Friday, January 28, 2011

Run Away Home

Eight years ago, I let my children go live with their father.

I signed over most of my rights to him, trusting that we would still parent them together, but thinking that his big suburban house, well-manicured cul-de-sac neighborhood, nationally-ranked school district, and his new wife's 'work from home' schedule would be best for my kids.

With the help of his financially stable new wife, he could provide for my children many things I could not, on my own, when our marriage ended.  For as unfaithful of a husband as he'd been to me, I still trusted he would do what was best for our kids.  Isn't that what all the books and magazine articles propose?  Isn't that what caring parents are supposed to do if they divorce?

Back then, when my heart was still melting on the sidewalk after finding out what my husband had done, I was single for the first time in 18 years, and overwhelmed by the need to find a new job after not working outside of the child-care field for over 13 years.  I was alone, afraid, and anxious, and trying to figure out how to provide my children with health care.  Having him and his new wife help with the kids during the week was a solution that made sense.  I could not afford childcare.  I was not receiving child support or alimony, and could not afford an attorney.  We can save money by not fighting, I foolishly thought.  My husband was the one who cheated and almost went to jail, he probably will feel guilty and do whatever it takes to right his wrong. What good would going to court do anyway?  The money we would both spend paying lawyers could be better served going toward raising our children.  I wanted to believe these things.  I think I convinced myself, and I imagined, that with the combined efforts of his new wife who was anxious to finally try her hand at child-rearing, it would be a practical solution.  All of us could share the children.

I had the best of intentions.
And I was completely naive.

It didn't take long to learn that I'd made a mistake.  The new wife hired an attorney, and their camp wasted no time in demanding outrageous child support payments.  Additionally, the parenting plan they suggested would have left me with the minimum visitation time and no summer vacation with my children.  They were not open to options I was hoping for, such as joint physical custody.  Because I did not spring for a lawyer to protect my interests back then, I made the biggest mistake of my life, agreeing to a plan that gave me very little time with my children.  I was way too trusting.  I assumed my ex would still want what was best for our kids.  What I didn't account for is how jealousy, anger, and the need for revenge could quickly dominate the lives of a family after divorce.

I didn't expect that I'd be best friends with the kids new stepmom, like Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon in a cheesy Hollywood movie.  But I also didn't guess that she'd treat me with such hostility.  Picking my children up from her house for the weekend, she'd bark at them, gather up their back-packs and thrust them at me, refusing eye contact.  She never greeted me, said "hello" or even grunted an acknowledgement.  She made my children change out of any clothes they were wearing that were from her house or bought by my husband, (with the child support I paid him) and made the children put on what they had worn from my house the weekend before.

And that was just the beginning.

The war had begun -- a war I not only didn't want and hadn't seen coming, but a war that, if allowed to go on at BOTH of my children's homes, would tear them to pieces.

So instead, I stood down.

I didn't fight back.  I didn't argue.  I didn't push, interfere with, or "bother" my ex-husband and his new wife.  I figured, as long as the kids were happy and safe, they didn't need the guilt and the chaos that two fighting families.  So I refused to engage.  And let me say, from experience, that taking the high road is actually the hardest thing to do.  It takes incredible endurance.  You HAVE to look at the future.  You have to know that your children's hearts and minds are at stake, and not saying horrible things about the other parent is paramount because you are, in the end, protecting your kids.  And my kids, although young, were all emotionally intelligent, and I knew if I was patient, that they would see the light on their own. 

I suppose all of this can be considered a bit of a rant by a woman who abhors confrontation, and I realize, a small part of my stance has been based on that fact.  But more than that, much more than that, I know it would not be good for my children to hear horrible things about their other household.  It would not be good for them to feel they have split loyalties or that they cannot trust the adults in charge of them when they are at their other home.

After writing ILLUMINATION, I read LIVE THROUGH THIS.  It broke my heart.  I saw what can happen when parents are willing to create a battlefield environment and the kids are caught in the middle.  That mother, very brave and honest in her writing I might add, almost lost her teenage daughters forever -- to drugs, the streets, and the traps that come with that environment.  I am proud of how I've done things, for the most part.  I am sure there were times even my children wished I'd stood up for them to their dad and stepmom, but I've kept my distance when the short term payoff wasn't worth the long term effects it would cause for my children.  I focused my energies instead on giving them a safe haven when they came to my house on the weekends.  My husband and I let them unwind.  We cook with them, listen to music, and take them on hikes and to Powell's bookstore.  We encourage them to relax, draw, write, or play basketball at the park.  We encourage them to to invite their friends over, which they are embarrased to do at their other house.  I lie in bed at night with my youngest and we look at the ceiling and talk about her ideas and wishes, or sometimes we talk about nothing much at all.  I let them know that it is safe to be themselves.

All these years, I've been very patient for them to grow up.

And finally, my children are older.  They understand their world more.  Their developing minds, emotions, and sense of selves are more refined.  They are now seeing what is going on, what their dad and stepmother are doing, with their own eyes, and filtering it through their hearts without me whispering my opinions in their ear.  Now my children are coming to me on their own.

My oldest child has lived with me now for almost seven weeks.  She stood up to her father and stepmother one day in December, and now is not welcome in their home.  They have given her the ultimatum of returning full time to them and living the way they expect her to, or they have threatened to withdraw her from her high school, where she is a junior.  She has been with the same group of friends since 6th grade.  She walked away from her car, her brother and sister, her dog, her home, and her neighborhood to live 30 minutes away because the climate of her home was so toxic.  The stepmom threatened to burn her shoes, which proved to be the breaking point.  Her M.O. of belittling, shaming, and micromanaging my teenage daughter had come to the point that it was white noise to her for a while.  But she could take no more.  And what has surprised me is how little can be done to protect children from obvious emotional abuse.  In the family law system, and even through Children's Protective Services, unless a child is physically abused or neglected, CPS will not get involved.  Even when the stepmom was berrating, belittling, and intimidating my teenage daughter, her father did not stick up for her.  Instead, he told her there was something wrong with her instead.  He told her she was a "bad 16 year old." My daughter gets great grades, she has excellent friends, she is warm, funny, smart, doesn't drink or do drugs, does her chores, keeps her room clean, and doesn't stay out late or break curfew.  All in all, even though no kid is perfect, she's as close as they come.  She's a beautiful exceptional young girl on the brink of becoming an exceptional woman.  I've heard of teens that are much more difficult to parent.  I feel lucky.

And so, she ran to me.

She called me the night her step mom was about to burn her shoes and I went to get her.  And now, I'm making up for lost time in so many ways... I take care of her in the familiar and nearly forgotten ways I used to when she was little.  I bake cookies, pack her lunch, and drive her to school everyday.  I grocery shop for her favorite things and set her up comfortably at the kitchen bar area to do her homework so I can chat with her while she studies.  I am in heaven when I am tending to her.  I love to fold the napkin to put into her lunch bag.  I love buying her favorite granola bars for her snacks.  I seem to be cooking non-stop, and the smell of chocolate chip cookies and her favorite Italian comfort food dishes fill the air.  My husband and I no longer have potato chips and wine for dinner on weeknights after we work late.  I am cooking for a family again, and not just every other weekend.  Every nurturing bone in my body has been re-charged.  I love taking care of my little girl again.  I love knowing she's upstairs, asleep in bed, in my house at night.

But I don't know how long this will last.  Her dad and stepmom hold all the cards.  Legally, he can make her move back.  In the state in which they live, a child cannot choose which parent they live with until they are 18.  My daughter is almost 17.  I talked to her school and the district office, and they've told me, sadly, their hands are tied.  If my ex husband withdraws her from her beloved school, I will not be able to re-enroll her because of where I live.  The "emergencey boundary exception" paperwork does not apply in our case.  The Principal even told my ex husband that our daughter can continue to go to her high school, even if she lives with me, unless he refuses, out of spite, to allow it.  I've tried to tell their father to stand down, that it's his turn to do so.  Right now, only I can provide what is best for our little girl.  She needs her mom.  It would do so much harm yanking her from her "tribe", the only consistent, positive, secure thing in her life right now.  But he does not listen.  Instead, he reacts to her pleading and questions with anger and threats to not only rip her out of her high school if she does not conform, but he has told me on the phone that he will force her back to his house and take me to court again.

I am afraid of what will happen if he does.

I see an expensive and heartbreaking battle ahead.  But this time, I am ready.  I am ready, because I no longer have to be afraid of what engaging in battle will do to my children.  I think not only am I finally ready to "fight back" for them, but most importantly, they too are ready.