is involved, or maybe one or both parties just can't stand the life they have together anymore. After a shouting match, she storms out, but not before taking the kids with her. As an alternate scenario, she just leaves, taking the kids and leaving a note while the husband is out at work.
The direction this trope ends up taking is largely dependent on what the motivations of the significant other are in this situation. If a woman is dealing with an abusive husband (regardless of whether he's abusive to her, the kids, or both), then she is in the right and the husband is a villainous character whom we are clearly supposed to be rooting against. If she is shown to be an unpleasant character who is very selfishly taking the kids away as a means of spiting her husband, the husband is usually the hero.
Another scenario involves relatively little animosity between the two at all — if the husband has gotten embroiled in a crazy Conspiracy Theory and the wife thinks he is losing his mind, then she can leave while Taking the Kids without any real hard feelings. Sure, the theory that Little Green Men are preparing to invade the planet might actually be true, but usually the husband and the audience can understand why the wife is skeptical and worried about the situation and don't hold it against her. In this situation, you can usually expect a happy reunion at the end once all the craziness is over with.
If the estrangement explicitly turns into a divorce proceeding, usually the wife either gains full custody or the lion's share of the joint custody arrangement — which makes this trope general Truth in Television, as custody cases tend to tilt toward the mother unless the father holds a very clear advantage (typically monetary, but sometimes emotional connection) over his ex-wife. Even then the usual outcome is not sole but joint custody.
For extra drama, you can make one of the two abduct the kids and take them far away from the other. To take this trope in the opposite direction (or for a different sort of drama), have them argue over who gets the dog instead.
It should be noted that in some countries, leaving and taking the kids counts as both spousal abandonment and kidnapping, regardless of their sex.
Closely related is Financial Abuse, where one (if not both) parties only want the kids for the financial benefits.
- In Dear Brother, this happened in the past of one Professor Misonoo. The kid is Takehiko Henmi... who years later becomes the titular "Oniisama" and Big Brother Mentor to the heroine Nanako.
- In Kure Nai Souju managed this posthumously by getting Benika to promise to kidnap Murasaki and take her away from the Kuhoin estate.
- Used as an Establishing Character Moment in Monster: early into his first spotlight episode, Inspector Runge comes home from work to find his wife and daughter standing by the door with their bags packed, waiting for a taxi. He barely notices.
- In Kaguya-sama: Love is War it's revealed that when Miyuki Shirogane's mother walked out on the family, she took his little sister Kei with her but left him behind, which seems to be the major reason he feels the need to prove his worth to the world. That said, something apparently happened later that resulted in Kei coming back to her father and brother (and holding her mother in utter contempt), but the series has yet to explain this.
- Your typical Lifetime Movie of the Week involves a woman who is married with kids and will usually portray this trope with the father as a villain, and may contain undertones of The Unfair Sex if the writer doesn't do a good enough job of showing why the father is a bad person.
- In About a Boy, though the main character's mother is his primary guardian (which she arguably doesn't deserve to be, since she's refusing to seek treatment for mental illness in a way that's fairly damaging for her son), she actually wants to work out a visitation arrangement with Will, Hugh Grant's character, who isn't related to her or her son at all. It's a father/son story where the father still has no involvement with the kid (he appears for three minutes in the film at a Christmas dinner).
- Also shown in a subplot of American Gangster.
- Attempted in Casino, but the wife comes back, given that her husband is in the mob.
- In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Roy Neary appears to be going crazy over his obsession with UFOs and creating sculptures of mountains, causing his wife and children severe emotional distress. His wife finally takes the kids and leaves him.
- The Fan, where the main character's wife taking his only son is one of the main things that drive him to homicidal rage and murder.
- In the film Amadeus, when Costanze loses her patience with Wolfgang Mozart's obsession with the hooded stranger, she gives him an ultimatum. When he sneaks out at night and then returns the next morning, he finds all her clothes gone, then discovers that neither she nor their son is in the apartment.
- Used in Kramer vs. Kramer; the positive angle is on the divorced dad.
- Liar Liar:
- At the beginning, Jim Carrey's ex-wife is threatening to take their son and go move with her boyfriend in Boston — something which the lying, immature Carrey doesn't take seriously, and the audience sympathizes with her decision. However, by the end of the movie after Jim Carrey has realized just how important his son is to him, he makes a dramatic effort to stop her- and the audience is hoping he succeeds.
- Early on in the same movie, Jim Carrey convinces a Gold Digger client through some hilarious Straw Feminist arguments that she deserves a substantial portion of her husband's fortune to strike a blow for women everywhere. This is morphed to a Dude, Not Funny! moment later on when she uses this same argument to justify Taking The Kids- for child support payments, when up to this point she had shown no interest in having custody.
Fletcher: But... you said he was a good father!
- An unusual variation in The Mask of Zorro: Don Diego's baby Elena is esentially abducted by his arch nemesis Don Rafael, who then raises the girl as his own. He justifies this (in his own mind, at least) by his unrequited love for Diego's wife (apart from this, though, he does at least seem to be a relatively good father to her).
- This conflict drives the plot of Mrs. Doubtfire.
- In The Pursuit of Happyness, which is based on Chris Gardner's Real Life. Gardner's wife, after an argument, leaves while Gardner is away and takes his son with her. Gardner catches up to them at his son's school the next day, and tells his wife in no uncertain terms never to take his son away from him again, regardless of any problems they might have. The wife, who has her own issues, eventually becomes an Absent Parent. At least in the movie.
- In Real Life too, although under different circumstances.
- This is part of the storyline of The Santa Clause. Tim Allen's character's wife wants full custody of his son now that she's getting married, which is something neither he nor his son want. Of course, it doesn't help that he's slowly turning into Santa Claus, and his wife thinks he's going crazy, going so far as to arrest him when he goes out with his son on the fateful Christmas sleigh ride. It also doesn't help that her new husband is a shrink (and a bit of an ass).
- The movie My One And Only, set in the 50s, starts with The Ditz wife catching her rich husband with another woman, so she hits the road with her two sons. The sympathy's initially less with her than with the Only Sane Man son, though eventually she gets some Character Development. The mostly unlikeable husband spends the movie waiting for them to come back because he's quite certain they'll never learn to support themselves, though when he finds out otherwise, he seems willing enough to let them go before he dies.
- Micheal Corleone's wife Kay plans to do this in The Godfather Part II. He refuses to let her, but frames his refusal with pleas for her to stay and work out their problems. When she reveals that she didn't miscarry their last child but instead had an abortion, he makes it clear he no longer wants anything to do with her—he slaps her—but again states that "you won't take my children!" She refuses to be cowed by this, stating "they're my children too!"
- In Zero Hour!, Ellen is leaving her husband Ted Stryker with their young son because Ted's Dark and Troubled Past is affecting his ability to be a good role model.
- In Irreconcilable Differences, after Lucy realizes Albert has been cheating on her, she packs her bags and drives away with their daughter Casey. They spend the night in her car.
- Boiler Room revolves around Seth a college dropout that gets hired to work at J.T. Marlin, a brokerage firm that sells worthless stocks to unsuspecting investors. One of Seth's victims invests his family's life savings on a worthless company, and after several heated arguments with his wife, she takes the kids and leaves him alone in their home. Seth regrets his actions, and decides to scam the company and give the guy his money back, right before the Feds come in and arrest everyone.
- Miracle Run: After Corrine breaks up with her boyfriend, she moves to a hotel with Steven and Phillip.
- The Spiderwick Chronicles is built on this. The mother took the kids and left because her husband was cheating, and one of the kids still idolizes the dad because he was Locked Out of the Loop.
- In Olivia Goldsmith's Young Wives, Jada gave her husband an ultimatum: give up his mistress and try to make the marriage work. He then filed for divorce and complete custody, although she'd been sole breadwinner and doing all the homemaking, hence the ultimatum, crowning it with a demand for alimony. In the end, played straight as she kidnaps the kids and takes them out of the country, albeit with their last-minute consent.
- In Alice Hoffman's Turtle Moon, one of the plot points is that the female lead insisted on taking the kid after her divorce, even though said kid despises living in Florida with her and has his calendar rather spectacularly marked for when he goes to visit his father in New England for the summer — he refers to it as "home".
- In the Backstory of Laurie R. King's Locked Rooms, Mary Russell's mother did this in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, although her parents did not divorce.
- When Ekaterin walks out on Tien in Komarr, she takes their son Nikki with her, which presents several unfortunate legal complications in the next book. In spite of Tien being dead, not least because Miles had to go to great lengths to prove he didn't bump the man off to get a clear shot at Ekaterin.
- In The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, when Bruno's mother realizes what it means for her husband to be the commandant of a concentration camp, they spend several days loudly fighting, with Bruno and his sister listening to their screams. Eventually, she decides to spend the remainder of the war at the house of a relative, along her two children. Unfortunately Bruno decides to sneak into the camp to say goodbye to his friend, gets mistaken for an inmate, and they're thrown together into a gas chamber.
- The basic premise of the novel Lola Rose is Nikki fleeing her abusive husband along with their two children. Although Jay had been abusing her for years, she simply put up with it until he hits their daughter; believing he will start beating Jayni as well, she finally decides to leave him to protect them. Jayni is completely fine with it because her dad terrifies her, while her brother Kenny takes a bit more persuading because he's younger and doesn't fully understand what's happening. When Nikki later wonders if she overreacted, Jayni reassures her she did the right thing.
- In The Story of Valentine and His Brother, the vagabond Myra marries the aristocrat Richard Ross, but finds life as a Proper Lady unbearable and runs away with their twin sons.
- Alpha and Omega: In Gabriela's Back Story, her now ex-husband divorced her and took their three-year-old daughter, Heather, having been awarded custody because he worked out of his home and she was a globetrotting journalist.
- In Evidence of Things Not Seen, Dwight and his mom finally leave his dad after he violently beats them one too many times.
- The Light Jar opens with Nate's mum waking him in the middle of the night, hours before her abusive boyfriend is due to get back from a business trip, and telling him to pack so they can go on holiday. They drive off the boyfriend's car. Nate doesn't realize they're not really on holiday until they arrive at the Horrible Housing where Nate's mum says they now live.
- Divorce Court (the 1980s version) and The Judge: A staple trope of these courtroom dramas.
- The "divorced dad as a hero" angle is so common that it was parodied in Arrested Development with the Film Within a Show Homeless Dad: "I just want my kids back
- A line uttered by Tom Jane, who in Hung went on to say "Who do I have to fuck around here to get my kids back?!"
- Happened in an episode of Criminal Minds where Hotchner took back his decision to transfer to Virginia with his wife and son to a less time consuming job. The episode ends with Hotchner coming home and finding it empty.
- Somewhat gender-flipped on Lost: Susan is able to take Walt from Michael partly because she's the mother and partly because she's the one with the money and the good job.
- This is the whole premise behind the 1970s sitcom One Day At A Time: The mom took the daughters and left her husband. Why? Just because she wanted to prove that she could.
- Used in The Shield. At one point, Mackey's wife leaves with the kids and he doesn't know where they are. Mackey is the hero well, at least we ''think'' he's the hero, so he's still portrayed positively.
- This happened to Ayu in the Deep Love adaptation as a child when her parents divorced her mother took her to her new lover and the father never visited her again even though he had shown her nothing but love when he was allowed to see her.
- A rather unusual perspective on this trope is used in Star Trek: The Next Generation with the Backstory of villain Sela. She explains that she was raised on Romulus where her mother (a time-traveling Tasha Yar) was a prisoner of war. One night her mother tried to flee the planet and was taking the girl with her — but Sela was afraid of the idea of leaving her home and raised the alarm. When her mother was executed, Sela says "Everything in me that was human died... all that remains is Romulan!"
- Two and a Half Men has the antagonist ex-wife use this as a threat from time to time in order to drum up zany sitcom conflict so that the main characters try to find some way to appease her.
- On My Name Is Earl, Joy tricks Earl into giving her their old trailer home as well as full custody of the kids when she tricks him into signing divorce papers under the influence of morphine. To be fair, the kids are not biologically Earl's, and Earl is unemployed and technically homeless anyway. Well, one of them isn't. It's later revealed that Earl is the biological father of Dodge, but he and Joy did not know that because they conceived him at a Halloween party while wearing their costumes. At the point of the divorce, Joy thinks his biological father is Li'l Chubby, though she claims it's some random guy she met at a concert.
- In a recurring bit on Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update," Heidi Gardner plays "Angel, the girlfriend from every boxing movie ever." Her main schtick is claiming, emotionally, that if her boyfriend Tommy goes through with that one last fight, it's the last straw, and "I'm takin' the kids to my sister's!"
- The Outer Limits (1995): In "Simon Says", Zoe is involved in a custody battle with her estranged husband Randall over their daughter Hannah. Randall was granted temporary custody and delays the custody hearing three times as he knows that Zoe does not have enough money to keep up the fight.
- A variation is discussed in an episode of Malcolm in the Middle. In that episode, Hal has a cancer scare, and Lois becomes more aggravated than usual, and eventually Malcolm and Reese come to the conclusion that Lois and Hal are getting a divorce. After Hal gets a second opinion that says he does not have cancer, Reese and Malcolm, not being told of what was going on, and with packed bags, tell Lois and Hal that they accept the divorce, and ask Hal how soon can they move in to his new place. Lois, with a mischievous smile, says that they both agreed that should they ever get a divorce, she would get full custody.
- George Jones' classic 1974 hit "The Grand Tour," which ends solemnly and bitterly: Without explanation, a young man's wife walks out on him "taking nothing but our baby and my heart."
- Dropkick Murphys' song "The State of Massachusetts" is about child services doing this to a woman because of her husband who is "violent, malicious, and distant."
- Montgomery Gentry's "I'll Keep the Kids" has the narrator telling his wife that she can take whatever she wants, including his favorite shirt that he hopes fits old what's-his-name, but that he'll keep the kids.
- Earlier live versions of Meat Loaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" end with the couple arguing about divorce and the wife declaring she's taking their child, who has been ignored by the signer until now.
- A comic for The Far Side showed an angry female insect telling her husband "I'm leaving you and taking the grubs with me!" Larson was going to have her say "And I'm taking the maggots with me!" but the publisher said that was too gross.
- Kevin Hart describes in one of hits bits how he couldn't storm out after arguments with his ex-wife because his son would always want to go with him. He talks about how dumb it sounded when he was cursing out his wife while swinging a diaper bag behind him.
- It's possible to get this as a Non Standard Game Over in the Harvest Moon: A Wonderful Life games, although you have to be trying pretty hard. If you don't do any farm work or ship anything at all, in the second or third chapter your spouse will eventually start asking you if the farm is doing okay. You can apologize and promise to work harder, or you can give rude and negative answers until your spouse gets fed up and walks out along with your child. Afterwards, Takakura tells you that if you don't like farm work, you should go find something you're more suited to.
- Used for drama in The Order of the Stick. Vaarsuvius goes crazy with power and terrifies hir mate and their children in the process of saving them from a vengeful dragon. After V saves them and leaves to try and singlehandedly defeat the Big Bad, hir partner sues for divorce and full custody of their children. With V having undergone an enormous My God, What Have I Done? realization in the meantime, shi does not fight the motion, thinking that it is far better for hir now former partner and their children to be safer away from hir adventuring.
- Used for comedy in The Collab, where Heshe declares that she's leaving and taking the kids a couple times (the first time was before the kids were even born from Axel).
- Used for comedy in this League of Super Redundant Heroes strip. A man coming home early from work finds his wife being tied up by a strange man, both of them wearing kinky scanty outfits. He angrily storms off, taking the goldfish bowl with him. It turns out that the outfits are their supervillainess and superhero costumes, and he's capturing her to turn over to the authorities.