There are two things I have always believed in, even though they seem somewhat opposed: ambition, and servitude. The former I learned by watching my mother, who was finishing her master’s degree as I resided in her womb, and who pursued her doctorate for over ten years when I was teen/adult. Her persistence and dedication to herself taught me that women should pursue the things they love, no matter how much life seeks to interrupt: marriage, children, work, health or the unexpected. In watching her, I learned that our passions, as women, are just as valid as those of men, if not of greater importance, since women often sacrifice those things we love so greatly to support others in their pursuits. Ours, her hard work whispered to me, carry as much weight, and deserve a solid place in the imaginings of our heart. Because of having such a role model, I decided to pursue a twenty-year dream of obtaining my MFA in creative writing, which I finally, blissfully, began in the fall of 2016.
I learned servitude from my grandmother. She was a secretary at a votech high school for decades, having sacrificed her dream of a nursing career to help provide for the three children she and my grandfather birthed. She was a spitfire and dedicated to the tenants of the Catholic church in the best possible way that religion can offer. Endlessly, she volunteered to sit on committees, visit with the sick, take meals to those in need, and just offered herself up as an example of gracious spirit and love to all those she encountered. It was by spending time with her and watching her give time and time again that I felt the call to be a member of AmeriCorps, twice, and follow in her footsteps. It is why I have volunteered at almost every school my children have attended in some capacity for the past 11 years. I am currently the parent association president for my older children’s arts high school, raising money to help our arts departments and providing gap funds to teachers and the student body. Before that, I spent two years fundraising close to $15000 for summer dance programs that are often prohibitively expensive for students coming from one of the poorest states in the nation. I believe that opportunities take a village, and that offering my time and talents is one way that I can justify walking this earth, or as Muhammed Ali said, “Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.”
Working as a lactation consultant in a community hospital, I often find myself coming in on days off to work or teach, as practicing IBCLCs and CLCs are scarce in our community, most working for community agencies. When our doula coordinator left her position last winter, and our childbirth educator abruptly stepped down, my supervisor was planning to cancel our prenatal classes. New Mexico has one of the poorest rates of prenatal education in the country. I’m a certified Lamaze instructor. I didn’t hesitate to ask to take over, rewriting the curriculum and slowly building what has become a solid childbirth class series for our community, and one that is affordable. And from March to the end of this year, I worked a 13-14 hour day every Wednesday, teaching until 9:00pm, because meeting the needs of the women in my community, and advocacy for women, has always been at the central core of who I am.
Around the same the classes began, I found myself living on my own post separation, a single mother of four, with two teenage children who live with me full time from my first marriage, and co-parenting a ten and six-year-old. My second husband, whom the older children lived with for 10 years and call ‘dad’, didn’t even ask if they had a desire to maintain a residence with him. In fact, the first thing my son said to me after we announced our separation was, “You know I am going to live with you, right?” Even though I had tried to salvage my marriage for the sake of my children for as long as I could, I found myself, for the first time in over ten years, able to breathe. My ex-husband wasn’t bad, per se, but he had a quick to ignite temper that often led to verbal abuse of our children (particularly my elder son), and sometimes, myself. But no matter how much you hope that people will want to change and aim for a higher self, it isn’t always enough.
My ex-husband put our younger children in counseling, not telling me until after they had begun, on Wednesday evenings, as that was a day he knew he would have them, per our hastily draw up custody agreement. I didn’t object to the modality: I am a big believer in the power of therapy. But I couldn’t participate, as I was committed to teaching those evenings for the remainder of the year. The therapists only called me for three separate occasions: to come in a sign the appropriate forms, the last week of June to come in and address some issues my son felt he was having with his siblings, and the following Wednesday, where they left a vague message that some disturbing themes had come up in sessions with both the kids. I called back right away when I finished teaching that evening, but they wouldn’t provide concrete details. I made an appointment to come in the next evening after work.
When I arrived, both my children’s therapists, part of a graduate school program that required clinical hours, sat me in a room with their supervisor. They went over the issues that had come up: for my daughter, during play therapy, she had discussed and acted out a scene involving suicide. With my son, there was sand play with sexual overtones that was also had contained violence. They told me they wanted to bring in someone who was an expert to discern if my children might have been subjected to abuse. I was in shock, but I immediately agreed, disclosing my own history as a survivor of sexual abuse (something I am very open about), and offered my full cooperation. I was also told that a referral had been made to CYFD, although they never told me directly that who was the target of the investigation. But they insinuated that there was concern regarding my older son, describing incidents between him and his younger brother out of context, that I calmly and thoroughly explained. I left the counseling center in a stupor, and sat in my car, where I called a co-worker/friend to talk and began uncontrollably crying and shaking for next 20 minutes. I then drove to my workplace to be surrounded by love, because I work with some of the most amazing labor and delivery nurses on the planet, who had been the rocks I leaned on throughout the rough year of my separation.
The next day, I was to pick up my children from their summer program. I tried in vain to reach out to my ex-husband, because I wanted to talk about what the counselors had discussed, and I wanted to see if he was okay. We were also to meet that evening to try to mediate the finances of our divorce on our own. Something in my gut began screaming, and I listened. I left work early to get my children, arriving to find they had never showed up that day. I drove to his apartment, but he wasn’t there. I called, emailed, and texted my ex-husband. No response. Finally, late in the afternoon, again surrounded by my co-workers, I called the police, more afraid than I had ever been in my life. What if an accident had occurred, and they were hurt? Initially, the officer didn’t want to do anything. We didn’t have a formal parenting plan in place. I told him I was worried my ex-husband might have left the state, and I broke down in sobs. The officer finally agreed to investigate, and I gave him my ex-husband's address.
Hours later, I was sitting in a restaurant with my older daughter, restlessly waiting, when the officer called me back to inform me that my children were safe with my husband, but he had filed a protection order against me. He had gone in on a Friday afternoon, at 3:00pm, around the time I was at his home. I was to have no contact whatsoever with my children for the next 14 days until the hearing, and if I saw them in public I was to remain 100 feet away. I broke down completely in the middle of the restaurant, my spirit lying in pieces on the tile floor.
I consulted with one attorney the following Monday who had to recommend me to others as she was to be out of town after the date of the initial hearing. Consultations aren’t free anymore. I paid over 200 dollars to find out she couldn’t help, but got a list of referrals. I went to the courthouse and paid to get a copy of the PO filed against me, because I still had no idea what accusations were being leveled against me. The reasons listed were scant and without substance. I called four other attorneys over the next couple of day, because finding a lawyer in July in my small city is like a needle in a haystack, and lucked out with one who had criminal experience, which proved invaluable when I received a call from the SVU unit for an interview. I also received the awaited call from CYFD, arranging interviews for my older daughter, myself, and with the directors of the dance program my older son was attending in Chicago for the summer.
I met with the SVU detective, whom my lawyer advised me not to talk with. One thing she discussed was a concern raised from my younger daughter’s drawings that the therapists had given her, showing her at her father’s watching television and playing with her dad and brother, while in the drawing of my house she was playing with her siblings while I folded laundry. I let that sink in. Part of the accusation of neglect was that I FOLDED LAUNDRY, a single mother of four who was parenting seven days a week, while my ex-husband had up to four days a week where he was completely childless to do such laundry. I was also questioned because my son, a gifted student, was reading Alexie Sherman’s Diary of a Part Time Indian. In my mind, all I could think was how happy I had been that he agreed to read a work of fiction, since he usually only gravitated toward nonfiction and fought us about reading. It had been a book his siblings read when they were just a bit older, and we talked through any questions he had about the content.
I met with the CYFD case worker in our home, a tough, no-nonsense woman fitted in boots and jeans. Her first question when we sat in my dining room was straight to the point: did I think my husband might be doing this out of spite? She then commented that she had been doing this a long time, and had an instinct for when things didn’t seem to match up. We talked for a bit about my relationship history with my husband, and the kids, and she walked through each room of my house, only momentarily pausing before moving on. It took less than 20 minutes.
For those two weeks, I sat in agony. I stopped sleeping, and only found solace in exercise, writing, preparation for the hearing, and my work. It helped me to help others. It gave me relief to teach and be around expectant families full of the promise of parenthood. It was one of the few glimmers of hope that sustained me during this awful period. Friends from work created a Go Fund Me, and I raised part of the $2500 retainer my lawyer would require, the rest emptying my savings.
We went to court, and my lawyer negotiated an agreement to have the protection order dropped that included keeping the custody schedule the same (I had them Sunday morning to Wednesday morning, with every other Friday), while I begrudgingly agreed that my older children would not be left alone with my younger children. Our divorce would likely be settled in formal mediation, where I felt I could hopefully renegotiate that stipulation, and I desperately wanted to see my kids, not wanting to risk the protection order being increased for any length of time (I might have only gotten short visitations). That afternoon, I raced to pick them up. My son ran to me and hugged me so hard I thought he might hurt my ribs. But my daughter, my baby that I breastfed until she was four, looked at me with cold formality and would not hug me at first. Again, a piece of my heart irretrievably broke on the spot, and that night I lay in bed, weeping for all we had lost.
But we began rebuilding, although my ex-husband still had not reached out to the twins, and had not had contact with them since Father’s Day. It was an adjustment, particularly when my son came home from Chicago at the end of the summer. He was, rightfully, angry that he had been accused of any kind of potential abuse, and was extremely upset with his former stepfather for allowing all of this to occur. The kids were unsure how to ‘be’ around one another, and I found myself nitpicking normal sibling behavior that I was worried might be misinterpreted. I started therapy during the two weeks they were taken from me, and that helped me tremendously, particularly recognizing the abuse I had endured but felt incredible shame admitting. However, my younger kids remained at the same counseling center, and I began to insist that we find a new therapy group, particularly after I found out that he sat in the room with them when they made the phone call to refer me to CYFD. Because of our custody schedule, I asked for someone who could see them Fridays, when we both had availability and rotated the children. A couple of weeks later, I received a letter from the CYFD case worker with a simple, checked box that indicated the claims made against me were ‘unsubstantiated’. I never heard back from the SVU detective, but my lawyer found out the kids had been taken for forensic interviews and nothing that indicated abuse had been disclosed. I finally felt that we could begin to leave that experience behind, in the dust, where it rightfully belonged.
In October, my ex-husband and I sat with a mediator to haggle through the finances of our divorce. His lawyer came without having any prepared documentation of his income and other financials, which took up sizable time. At the end of it, I was still left with most our credit card debt, and would only be receiving less than $50 a month in child support despite him earning a great deal more than me, as he insisted on paying for an afterschool program that was more a luxury and not a necessity, as I would have gladly used my lunch hour to pick up the children and bring them to my work daily. He nickeled and dimed every point, and despite us not owning a home or any other mutual property of value, the proceedings took six full hours instead of the four I budgeted, and I was now also left with legal debt to the tune of over $4000.
Since we didn’t get to issues with the kids, and my ex-husband continued to refuse change of any kind to the kids’ schedule, I filed for a priority consultation with the court. I wanted to change the days we were following, as the transitions felt like too many for the kids, and it always felt frantic. I also hoped to finally switch counselors. We had called other therapists, and I had finally found one that could see them on Fridays, but he had dragged his feet and she became booked. Ideally, I hoped for a week on/week off, as I had not had a full weekend with my children since March. I dreamed of taking them camping when the weather eventually warmed, or just having a Saturday to go on a day trip. I also wanted my older children to can be left alone with their siblings, so that they could walk the dog together, roller blade, go the park, or even just watch a movie while I ran to get a gallon of milk. The younger kids had been asking endless questions of why they always had to be with me when they wanted to stay home or do things with their siblings, and I had no answer to give. I also still didn’t know what my husband had told them during the two weeks of my absence from their life, and so finding the appropriate response felt impossible.
We finally met with the mediator. She asked me to rehash my relationship from when we met. It felt crushing to discuss and relive a relationship so fraught with abuse and trauma. We had moved 8 times, and had a period of homelessness. My husband had at least 10 different jobs during our relationship, often chronically underemployed, some of which he was abruptly fired from, and we had been hand to mouth for 90% of our time together. He had often been unhappy or seemed to have conflicts with supervisors. I had worked at three places during our entire relationship, only leaving my educator position at a local middle school when my program folded in NM, then working with WIC as a peer counselor as I returned to school to become an IBCLC, and only leaving that when I gained full time employment at the hospital. Otherwise, I had been pregnant, or a stay at home mom, working on my childbirth certification. I cried most of the session. We discussed the issues with the therapists and I brought in the treatment summaries, which I felt were biased, where one therapist had written that I, “seemed to not react to the news” when they discussed the themes of the scenarios my children had acted out, my shock being misinterpreted for callousness. I outlined why I felt it was in the best interest of the kids to have a week at a time: less transitions, time to settle, quality time with parents, which I felt having a whole weekend at a time would give, since I had to maintain my work schedule as an hourly employee to feed my family. I had also decided to scale back my prenatal teaching to every other month, and changed the day to Monday, so that I could have more quality time with my kids and give more flexibility to participate in their therapy, even though I still felt strongly that I needed to do that work for my community.
When I got the priority consultant recommendations, I was stunned. It was recommended that I receive LESS time, a schedule of Wednesday to Friday with every other Sunday. She had called the executive director of my children’s counseling center who claimed, “the Father has consistently brought the children to counseling, and has shown concern and involvement, whereas Mother has regularly neglected to bring the children to sessions.” This led the consultant to decide, “Mother’s inability or unwillingness to participate in the children’s counseling and to regularly get them to sessions is another indication that she is not taking their mental health seriously, and that she has potentially neglected to adequately respond to their emotional needs.” It stated that she felt the younger children needed to minimize contact with their older siblings, as she still had concerns based on the accusations that had been raised in July. The ones CYFD investigated and found unsubstantiated, the same ones where they reported no abuse during their forensic interviews.
I met with my lawyer, who was also stunned, as my ex-husband had not asked for increased time. We filed an objection, finally got a court date, and yesterday I finally got to sit in front of a white, male judge and give voice to my story. I discussed how I had been unable to participate in counseling as I had committing to teaching, and my ex-husband enrolled them without asking me, then refused the change the day of the week since he did not want the kids to experience any shifts. I discussed why I do the work I do, helping women, how teaching in a population with health and economic disparity is a passion, and how essential it is I continue that work for our community, even if on a smaller scale. How I work hourly and often need maintain at least 40 hours a week just to afford rent, utilities, food, and pay down the debt I was left from our marriage. I have no savings, and have even begun contemplating a second job or leaving the job I love since the raise I have been asking for still has not come to fruition, and my kids come first. Despite this, I maintain and excel in graduate school, and still give back by volunteering with my children’s school, because I want to model for my children a woman who not only pursues her own dreams through hard work, but also believes to help others achieve theirs as well. Because what is lost in our society today is that open, giving heart that allows us to lean on each other in times of need, and gives us the perspective to see those around us as humans who hurt and bleed the same. It is a sense of connecting to others outside of technology, knowing them as people, and recognizing we are all in this together, not just individually for ourselves.
I discussed how I have supported my older daughter’s participation in therapy for the past three years, and how my son only stopped formal therapy with a counselor for his first semester this year (he is resuming), because he chose to take extra academic classes and has a more rigorous schedule than in the past, and the guidance counselor, whom he would talk with regularly, just returned from maternity leave. Both are high performing students, and amazing human beings, who will be leaving in a year and a half to seek their own journeys as adults, and this time, this now to be together as a family, is something we will never be granted again.
My husband’s lawyer made it a point for the judge to know that I leave my children for 20 days a year to attend two, ten-day graduate school residencies, so the younger children are ‘used’ to being away from me. I could hear the oxygen suck from the room when I openly admitted that my older children had one night they spent alone when I was away at my a residency. I never got to clarify that it was due to a family issue my friend who was staying with them had to deal with at home, the night before I came back. Or that she lives less than 2 miles away, and they had a laundry list of people I compiled for emergencies. I also trusted them when they told me they felt capable being on their own for one evening. A product of the 80s and 90s, I can remember being left home alone as a teenager when my parents took short trips, having family phone numbers at the ready, which would probably qualify as intentional neglect these days.
My ex-husband kept repeating how he felt I wanted to make modifications to the schedule, when what he really meant is that I had been leaning on him as my co-parent to help me. Since I had had the children on Mondays, and public schools love to give more Mondays off than any other day of the year, I was constantly the one having to take them to work, since I couldn’t afford to take off, or hire a babysitter. So I would ask him to split those days here and there, or if I could bring them by if I had a meeting they couldn’t go to with me, or I had an appointment for one of my other children, since I manage all of them. And because kids are incredibly unpredictable, sometimes you must shift things to accommodate their needs, and when you are an hourly employee as I am versus the salaried employee my ex-husband is, every minute missed on the clock counts. His tone as he discussed how I depended on him, because I always have felt that good co-parents should be able to rely on each other, was just short of bitter resentment.
But the most damning moment came when my lawyer pointed out to my ex-husband on cross examination that he had opposed changing our schedule because he did not feel that the children should be without seeing each parent for five days or more. Yet, with the court recommendation, that is exactly how long they would go without seeing me. She asked him directly if he felt that being without their mother for five days was in their best interest since he previously opposed such a length for both of us, and he had not requested additional custody. I watched him squirm, sitting with his eyes slanted to the right, staring at the floor as he had for most of his testimony. He sighed and licked his lips, then repeated what he had said for almost every question my attorney asked, not answering anything at all, “I only want is what is in the best interest of the children, and if the court feels this way…”
For the ten years we were married, he never voiced it was against the best interests of our children to spend most their time with me as he jumped from job to job, or as I supported him when he needed time to complete his BA degree, and then when I encouraged him to get the MA degree he completed in December. He didn’t ask for addition time because I truly believe he knew deep in his soul it was not in their best interests, but he still wouldn’t vouch for me as a woman and mother. He should have just punched me, and then threw me under a moving bus.
And the judge bit. At the end of testimony, he called a recess, and when he returned, I knew the verdict before he said a word, because he wouldn’t look at me. Then his opening sentence mentioned how difficult and complex our case was, and how his decision wasn’t intended to disparage me as a mother. Tears started welling in my eyes. And then he said that because I seemed ‘overwhelmed’ as a single mother of four and a graduate student who worked full time, that he was adopting the recommendations, because I needed to ‘prioritize’ some things. I completely lost it and almost fell in a heap to the floor, sobbing uncontrollably. He also felt that despite the investigations that had cleared any us of any charges from the summer, he felt that those allegations should be treated as if they had really happened and not ‘fictitiously’, and that warranted me less time, even though I had 50% shared time with them for the last SIX MONTHS without an iota of concern. We were mandated to six months consecutive counseling before I can petition a change, and when listing therapy groups, he at first mentioned us utilizing the center where my children still attended, although when under oath I said multiple times they had made me feel unsafe. Then (and I think he genuinely thought he felt he was exhibiting compassion) he said that if a neutral first choice wasn’t available, a place I had already contacted prior to the hearing as I am very eager to remove my kids from the inexperience they have been subjected to, I could draft a list of three counselors, but my ex-husband would get to choose. It was the only thing I got that I asked for, and it was still an afterthought.
In addition to now only getting to see my children for five overnights every fourteen days, I also lost my petition for us to each have a child for one of their birthdays each year, since my ex-husband had my daughter last year and I had our son, and I hoped to reverse this year. Instead, because he gets the even years, I will miss my daughter’s birthday for the second year in a row. Again, it is time lost that can never be replaced.
Here is some of what I learned: single mothers of four children who dare to work full time, help their communities, pursue their dreams, and try to model service for others get punished. Instead of finding a way to help lift me up, the court instead found a way to try to break my spirit, and drove a greater wedge between all of us. I saw very clearly the vested self-interest my ex-husband has, despite continually trying to give him the benefit of the doubt, because he is still a father to people I love more than anything in the world. I do not see a foreseeable future where I can feel forgiveness on the horizon. I’m giving myself the permission to feel rage. I learned that men can abandon children that call them father and who expect them to be a part of their lives after a decade, and suffer absolutely no consequences for such desertion, while women can be put through exhausting processes that pick apart their lives and actions, and still not be trusted or believed. I learned that you can fully cooperate with investigations, be completely cleared, and still be told you are not trustworthy. The rules of accountability for gender are ripe with inequality. I learned that our patriarchal society is fear based and concerned with covering its own ass, which is part of why I felt the judge issued the verdict he did. CYFD in New Mexico has come under fire, at times rightly so, for being understaffed and allowing children to slip through the cracks, resulting in horrendous outcomes. I’m not deaf and blind to the political aspect of that reasoning. But I’ve also been the more stable and consistent parent for ten years. I barely watch television. I’m not an addict. I don’t have mental issues. I’m a nonsmoking vegetarian who exercises every day. Occasionally, I like a good bourbon, or a glass of wine. I probably should sleep more. But I’m mostly an ambitious woman who can multitask with incredible efficiency, who doesn’t waste the small, precious time she’s been allotted for her life, and who believes that giving back should be a central part of community and living. And I was penalized for that, as were my older children, who are two incredible, loving, smart, and kind individuals who work hard, are talented artists, and who love their siblings with full hearts.
I learned that anything you do or say can be twisted to serve the wants of others. I learned that hurt men do strange things to cling to their own sense of importance and self-worth. I learned that sexism is alive and well, and that we still have such a long way to go to balance the scales of justice. I learned the importance of electing women to positions of power, particularly women who understand the self-sacrifice that many women endure so that they can do more for others, as we often do. My judge should be up for reelection this year, and I will be vocal.
We need to have conversations about how we treat women in this country, and the invisible bias wrapped in disproportionate expectations for mothers versus fathers. Let’s talk about the wage gap, the outrageous costs of childcare, paid maternal leave, and how we perceive women who work versus those who do not. Let’s get real about how we punish families who are struggling, and how economics plays a role in how justice sees individuals, because it is not blind. I am not unaware how fortunate I am that I had representation because I could scrape together a retainer, even though how I will pay the remainder of my legal costs is something that keeps me up at night, even though the outcome without a lawyer likely could have been so much worse. At close to a staggering $10000 later for my fees, I can’t help but think of how much better that money might have been saved for my older children to take driver’s education, for college, for emergencies, or a million other things my kids need.
I wrote this because I want other women who have suffered similar fates to know they are not alone. For all the women who have come out of abusive relationships and still feel further abused by the systems that are supposed to help, not harm. For those financially struggling but who would and have to spare any expense to fight for their families. For those single mothers, holding down one job or more, who may rely on sibling babysitters, who live paycheck to paycheck, who want more and have the audacity to go after it, who might be championing women every day in positions that often don’t pay enough, or who feel the same call of servitude I always have: I see you. If you are a WOC, I see you more, because I know the struggle for you is so much greater. At the end of the day, we need to face such injustices. We need to scrutinize how we treat women in our culture, and begin to demand that men relinquish some of the power that has led to such fragmented bureaucracy. We need to critically analyze and address who benefits from systems that result in broken families and more trauma, because society does not. It wasn’t just that my children lost time with their mother: this was a loss for all women, especially those on their own working hard to provide for others and better themselves in the process. No one is winning when women can’t be seen, when our ambitions become a liability, or we can’t serve our very own communities to promote health, or create opportunity. Instead of begging to be heard, let’s start demanding those with power to listen: let’s be OVERWHELMING, and create the change we need so that women will no longer be ‘overwhelmed’.
Reflections of a woman spawned in a cement cocoon...