I will ask the three or four readers of this blog to forgive this indulgence into the realm of the personal. This is a true story.
When my son was born, he was probably the ugliest baby I had ever seen. I know that sounds terrible, but it’s true. Still, I was very happy about his arrival and participated in his feeding, changing, bathing, and play time. I was working 40-45 hours a week in a field service industry. I traveled from location to location performing maintenance and repairs on equipment.
I would get home and participate in my son’s evening activities. My wife at the time had another child from a previous (but very brief) marriage. My son’s half-sister is only 2 years older than my son, and so I had previous “baby experience”. Both children enjoyed “daddy time” rolling around on the living room floor, watching “A Nightmare Before Christmas” several dozens of times (on VHS by the way), and having me read to them in the recliner. It was exhausting but very satisfying as I’m sure many parents can attest.
Before my son turned two my work and then marital situation began to deteriorate. Sometimes things happen where a company isn’t performing well in the market and needs to “downsize”. This is exactly what happened in my case. I was “let go”. Along with the loss of the job came a loss of the company vehicle which I had been using (as allowed at the time) for personal errands. It was also the only vehicle we had at that time. I picked up a fairly cheap used vehicle and found a new job at a single facility about 25 miles from the house, but making less than I was before. With a family to support, I had to take what I could get.
The reduced income caused some friction in my marital life as I’m sure anyone who has gone through a familial fiscal crisis can tell you.
Sometimes when things begin to go wrong, they only continue to do so until a minimum energy is reached. It’s as if once the boulder atop the mountain starts falling, the only thing that can stop it is for it to reach the ground. My car broke down. It was not a minor issue like a belt or an alternator; it was a transmission. My job was roughly 25 miles from home and my car was now wheels-up. I managed to catch a ride with another employee of that facility who lived near me for about two weeks. Unfortunately, they moved to be closer to work. With no way to get to work (not even bus service) I lost my second job.
A few months later and savings were all used up with no job and no car. We decided (more accurately my then wife decided) that we would move across the state to live with her parents since the house payments were now seriously in arrears. The bank foreclosed and I lost my house. Within a fortnight of moving in with her parents, I was told by my son’s mother that she wanted a divorce and that I had to leave.
I still remember the feelings of helplessness and despair as I realized that my stepdaughter and I would be forever estranged and that I would miss out on a good deal of my son’s life. As I wept, my stepdaughter came to me, held my face in her tiny hands and asked, “Daddy, why are you crying?” Even just typing that sentence caused tears to stream down my face again.
My son was two days shy of his 2nd birthday and so didn’t understand what was happening. I wept again when my aunt graciously came out to pick me up. She had a spare bedroom and would allow me to stay with her until I got back on my feet. She had talked to the manager of the only commercial enterprise within walking distance of her rural home (a convenience store) to set me up with an application/interview. I was grateful.
I walked the half mile to the convenience store on odd shifts, weird hours and seldom reaching 40 hours per week (usually 34-38) for a mere $5.25 per hour. This was in the late 1990′s, so that’s not a lot of money. Still, I paid for my own food and also paid $50 per week as child support to my ex wife. She allowed me to see my son every other Sunday, since I worked Saturdays. My aunt was kind enough to drive me to the “half way” point to facilitate my visitation.
Slowly I built up some cash reserves and my aunt offered to sell me her old car, since she was getting a new one. I made monthly payments to her on the amount she would have gotten for it as a trade in. Once I had wheels again, it was a fast track to getting a better paying job and eventually my own apartment. I hate to think what would have happened to me if my aunt hadn’t helped me then.
While I was still working at the convenience store, the soon to be ex-wife had been living with a local pot dealer near her parents house. Sometime before I got my aunt’s car, the ex left the pot dealer for another guy. I’m going to have to start naming these folks just for convenience. Let’s call the new guy Zack.
Zack wanted to marry my ex. The problem with that was no divorce had been applied for, much less granted. Shortly after I got my wheels, but before I found my first better paying job, I was handed paperwork to sign. Documents written by a paralegal, for an uncontested divorce. I was very nearly broke, just getting back on my feet. I had no money for lawyers to fight any of the conditions of the agreement. It was all fairly standard stuff: joint custody with the mother being the primary custodial parent, alternate weekend visitation for the father. Joint custody means simply that both parents have the authority to make decisions about their child; school decisions or medical decisions. It does not mean equal time with the child. I signed, what else could I do?
My son was 2 and a half when the divorce finalized. It was very rapid because there were no marital assets and both parties had signed an agreement which included child support. Fortunately, I managed to avoid the type of child support payments that had to be overseen by the state. I had kept receipts of all the money I had given since the separation. I continued to keep the receipts throughout.
Thus began the cycle of alternate weekend visitation. Once I was working a Monday-Friday job, I had the full 47 hours every other week to see my child. His new stepfather could see and interact with my son 6 times more than I could. Zack and my ex moved even further away from her parents (and me) for his job. While still within driving distance, It was nearly an hour away.
The artificial nature of this visitation arrangement made it difficult to have any meaningful impact on the direction of my son’s life, or the forming of his character. There were times when he would misbehave at mom’s house and I would hear about it from her when it was my weekend. Needless to say, disciplining my son for something I didn’t witness during my precious time with him was not high on my to do list. I spoke to him on the phone when he got older, but phone conversations with a 3-5 year old are…well, limited in scope.
The limited contact also made me want to do something fun and interesting when I did get to see him. Who wants to punish their child or waste time just hanging out at the apartment during the 14.3% of the child’s life they get to participate in?
I was going to use the phrase Disney dad here but the connotations are decidedly anti-father. Take a look for yourself.
I had no choice in where they moved. I had a better job than convenience store clerk, but was also now paying my own rent, electric, and food bills along with an increase in child support amount. Hiring an attorney was simply not an option.
So the years pass and the pain has become routine. Years and years of seeing my son grow up in stroboscopic bursts of time. Years of trying hard not to weep in the car on the trip home from dropping him off at his mother’s, so that I wouldn’t crash my car. Years of sitting home on my non-visitation weekends trying to fill the time. Sometimes there were women I was dating, sometimes not. The not times sucked.
Every so often Zack would move again, but never any closer to me. Eventually the same forces which caused my downward spiral began working on Zack. He lost a job, got another one, had car troubles, had strained finances, and moved… a lot.
Well, I got stable in a job, and with a wonderful woman. We began living together and things got a lot better for me and for my relationship with my son. Since he was older now, we could talk on the phone more often and about significant things. Little did I know that things always seem brightest just before they completely fall apart.
I got a panicked call from my ex one day while I was at work. Zack had been arrested for molesting my son’s half sister. My ex had never worked and was about to be forced to move back in with her parents again. She offered me the chance to be the custodial parent. I jumped at it. I told my boss I was leaving for the day. I called my significant other. I wrote up an informal modification to the custody arrangement which included the fact that I was current on child support and relieving my ex from ever having to pay me child support. I drove to where I was to pick up my son. I took him with me for the final 5 years of his childhood.
Needless to say, that was an emotional day. I got my son enrolled in school in the district I lived in. I had to take a few days off of work to get everything done. Fortunately, my boss and company were very supportive. Things began to settle in a bit in our new routine. Unfortunately, it wouldn’t last.
My son had been witness to the molestation of his sister. He had also been physically (but not sexually) abused by Zack. I made had a point of asking him if Zack treated him well, and my son had always assured me that he did. Children sometimes have to hide the truth due to fear. I never saw any marks on my son, that would lead me to think physical abuse was occurring. It came as a complete surprise to me.
My son had some problems dealing with his feelings about his own and his sister’s abuse. I got him counseling sessions to help. I talked to him about it. We both cried and hugged and forgave each other for our parts in the events.
My son is now a student at university, though he doesn’t know what he wants to do after school. He still has some issues with the psychological trauma of his life with Zack, but they’re becoming fewer and fewer. He’s healing. We stay in touch. I love him very much.
I’m a man of somewhat mathematical bent so I did some simple calculations that may surprise you:
Every year that I was the non-custodial parent I was able to spend about 58-59 days with my son. Less than 60 days out of every 365. Zack was able to spend over 300 with my son.
In the 11 years that I was the non-custodial parent I was with my son for just under 2 of them. I lost 9 years of his life. He lost 9 years of my contact.
That’s half of his life to this point.
We lost half of his life.
This is why I have a problem when people tell me I’m “privileged” just by virtue of my being a male.
Get some time.