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I spend most of my waking hours in the courtroom. I work for a nonprofit that provides legal assistance for children with disabilities. I volunteer at my children’s school, for their soccer teams, and Girl Scouts. I even teach Sunday School every other Sunday. By all accounts, I am a wonderful parent. Yet, my high-conflict divorce and custody battle has taken its toll on me. When I’m not in a courtroom for work, I’m in the courtroom because my husband and his lawyer has dragged me into court for this hearing or that motion. At the end of my day, after I have cared for my two girls, poured over mountains of legal correspondence, and finally settled into bed, I begin my nightly affirmations.
“I am a good mother. I am a good mother. I am a good mother…..No. Scratch that. I am an excellent mother!”
I begin to cry and face the email I have tried to avoid looking at all day…
My attorney writes, “I hope you are doing well. I’m so sorry, but I tried to tell the judge that you had a full docket this week and need to work. However, he says that you must be at the hearing, since this is about a modification of child support.” My eyes glaze over, as I read the next line, “Plus, your husband’s attorney has also filed a motion to get you to pay half of the evaluation. Again, I’m so very sorry. P.S. You will need to send in another payment for legal fees. Your husband still has not paid your attorney’s fees that he was supposed to pay in the judge’s initial Order. It will cost you at least $1,500 for us to go back to court to enforce the Order.”
My husband has filed yet another motion, forcing me to pay over $3000.00 for half of a custodial evaluation that will determine whether my children can continue to live with me…in the city they’ve always lived in….attend the school where they have gone for the last six years….graduate with all of their friends….stay in their church youth group on Sundays….and live in peace. These motions drag me into court…which require more time away from work and more diverted from my children and to my lawyer.
“I am a good mom. I am a good mom. I am a good mom. Dear God, help me.”
When I filed for divorce over a year ago, I was told by everyone I know that my divorce would be “short and sweet.” I was always the primary caretaker, Sunday School teacher, devoted wife and homemaker. I kept hearing, “You have NOTHING to worry about.” So, I expected to leave my nightmare of a marriage with full custody of our two girls. I soon found out that the most perfect mother in the world can’t adequately fight a system that is currently set up to favor the noncustodial parent (usually the father) who decides to wage an all out war. All my husband had to do was announce to the court that as a father, he wanted full custody of his children, and the family court system bent over backwards to insure that his rights were firmly intact. In fact, my husband’s interests seem to trump “the best interests of our children.” The “best interests of the child” is the standard the court is to consider in order to adjudicate custodial decisions. I was shocked and ill prepared for the truth that I could lose my children.
My husband and I met in law school and I thought he was truly the most fascinating man I had ever met. He was very handsome and hyperfocused on his future. He envisioned us as a “power couple” and made plans for us to spend our time outside the courtroom traveling abroad. People often commented that we were a “striking couple.” We were both quite surprised when I became pregnant with our first daughter only six months after we wed. I was thrilled and any ideas of being a “power couple” paled in comparison to being a “mommy.” He reluctantly bought into my idea that he could pursue his climb up the ladder to a partnership, while I concentrated on my dreams of being a doting mother. Three years into my life as a “stay at home mom,” I welcomed our second daughter into our family. My husband sought his happiness and fulfillment at the office. I did the unthinkable and turned over all financial responsibility to him in return for sole control of our home and care of the children. I would learn later that this was a fatal decision.
Over the years, his behavior became more erratic. My husband would make lateral job moves every three to four years, never really putting roots anywhere. It would later be said that no one would ever really know my husband except on a “surface level.” His claim to fame is that he could “win anyone over with a smile and a firm handshake.” Yet, he would come home and complain that the upper level partners refused to give him any work. He maintained that business development would be easier if he was raised in a wealthy family or married to someone with a better pedigree. In other words, I didn’t quite measure up.
One thing that I never quite understood was that my husband was consistently broke no matter how much money he made. Despite being handsomely compensated, we had trouble paying all of our bills. One day I came home to find a foreclosure notice on our front door and saw my SUV being towed down our street when the car was repossessed. When I picked up the phone to call him at work, I found that the cell phone bill had not been paid. Thus began our descent toward divorce.
For over a year, I sought out counselors to help keep our family together and even went to my church for help. I vowed that if he just told me the truth about our financial troubles, I would help him work through whatever was causing us so much trouble. Whether it was gambling, drugs, or even other women, I would stand by him and get him help. Alas, he never “came clean.” In fact, my husband began blaming me and the children for his failure in providing for us. It was my fault because I insisted on being a stay at home mom for several years, instead of pursuing a legal career. It was the girls’ fault for being involved in a traveling soccer team and attending a private school. I found this argument rather illogical considering that the girls were on a full scholarship and I had begun working part time and paid for any soccer and school expenses with what I made. My husband firmly held to the idea that his only misgiving was his “generous nature” and that he just couldn’t tell me “No” for all of the extravagant things he felt pressured to do for me. Despite proof that I never bought clothing anywhere other than thrift stores and shopped for canned vegetables at discount grocery stores, his “story” made me and the girls to sound like spoiled brats.
The rather puzzling piece that I still cannot fathom is that my husband could walk into a therapist’s office and leave with the therapist agreeing with him that the girls and I should have “helped him more.” Several men in our church met with my husband and me, following an incident where he left me and the girls in a restaurant when he had no money to pay the bill. I called our pastor and he arrived with the money and vowed to help us. Within a week, my husband convinced our pastor and a group of deacons that he was just “doing the best he could” and the “economic crisis of 2008” was the cause for his financial demise. Of course, he convinced the pastor and deacons that if I would just go to work as an attorney that all of our financial woes would disappear. No one ever listened to the fact that I had been out of the legal world for over 10 years and that my husband’s expectation that I could land a job as a senior level associate within days was completely unrealistic.
Furthermore, he suggested that the girls be taken out of their school and placed in one of the worst school districts in our state…all for the sake of saving him money. On paper, he made in one year close to a quarter of a million dollars, but we lived like paupers. No one asked why we didn’t have food in our home, why our cars were being repossessed, why we were losing our home to foreclosure, why he had not paid any bill with my name on it for over six years, or why he felt compelled to take out over thirty pay day loans in a matter of one year. Not one of these people ever asked the simplest and most logical question….where is your money going? He pawned our televisions, tablets, and even my engagement ring. He screamed at me and the girls. He stole the girls’ allowance money and birthday gifts. Even the girls didn’t trust him and would hide anything of value. When he was home, he spent an inordinate amount of time on his phone in secret conversations and texting continually.
I found the courage to file for divorce the night after my husband pushed me into wall and threatened to kill me in front of our girls. As he spat into my face, he told me that I’d never live to see another day if I didn’t stop asking him for money. I had just asked him for enough money to buy groceries, since our pantry had been bare for several weeks. We were sharing one car and he wouldn’t allow me to have a spare key to the clunker he bought from a friend. I had no way to get to the grocery store. I had only enough food to make rice and slice a banana that night to feed our two girls. Both girls stared straight ahead as he raged in our kitchen. Our oldest girl begged me to call the police and the youngest sat in a pool of her own urine and wept. I knew his behavior was erratic, but seeing my girls in such distress was enough to propel me forward toward a divorce.
Once I filed for divorce, his behavior shifted dramatically. Where he had been volatile and combative, this person before me was extremely cool and calculating. The day he retained his own attorney, he drove over to my office to meet me in the parking lot. My heart stopped when he walked up to me, toe to toe, and within an inch of my face stated the following, “I am going to bury you and take from you what you want the most…the girls. Game on, bitch.” These were the last words he ever spoke to me alone, yet he would tell everyone who would listen that he was hurt and still so in love with me.
After losing yet another job, he moved ten hours away and found a job as an attorney in a mid-sized firm in a large city. During this time, I found out that he had not paid the rent on our rental home for over six months and had negotiated an eviction action in civil court behind my back. When I found out about the eviction, I only had seven days to find another home for me and the girls. Luckily, I found a new home for us, but had to shoulder the financial burden of moving. When my then attorney told the court of the eviction, the court did absolutely nothing. My husband was only required to pay a nominal amount that did not adequately pay for a moving truck or the first and last month’s rent in the small carriage house that we rent behind a small Catholic church.
After we moved, the girls and I didn’t hear from their father for one solid month, but when he resurfaced it was with a vengeance. He and his attorney would begin their strategy of forcing me to appear at various hearings, emailing my attorney endless requests seeking a response, and making unreasonable demands. He and his attorney refused to negotiate on any small point, but would tell the judge that I was unreasonable and uncooperative when they would not even speak to me or my attorney. All of the aforementioned moves were calculated to spend my entire retainer and expend my resources in an effort to prevent me from keeping legal counsel. My husband and his attorney would argue that they did not understand the plain language of an order requiring him to pay out of pocket medicals, attorneys fees, spousal support, and child support. He began paying with a personal check that would arrive on the first of the month or exactly on the fifteenth of the month. My husband’s check would take anywhere from two to four days to clear, thus making me late on several bills. It is a “starvation strategy” to deplete the opponent of any and all resources.
His most underhanded move was to claim parental alienation even though he was the parent who moved away from us and had little contact. How I wish I had known that these two words could weld such power in the family court system. From the moment he uttered the words…”parental alienation”….the family court system opened its large arms and “welcomed him home.” My husband would become the judge’s darling. My husband was allowed to appear “telephonically” from his office on the other side of the state. When my husband demanded a custodial evaluation to determine if I was a “fit” mother, the court system agreed with no basis for this very expensive service that would unnecessarily drag our case out for almost a year. Despite being deemed “economically disadvantaged” by the court, I was made to pay half of the $6000.00 retainer. My husband, whose weepy performance in family court deserved an Oscar nomination, took over six months to pay his half of the retainer. However, on the day he paid the last installment on his half of the retainer, his lawyer filed a Motion to Compel to demand I pay my half in just ten days…..right before Christmas. I had to make the decision to either buy my girls Christmas or pay for the evaluation. Plus, I didn’t have thousands of dollars. I still don’t have the money two months later.
Is everything a total mess? No! I have learned that I am an expert at making lemonade out of lemons. I found another attorney and have had to “find my voice.” I have had to learn that you cannot negotiate with a narcissist….ever. I have also learned to document, document, document. Write everything like it is going to be read by a third party and remember that my husband just wants to “win at all costs.” I have to refuse to get sucked into his games. My focus is solely on my children. My children deserve at least one parent who is fully present and has their best interests at heart. Unfortunately, the family court system could care less about my two girls. My prayer is that my judge will gain the wisdom of King Solomon who determined that the “real parent” wasn’t the one who wanted to split the baby down the middle. While I pray, I also work tirelessly to be the kind of parent that puts her children first. Unfortunately, our family court system has abandoned the principal of what is in the “best interests of the child.” Instead, judges have allowed the “patients to run the asylum” for far too long now. Why? Most family court judges are elected officials. Their main concern is reelection. If we don’t start speaking out, we will be faced with a generation of children whose voices were never heard. Who’s in?
Come on and say it with me….. “I am a good mother. I am a good mother. I am. We just want peace. God, give us peace.”