This is the question Francesca, my 9-year-old, used to ask me after she watched her dad pick up her brother Luca from school but leave her behind. On those occasions–every other Tuesday–I’d collect Franny at 3:00, then take her to get a a new pair of shoes or something else she didn’t need and I couldn’t afford so maybe she’d forget how crappy it felt to watch her dad and Luca drive away without her. Then I’d drop her off at her father’s house at 5:30, where she would stay until Thursday morning.
Just to clarify how truly nutty this arrangement was (and still is), here are the rest of the details: I drive 45 minutes to her school, hang out with her for 2.5 hours, drop her off at her dad’s–ten minutes away from school!!–then slog through an hour’s worth of rush-hour traffic back to my house. This also means that I have to take off from work Tuesday afternoons because I can’t spring for a babysitter to chauffeur her around for a couple hours.
You may be wondering about now: how did this happen? Why on earth did she ever agree to this insanity?
So my ex would sign the divorce papers, that’s why. Until last March, when the kids were still on the same schedule, and I babysat both of them until 5:30 on their dad’s timeshare Tuesdays, the arrangement was merely absurd.
We inverted Luca’s timeshare last year because it was clear he needed to spend more time with his dad. So Luca stayed with Prince, my ex-husband, Monday through Wednesday. Prince started picking up my son on Tuesdays–but not my daughter.
The arrangement was no longer just absurd. It was now truly sick.
No matter how much I pleaded with Prince to get over the technicality in the timeshare agreement and take Francesca with him so she wouldn’t feel like a second-class citizen, no mater how often I explained that timeshares need to be flexible to accommodate children’s changing needs, he refused to pick her up. Wouldn’t budge. He would threaten: “You are not allowed to violate our court-ordered agreement! If you do not drop her off at the regularly scheduled time, I will take you to court on an ex parte!” And then I started to realize that forcing my daughter on her father, who could not be bothered to free up his schedule to collect her from school, was not in her best interest. So I stopped pleading.
On those infamous afternoons, Francesca would ask me from the back of the car: “Why won’t my dad pick me up from school on Tuesdays? Why does he pick Luca up but not me?”
I’d glance in the rear-view mirror and catch a glimpse of her face. Sometimes she’d be fighting back tears. Sometimes she just looked puzzled.
Then I’d take a deep breath so I wouldn’t say something to the effect of: “This is not about you, Sweet Pea. This is about his need to treat me like The Help.”
Clearly, these were not words I could say. Nor could I sit her down with the DSM-IV, read aloud the diagnostic criteria for Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and say: “Remind you of anyone we know?”
Instead, what I said was:
“I don’t know why your dad doesn’t pick you up on Tuesdays. You should talk to him about it. You can’t control whether or not he picks you up, but it’s important to let him know how you feel.”
“I did ask him,” Franny told me one day.
“You did? What did he say?”
“He said it was your job to pick me up and drop me off at his house.”
There was this painfully loud silence in the car. I glanced in my rear view mirror as heartsickness, then resignation, traveled across Franny’s sweet freckled face.
And then I said the only thing left to say, the only thing that made any sense at all:
“Let’s go buy some new shoes, shall we?”
Now that Luca is at a different school and the preferential pick-up treatment is no longer staring her in the face, Franny’s questions about Tuesdays have all but dried up. She is a remarkably resilient nine-year-old. She accepts the things she can’t control with grace, lets them go, and finds something to be happy about. Cats. Playdates. Homemade molten lava cakes.
I, however, haven’t let go of the Tuesday Afternoon issue. I relayed it, with all its byzantine, sadistic twists and turns, to the Custody Evaluator earlier this week. Seemingly bored until that moment, he stopped scribbling notes on his yellow pad. His eyes bugged out and he stared at me with his mouth open.
“He won’t pick her up from school on Tuesdays? Did he give you a reason?”
“He says I have to follow the custody order.”
He looked down at his pad as if he didn’t know what to write. Then he looked up at me again.
“But what was the reason?”
“He says I have to follow the custody order.”
By this point, he looked thoroughly revolted. I loved him for that.
“But…what…is the reason?”
“He says I have to follow the custody order. That is his reason.”
It’s also one of the reasons I’m requesting that Franny’s timeshare stay the same. Any father who refuses to pick his kid up from school on his timeshare day–especially when this father is so independently wealthy that he doesn’t have to work–should not be awarded more custody.
Besides, Prince doesn’t really want Franny 50% of the time. He knows I still think she should be with me 62.5% of the time and he can’t stand the thought of letting me “win.”
I’m prepared for the judge to rule that a 50-50 timeshare is best. Where I live, most fathers get 50-50 if they want it unless they routinely cavort with crack whores. But I’m reasonably certain, especially given the Evaluator’s response, that my ex will be ordered to do the Tuesday school pick-up.
In the meantime, Franny will be adding to her shoe collection.
personality disorder, who is also the poster boy for Parental Alienation.
I am not asking for more custody. I am asking to retain my legal rights as Luca’s mother. And I am asking to keep Francesca’s time share (62.5% with me) the way it is because I do not believe her dad is genuinely interested in spending more time with her. If he were he would take her the extra four nights a month I’ve offered him. He would pick her up from school on his Tuesday timeshare day, instead of having me play au pair by collecting her at 3 p.m., babysitting her for 2.5 hours, then chauffering her to his house at 5:30 p.m. When she was younger and on a few occasions clung to his calves, begging for a father-daughter outing (since she routinely watched him take her brother on father-son outings), he would not have replied, “I’m pretty busy this week, I’ll see you on your regularly scheduled day.”
People with personality disorders (think Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction) should not be awarded more custody. People who undermine their kids’ relationship with the other parent should not be awarded more custody. Destroying a child’s bond with a parent is a form of child abuse. Lest you think I’m being melodramatic, check out Amy J.L. Baker’s Adult Children of Parental Alienation Syndrome: Breaking the Ties That Bind. The book is filled with interviews of adults who describe the psychological damage they suffered while growing up in a cult-like environment in which they were brainwashed into believing that one parent was bad, incompetent, uncaring, and a host of other evils. If you are an Alienated Parent and you want to send yourself completely around the bend, read this book at bedtime.
You may be wondering, right about now: Was Pauline in a coma? Didn’t she realize she’s got only one shot at justice? Did she not vet God?
I did, actually. God came highly recommended by several people, one being my attorney and another being an esteemed family law attorney with whom my lawyer frequently consults. (I will be taking up the matter of God’s Fathers’ Rights rep with my lawyer later this week). However, God was not my first choice; he was simply the least unfavorable choice.
Where I live, selecting a custody evaluator is an arduous process that goes like this: both parties propose three evaluators and give reasons why those evaluators would be appropriate for the case. If the parties cannot agree on one of the six proposed evaluators, then the judge will select one from the list.
Of the three evaluators on Prince’s list, one was reputed to be heavily daddy-slanted; one was a complete unknown, and; one was God, who is a major player on the 730 playing field. The truth is, almost every evaluator I inquired about had some bad rap on him/her and the ones that didn’t, nobody could vouch for.
Neither of my top two choices made the cut. One had a nine-month waiting list and the other, a Parental Alienation expert, knew my current husband, Atticus. Prince was adamant about not selecting anyone who had worked with Atticus, who is a fairly well-known mental health professional in our city. So that shrunk the pool of potential good evaluators considerably.
Of the three good evaluators who did make my list, two were women, and I knew it would be unlikely for Prince to agree to either of them since he is a spectacular misogynist. So I put a man on the list, a custody honcho whom I hoped Prince would select. Little did I know that Prince’s weaselly attorney who I call Alfalfa because he is 5’3″, squeaky-voiced, appears not yet to have had his first shave, and has a lick of greasy black hair sticking up on the back of his scalp–this character, Alfalfa, is suing said evaluator because he didn’t like the recommendations he made for one of his clients.
If I’d had an extra bucket of cash, I would have refused all of Prince’s choices, sashayed into court, and argued for one of the women on my list. But my bucket is almost empty, so I said yes to God, whom I have not yet actually met, but who, in fact, has already cashed my $3750 retainer. If you’ve read my earlier posts, you know that I am blazing through assets, inheritances, and gifts from family to pay for the privilege of remaining my son’s mother, and, I firmly believe, to do right by Francesca by keeping her time share status quo.
Besides, as anyone who has spent any time in Family Court will tell you, the whole enterprise is a crap shoot. You can mount a great case believing you have the world’s best custody evaluator in your pocket and still get trounced.
But I’m not ready to turn Luca over 100% to a man who wants to destroy his relationship with his mother. I’m not ready to turn my son over to a man who is more concerned with sending him to the “right school” than setting appropriate limits and getting him the proper mental health treatment. I’m not ready to give Francesca more time with the too-rich-to-work father who can’t be bothered to pick her up from school on his timeshare day. And there’s this: Francesca recently told her teacher that she wants to spend more time with me because there’s so much fighting between her dad and Luca. But that’s a story for another blog.
Last summer I had a few sessions with a therapist who specializes in high-conflict divorce. Her advice was to avoid court altogether, which would mean signing over my kids to Prince. Preparing me for what might be my end game, she asked: “What’s the worst nightmare you can live with?”
The worst nightmare I can live with is that Prince gets everything he wants and the kids suffer for it. The worst nightmare I can live with is that Prince makes me a non-person in my children’s lives–that he symbolically banishes me to the back of the bus.
The worst nightmare I couldn’t live with would be knowing that I accepted that back seat voluntarily, without advocating for myself or my children, because that’s where I thought I belonged.