I was recently interviewed on a podcast about loss and grief. Check out the episode of the Coming Back podcast here. During the interview, the lovely podcast host asked me if it helped to write about what happened to me all of those years ago when I went through the terrible loss of my marriage and the way of life that I thought would always be mine. And the truth is, it really does help, but all of that stuff that I have talked about, all the stuff that has happened between Gary and I is really so long ago that I am over it. Sure I get riled up telling the stories, and it churns me up a bit when I have a friend or one of my besties from my Facebook group contacts me and are going through the same thing, but overall, I have come out the other side. I’m good. Really.
There is one exception to that rule though. The part that isn’t behind me yet is the part that pertains to my kids. Although my marriage was dissolved in a courtroom after two and a half years of battle almost six years ago now, I am still the mother of these two amazing people, and he is still their father. And co-parenting with Gary, well it has never been easy. I have been putting off talking about this, because it is still really real, and really raw. And while talking about everything else is easy, it’s old news, talking about my kids and what they are currently going through is fresh, and it’s painful. I can be somewhat impartial with the rest, but with this stuff, this is not something I feel magnanimous about…I will do the best that I can.
Custody situations can vary. I was lucky enough to be awarded sole physical custody of my kids and only joint legal custody. Legal custody relates to decisions surrounding healthcare, religion, and schooling. So a few years ago when my son was being brutally bullied in school and I wanted to pull him out and let him do school online, I was vetoed and there was nothing that I could really do about that. But the sole custody part was a huge bonus for me. And a real life saver, which I will explain here in a moment.
But first let’s go back to 2009. The very first weekend after we moved over the river and through the woods to the poopy brown house, the kids had their first “visitation” weekend with Dad. I was kind of a wreck and couldn’t wait to get them back. And before I even went to pick them up I got a call from my then best friend, who lived across the street and had spent some time with my daughter when she had come over to play that day. She warned me that I was going to hear some news from the kids that I wasn’t going to like. While the two little girls were chatting and playing, my daughter, Samantha, had told hers that she had “had a sleepover “ at daycare. Which, if you will recall, means that she spent the night at Carol’s house. I didn’t think too much about it because Carol, if you will also recall, was married. My friend, we will call her Janet, wanted me to know, and I thanked her.
So when I picked up the kids that evening, the first thing they both blurted out was that they had spent the WHOLE weekend at daycare. I called Gary. We talked civilly. I explained to him that I felt it was important for the kids to spend some time getting used to living in two homes before he started diverting their attention with Carol, if that was what his future was going to hold. He assured me that there was nothing going on with Carol, but in the end, he agreed that the kids should have some time to adjust first. When I tucked the kids in to bed that night, my son, age 9, said, “Mom, I think Carol is going to be our stepmom!” And I cheerfully agreed that “maybe she is”.
I should mention, that I was not unhappy that he would choose to start a relationship with Carol after we split. And I also was not yet clear that she was the catalyst of the split. Carol had been our daycare provider for a number of years at that point. She knew my kids and I believed that she cared about them. They knew her and they trusted and cared for her as well. My guard would have been up had she been a stranger…but she was Carol…I felt okay about the idea that if the kids wouldn’t be with me, they would be with someone who understood my parenting style and who also cared about them.
Two weeks pass and the kids are back with Dad for another weekend. They spend another weekend sleeping over at Carol’s. During the weekend in between her husband had been given his walking papers and he was now moved out. My kids would continue to spend almost every night spent with their father in sleeping bags on her basement floor until we got to court over a year later and I got the judge to assert that he would not have visitation with them unless they had beds to sleep in.
So we got off to a rocky start parenting together from the very beginning. The first agreement that we make on behalf of the kids is violated when he doesn’t keep the kids separate from his “friendship” with Carol. But things are weird all the way around. He barely seems like the same person. And the kids start to notice.
When we were together, Gary would play video games with our son, Jake, and it was kind of their “thing”. Jake loved that time with his Dad and they played games that I didn’t always think were appropriate for Jake’s age group but my boys were happy, so I was happy. Jake loves guns. Both Gary and I are from an upbringing that hunt and guns are a part of our culture. Jake had toy guns ranging from a realistic cap gun to Nerf guns. He also had a fascination with knives and had his own pocket knife that he had been taught to handle safely. Once Gary started spending all of his parenting time at Carol’s all of the rules changed. Jake was not allowed to have any guns as toys there. Carol did daycare and she would not allow it. When I did daycare we kept my kids’ toys separate—guns were for the weekends or after all the daycare kids had left. They weren’t outlawed. Jake was told that this was not an option at Carol’s and to leave the guns at Moms. Knives were definitely not allowed, which was understandable. But what poor Jake did not understand though, was that suddenly the rules around video games changed. First, Dad no longer wanted to play video games with him. He was busy hanging out with Carol. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Jake was no longer allowed to play any of his games that he was used to playing with Dad. The M rated games were all gone. And he wasn’t allowed to play the T rated games either. It was G rated or nothing, and I watched as Jake’s love of video games died off. The following Christmas Jake asked for a bunch of games and got a couple of them from myself or grandma. When Gary saw them he was livid. Why would I buy our child T rated games when he said no? Well, because you used to let him have them…and no one understands why that has changed.
Another thing that changed after Gary and Carol started hanging out is that he started going to church. When Jake was a baby, Gary’s parents pushed for us to get him baptized. Gary and I dragged our feet. Although we identified as Christians, we didn’t go to church and I wanted to find a place that we liked before we baptized our baby there. I asked him repeatedly to go with me to check out the churches in our town. Gary could not be bothered to get up early on a Sunday to go and attend church services with me. Well, once Carol was in the picture, they were going twice a week. AND requiring the kids to go with them. Our kids had never had to sit through a church service other than a random funeral or wedding and suddenly they were going twice a week when they were with Dad. Jake didn’t like it. He doesn’t believe the way that we do and I accept that he has his own opinions. His father does not and it has caused problems between them.
Then there was talk of having Samantha baptized at Carol’s church…but not really to me, rather around me. That still hasn’t happened yet, but I am fairly certain I won’t be invited when it does. And yes, doing that behind my back is a direct violation of our court order.
There are more tales of parenting woe like when Gary decided to take Samantha to get her ear’s pierced and I said no but he did it anyway, because he said Carol deserved to have that special time with MY daughter. Or like the times that he and Carol would decide to go out of town and leave the kids with Carol’s mother instead of allowing them to just stay with me. Or the dozens of times they took my two kids and her one child and left the three of them in a hotel room at the casino overnight so they could gamble on the casino floor all night long, a nine year old in charge of two other kids 6 & 4. Or how he stopped bringing them to visit his parents as much or accommodating his parents vacation schedules so that I had to deprive my kids of time with their beloved grandparents or give up my own time. You know the answer to that one…I give up my time over and over again so that they can continue to have a wonderful relationship with their grandparents.
Or there was also the time when he essentially kidnapped my children on a Friday night that happened to be Jake’s birthday because he said he was sick of dealing with me and he would not be bringing them back until a judge ordered him to. And I cried and cried until Tuesday, when the kids reappeared. As if by magic.
And don’t even get me started talking about child support. I could go on and on.
Now those of you who have gone through a divorce or are going through one are probably screaming at me right now that I need to document this and tell the judge. Well, I did just that and although the judge sided with me on every issue and made notes to that effect in her court order. Enforcement of that court order is something else entirely and the reassurance that the judge agrees that my kids being left in a hotel room is not safe does not help me keep them from ending up in that hotel room when they are in their Dad’s care. Yes, I could have him found in contempt, but that all costs money and time, which are two things that I don’t have ample quantities of and I would rather spend what I do have on these kids.
Parenting with an ex is hard. Parenting with an ex who cannot be wrong and does not ever see the error in his ways or apologize for anything…well, I am going to go out on a limb and say that it is impossible. I sure haven’t been successful at it. Throughout all of this abuse, I never badmouthed this man to his children. Until recently—when for reasons you will discover in a moment, it could no longer be avoided. I will talk about the perils of bashing the ex in another episode, but it’s just a terrible idea on all fronts. Don’t do it.
Jake is 17 now. He is a smart, creative, sensitive young man and he makes me proud in a myriad of ways every single day. He also makes me want to strangle him on occasion but I love and respect the human he is growing up to be. His Dad has a mold that he would like Jake to fit into. You see, Jake has never really liked school, and as a result he is an underachiever by society’s measure. He isn’t incredibly social, doesn’t put a ton of energy into chasing girls, and doesn’t play sports. Jake didn’t get his driver’s license right when he turned 16…or 17. Part of that was that I couldn’t afford drivers ed because well, his dear old Dad doesn’t help out too often, but also because he doesn’t really care if he gets a driver’s license and he recognizes that there are financial ramifications to doing so. And he has no interest in getting a traditional job—both because he does not incur expenses, and because he hopes, and is working towards making a living online doing graphic design for video game designers. He is very good at it. All of these things add up to “not good enough” for his father. So a few months ago, the two of them had a discussion, via text message about his father’s expectations and Jake decided that rather than change himself to avoid disappointing his father, he would just NOT. His father expects an apology that Jake has opted not to give. So he doesn’t see too much of his Dad anymore. He is starting to stand his ground and to speak up when things seem unfair, and that doesn’t go over well with a man who cannot be wrong.
Then there is Samantha. She is such a radiant soul and has always been Daddy’s little girl. But the stuff happening with her brother upset her. Hearing Carol talk trash about her brother got to her even more than listening to them talking trash about me for all of these years. Sweet Sammy started hardening herself, suspecting that if she didn’t jump through all of the hoops that she would be next. That time came sooner than she expected. While camping with some cousins and Gary’s parents, her step-brother Charles became upset claiming that Samanthaand Jake were teasing him. He was in tears, and wanted to go home so he called his Mom. She immediately set out for the northwoods to retrieve him and Gary sent a text message to me and an email to his mother that he was going to bring our kids home too. Well, when Carol showed up at the campground, it was only Samantha who had to go home, and after words were exchanged between her and the grandmother a tearful fourteen year-old girl was driven away against her will. She was devastated and swore that she did nothing wrong. Her story was corroborated by her grandmother and every adult at the campground, and after a day and a half when I was finally able to see her, I mentioned flippantly that I had half a mind to drive her back there. After consulting with and getting approval from the grandparents, we hatched a plan… and back to camping she went. Of course she was punished the next time she went to Dad’s for defying his orders, but we believed that we had stood up for what was right. And even after trying to talk to him with the help of her therapist, he refuses to believe that he did anything wrong or that his forcing her to leave her cousins and grandparents was anything less than “good parenting”. He also bought her expensive concert tickets the week that this therapy visit was scheduled, because he had to know that she had grievances to air. And his doing so, as per his plan in my opinion, pushed her complaints to the side. At least for now.
Samantha is a bit more aware of the tenuous nature of her situation now. She knows that one wrong step will put her right out of her father’s favor. But she also cares less. People always say that kids are smart and they figure stuff out for themselves, and that is certainly true with my kids. They get it now. They certainly are nobody’s fools.
And here’s the big moral of this whole story. While these tales and woes do not necessarily involve me…it is incredibly upsetting to comfort your child when they are hurt by one of the two people who should love them most in the world. Just like them bashing me to the kids though, it works slightly in my favor. My kids are more aware now than ever before that my love for them does not have conditions. That they don’t have to fit a mold for me to love them. And that they don’t have to hide their feelings or pretend. We can talk through the tough stuff. They are welcome to have and share their opinions. Just as I am allowed to play the parent card and overrule them.
Gary and Carol like to say that we don’t have any rules in our house. But we do have rules. Well, maybe just one rule. Love and respect each other. I strongly believe that if we do that, there are no additional rules required. While I wish that things were different and that their father and I could work together to be better parents to them and to remove so much of the awkwardness that has happened and is bound to continue to happen when we have to attend things together, I am feeling pretty okay with what I am accomplishing on my own. These are good humans. I must be doing something right.
Until next time.