But first, in the three years leading up to my capitulation, there was my rejected suggestion of collaborative divorce, several aborted mediation attempts, a little begging on my part, personally typing out a child custody and support agreement myself to no avail and, in the end, being willing to lose everything: kids, child support, alimony and proximity to kids. Everything.
The issue at hand, in our case, was where our youngest would live after living with me for three years and after having a dismal entry into middle school. By the end of this terrible year, my child was in an alarmingly fragile state. Understandably, both my ex and I wanted things to go better for our youngest. We both felt protective. We just expressed it differently.
I spent the summer researching various ‘tween issues and talking intermittently with school administrators about a plan for the following year. Her dad spent the summer both wooing and badgering her about moving in with him and changing schools. He felt that the smaller school in his neighborhood would be more watchful and our child would have less chance of falling through the cracks. And, I should say I did not disagree entirely with his opinion.
Mostly, I wanted to know what my child wanted. In every conversation, my child’s answer was to stay at the previous school because of friends. My child did not think the school itself was the problem; just a rocky start that steamrolled into a really, really bad year.
It was my child and not me who accused her father of wanting her to live with him as a way to stop paying me. I’d kept my mouth shut on that one because I wanted my focus to remain on my child and what she wanted.
As the summer drew to a close, I could see the writing on the wall. This issue was not going away. If her father was determined that she live with him, and if my daughter held true to her desire to stay with me, we were looking at some kind of discord that might drag my youngest and most fragile child before a judge. I knew without a shadow of adoubt that this was no place for my daughter to be at this particular juncture in her life.
In one conversation with her, I’d said that if she wanted me to fight for her, I would absolutely do that. However, I also asked her to think on it some more with the understanding that I would be okay, personally, if part of her felt she might like to try the other school. That I would not suffer. I would understand and be happy for her in her new situation.
When I made it clear that I would be okay, my child did begin to sound more open to what her dad was proposing. With an anvil having just settled on my heart, I took note of this and made a private decision to continue down this path of removing any obstacle that my personal feelings might present for her in what could be a tricky decision for her to make. In the process I hoped to make clear that while I loved her dearly, I would support a decision that would take her away from me and be “happy” about it if that is what she wanted.
I stayed away from defining happy and how long it might take me to achieve such a state if I were to lose the most precious person in my life, except, of course, her brother and sister. On the other hand, I was so solid in my determination to protect her from a nasty court battle and the feeling of being a child-shaped rope in a tug-o-war between me and her dad, I did feel relatively at peace with whatever might happen—as long as I thought she felt empowered and okay about what might happen.
This was not “giving up.” This was not “walking away.” This was a painful consideration of all the facts and not being able to know the right answer. I honestly did not know if my daughter would be better off staying at her previous school and with me, a single, working mom with sometimes long hours, or if she would benefit more by changing it up and moving to her father’s place, where the district middle school is much smaller and where her dad’s girlfriend would have in place an afternoon babysitter for her own children.
Rather than risk the well-documented, psychological damage inflicted on children caught up in parental warfare, I opted for the unknown possibility that she might do well at her dad’s and that my giving her up might not damage her. It was the best I felt I could do given the circumstances at hand.
One tough consequence for me is that my ex made a unilateral and surprise decision to stop paying alimony once our child went with him. Just, poof, like that. The legal system is useless for this kind of thing. I now have to pay an attorney, who feels no pain or urgency on my account, to begin a lengthy court process just to retrieve the alimony.
Financial and legal hassle aside, I still feel I did the right thing. Indirectly and perhaps unintentionally, I have been accused of not caring for my daughter by both people close to me and distant acquaintances alike, who just can’t imagine doing such a thing. But, as anyone who has gone through divorce knows, no one can judge me, you or anyone unless they walk a crooked mile in our shoes.
In the end, I stand here at an uncomfortable distance from my youngest child, my baby. I watch her face on Skype and try to read between the lines. I listen to her voice on the phone to catch any suggestion of sadness—or happiness. Right now, I remain hopeful as she slowly makes her way through the seventh-grade work load and cements new friendships. I joined Instagram. I text. I do whatever it takes to stay in touch with a ‘tween who isn’t always focused on staying in touch.
It isn’t easy. But, if I had it to do all over again, I would do the same thing.