When you think about divorce these days, the stereotypical assumption is that a mom gets full custody (or majority custody) while the dad is given visits a few weekends a month. The father pays child support and possibly alimony to the mother, especially if she was a stay-at-home-mom while he was the breadwinner.
Well, that was not my experience.
That was not how our situation unfolded.
It’s true, I had been the stay at home mom for 4 years while he was the breadwinner for our family. It’s also true that we went into the divorce proceedings telling ourselves and each other that we would try to do things as amicably as possible and as fairly and equally as possible for the good of our daughter. While we had good intentions, we were naïve.
Divorce isn’t easy or amicable. It brings out the worst in all of us. It’s ugly, it’s messy, and it hurts everyone involved.
We drew up a separation agreement while living in the state of Pennsylvania, but when we moved to Texas, that agreement no longer had any legal standing. My ex hired a lawyer to draw up our divorce documents because custody arrangement paperwork was too complicated for either of us to navigate on our own.
I never met the lawyer, and I never saw a judge. I signed the paperwork my ex asked me to, and made countless mistakes you can read about here. I tried to play nice because I felt guilty for being the one who asked for the divorce.
Maybe I could have gotten full custody, child support, and lived at home with my parents… But I didn’t want to hurt him more than I already had.
So instead, I relied on him. I believed we were doing things fairly. I believed we both just wanted to do what was best for our daughter.
But I was wrong.
I ended up as the “weekend parent” because I worked two jobs and had no one to watch her while I was away (nor could I afford child care). He went to school two days a week and had plenty of time to spend with K, and a wonderfully supportive family who was always there when he needed them to be.
With no place to live, I ended up renting a 1 bedroom roach motel of an apartment in a terrible area in Dallas. He lived with his family in a lovely middle-class neighborhood in the suburbs, just minutes away from her elementary school.
I worked long hours and still couldn’t pay my bills, but I was required to pay child support. He had no bills and was being paid to go to school under the GI bill, including food and housing allowance, so he had the means to financially support K.
Because I was considered the “non-custodial parent” to K, I never qualified for government assistance. Instead I used credit cards to pay for food and electricity, digging myself into a grave of debt. Although he had plenty of money, my ex qualified for assistance because his income was non-taxable. K had health insurance and went to preschool for free.
When I reflect on where I was during that time, I want to cry. I felt a victim of my economic and social situation. I felt taken advantage of. Alone. And afraid to go on. There’s a lump in my throat just thinking about it…
I hated my ex. With every fiber of my being, I hated him. In my eyes, he had taken my baby away from me when he filed paperwork that named him “primary custodial parent.”
In my mind…
He was the reason I couldn’t be with her full time like I had been.
He was the reason I couldn’t see her more.
It was his fault my heart was broken without K.
He tricked me into signing those papers.
It was his fault I was so poor, and getting poorer each month paying him child support.
I blamed my ex for everything. For my being a weekend parent. For my daughter crying when she had to leave Mommy. And for her having a hard time transitioning…
Even now, thinking about it makes me sick.
But I have to stop myself.
While I may feel justified in throwing myself a pity party over my life experiences and the “unfairness” of it all, what about K? Didn’t she deserve to be taken care of? Didn’t she deserve to live in a better house and neighborhood than I could give her?
After much more reflection I realized that although our original custody arrangement was not at all what I wanted or expected, it was… (I hate to admit it…) better for my daughter, at least at that time.
My hatred over our original arrangement is what motivated me to get my life on the right track. I got a better job in the corporate world with benefits, landed a different schedule that allowed me a four day work week so I had more time with K, and made more money which helped me move to a better neighborhood and allowed me to actually pay my bills.
Of course, it took a lot more than just a change in circumstance for us to change our custody agreement and dive into co-parenting.
After improving my living situation and schedule, I remember calling to ask my ex if I could have more time with K. I wanted 50/50 time with her – she was half from me, right? I was completely taken aback when he offered to move the days I had around and add one extra overnight – totaling my days to only 2.5. He said:
“If I give you more time, you’ll just keep asking for more.”
That line really hit me hard. Did he think 2 1/2 days was all the time she needed with her mother? It was like I finally learned my place and the hold he had over me. Perhaps that time in my life is what leads me to sympathize with the fathers in stereotypical situations, when moms refuse to work with them and give them more time. While my ex never completely kept K away from me, he did attempt to severely limit my influence.
I remember at one point earning a promotion at my new job, and calling him to see if we could take another look at our schedule to come up with something that would allow me to see her on my new days off. His attempt at compromise was to take away weekends and replace them with a couple nights after school – so for me, it was pretty much a “no.” He also thought that conversation was an appropriate time to suggest we increase child support (although he was earning more than me). After I went to work crying telling my boss I couldn’t take the new position, they ended up working with me to keep the schedule I was on. Unfortunately, it actually meant a work increase for a pay decrease. I could have really used the extra money, but time with my daughter was more important.
Then when he attempted to warn me that if K was ever “neglected” after the birth of my second daughter (assuming I would be too busy with a baby to spend time with her) that he’d take weekends away, I had finally had enough.
I was done being at his mercy.
And hired a lawyer the next day.
I’m not sure exactly what motivated him, but eventually my ex had a change of heart and asked if we could work together on the new custody arrangement. I talked a little about it in Why I Thought I Couldn’t Co-parent, and even more so in the Co-parenting Challenge emails. It’s taken a lot to get us to the point we’re at now, but it has been so worth it. I am so glad that after all that heartache and arguing, fighting, and hating each other… we are in such a better place these days.
I received a lot of backlash over the Dads Matter, Too post I wrote last week. And I understand where these angry moms are coming from. Not all situations are the same – there’s abuse, violence, and so many extenuating circumstances that they seem to want to defend themselves over. Those are not the moms I was speaking to when I wrote it.
I was speaking to all the moms who acted like my ex did in the past.
The ones offering one-sided compromises, the ones refusing to give up some of “their time” so that the father could have more, the ones who don’t care about the other parent’s relationship with their son or daughter.
And there are so many stories that are so much worse than mine!! Ones where babies really are stripped from one parent, completely.
We all know that both Moms and Dads are important to a child. Some of you were right – that is stating the obvious. But many parents forget that when they start arguing over time with their ex, or when they don’t want to relinquish control, or when they only focus on what they want.
My ex and I didn’t end up with 50/50 custody like I wanted. My ex said he didn’t want to mess up K’s schedule so he retained more time, but our arrangement now is much better than it was.
We now share custody.
We both have time with K, our relationship is so much better, and we’re actually co-parenting – something I never thought possible before.
And now that we’re on a more even playing field, I can actually look back on our original agreement and see why it was better for K at the time. She needed the more stable environment my ex gave her. She deserved the support and opportunities his life afforded her.
And I see now that although it wasn’t as much as I wanted, he was trying to work with me by giving me all my days off with K. And although I wish he would have worked with me when I was offered a promotion, I can understand that he still wanted to spend his weekends with our little girl – just like I did!
It wasn’t his fault I had to work two jobs in the beginning. It wasn’t his fault I lived in such a terrible place. He was doing the best he could to do right by our daughter.
It’s important for us all to realize that what’s best for your child is what matters most when going through a divorce and figuring out schedules and custody. Of course, what’s best for your child now may not be what’s best for her two years from now, or ten years from now.
Our experience as a divorced couple and split family isn’t uncommon. There are so many parents who find themselves in similar situations (although the roles are usually reversed compared to our story). But for those of you who are in a similar situation to where I was – I understand. I understand the hate and the “unfairness” of it all. Nothing about divorce or life is fair, easy, or completely amicable. We may be great friends now, but we certainly weren’t for the first few years. It takes time and hard work to get along.
My point is – it is possible. Getting along and co-parenting is possible. No matter where you start out.