And when the storm’s out, you run in the rain
Put your sword down, dive right into the pain
Stay unfiltered and loud,
you’ll be proud of that skin full of scarsAll I Know So Far, Pink
It was controlled chaos. Hundreds of kids supposed to filter into one gate and it took twenty minutes for half of the kids to get through instead of the five minutes they allotted for each grade level.
By the time I got my daughter in the gate and handed off to school staff for her first-ever day of in-person school, I was already ten minutes late for court. And I still needed to drive to work to be able to get wifi to log-in to the hearing.
Hearing ten. I realized halfway between when this hearing was scheduled and when it was to happen that it was also my daughter’s first day of school. I felt a momentary panic: would I have to ask someone else to take her? Lose out on this rite of passage as well? All because her father is what he is?
No. The first half hour of court is always roll call. I have an attorney. The judge NEVER calls our shit-on-a-shingle case first. Or even third or fourth. If my attorney explains why I will be fifteen or twenty minutes late to log in for roll call, the judge will understand. I mean: I’m parenting.
The only one doing that little thing called taking care of a child.
The night before, I tucked my daughter into her new ‘big girl room’ that she moved into a week or so before, and I read her three chapters of Flora and Ulysses and then rubbed her head until her eyelids got heavy and she said can every night be like this?
That whole day – one she spent at work with me – had felt like a line in time. The last day of summer. The last day I would be juggling childcare in exactly the way I had been for a year and a half now. The last day she wasn’t a first grader.
Kindergarten had only seemed half real – all of it virtual – and so this school start was giving me all the feels I would have had last year had I actually handed her off to walk into a real-life classroom.
She had adjusted incredibly well to moving into her new room that was further away from mine. It was like she grew a foot the minute she entered it. Not my baby anymore.
She hasn’t been my baby for a while now, but it was so glaring that night.
I had also been filled with an intense, swollen chest kind of gratitude all day.
We had gone the whole summer break without any drama. None.
Not even a single visit. Only one attempt to circumvent the court’s orders and then silence.
Part of her noticeable maturing – the palpable calm of our daily lives – was her ability to simply be and grow and stretch without being in trauma every few days.
I was so thankful. No matter what happened that next morning in court, I would be forever grateful that we had this one magic summer to just be.
As I raced back to my car at the elementary school, I called a a coworker (no time to text) and as I buckled into my seat and started the car, I asked him to tell the front desk person why I would be racing to the bathroom and then upstairs to close my door and disappear for a while. I thought I would have a minute to say hi and explain but I wouldn’t.
I listened to All I Know So Far at full volume as I drove the few minutes from V’s school to work. That song has waffled between empowering me and breaking my heart. It has circulated the abuse survivors groups I’m in – especially the ones with those of us parenting with the abuser – and it hits a raw nerve for those of us having to steel our children too early.
…you might give yourself away, yeah
And pay full price for each mistake
But when the candy-coating hides the razor blade
You can cut yourself loose and use that rage.
I took deep breaths as I drove. Being late always makes me anxious. But I knew I wasn’t really late in any serious way and I was late for a good reason and so I kept reminding myself of all of these things.
I logged in twenty minutes after the assigned court time. My attorney was there. x wasn’t.
We didn’t get called for another two hours, almost. Probably because x wasn’t there.
He no showed.
The irony of all the feelings I had about being late – all the worry, all the planning, all the coordinating – sums up our differences so perfectly.
Hell, he probably didn’t even know it was her first day. And didn’t bother to show up to court.
I’ll never stop fighting for her. NEVER.
Some version of that message was sent to me so many times over the last two years. As he barely fought at all for anything except control and domination.
And here I was making contingency plans. Having my lawyer be ready to explain. Calling coworkers and doing anxiety exercises to remind myself I wouldn’t cause harm to my daughter by being a little late for court that day.
He. No. Showed.
If it hadn’t felt so good to not have to hear his lies, again, it might have felt anti-climactic.
For once, he gave court exactly the effort he gives parenting. Exactly the same effort.
The judge, even though we hadn’t even been given a chance to ask, proposed closing out the case with no visitation and requiring him to refile if he completes the requirements for visitation.
Closed. No upcoming date.
And he can’t refile without attaching proof of the two classes he’s required to complete and of attending at least four of the anger management classes the court has ordered for him.
He can’t just take me to court without doing those things.
I’ve spent all summer thankful for whatever break we’ve been given (to heal, to live) but still always waiting for notice that visitations will start.
I made plans, but let people know I may have to cancel at the last minute. I only planned trips when I knew it was my time no matter what (which is, essentially, three weekends during the entire summer).
I have held money back in case visits start (since they will be supervised, which is absolutely what I want, they cost at least $85 an hour and we are to split them 50/50).
Until a month ago, I wouldn’t even let myself relax into a routine that involved my daughter being with me every day.
He didn’t even show up for court.
He was finally held accountable by the court last June and they set hoops.
If the court had required the same things of me, I would have done it. No question. Even thinking it was a waste of time and that I don’t need it.
I would have done it. All of it. There’s no way not doing those things would be the reason I lost any time with my child.
x made a choice.
And likely excuse after excuse after excuse.
But a clear choice.
Our child deserves better.
He chose whatever else he’s spending his time and money on over being a father and seeing his child.
There’s no spin that will change that fact.
If I had to guess, I’d say that playing the victim to me keeping him away from his own child when all he ever cares about is his children is getting him a lot of attention. With all kinds of women. This is the perfect thing to activate his text/messenger circle of female friends and exes.
He and his girlfriend have been together long enough now that I know she’s not feeling great about things with him even if she does olympic level gymnastics to convince herself it’s all in her head (with a lot of help from him saying that). I know this situation is giving him lots of chances to garner sympathy from other females and make her uneasy and to, most likely, try harder to prove her love (worth) to him. As an added bonus, it’s an endlessly useful excuse for why he’s hard to live with and lashing out.
I know this song and dance well.
And he now has the perfect story for excuse and pity.
All of these benefits – and chances to play the woeful parent – while also having to do none of the actual work of parenting. It’s perfect for him.
Unfortunately, this is what’s best for his child(ren). It’s still a painfully sad truth for me (& most likely always will be) that my daughter is better off without him in her life.
I gave up wishing for things to be different a while ago. But it’s still something I would change for her (and her sibling) in a heartbeat if I could. I would give them both a better father if there was any way I could make that happen.
This judge did what I wish all family court judges would do: she took the accounts of his actions seriously and gave him a chance to prove he was worthy. She said to him, essentially, do these things and show that you care about your daughter more than you care about hurting her mother.
She put it in his court and said do the work.
He no showed. To it all.
I didn’t have to see him. Or hear him. Selfishly, that felt like a beautiful bonus.
And I was given a reprieve from upcoming court dates and stressful handoffs and trauma triage after each return home.
It took a good six weeks after that June hearing for the reality of what was ordered to sink into my body. For the reality to be felt in my cells. I think it will be faster this time, but it’s still outside of me as I write this.
I have sole legal and physical custody. There is no visitation until x can prove he’s serious about not hurting her in the same ways he has for years now.
I have a life not completely ruled by documenting and preparing for whatever he may do to this funny, smart, loving little human we made.
When I picked up my daughter from her after-school program, her pigtails were messy and her face was red and sweaty and her eyes looked bright but tired – the skin under her eyes that tell-tale dark red of fatigue she gets when truly sleepy.
She had a good day. She asked if she had to go to the after-school program every day and when I said yes (bracing myself for whatever reaction she might have), she said yayyyy! It’s mostly just playing and eating.
Two of our favorite things.
When we got home that night and she took her shoes off, she declared her feet hurt too much to walk and she laid out on the couch and crawled to the bathroom once. When it was time for bed, she started to hobble and whimper and, with a helpful jump from her, I picked her up and carried her downstairs, where she fell deep asleep – snores and all – in record time.
She was just a kid tired from her first day of ‘real’ school.
I was just a mom trying to carry an almost-too-big kid to tuck her into bed after a landmark day.
She had no clue what I had to race off to do that morning. No clue what was at stake or what happened.
She had no need to know.
That’s all grown up stuff.
And she’s just a kid. Doing kid stuff. Feeling kid things.
I popped a champagne bottle on my rooftop that night. After my daughter was fully asleep.
Well, not champagne. Some non-French version of it. The small bottle available at the local shop across the street. Where I also bought a Ruth Ginsberg IPA and another 16oz can called Moment of Truth that my daughter pointed out because of the picture but that also seemed fitting for such a day.
I untwisted the wire and pulled it completely off and the cork just sat there. I pushed lightly up on one end of the cork. Pop! The sound echoed against the buildings across the street and for a split second, I was taken back to New Year’s Eves before and the promise of new starts and hope and a time before I thought of myself as a survivor. Before I was a mama. Before I was almost fifty and fighting these kinds of battles as though my very life depended on it.
It’s the first time I’ve done what I would call celebrating in years – certainly the first time I’ve truly celebrated anything to do with this custody struggle. I was too afraid to jinx anything before this – to get too comfortable, too complacent. To tempt the fates to turn the tides on me.
But this? No matter what comes next, this deserves to be celebrated.
There is no tempering what has been achieved here. The work that went into it. The hours of pain and worry channeled into a success. A rare and so very appreciated success.
As I sat on that rooftop sipping that brut sparkling wine, I heard x’s words, said so many times and so many ways over the last two years.
Fight. Always. You’ll see.
I remembered his sister telling me I didn’t understand how family court works and he’d get 50/50 no matter what. Are you prepared to split her that way?
You are not hurting him – you are making him stronger and he will fight.
I heard the chorus of his supporters who have told him to keep fighting, having no idea he hasn’t done anything at all that wasn’t easy for him in this whole process.
Having no idea of the damage he’s caused his children and the roads they each have to hoe because of his role in their lives.
I heard the calm rhythmic thump-thump of my own heart, where only months ago it was the fierce, thrumming noooooooooo each time I had to force her to go with him.
I had been remembering, the week before this last hearing, back when a friend from Portland had come to stay with me, for a local event here with another friend. She was staying downstairs in our building and getting to sneak in visits with me and my daughter. Her trip was only weeks after I ended it for good with x and coincided with the first real bizarro-land attempt he made to bully me into submission.
He had made a defamatory post in a local facebook group that night, accusing me of being a slumlord and had a tenant’s rights lawyer reaching out to me to try to do the right thing. The lawyer was just trying to help us work it all out.
x had moved out months before – five to be exact. But I had finally given him notice to remove his stuff from the property – with a deadline attached. It was like saying on guard to a narc.
He was using this lawyer – who never should have been throwing his weight around without vetting x and his easily debunked story – to try to get me to physically move his stuff into storage and pay for the storage.
It was the first (and certainly not the last) time he had used a well-intentioned local to try to abuse me by proxy.
My friend came home from hanging out late that night and I was, unexpectedly, still up – doing a puzzle and trying to keep my hands busy even though my mind was spinning in hyper-speed and my heart was like machine-gun fire, it seemed (although I know it can’t possible have been that fast, in memory it was that rapid and that constant, ramping my body into near motion even though I seemed unable to actually get up from the chair I was sitting in).
I can almost feel how that feeling felt in my body when I think back hard enough. I was so scared and angry and dumbfounded and in utter shock at what new low x had gone to to try to hurt and bully me. My ribcage felt as though it were slowly tightening around me when I would think about having to pay to store his crap on top of everything else I was paying for all on my own. Like I could feel him puppeteering my limbs and my head no matter how much of him I had moved out to the garage in order to feel free in my own home.
My fingers felt restless. My arms felt heavy. My eyes stung but my brain felt over-alert. I could hear the sounds of foot traffic outside and the music from the bar across the street over the album I kept playing over and over, trying desperately to distract myself. It was like my ears were picking up sound waves and amplifying them tenfold. I wanted to sleep but I knew I couldn’t.
That’s how she found me when she tried to sneak in as quietly as possible.
She sat with me. She let me talk too fast and too long about the messages and emails back and forth that night while she was gone.
And she sat with me some more.
Last week, I popped that tiny bottle of champagne – um, I mean, sparkling wine – to honor the me that sat there that night in October of 2019 and wondered if she could ever feel safe or calm or happy again – who wondered if she would always be in a state of fear and apprehension because she would always be trying to heal the damage he would do to their child.
If she would ever know a life again that wasn’t ruled by adrenaline and cortisone and brain-fog so dense it rivaled the valley fog of my childhood.
If she – I – would always be paying the price for his abuse.
If, forever forever forever, x would do anything – even hurt our child – to harm me.
That me was right. He will. He has.
My fears were founded. Even when they were barely forming in my newly free brain.
I will always be the one paying the price for the damage he does to V – even in absence, there is work to do to help my daughter understand that she is loved and safe, that she can always feel free to mourn what she doesn’t have and to help her grow into an adult who knows in her marrow that her father’s absence is all on him and says nothing about her own worth.
I wish someone would have told me
that this darkness comes and goes
People will pretend but, baby girl, nobody knows
And even I can’t teach you how to fly
But I can show you how to live
like your life is on the line
That scared, exhausted, foggy me of October 2019 also kept going. And going. And then going some more.
With intent and purpose and design.
She advocated. Even when doing so seemed the scariest thing to do.
Even when the silence of others clearly screamed the just let it go and move on that so many people who love me felt (and maybe still do).
That me parented and worked and, somehow, managed a full-time job and a five year old in virtual school and eight hearings – EIGHT – during covid on top of grocery shopping and shoe shopping for a kid whose feet seem to grow two sizes overnight and making frightened calls to my child’s therapist to ask if how I was helping her was the best way or if she had any better ideas for me.
That me kept her company afloat in the early days of the pandemic and kept her own bills paid and helped her child through too, too many hard, hard days and nights and has done it in a way that helps her child feel loved and safe and supported even when babysitters quit because her emotions were too big and too scary for almost everyone.
Did it in ways I can feel good about – ways that didn’t lash out at or burden my child with the madness of what was going on behind the scenes.
Those things, no matter what the future brings, deserve celebrating.
Through all of this, I came out with an invaluable piece of paper that protects my child more than I could realistically hope for in any of my best-case scenarios before this summer.
In a way I would have laughed at if any of you told me six months ago I would now have. I would have laughed and then I would have cried – deep, body shaking sobs – before steeling myself to keep going for however long it would take to make her as safe as possible.
She’s safe now.
(I can cry just writing that sentence)
I’ve kept her as safe as I can and now we get to the work of really healing and growing without the kinds of setbacks that shared custody brought.
Regular kid stuff. Regular kid feelings. Normal tough shit.
October 2019 me did ok – even better than ok. She worked hard to stay steady and get clear and do the tough shit that gets you out of the fog and the fear.
So I toasted to her.
And to the judge that I can’t tell what I really want to: your gift of centering my child will change her life in so many positive ways. The one I want to hug or bake a cake for or send a handmade card. But I can’t. So I toast, with my whole soul, to the ten minutes in her life that will forever change my and my child’s lives.
I toasted to my friends who have sat with me – in person or in text, via email or on the phone – and been with me no matter what version of me it was: terrified, irate, ashamed, embarrassed, sad.
I toasted to the women (& men) who are still fighting and doing it all as right as they can and yet, still, have not yet been given the freedom I was just given to keep my child safe and sane.
One of the things I started doing weeks ago, once the June hearing sunk all the way in, is start to schedule home maintenance I just couldn’t possibly deal with on top of everything else over the last two years.
It’s a lot of work, but it feels so good. Regular life stuff. Regular makes-you-tired-or-stressed stuff.
This weekend I’m clearing the kitchen for new cabinets and then I get to clear the rest of the house to have the wood floors refinished a couple of weeks from now and then painting and then creating a music/reading space where my daughter’s little girl room used to be.
Finally, I can start to create this new life free from his control and manipulations.
Free from court dates and documenting daily and saving for retainer fees.
This judge gave me freedom. A new start. One free from x’s strings and barbs and bruises.
The loveliest of spaces to free my mind up to give back to other women still in that moment I was in at my dining room table when my Portland friend tiptoed in only to find me wide awake and beyond tears.
I can take this fist full of education and knowledge and experience and share it with those still trying to find their footing in the dense, dense fog of finally leaving an abuser and seeing the full wrath staring straight at you and knowing you still have to find a way forward even if it feels like your guts are being ripped out of you one at a time.
It feels impossible. The terror and paralysis and longing to dip back into the fake reality are so real and overwhelming in a way that seems unreal and crushing.
If I go back, this will stop. I can go back.
There are ways out. Completely out.
Greener grass. So much greener (even when it has to be weeded daily).
I don’t ever forget that these ways out, while taking care of our kids, that have saved me from despair are thanks to the folks who’ve fought for coercive control legislation and awareness and who continue to scream loudly that parents don’t have rights. Children do.
Do you hear that?
Parents don’t have rights.
I don’t have an inherent right to parent my child.
I earn that right, daily. I have really, really earned it.
She has the rights: to receive love and support and to be raised by adults who don’t damage her, but who will nurture her. Who will help her grow and thrive.
A right to systems that will make sure she gets those things, no matter who has to give them to her.
Blood or not.
All children deserve that.
All children deserve not to be forced into abuse because parents have rights.
All protective parents deserve to be recognized for earning their parenthood and remembering whose rights trump all others.
The loud pop of that bottle on my rooftop last week was the starting gun for what’s next: a life I control and one that is, suddenly, unburdened.
One not ruled by triage and damage control.
A life. A regular life.
Not easy. But not easy in some really regular ways.