Custody disputes are rarely easy; they are filled with tension, anxiety, stress, fear, disappointment, trauma, and sadness for both adults and children. As in my previous post Compassion in Custody Disputes, for privacy reasons, I will refer to my daughter as Mary in this post. After over two years litigating in court over the custody of my daughter, Mary began overnight and longer visitations with her father. In the post Compassion in Custody Disputes, I explained what a traumatic process this has been and how much Mary has struggled with such an adjustment. I explained how I began taking her to a child psychologist for treatment and how much that has helped Mary. What I’d like to share with you today are some things I have learned to help “love Mary through” the process of custody visitations.
Mary’s trust in me. She had no trust in her biological father, and with every visitation exchange she lost trust in me. There is no way a two year old little girl could comprehend her mother being forced, to force her, to go with her father. And like I said in my previous post, no two year old should ever have to comprehend such a situation (another failure on both mine and her father’s part). Mary felt betrayed and didn’t know who or what to trust. As her mother, this utterly broke my heart. And, for quite a while, I was uncertain how to go about regaining Mary’s trust. The biggest thing I found to help was this: say what you mean and mean what you say. I realize this may sound vague, so let me explain…
Mary needed to trust in the things I told her, she needed follow through and absolute honesty, even if it was something small or upsetting. No matter how small the subject was, I needed to have follow through. So, if I told Mary we were going to the grocery store after breakfast, we needed to go to the grocery store after breakfast no matter what. If Mary was going to have a special visitor or friend come to see her, I did not tell her until I knew for certain it was going to happen (like I could see their car in the driveway). No matter how big the subject was, I needed to be directly honest with Mary in a way she could understand. So, when Mary knows she is about to go for a visit with her dad (she somehow always knows) and asks where we were going to go, I tell her “It’s time to go visit Daddy.” Even if I know it will make her very upset–that she will cry, that she will probably refuse to get dressed, that she may refuse to eat, and that she will probably refuse to get in the car– Mary needs me to tell her the truth. Does this make leaving for a visit easier on me as a parent or on Mary as a child, absolutely not. However, if I were to lie and trick her into going, she would feel that much more betrayed by me after the visitation exchange. Without honesty, she would loose that much more faith and trust in me. So, say what you mean and mean what you say, honesty and follow through.
Mary’s need for control. Mary’s entire world was turned upside down when the judge ordered the overnight (and longer) visitations in our final custody order. All the structure and consistency of Mary’s life had been completely uprooted, and SHE. DID. NOT. LIKE. IT. Since Mary felt her world spiraling out of control by being forced into visitations with her dad (and loosing the structure and consistency she had been accustomed to) one way she coped was by reaching for control in any other ways. Mary became hyper sensitive to any change in her daily life, no matter how small. For example, every one in our family has “their spot” to sit. Whether it be in the car, at the kitchen table, in the family room, etc., every family member has “their spot” and Mary made it her mission that people would not switch up the “seating chart.” Another example, objects and items around the house had “their place” and Mary also made it her mission those objects and items would not deviate from those locations. Forget spring cleaning, re-organizing, re-decorating, or even placing her wash cloth on a different side of the bath tub during bath time…every thing “needed” to be “right there Mommy.”
Mary was trying to recreate the structure and consistency she lost through custody visitations by reaching for control in other areas of her daily life. I felt torn for a period of time on how to address this. Do I assert my position as her mother and fight her desire to control? Am I allowing her to “walk all over everyone” by allowing her to reach for control over such silly things? After much discussion with her therapist, I came to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a “silly thing” to Mary during this process. If Mary needs to “control” such things in her daily life, I need to let her; and be patient while she does. Only when it comes to bigger, more important, matters should I assert my authority as the parent. For example, if Mary only wants a pink sippy cup but only a green one is clean…I don’t fight her on such a “silly thing.” I quickly hand wash a pink sippy and give Mary her way. However, if Mary does not want to get buckled into her car seat, I assert my authority as the parent and buckle her in safely whether she likes it or not. Finding the balance became easier with time once the “silly things” she really “needs” to control became more clear.
Mary’s need for structure and consistency. Like I stated above, the structure and consistency of Mary’s life had been completely uprooted. There is a “reset” period when Mary comes home from a visit; a period where she adjusts back to her daily routine and life. Mary’s therapist explained a typical reset for a child is around 24-48 hours. However, Mary’s reset period was usually taking double (sometimes triple) that time. To help her reset and feel secure, I needed to provide as much structure and consistency as possible for Mary.
What does that mean? Structure and consistency translates to keeping her scheduled routine firm, staying firm with discipline, and reaffirming to Mary how much I love her. 1) Mary’s schedule has been routine since her infancy; however, it became more relaxed as she grew. But now, I try and keep her schedule consistent down to only a 10-15 minute lee-way period. 2) We started time-outs right after Mary’s first birthday. Starting so early helped combat some of those terrible two’s. However, visitations brought out a side in Mary none of us had ever seen. So, to stay firm on disciple, there has been a zero tolerance policy for some behavior and very little lee-way for others. For example, I will not put up with sassing. At the smallest sass, Mary goes to time-out. This may seem over the top to some people. But, by doing so (it more often than not), stops the sassy behavior or prevents it from getting worse and escalating. 3) I have told Mary how much I love her everyday since she was born, but it became even more important she heard me now. So now (to make sure she really hears me), I ask Mary to “give me her eyes,” wait for her eye contact, tell her I love her, and ask her to repeat back what I said. That way I know she is listening to me when I tell her I love her.
Mary’s need for more one on one time. I have had the luxury of taking Mary with me to work since her infancy, so Mary is used to having me around on an almost 24 hour basis. That being said, Mary began to “need” me even more after overnight visits began. For example, from the time my daughter was born, she’s never been a snuggly child who likes to cuddle, but when visitations began Mary needed to be held a lot. Her well-oiled-15minute-bed-time-routine now took an hour or more, especially in the days coming home from a visit with her dad. Mary needed to be cuddled, kissed, held, and to feel my physical presence on the closest level.
Mary needed my undivided attention even more. I began to work less hours a week so Mary could have more one on one time with me at home. No other distractions, less errands, less chores, less electronics, just more mommy and Mary doing puzzles, books, coloring, playing, etc. Granted Mary had a lot of this one on one time prior to overnight visitation, but after she required more. Mary quickly got the nickname “Elmer” because she became like “Elmer’s glue” to mommy. Everything quickly became: “Mommy take bath with me,” “Mommy sit by me,” “Mommy blow food with me.” Point blank, Mary just needed more mommy. So if that means Mommy’s practically nonexistent social life and adult time just became altogether nonexistent, so be it.
Mary’s struggle with transitions. As if transitions aren’t difficult enough with a toddler, this process has made them more difficult due to Mary’s need to have control. When Mary feels she is being forced to do something, or being forced to do something in someone else’s time frame, it brings up the anxiety and feelings she has experienced with visitation exchanges. So, how to help Mary have smooth transitions throughout her day? That is a tough one.
The only thing I have found to help is to give Mary plenty of warnings. For example, naps can be a challenging transition. So, about 30 minutes before nap time I inform Mary she will be taking a nap in 30 minutes. More often than not she is eating during this time. I proceed to remind her in 10 minute increments she will be taking a nap. At the 10 minute warning (after I have already given her two prior warnings), I give her the warning and ask her to repeat back to me what is going to happen. So, if she is eating lunch I will say, “Okay Mary, when we are done eating, what are we going to do next?” I will ask it again and assist her until she says, “take a nap time.” I then give the last warning in another 5 minutes (versus 10 minutes) and ask Mary to repeat back to me what will happen next again. Now, I fully realize this may seem like a bit much to many people. However, it is much simpler than it sounds. Furthermore, doing so (more often than not) avoids a melt down because Mary doesn’t feel like she’s being forced into the transition. This way, Mary knows what is going to happen and she has time to adjust to the transition before it happens.
In summary, none of these things “fix” Mary’s struggle. But, doing them does help Mary reset and struggle less. I am by no means a perfect parent. I have felt like a failure to my child more days than not during this process. And, I certainly do not always get it right. But, making these parenting adjustments has helped my child. And, I will never stop trying to find ways to help my baby. The best thing I can do for my child is to keep loving her through whatever life throws our way.