Compassion. Compassion is defined as concern for the suffering or misfortune of another. Though very imperfectly human, I consider myself a compassionate person; especially with regard for my child. Yet, I have found in these last few years, there is sadly little to no compassion in custody disputes.
I had my baby out of wedlock, her biological father and I were not together at the time of her birth. After over two years in court, a very un-compassionate judge decided the fate of our daughter’s daily life. It was in the months following the judge’s final ruling I felt like an utter failure as a mother.
For the sake of privacy, I will call our daughter Mary in this post. Prior to the judge’s final ruling, Mary had never had an overnight visit with her biological father. Furthermore, Mary had very limited time away from me, as I have had the luxury of taking her to work with me since her infancy. At over two years old, Mary had the emotional intelligence and language skills of a much more mature child. Mary was a firecracker; stubborn, too smart for her own good, kind, tentative in new environments, polite, and quite simply beautiful. Though strong-willed, she possessed the most tender heart. And, it was in the months following the judge’s final ruling I saw that tender heart suffer more than it ever had before. As a mother watching her child struggle, my heart ached for her every moment of every day.
To say Mary struggled with the judge’s visitation order would be an understatement. Visitation caused Mary to have a lot of behavioral regression. She was on the way to being potty trained, that quickly went out the window. She was more than solidly sleep-trained, that was now gone. She used to have a sense of adventure and loved to safely explore away from me, that was no longer. She used to have a healthy and well adjusted attachment to me, that quickly changed. She began to refuse to eat if forced to speak with her father over the phone, or if she knew she was to have a visit with him. The list could go on but I will spare everyone a novel. In short sum, a once happy, healthy, well-adjusted child was now waking up with nightmares all night, bawling and screaming, “Mommy no leave me! Me no go daddy’s house.”
Visitation exchanges were a nightmare. Our tiny human would cling to me so tightly, I’d have bite marks on my shoulders and finger claw scratches around my neck from her refusing to let go. She would scream and cry (harder than I have ever seen her cry) for an hour in the middle of a truck stop parking lot (yes, that is where the judge ordered exchanges take place). She would yell, “Go away daddy! Go away!” and hit him or run away if he came near. She didn’t understand why this was happening to her. No matter how smart she was, how could she understand? She was two years old. She had no trust in her biological father, and with every exchange she lost trust in me. There is no way a two year old could comprehend her mother being forced, to force her, to go with her father. And frankly, no two year old should ever have to comprehend such a situation. She was confused. She felt betrayed. And, she didn’t know who or what to trust.
I still don’t know how I managed to hold my tears in during those instances. I tried my hardest to stay strong for her. But, as she would drive away and I could hear her screaming for me from inside their moving car, I would break down. There I was a grown woman in the middle of a truck stop parking lot (crying like my baby had just been crying) needing my own mother to hold me. I prayed to God on bended knee begging for strength, begging for understanding, begging for help. I felt like a total failure as a mother. My biggest job, above all else in this world, is to protect my child. But how could I protect her from this?
When I (and my family) would speak to Mary over video call during her visits, she would be beyond distraught. Nothing could console her or calm her down. People from the opposite party would claim Mary would be having a temper-tantum, she was not. Mary was experiencing trauma.
I tried for months to get her father to see what this was doing to her. I offered to go above and beyond to accommodate him, his schedule, and his life, if he would agree to temporary modifications to aid in a transition for Mary. I offered to do all the transportation. I offered to change when and how we exchange her. I offered to take leave at work part time to travel to where he lived with Mary multiple times a month for visits (that way Mary could stay with me for the overnight portion of the visit and transition slowly to overnight visitation). I offered to accommodate his work schedule and do shorter visits, more often for Mary. I offered to take on any and all financial costs that modifications would accumulate: hotels, gas, transportation, loss of work, etc. Yet, he would not agree to any modifications for Mary so her current hell persisted.
Both her father and I failed Mary by allowing that to become the reality in which she lived. We failed her by allowing a judge to decide the circumstances of our daughter’s daily life. We failed her by failing to come to a resolution with one another as co-parents. We failed her by failing to communicate with one another in the simplest of terms. We failed our daughter.
I was at a loss. I didn’t know where to turn. So, I told Mary’s father I would be taking her to a child psychologist. She began treatment. Right away I was impressed with her therapist, Mary took to her immediately. Her therapist made it clear to me from the beginning, she was not on my side or Mary’s father’s side, she was on Mary’s side and her side only. After reading the judge’s final order (and the temporary order previously in place prior to the final order) Mary’s therapist said the judge had no idea what was in Mary’s best interest and was clearly incompetent. She further stated, after treating children like Mary for decades, she can frankly say the court rarely knows what’s best for a child.
Mary beginning treatment was an answered prayer. Some time passed, but her father agreed to a meeting with the therapist and myself. After such meeting, he agreed to temporary modifications for Mary. I know now there were other motives in his own life to get him to agree to such changes. However, I do not care what caused him to come to such an agreement, only that he did. As co-parents, we finally saw eye to eye on one thing, there was little to no compassion in the custody order the judge put in place. Things are not “fixed.” There is still a long way to go. But with each week, Mary is struggling just a tiny bit less. I do not know what the future holds, but for the first time in a long time I have hope. I have hope there will come a day when Mary’s biological father and I will be able to co-parent peacefully. I have compassionate hope for my baby.