I’ve been sort of following Gossip Girl star Kelly Rutherford’s child custody battle saga. I say “sort of” because hearing about any custody battle, after barely surviving my own, makes me want to crawl into a bomb shelter.
I don’t know why Rutherford’s judge granted her ex the right to take their two young children to live with him in Europe. I’m not going to speculate on what she might have done to lose custody or whether or not the judge is biased towards fathers.
But when I read the latest on Rutherford’s court case, how the legal fees and airfare to visit her kids have virtually bankrupted her, when I saw the photos showing how much she’d aged — not so much aged as worn soul-tired and heartbroken — in just a few years, I couldn’t help but wonder:
Are custody battles worth the fight?
* * *
One afternoon shortly after I commenced legal proceedings to retain joint custody of my son, I sat at a conference table across from my attorney Sidney. After discussing specifics of my case, in particular the personality and financial profile of my ex, Sidney put down his pen and looked at me.
“You are not going to win this. You should give him sole custody of Luca.”
“I can’t!” I gasped. “I can’t give up custody of my son!”
Sidney gave me a patient smile.
“Do you really think the judge would take away my custody?” I asked. “I mean, doesn’t a mother have to be, like, a crack addict to lose custody?”
Sidney uttered a line that perfectly sums up the travesty otherwise known as family law:
“You don’t go to family court to get justice. You go to get answers.”
I didn’t like that answer. So I asked my then-therapist, who specialized in high-conflict divorce, what she thought about my situation.
“I’ll ask you what I ask all my other clients,” she said. “What’s the worst nightmare you can live with?”
“What? What does that mean?”
She gave me the same patient smile that Sidney did.
“Think of the worst nightmare you can live with. Because that’s what you might get if you go to court. You’re better off now giving your ex everything he wants.”
I didn’t like that answer either. Nor did I like the answer Atticus’s friend, an appelate lawyer, gave him about my case.
“Louis says you’re going to lose,” said Atticus. “Prince has too much money and he’s the kind of guy who won’t stop fighting. If he gets a verdict he doesn’t like, he’ll just appeal. We need to throw in the towel. Now.”
Atticus had actually been the one who convinced me to fight for custody. It had taken all the stamina I could muster to high-jump over my reluctance. Now that I was in the ring, I wasn’t prepared to take off my gloves.
I consulted with Sarah, a smart blonde forensic psychologist often hired to weigh in on celebrity custody cases. I had seen her a few times before, and she had encouraged me to try to retain custody.
But this time, after hearing about Prince’s latest Ninja moves, she said very gently:
“You should give Prince everything he wants.”
“I can’t!” I practically sobbed.
“I’ve seen what custody battles do to people, Pauline. Financially, psychologically. And in your case, at the end of the day, I’m not sure what you’re going to get out of it.”
I still wasn’t ready to quit. Until a few weeks later when I told Sarah who had been appointed as our custody evaluator.
“I don’t trust him” she said. “He doesn’t understand Parental Alienation, and he’s lazy. You don’t want the judge reading his report. Get out now.”
This time I listened. I had lost six figures, ten pounds, and hundreds of brain cells. Luca was being ravaged in the parental cross-fire. So I settled. I gave my ex what he wanted: essentially full custody of Luca and — due to my inability to pay for a forensic accountant — no child support payments.
I was officially living the worst nightmare I could imagine.
* * *
In hindsight, I believe the advice that had been impossible to stomach was the advice I should have followed all along. I was fighting a fight I couldn’t win, and I got tromped before I reached the finish line.
Ironically, and perhaps karmic justice-ly, giving Luca to Prince brought my son back to me. When I got myself out of the equation, Prince realized he couldn’t handle Luca on his own, and Luca realized I wasn’t so bad after all.
And me? I can honestly say I “won” by “losing.” I learned to detach from the toxic struggle in which I’d been locked since the beginning of my marriage to Prince. While I would never suggest other single mothers forego child support, in my case not being financially dependent on my ex has been liberating: Prince has lost his primary leverage source and I don’t have to grovel for the check every month.
Given that I rebuilt my relationship with my son by giving up custody, it’s easy for me to look back and say my battle wasn’t worth the fight. There are times when parents have to fight: when their children are being abused by the other parent, when one parent wants a moveaway order, or when that other parent is sociopathic.
Absent these circumstances, I’m not sure that any custody battle is worth it. Kids are always sucked into the vortex of conflict and the richer, crazier parent is usually the victor.
I couldn’t have known any of this two years ago. But if I were advising others contemplating a custody battle, I would ask them this:
Are you fighting a fight you can win?