Child custody arrangements are created at the time of divorce and although parents may breathe a sigh of relief that the negotiations are over, they’re never really over. Parenting arrangements should be about a child’s needs and since those needs are in a continual state of flux, so too should parenting arrangements.
My current guest, Donna F. was divorced when her daughter was about two years old. Donna was convinced it wasn’t in her daughter’s best interest to spend equal time shuffling between two houses and when her ex wouldn’t agree to Donna having primary custody, Donna moved out-of-state leaving her daughter to live full-time with her ex. At the time, she thought it might only be for a few months or a year at most. It turned out to be for much longer but it wasn’t forever. Here’s Donna:
Her dad got remarried a third time. She was 27. He was 50.
And she wasn’t nice to my daughter who was eleven or twelve at the time. She didn’t even have her be a part of her wedding ceremony. My daughter was like, “Well, I think it’s interesting. I’m in my mom’s friend’s wedding and I’m not even in my dad’s wedding.” And the new stepmom says, “You’re kind of old to be a flower girl and so if you wanted to be in it, you should’ve told me.”
So, one day at the dinner table my daughter must have called her a bitch or something and so her dad grabbed her around the throat and choked her. He had not been violent before, although I was always listening for that, because that’s what he grew up with. But he grabbed her around the throat and he strangled her. She texted me and she said, “You’ve got to get me out of here. He’s going to kill me.”
I tried calling her back and he’d taken her phone. What he ended up doing was going in her room and taking all of her clothes, her stuff, everything. He removed everything from her room and wouldn’t let me talk to her.
He told me she was nasty to his wife and so this is what he did. I said, “I need to be able to talk to her. She needs to have her phone.”
“Well, you can talk to her through me,” was the response.
So, I flew down there and I called the police. The police went over and investigated and then said, “Well, a parent can reprimand a kid. They can punish a kid however they want. There’s no bruises on her neck, so we can’t do anything.”
I flew down there again within that next couple of weeks. I went to get a temporary injunction to get her out of the house and the judge denied it.
I was devastated. I was devastated with the system and the fact that she was down there and I couldn’t get her up here with me. I went into this depression and it was really a challenging time. I didn’t have extra money. I didn’t have the ability to hire an attorney. So, I was working with a guy up here who’s an attorney and he really helped me put together a case and a statement.
I talked to a good friend here about my daughter. I said, “I don’t even know what to do. She’s coming into these teenage years. She’s going to be a smartass. That’s who she is and if he’s going to grab her or threaten her, she’s going to become in trouble in this way. What do I do?”
She said she would pray about it and the next day she called me and said, “You’re not going to like what came to me. I think you’re supposed to move to Arizona.”
I didn’t want that to be my answer but I said, “OK, that’s what I need to do.”
It was the summer by then and my daughter was visiting with me. I said to her, “I think I’m moving to Arizona” and she was like, “Yay.” She’s all excited.
So we were back in court and I go in and I said, “I’m afraid for her safety. I’m so afraid I’m moving back here.” That shut my ex up for the first time ever. He didn’t really know what to do, because he would blame me. “Well, she moved away. She doesn’t really care about her,” that kind of thing. That was the most common thing people would say. “How can you be a mom and not be there?”
I found a really good job with a realtor in Arizona. It was going to pay really well and so I moved down there. Well, the job never came together. I had moved into an apartment based on what the realtor was going to pay me and then he ended up hiring his wife.
So, here I am in this apartment, I can’t find a job and I have to sit my thirteen-year-old down and tell her that we’re getting evicted.
I was like, “I don’t know where to go. I don’t know what to do.” I called her step-mom (my ex’s second wife) and she said, “You can move in here. You can have your daughter’s room” which was this little room. I was like, “Oh, my God. How am I going to do that with a teenager, but you know what? I’ll have a roof over my head. Fine.”
I had some people help me move and we go over there. They had converted the garage into a suite with its own bathroom and she ended up giving us that. It was great.
I still could not find work and I kept praying about it.
My ex was now going to court with wife #2 about custody stuff; especially about their autistic daughter. I never in my life thought this would happen, but I could see that he was having a meltdown. It would show outwardly what had been happening inside for a long time. He didn’t want anything to do with any of the kids.
I thought, “If I’m going to get my daughter back, I’m going to be where I want to be,” which is in Colorado.
I had an opportunity for work there and so I moved back. It ended up that her dad followed the third wife to Michigan and left all of the kids. My daughter was at the age where she was going to really be able to make the decision of where she wanted to be and I said, “What do you want to do?” She said, “I want to live in Colorado.” She called her dad and she told him and he said, “OK.”
I just feel grateful for the way that it all happened. At some point I got clarity because I was praying a lot and I was asking for answers. I was writing a lot to try to stay sane. I think that was key to building my own life and knowing she had God in her own life and knowing that I was there.
A parenting plan should be a living, breathing document reviewed at least annually by you and your ex. Take a look at your child’s annual calendar and see when would be a natural time for such a formal review. For us, late July-early August was always a good time because we could adapt to any changes due to school and school activities.
This would be a challenge for any high-conflict situation since it could trigger more legal expenses or an unwanted change in custody arrangements. For many families however, this does happen and happens without having to get lawyers involved and can happen more frequently than once a year.
Even if you don’t file an update with the Court, it’s still a good idea to document what you and your ex have agreed especially if it impacts child support payments.
While it’s you and your ex who make the decisions, I feel it’s always a good idea to get input from your child and this can be done at any age. It makes them feel that they have some control over their schedule, that their voice is being heard and that their needs are important. You may find that a simple change to the parenting schedule could make your child’s life a little simpler.
And the good news … I’ve spoken to many parents who say this sort of negotiation becomes easier with time.
This is the last post in Donna F’s series. I admire and appreciate Donna’s courage in sharing her story and especially about her move away from her daughter. Understanding that from Donna’s perspective helps me keep an open mind about people’s choices.
Coming next … When I sent out my September newsletter I said I’d come through the Colorado disaster safe and dry. I spoke too soon … my basement ended up flooding on Monday evening. So now I’m still safe just a little soggy around the edges. I’ve had tons of offers of help and I’m deeply grateful to a number of divorce writers who have sent me guest posts to share over the next week or so. That means much less blogging work for me and maybe some new writers for you or the return of some familiar voices. I hope you enjoy them … I’ll be back with another story soon!
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