These were the words my son said to me walking down a hallway. He’s six.
He’s been at the center of a protracted high conflict family court case — as it’s been prescribed— for almost 7 years now. We’ve spanned four states, twenty-three police departments, and countless courthouses, and court appearances. And after his father separated us for three years, thanks to a biased DCF judgment, there was a lot disclosed in a long-awaited reunion.
As I drove down to see him, listening to some Ray LaMontagne song, my mom called — he’s here. See, I didn’t think that his father would actually let me see our son. He hasn’t for the past three months that access (as it’s now called) was ordered. He was facing a threat of jail time, and still gave the appearance that the last thing on earth he would do this weekend was let me see my son again.
The kiddo was a ball of emotions, and every other phrase was a simple “Mommy, I missed you so much.” It’s not even real that I’m on the phone with him, every minute, every mile mattering so much more — my mind racing with totally unrealistic ways to cut the drive shorter. He asks me where I’ve been, and I can’t muster an appropriate answer. “I’ve been waiting to see you for so long kiddo” is the best I can come up with.
So much of our language has to be coded. I can’t tell him quite the honest truth of everything. How do you explain to a six year old that his parents have had to go to a judge to determine the dynamics of our parenting since he was conceived. That’s not something I’ve quite finessed yet.
He’d start to tell me a quick story, “by the ways mommy…” and end with “I missed you so much, I love you mommy.” All this affection despite a father who admittedly doesn’t want me to ever see this child again, and doesn’t shield the child from any of what’s gone on between us — confirmed by his family.
Is this even real? I kept thinking to myself as I drove. There’s no way this is actually happening. The probability was higher that I’d win a billion dollars on Sunday. And yet here he was, talking to me on a phone. I had prepared myself for a child that was ready to reject me, to be so hurt, and so mad at me for not coming back for him. And he couldn’t stop telling me how much he missed me.
We chatted the whole ride to the hotel. A whole thirty minutes. Him rotating between “I love you so much mommy,” “I have missed you mommy,” “where have you been,” “I’ve waited to see you for so long,” and “how many more miles and minutes?” This is the opposite of what every professional and colleague prepared me for.
I don’t know how I wasn’t bursting at the seams, but I found words that made sense. “Kiddo, I love you, and I can’t wait to see you. I have missed you so much. I cannot wait to hug you. You can hug me for as long as you want. I won’t hang up till I get there if that’s ok with you?”
As I lost and gained service, he’d pester my mom for where I went, and when I was coming back. I didn’t know the roads super well, so I couldn’t prepare him like if I was driving to Vermont where I know down to the mile marker what the service is like.
When I got there, he ran right out to my car — no warning or concern from my parents to stay out of the parking lot mattered—he ran right along the sidewalk of the hotel to get to the car. As he hugged me I picked him up and held on tight. He immediately told me “mommy I missed you so much.”
As we talked, every other story, phrase was “I missed you so much,” followed or preceded by a hug. As time went on, he could get more words in between his new favorite words. He candidly shared so many things that I never expected. From classmates calling him curse words, to his dad telling him we fight over him.
My conversation with my kiddo became monopolized with expressing that I missed him too, that I would see him soon, and that I tried to see him so so hard. I balanced that with unpacking some of the concerning things he brought up — from being told his parents fight over him, to being reprimanded for getting really excited to see me.
Five hours was emotionally exhausting. It wasn’t a chance to color, and play Rescue Bots, but became five hours of loving, and supporting a six year old going through the aftermath of adult problems. The unfairness of it all stinging each time it became even harder to ignore.
I kept preparing him for my departure. And each time he held my hand or squeezed me a little tighter. I explained to him that I would see him in fourteen days, two weeks. We talked about what we wanted to do next time.
As we continued to say our goodbyes, him expressing his sadness, and frustration, his last words were “Mommy, here’s this candy so you don’t forget me. Don’t forget me, mommy.” I hugged him one more time, and told him “there’s no way I’ll ever forget you, you’re my kiddo.” And off he went to his father.
I left that visit feeling more heartbroken than anything else. Here it had been three years since I last saw my child and I should have been overjoyed. But it was just heartbreaking. The consequences to a child of adult problems became so suffocating, I couldn’t do anything but pull my car over just to sob.
When you separate from someone because they hurt you, no one explains that your kid is going to go through more than you can ever imagine. That this isn’t the light at the end of a tunnel of trying to make it work. It’s just a new tunnel. And the light at the other end? It’s kind of hazy, dusty, like the smog of a forest fire.
Putting your kid first means sometimes making sacrifices that you just could never imagine doing. Parenting is just this weird journey of unexpected chaos, and lessons that you didn’t know. And sacrifice.
In separating from my kids dad, this kid went from having parents who were not great together, but were even worse apart. When dad was in the home, he liked to show off the kid, but he never really wanted to do the hard part of parenting. I’d step in in those moments, and work through it. If I needed his help, he’d often just be there on standby, but never actually take any reins.
It was a system that worked for those four months, and if we could have parented, living in the same home, without the dynamics, and complications of a romantic relationship it might have worked. But we couldn’t live together and not also at least try to perform the roles of a happy, committed mom and dad relationship.
But we sucked at being in a romantic relationship together. I couldn’t be honest about the boundaries I needed, and he couldn’t communicate or be honest with himself. It was incredibly challenging, and I made compromises to my needs that I never want to make again.
Apart, this adversarial energy entered the dynamic. Instead of being two people focused on supporting a growing kid into a healthy adult, it became a game of winning and losing. But realistically, when a kid is in the middle the only person that looses is the kid. And that’s a lesson that still hasn’t been learned.
Putting your childs needs first in a separation is essential. That doesn’t mean buy every high end Christmas present possible. It means having that honest conversation with yourself of “am I doing the right, and best thing for my child?” And that answer is never going to be an easy one to acknowledge.
You must acknowledge it though. Childhood trauma is so prevalent in adversarial custody battles. And children growing to normalize toxic relationships as healthy. Just so many things no one as a parent wants their children to experience.
If you want your kid to get through your divorce successfully, you have to put them first. It can’t be about the money, or trading time perfectly. It can’t be about winning or loosing or hiring the most vicious attorney. It just needs to be two honest, and humble people coming together to make the best decisions possible for their kids.
And the biggest piece of advice I can give as someone who has been doing this for seven years? When you go to have kids, have this conversation. Talk about what it would look like if you would no longer parent in the same household. What would it mean? And reflect on the conversation, honestly.
I know at this point that if I couldn’t have that conversation with someone, and hear from them a real prioritization of the kids needs over anything else, I would be greatly reconsidering my decision to have kids with them.
But also look to how they solve problems. Do they come at problems hurling hurt? Do they face problems looking at them from a winner/loser perspective? How do they manage conflict now? What are their communication skills like? How honest are they with themselves?
There’s a lot I wish for my kid. I wish for two healthy, happy parents focused on his growth as a kid into a healthy adult. I wish that his extended family members could also see whats most important through all this.
But most importantly I wish that he knew, deeply, no matter what, that I will never forget him.