Custody Battle For Children Between Parents

David Chelsea

May 8, 2005
Losing Custody of My Hope
By KATIE ALLISON GRANJU

I’M a good mother. This is not an idle boast; I have a signed certificate that says so. I earned this de facto mothering license by successfully completing four weeks of court-ordered parent classes. Why did a judge order me to do this? Was I a child abuser? Did I leave my children alone and go out to a bar? Was I on crack?

No, I got a divorce. After 12 years of marriage and three children, ages 11, 7 and 4, my college sweetheart and I broke up. In my view this was due to his chronic infidelity. In our first year of marriage he slept with one of my bridesmaids; in our last, he took up with our daughter’s former Waldorf preschool teacher. If you asked him, he would recite a litany of my failings (none involving adultery). His lawyer actually once told the judge my primary fault was that I hadn’t been a very good housekeeper. The reality is we are both responsible for the unraveling of our marriage.

In the wake of our separation, I felt as if I might keel over and die from heartbreak. I rarely ate, slept or ventured out. Eventually, however, I began to pull myself together, thinking the worst was surely over. But I was wrong.

Seven months into the separation I received a call from my lawyer. "Are you sitting down?" she asked. My husband, she explained, was seeking full custody of our children on the grounds that I was an "unfit mother."

An unfit mother? I was flabbergasted. For the past 11 years I’d taken care of our three healthy children without any complaint from my husband. But the oddity of the accusation also stung, because, as a writer specializing in topics for parents, I consider fit mothering to be the core of my professional work. My articles on discipline and breast-feeding regularly appear in magazines, and I’m the author of a popular book on parent-child bonding and a frequent speaker on these issues.

My husband, a civil engineer, spent far less time with our children, which was fine: that was our deal. I understood the reality, even as I wished he’d been able to do more. That’s why I was pleasantly surprised when, during our separation, he began devoting more time to the children.

We agreed they would spend one night a week and every other weekend at his new place, a small house he’d rented 10 miles from mine. For the first time since becoming a mother at 23, I could regularly have a child-free night out with friends, and I began to think his stepped-up fathering might be the silver lining in the dark clouds that had taken up residence over our family. But the children didn’t want to stay overnight with Daddy in an unfamiliar house. They love their father and enjoyed going to his house for the day, but our two youngest children in particular balked at sleeping there.

Despite my assurances that it would be fun to go with Daddy, and ultimately, my firm insistence that they had to go, there were heart-wrenching scenes with the children clinging to me like baby monkeys as their father attempted to peel them off. Once, as I drove away, I looked in my mirror to see our 7-year-old chasing my car down the street wearing only her Hello Kitty nightgown.

My husband was understandably hurt by their behavior, and frankly it was hard on me, too. No mother feels good about leaving her children where they don’t want to be, even if that place is their father’s house. Still, I did what I had to do, and we were finding our way, or so I thought. I never saw the custody suit coming.

After recovering somewhat from the shock of my lawyer’s call, I drove to my husband’s office.

"Say it to my face," I demanded.

He just looked at me.

"Tell me to my face that you believe I’m a bad mother."

He looked away and said he didn’t think I was a bad mother per se, just that he believed he could do a better job as the "primary caregiver."

I blinked. Primary caregiver? Turns out this was just the start of his new vocabulary.

The children were "too attached" to me, he went on, claiming that it was my fault our two youngest children weren’t comfortable staying with him. He’d been reading up on "parental alienation syndrome," which he believed might apply in his case. But finally, after more outraged prodding from me, he got to the bottom line. His lawyer had advised him that to get what he wanted in the divorce, he would need to take a hard line on custody because that’s what mattered most to me.

"Fathers have rights too, you know," he added, apropos of nothing as I’d never suggested that they didn’t.

For the next year my husband’s bid for custody tore through my life, shredding most of what I thought I’d known about the man I’d loved for so long. To him everything I did to retain custody was somehow part of my plot to interfere with his rights as a father, and even the most mundane aspects of my life became evidence of my alleged shortcomings as a mother.

Terrified that I would mess up and lose my children, I began to censor what I said to them, afraid they’d accidentally say something to their father that might prove damaging when taken out of context. I stopped drinking the occasional beer, lest I be labeled an alcoholic. I ceased having dinner dates with male friends to avoid being branded a child-neglecting slut.

But the more I struggled to prove I was a good mother, the worse I became. I snapped at my children for little things, and I became hypercritical of his fathering, which wasn’t fair to him or good for the children. I’d always been happy to send the children to a friend’s house overnight; now I couldn’t bear their absence. I’d pace the house and often fall asleep across one of their beds, wrapped in their blankets. You want to see a mother become "too attached" to her children? Threaten to take them away.

MY husband insisted that we undergo an independent custody evaluation, which would involve interviews and testing of me, him and the children. Fearing this would further traumatize the children, I fought and lost that battle, and I had to cough up $1,500 – my half of the evaluation retainer – to allow a stranger to evaluate my parental skills.

Just about anyone can call himself a custody evaluator. Most are psychologists or social workers, but many are simply professional custody evaluators with some background in one of the helping professions.

As the date of my first evaluation neared, I pondered how I could prove I was a good mother. I don’t spank my children, but one divorced friend told me that her failure to use corporal punishment was noted in her evaluation, incredibly, as a "failure to assume an appropriate parental role."

I was a stay-at-home mother until the divorce pushed me into the full-time work force, but in the court decisions I read, stay-at-home mothers were often described as "smothering" and "without boundaries" while working mothers lacked sufficient "quality time" with their children. It seemed there was no winning.

Then the day was upon me. How to dress, I wondered, to show I was neither smothering nor distant, maternal yet not frumpy? I settled on a pink twin set, pumps and, yes, pearls.

Whether my choices made any impression on my evaluator, I couldn’t tell. He was polite and professional as he administered the interminable Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory and then the Rorschach test, in which I tried to stay away from seeing anything dark, violent or sexual in the patterns. I figured trees, flowers and butterflies would be safe bets, but when I looked to my evaluator for signs of approval he maintained a poker face.

Next stop on the custody-battle tour: the court-ordered child-rearing classes, required of all divorcing parents in my jurisdiction. I’d put off taking them even while my husband completed his, proudly waving his certificate at the judge, who admonished me to take the classes before our next hearing.

Not long after, I found myself in a dingy meeting room at our local family services agency with dozens of other women (and a few men). Leading us were two young social workers who would offer pearls of post-divorce wisdom like "Always use ‘I statements’ when talking with your ex-spouse."

One skeptical mother finally asked, "Are either of you a parent?"

"Have you ever been divorced?" another asked.

"Has your husband ever beaten you?" a third wondered.

In each case the unsurprising answer was no.

A month later I was able to wave my "parenting diploma" at the judge. And afterward, eager to test out my new skills in using "I statements," I approached my soon-to-be-ex outside the court and said, "I feel very upset with you when you sue for full custody of our children and claim I’m a bad mother."

He turned on his heel and walked away.

My story doesn’t yet have an ending, much less a happy one. Only days before our children were to be tested and interviewed by the custody evaluator, my ex and I agreed in court-ordered mediation to a plan in which he would take the kids exactly 37 percent of the time and I’d have them 63 percent. But only a few weeks into this arrangement he said he couldn’t live with it, and now, six months later, he’s considering taking the issue back to court.

After two years of hearings, mediation, classes, evaluations, counseling sessions and thousands of dollars in legal fees, I no longer have faith that I’ll ever be relieved of the fear of losing custody of my children. Instead I realize I must treat the situation like a chronic disease, something I must learn to live with and manage rather than get past.

And I’ve gone back to drinking.

Katie Allison Granju, who lives in Knoxville, Tenn., is the author of "Attachment Parenting" (Simon & Schuster).

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