Thursday, December 17, 2009

A StepMom's View Of Custody Battles

By "MissyM"

Everyone who has been involved in a custody modification knows how stressful it can be. I figured that my court battles were over, once my ex-husband passed away. He and I went through our initial divorce/custody case, and he took me back to court five times after that, for things that I considered petty. We came to a decision toward the end that our child needed both parents, and decided to share our child 50/50.

When I met my current husband, he was just recently divorced. While we were dating, his custody arrangement wasn't my business. But it seemed as if he was able to see his daughter pretty frequently - every weekend and one night a week. After we got married, I asked to see his divorce decree. Since his daughter was not school age at the time of the divorce, it did not address school vacations, holidays, who would cover the child for medical expenses, etc. Neither of them had an attorney to ensure that these things were included.

Without sharing too many specifics, lets just say that his ex-wife decided at some point to "exercise her control" over the situation, since she was awarded primary custody in the initial decree. As their daughter grew older, my husband wanted more time with her...and she with him. The unfortunate thing was that almost anything would set off his ex-wife, and she would deny him any extra time with their daughter as a punishment.

The problems started when my husband and I got married in late 2000. His ex-wife was resentful of that, and did some hurtful things to try and throw a kink in our relationship. Then she started to deny him the extra time with their daughter, and eventually started following the court decree to the letter. It was at this time that we started to write the "Great American Novel", otherwise known as my husband's journal. Whenever there was interaction with his ex-wife, an entry was made. We decided a few months later that, since things were not getting better, he would file for full custody. After that, we both became super-sleuths, checking into whatever information we could grasp regarding the situation at his ex's home, and how it was detrimental to their daughter.

Because this whole thing can be so stressful to a relationship, we decided on some ground rules early on. If you are planning to take on a custody battle, you may find these rules helpful as well.

1. I would be the "journal, declaration, statement" writer. I had better writing skills than he did, and this was just a given. I would also be the "e-mail communicator" to his ex-wife, under his name, of course.

2. We put aside one evening per week when we would go out, whether it be to dinner, the local park, or the library. This evening was known as our "date night", and we still carry on this tradition. The only rule was that we not talk about the custody case. Also, no kids could accompany us on this night.

3. Our bedroom was the "custody case-free" room. We would not talk about the custody case in our bedroom, under any circumstances. My favorite line when either my husband or I would break this one was "This is an 'Ex's-Name" free zone", and both of us would stop what we were saying. I also enjoyed running into our bedroom when the conversation regarding the case would get to be too much for me.

4. We quickly learned that we could not control what his ex-wife would do. If she sent my stepdaughter over in tight clothing, we couldn't do anything about it but take the clothing out of the rotation. If she said bad things about my husband and me, we couldn't do anything about it. My dear mother taught me a valuable lesson during one of my many custody cases; she said, "Dear, you need to take the high road"; meaning, don't talk bad about the other party. This was, by far, the hardest rule for us to follow. It would have been so easy to sink down to her level, but we couldn't do it.

5. Financially, this battle was a HUGE drain. His ex-wife hired an attorney and filed first. My husband hired an attorney and his declaration was filed the day after his ex's was. We both agreed though that the financial aspect of it was secondary to trying to remove my stepdaughter from what we felt was an unhealthy environment. There were lots of things that we could have used that money for instead. But any couple undertaking a custody battle must agree on the financial issues BEFORE they are incurred.

6. Be ready for lots of STRESS, STRESS, STRESS. During the custody case, you will live and breathe the case. There will be something new happening almost every day, and it can consume you if you let it. We went by what we called the "24 hour rule" - we could talk about something for 24 hours, or be mad about it for 24 hours; and then we had to let it go. You can modify this down to 8 hours, or 12 hours - whatever works for you.

7. Talk to sympathetic people about your situation. I turned to my online support forums when things reach a point where I couldn't cope, and would get great advice and sympathy.

8. Don't think that other family members are those "sympathetic people". I found that my husband's family really didn't want to hear about this stuff. Neither did the people at work. So choose those "ears you will bend" wisely.

9. Remember the facts. Questions like "Why did you marry her?" and "Why is she such a B-word?" will not help relieve your stress. The fact of the matter is - He did marry her, had a child with her, and she IS a B-word. Nothing you can do to change any of that. Remember, you married him, with the baggage that came along. My husband says that, instead of baggage, he brought along a cargo ship to our marriage.

10. Remember that you have other children (if you do), who need your attention. Neither of our other kids (my son and our daughter) were involved in this mess, and they deserved our attention as well. Set aside time for them, without the other kids. My son and I had our "Starbuck's dates" twice a month after his church youth group. It gave us time to re-connect and also gave me time to truly enjoy his company, and get away from the custody case.

11. Do not have unrealistic expectations. If your husband files for sole custody and doesn't get it, don't be surprised. Be realistic and realize that any change in custody time can only benefit the child. Someone once told me that any change in your favor is good - it may be a "baby step", but still was good.

12. There are no winners or losers. Yes, I know. That's not a popular theory.

13. Once the custody case is over, remember that it is over - for now. Continue the journal entries, as they could become helpful in the future.

14. Don't think that the ex-wife has "turned over a new leaf" or has "changed"., especially if she becomes more agreeable or nice after the case is over. Because--what do they say? - "Leopards don't lose their spots". Neither do ex-wives. Or ex-husbands.

My husband's custody case lasted 2 years. It absolutely consumed our thoughts and lives for that long. And what was the final result? Some additional time with SD; from 25% to 33% of the time. Not a huge change, but it is better than no change. But the relationship between my husband and I changed dramatically, and actually for the better. We worked together on this, and even though it didn't turn out the way that we had hoped, it did result in a great deal of lifestyle changes for the better in his ex-wife's life, which will ultimately be good for their daughter.

Also, we both have learned to cherish the time that we have with his daughter, and involve ourselves in whatever we can to increase the time that we see her. Be creative - consider going to school to have lunch with your skid(s), or volunteer in their classroom. Be at their activities or practices. The bottom line is that the child will benefit greatly from your involvement in their lives, regardless of how much they are with you.

Remember what I said about it being over - for now? Well, 4 months after this court case was over, my husband went to court and got physical custody of SD. What happened? BM was abused by her former husband, had to go into a women's shelter and had every intention of taking SD with her. My husband had the good sense to contact his attorney, and they filed for full custody, which he received. It is now going on 2 years with us having SD 80% and BM having 20%. The custody arrangement has now taken on a different dynamic…but that is a story for another day!

"MissyM" is a Station member and lives in California with her husband of almost five years. She is the mom to her 19 year old son; her 12 year old stepdaughter; and a 3 and a half year old daughter. Feel free to contact her at

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