Divorce is not pretty. It’s not pretty for you, it’s not pretty for him… and it is NOT pretty for the children who have to cope with their lives changing forever. Now here’s the part where I tell you – and you will hear this refrain over and over in the divorce and custody process – your new focus is what’s best for the children. What is in the child’s best interest?
Some people expressed surprise that I was able to get my divorce before the issue of custody was settled. Apparently, people don’t usually do it this way. I think I’ve already covered the “amicable” factor enough in my past posts but, in case you missed it, my ex-husband and I filed a no-fault divorce and agreed to handle all the details ourselves because we were amicable. Long, LONG story short – the divorce became final and he went after primary custody. Amicability went right out the window. I already addressed this factor in divorce proceedings: once divorce is on the table, there is rarely an amicable resolve. I don’t have an answer for why I actually believed it was possible, given our tumultuous history, but I suppose I am naïve enough to always believe that everyone has some good in them. This won’t change, by the way. I’m just programmed to be a nice person – that is, until you piss me off. Nevertheless, I was soon catapulted into the wonderful world of court proceedings and forced onto the nauseating custody wheel of anxiety, unrest …. and education.
The first meeting with my attorney was initially a consultation, whereby I explained my circumstances … and he did an awful lot of eye-rolling at what had already transpired. I paid a retainer. He gave me some “homework.” I filled out a form to be filed with Domestic Relations for child support. I was to keep a “journal” to record details of our custody exchanges and any and everything he said and did – like one day getting rid of the family dog before I returned to our house (which, by the way, I still own today), and later changing the locks to prevent my access to it. (I mentioned the importance of this journal in a previous post.) I had to write up a “response” to my ex’s Petition for Emergency Custody – essentially discrediting all his accusations which, incidentally, had absolutely nothing to do with custody. I had to provide my Factors for Custody – which included answers to questions like “which party is more likely to encourage and permit frequent and continuing contact between child and the other party,” “which party is more likely to attend to the daily physical, emotional, educational, etc. needs,” “the availability of extended family,” and “the level of conflict between the parties and the willingness/ability to cooperate with one another.”
Our first court hearing before a judge was to address the aforementioned Petition. I was scared to death. My mom and my dad accompanied me (Todd and I decided it would be best if he was not there at this point). My ex-husband appeared only with his attorney. No one from his family was there on this – what I considered a very important day. What was peripherally unsettling at the time was the fact that there were at least a dozen strangers participating as an “audience” to the most important drama of my life. I had no idea that these proceedings are open to the public. The judge issued a temporary custody order – granting me primary physical custody of the children, I’m assuming because I was a stay-at-home mom and had always been the primary caretaker and this temporary order would be the least disruptive to and therefore “best” for the children (see, there it is). We would also have to attend the All Children in the Middle program and a mediation orientation – both mandatory (translation: court ordered). Additionally, there was also a court order to undergo psychological evaluations (more on this later).
The All Children in the Middle program is a “parenting class” that each party must attend separately. I thought this was a marvelous idea. Until I realized there were limited times available, there was a $45 fee to attend this mandatory session, and it was a 3-hour round-table (well, in this room it was a rectangle) type of presentation with at least 15 other sorry-ass parents in there fighting for custody where we had to introduce ourselves, how many children we had and their ages, and how long we’ve been involved in a custody litigation. First off, I loathe introductions like these. Loathe. Nobody in this room wanted to make eye contact with anybody else. I was tense and emotional and kept my gaze in my lap. This beautiful woman across the table from me with the perfectly manicured nails looked familiar - like somebody who has dined in my mother’s restaurant, and she probably did, seeing as she drove off afterward in a Lexus - and was no less a rookie than me. The equally beautiful woman sitting to her right, though far more casually dressed, introduced herself – she had 3 children and she was in the midst of her FOURTH year in this battle. I glanced sharply upward and met her gaze and felt the uncontrollable and familiar rush of tears fill my eyes. I will never forget her face, as long as I live. She looked resigned and yet she clearly wasn’t giving up. I felt bile searing the back of my throat, as I silently contemplated the idea of fighting the father of my children for longer than one more month.
Nevertheless, there were people in there from all walks of life. This room represented the very essence of America – there were whites, blacks, and Latinos, women and men – in sweats, blue collar uniforms, casual clothes, dressy clothes, suits. No one is exempt from this type of drama. No one. I found we were all ultimately the same. And I felt this constant pressure from the dam behind my eyes. I wanted to run from this room, I wanted to hug everyone in it. And the counselor who led the program did all the talking, asked a few thought-provoking questions for discussion, and apologized a handful of times for the dated 80s hairdos and shoulder pads of the first video. The second video was actually an old episode of Oprah, about two boys of divorce whose parents each believed the children were handling everything well. They couldn’t have been more wrong. The guests all agreed to be interviewed by M. Gary Neuman, the author of the Sandcastles program for children of divorce(his book, available at the local library is called, Helping Your Kids Cope With Divorce, the Sandcastles Way). He found that both boys were really very upset by all the fighting and bickering that has continued for years since the divorce. Both parents clearly loved their children, but both had behaved very badly. The boys felt they needed mom’s permission to hug their father in front of her, and dad actually played back an ugly phone message mom had left him to the 7-year-old and asked if he (the son) thought they should play it for the judge. Think that’s despicable? Think it can’t happen to you? Think again. The most powerful message these two tear-jerking videos delivered was that these children – all of these children – needed to feel loved and protected and …. not to be put in the middle.
Your child feels like an extension of you AND the other parent – she identifies with BOTH of you. If you say dad is a selfish SOB, then your child is in danger of considering that he too is a selfish SOB. Your children love both of you, they have the right to love both of you, and they have the right to see each of you as wonderful, competent, awesome human beings. This helps THEM thrive, become healthy successful adults who can go on to have healthy successful relationships that hopefully don’t fail like yours did. It doesn’t matter what YOU think of your ex. It doesn’t matter what happened in your marriage. Your children have the right to have you keep your opinions to yourself. And guess what? You can only control your own behavior. You can pray like hell that your ex “gets it” too and that when he tells you he “really learned a lot,” you can be assured he won’t try to malign the children against you. Unfortunately, even amicable ex-husbands sometimes can’t accept responsibility for what they did wrong. Stick to your guns. Do what is right. Don’t fall into the trap of sharing with your children how much you hate their dad for x,y, z. They don’t need to hear it. They don’t want to hear it. All my children ever wanted, was “for everyone to just get along.”
My son just said to me again yesterday – over a year since the divorce and one month since the custody litigation ended – “I just don’t understand why everyone can’t just get along.” Well, I have an answer for that – but I’m not sharing it with him. To have “friendship,” one must have trust. There is no – nor will there ever be – trust between me and that man. Marital transgressions aside, anyone who exchanges custody with their ex on the day of a custody trial, and knows full well that the other parent is misinformed about what time the trial actually begins, AND allows them to show up in the courtroom an hour late before the judge deciding the fate of your children without saying a word to you – IS an SOB. But my children don’t need to know any of that. They are already questioning things he says to them, or things he’s done. I remain neutral, I try to answer when appropriate or encourage them to ask him these questions, I do not verbally tar and feather him or otherwise tear him down. I let them draw their own conclusions. I listen to them when they want to talk, I support them and allow them to vent. But moreover, I encourage them to be happy. I encourage them to move past the events of the past – as I did just this morning when my daughter wanted to discuss the incident between the adults on December 23rd that quickly went nuclear. I stopped her mid-sentence and told her simply, that’s over now. We are all past that and let’s look forward to good times!
One of the hardest things I think I’ve had to accept over the last 10 months is that although I don’t like what he did or how he treated me while we were married, or how he subsequently attacked me without warning or provocation and systematically tried to decimate my character to everyone including our children – he is still their father. One thing – the ONLY thing – he and I could ever agree on today, is that the sun rises and sets on those two beautiful creatures. He loves them as much as I do. And – he would never intentionally do anything to hurt them (the fact that the Children in the Middle program fell on deaf ears apparently notwithstanding). They are safe with him. I know this. Your ex may not always make what you see as the best or most appropriate decisions with regard to the children, but you have to find a way to believe that his intentions are essentially "good." It was the hardest thing I’ve had to accept – that I had to essentially, let go. I think there are many moms out there who can empathize with the sensation that once you have a child (whether by birth or adoption – I don’t believe it’s much different) you have to come to grips with the fact that there’s a part of you – like some vital organ – that is walking around out there in the world away from you. That outside of your orbit, this life force is beyond your immediate protection. I explained it on one particularly emotionally difficult day to Todd like this: it’s like there’s this part of my body walking around out there that I have absolutely no control over. It’s a very helpless feeling. I had this feeling first when I sent my son to school on his first day. And again – though more intense due to her life-threatening disease – with my daughter on her first day.
Like it or not, you are – or are getting – divorced. Like it or not, your children will not be with you every single hour of every single day, anymore. Now it’s up to you both – with or without a judge’s intervention – to work out a way of sharing custody of these children in a way that best benefits the children. There are lots of variances on custody and visitation arrangements. A common one, it seems, is one parent having primary physical custody and the other parent having visitation every other weekend and Wednesday overnight. That was our temporary order and, 10 months later, it became the permanent order. Summertime is the exception, where we alternate weeks with one another and every Wednesday overnight. Last September I would’ve been sick over this arrangement – today, it is the best possible outcome for my children. They get us both equally during the relaxed, unscheduled weeks of summer and revert back to the original schedule once the school routine begins again. The judge – and the evaluating psychologist – felt that the children’s best interests overall were met in mother’s primary care during the school year.
It can be very difficult to accept that what was once your authority over what’s best for your children, is suddenly out of your hands. I struggled daily with my anger over my ex’s actions – that we “could” have worked out a schedule we could ALL live with – without outside intervention or litigation that cost us thousands of dollars. That by his actions – where our children lived would now be decided by strangers. Strangers charged with deciding the best interests of the children, strangers who get paid to do it every day, but strangers who don’t know any of us – at all. To them, we’re just another “case.” This made me so angry. And feeling furiously helpless. I had to refocus my energy on my faith to get me through these days. I’ve never been a hard-core religious person so like anyone else who has a slippery grip on a personal crisis – I decided I needed God to help me walk through. And I was perpetually amazed how things came to me, even as my fears so often took over and subsequently made me worry that because I couldn’t close the door on them, I wouldn’t be as blessed as I am.
So, with that, I think it’s really important to take a step back and see this crisis through your child’s eyes. Put yourself in their shoes, imagine how you would feel. Dig deep and be strong – at least in front of them – and then cry your eyes out with a trusted friend or relative and rip your ex a new anus. Things you might consider as ways to punish him, are really punishing the child. Think of how you can keep your child balanced and stable amidst the uncertainty they may be feeling. This does NOT translate as buying them things all the time, as “some” parents do. Nor does it mean letting them get away with bad behavior, because you are feeling badly about the circumstances. The same rules you always had for them, should remain intact. Get them counseling if you feel they need it, or even if you don’t. And, though it may be uncontrollably tempting, do not engage in your feelings of competing with the other parent. You will surely lose, in more ways than in your wallet. Children quickly learn who and what they can manipulate – and if you think your angelic child would never do it, think again.
Incidentally, in many schools there are groups that guidance counselors put together – specifically called Banana Splits http://www.bananasplitsresourcecenter.org/ – that children of divorce can interact with one another and share. Worth looking into.
Forthcoming: Mediation Orientation, Custody Conciliation Conference, Child Custody Psychological Evaluations and how it all ends.
**I will again reiterate that I am not a legal expert, I am just another mother who survived a toxic marriage, divorce, and a bitter battle for custody of my kids. This blog represents MY experience, and is not intended to be or replace professional legal advice.