Sunday, February 10, 2008

Parental Rights

I just read a statistic stating that within one given year, the US has 2.4 million marriages and 1.2 million divorces. That sure drives home the 50% divorce rate statistic and got me digging into other facts. It appears that 67% of second marriages and 74% of third marriages end in divorce. These statistics are very disheartening. Makes one wonder if monogamy is really possible. One article stated our divorce rate is realistically around 25% (oh, come on!!!) while others state it is as high as 60% (maybe they just averaged the first, second and third marriage/divorce statistics).

In our old neighborhood the divorce rate was negligible. We were the only divorced family in the preschool my children attended. Also, we were the only divorced family in our neighborhood. That is until the lady down the street had a love child with a minister that was not her husband and the woman on the next block (who could not believe that I would file for divorce) ran off with a guy 20 years younger; leaving her two children with their father. I never did thank them for taking the spotlight off of us. But they both disappeared so quickly that I was never given the opportunity.

Although divorced myself, I am a firm proponent that divorce devastates everyone. Lines are drawn. Friends and family take sides, yet there are no winners but many losers. Families are ripped apart, emotions are eviscerated and children never quite learn how to cope with what happened between their mom and dad. A friend of mine whose parents have been divorced for years stated that when her mom complains about her father, my friend, even as a grown woman, still feels horrible, "It's as if she is ripping on my DNA." Although I avoid saying anything negative about my ex-husband in front of Kat and Adam, after that conversation I am even more aware.

In my marriage, I asked for our divorce. It would be dishonest to say that I couldn't live another day in our marriage. I could have existed in that life, but I chose to live, not exist. Even now knowing how the divorce would affect Kat and Adam, I would do it all over again. Grading on the curve, I truly believe they are happier now than they would have been if we stayed. Besides, living a farce is not conducive to raising smart confident children. I was extremely unhappy. So was Kat. Her migraines started at 3 years old. The stress was so thick you could cut it with a knife. Adam was too young to remember what our house was like.

I actually thought that Adam would adapt the best out of the two kids, yet he never quite adjusted. Per Adam, Kat remembers their father living with her. Even though life was not a Norman Rockwell experience, Kat knows what it was like to live with a mom and a dad together. I filed for divorce when Adam was 11 months old. We moved out when he wasn't quite 2 and divorced by the time he was 2 1/2. He doesn't have the memory of his parents together. That fact bothers him immensely. It's not easy living with the fact that my choice is the cause for that pain.

Kat remembers what our life was like. Although she too had difficulty with the fact that her father did not live with us, she was more bothered by the fact that he tended to not excersize his visitation rights. Initially he only lived 1 block away. Then he was only 1.3 miles away. Sometimes the only time she saw her father was when he drove down the street to watch a game at a friends house. Kat saw other fathers in the neighborhood spend time with their children. She often asked why she didn't have a Daddy who wanted to play with her. For a long time she thought the reason that her father wasn't around was because he didn't love her enough. There have been so many conversations where I have explained that it's not that he doesn't love them. He's just not capable of giving more than he does. He's flawed. Not them. I don't know if they will ever truly comprehend that fact. When your father is by choice fairly non-existant in your life you will always feel a bit unloved.

On the other hand, Adam blames me. Adam was once told by his father that he wanted to fix our marital problems, but I refused. Since then, Adam went on a campaign of you left Daddy alone. You made him live by himself and took us away. Adam was 9 at the time. Adam wanted to move in with his father so he wasn't alone. It was a very difficult time in our house. There was a point when I tried to simplistically explain the chain of events, but it fell on deaf ears. In reality, the situation was not simplistic. I did not know how to explain it. So I did not pursue it. He didn't want to hear the facts. Besides, how do you explain that when counseling was suggested his father said he would rather see me in divorce court. A week before the papers were final is when his father asked for a reconciliation. By then it was too late. Maybe one day Adam will ask again and will hopefully understand. Maybe he won't. I doubt the scars left by divorce ever truly heal. And when parents pit the children against the other parent, the scars are even deeper.

When I hear my friends discuss their divorces, I am always surprised that divorce settlements are so skewed. The settlements are a true indication as to who had the better attorney, not what is best for the children. I wanted out. That was it. When we moved to my mom's, I took our clothes, Kat and Adam's toys and furniture as well as the silverware and crystal. The bedroom furniture that I bought prior to our marriage and all living room furniture stayed with my ex-husband. When we moved into my mom's I used the bedroom set I had when I was 12. People thought I was insane to leave so much behind. My dignity and sanity was more important than any material item.

I know friends (male and female) driven by other forces and emotions. They ended up paying through the nose and the ex-spouse reaping the benefits of the other's emotions. Loving fathers have paid the price of a BMW just so they can spend a(n) additional day(s) with their children every other week. Others have absorbed all the household debt and attorney fees because they felt it was the "right thing to do". In other cases, such as mine, I settled for less materialistic items. Some people also know how to work the system. I receive less than $500/ month in child support. I could go back to court to request more, but know how the system was worked before and know it will be worked the same again. I would be paying legal fees with a negligle, if any, outcome. Were our attornies looking out for us, or did they smell blood and take advantage of the situation? Or is it our legal system?

Basically, in the state of Illinois the courts generally side with the mother regardless of who is the more fit parent. I understand the anger and resentment that a person feels during a divorce. Been there. Done that. But throughout I never quite felt that my children were taken completely into consideration.

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to take a new position with the company I had been with for 12 years. I knew my current position was not going to be around much longer. It was just a few months after 9/11 and positions within the hospitality industry were few and far between. Therefore, the only glitch is that we would need to move out of California to be exact. The state of Illinois has very strict laws about taking minor children out of the state in which their non-custodial parent resides. The attorney I hired stated it would be extremely difficult and quite expensive, yet I needed to try.

My reasoning may have been selfish. Some would argue that I didn't take my children's feelings into consideration. Yet I was faced with the fact that my current job was not going to be mine much longer and I had a position with a company for which I enjoyed working. Take the position, or face the unemployment line. The options were quite limited. Although my ex-husband lived near, he rarely saw the kids, so any guilt of taking them away was asuaged by the fact that he never spent any more than 24 hours with them on any given visitaiton week and there were times that 60 days went by without him ever laying eyes on his children. No, there wasn't any guilt in my decision. I was trying to be the responsible parent and support my children.

The subsequent legal battle was endless. The costs insurmountable. I jumped through every hoop the courts required of me. My ex-husband jumped into the role of father of the year, yet couldn't be bothered to show up for his court appointed meetings with a mediator/psychologist. The court system proved to be a debacle. After spending the costs which could have been used to purchase my own BMW, I was told that I could move to any part of the country, or world, for that matter, but "the minor children shall reside in the same state as their father until they are 18 years of age." So I turned down the position in California.

The court did not care that I was left unemployed. Nor were they concerned that our sole monthly income was less than $500 a month in child support. I had no other income. (We are still receiving the same amount, less than $6000 a year in child support. Insane!) Nor did the court care that the non-custodial parent was continually late with his half of medical, dental and school registration fees. No, the courts didn't take any of those facts into consideration. They were concerned that I was trying to "steal" my children from their father. It didn't matter that I complied with their every request, jumped every hurdle to do all that they required during the court proceedings. None of that mattered. I was the bad parent. I was irresponsible when all I was trying to do was support my family.

The icing on the cake to this debacle was when I attempted to apply for public aid, unemployment, or food stamps until I could get back on my feet. The state of Illinois denied my application. Their reasoning? Because I was offered a position in California, but chose to not accept it. Therefore, I turned down gainful employment and ineligible for aid. Can you believe it? The System did not care that they dictated my choosing between my children and career. The choice was easy. But the System then made it impossible for me to support my children. What or where can anyone survive on less than $500/month. If it wasn't for my mom, we would have been homeless. It was a horrible chain of events and a reality check to what others less fortunate endure on a daily basis.

That is when I realized how flawed our legal system remains. I've heard discussions about paternal rights as well as maternal rights. Why does it need to boil down to gender. What about parental rights? Our legal system is skewed and needs serious reform. I don't know how to start, or who to go to. How do you fix a system that is so severely flawed? It's tragic.

Divorce is difficult enough. The innocent and naive pay the penalty. The legally savvy run to the bank. It makes zero sense to me.

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