Losing Custody Of Children – One Woman’s Struggle

In August of 2001, two weeks before the World Trade Center crumbled in a pile of smoldering ash, I lost custody of my children. I have vague memories of the day – the call from my attorney, an animal-like cry I assume came from me, and the broken antenna on the wireless phone my husband claims I broke when I threw the phone against the wall. While my kids packed up belongings, I buried my face in my husband’s shoulder and sobbed. I remember only snapshots of that day – how my kids walked down the walkway to their father’s car, how they mechanically packed their belongings without talking to other family members, and how they sidestepped me because my grief was too much for their little minds to deal with.

I remember holding my six- year-old, looking in his face, and telling him, “Remember our plans.” I told him, “Remember who you are.”

For the first 24 hours, I convinced myself that a grievous mistake had been made. For sure, my attorney would call me back to tell me it was all a horrible misunderstanding. After all, the forensic expert recommended my husband and me for custody and thought we and our large blended brood would provide the more stable home life. The psychological evaluation said I knew my children better than my ex. I was a stay-at-home mom. But the call saying it was a mistake never came. It was clear from the decision I didn’t know my eldest son as well as I thought. He wanted to live with his father. He was unable to reconcile our new family situation, the new rules, the ruckus, the sibling hen-pecking, and rivalry.

In an in-chambers meeting with the judge, he told her he wanted to live with his father. In New York, siblings aren’t separated in a custody decision. Though my youngest and middle child wanted to live with me, the swing vote decided otherwise.

I met and married my second husband in the summer of 2000. We had met through an Internet dating service and fell in love. My husband, a widower, had eight children; I had three. An army chaplain and a mathematician, he had orders to assume a post at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for a three-year tour. And, after a fairy tale wedding at a venue at West Point overlooking a most scenic bend in the Hudson River and where George Washington faced the British in a pivotal battle, we merged our brood into a double-sized military house and began the painful task of blending together two sets of children with two disparate sets of values, traditions, and perspectives.

After the initial trauma of losing custody and a primary role in my children’s lives, I slipped into a fog. In the aftermath of 9/11, I walked with my husband and stepchildren through the streets of lower Manhattan. The air, heavy with the smell of burnt concrete, was unusually warm from a late summer heat wave. Small groups of people held vigils in Union Square strumming folk tunes on guitars. Others set up outdoor camps hoping with every shred of faith that those missing from the attack might suddenly walk by. We looked at the ‘missing loved one’ posters pasted on storefront windows, trees, and utility poles, noting their names, pictures, and description.

Looking back, I felt envy rather than despair for the missing victims. How lucky for them someone missed them; and how I wished my own children would have felt the same way. While I was busy feeling sorry for myself, my stepchildren whose own mother had died of a brain tumor just four years earlier, vied for my attention. And I wasn’t there.

The Sunday after Thanksgiving 2001, my ex-husband wordlessly packed up belongings, our children, and moved two states away for a new job. The liberal visitation schedule I had protested and was still adjusting to was just a ‘pipe dream’ now. My children were gone. My hope the judge would reserve her decision was dashed. And, there was nothing I could do to get my children back. I sank into a deep depression. I fantasized ways to I could alleviate my own suffering. I thought about divorcing my husband. I thought about renting a small apartment around the corner from my children. I thought about dying in my sleep.

When a parent loses custody, it’s like a death without the support system. There is no closure.

Loss of custody is as traumatic an event as death. It irrevocably destroys nurturing bonds between parent and child. It creates an air of mistrust. It’s a wound that continues to fester and never has closure. Unfortunately, there is no support system from family and friends for the parent who loses custody. Family court frequently treats the noncustodial parent as a problem parent. Others assume any mother who lost custody must have done something downright awful to deserve such a ruling. I know. That’s how I used to see it. Any mother who had her rights revoked must have been a prostitute, an alcoholic, or a drug dealer. I was naïve and dead wrong. When a parent loses custody, it’s like a death without the support system. There is no closure. There are no goodbyes. There are only open wounds that repeatedly rip open with each perceived transgression, with child support arguments, and with visitation disagreements. And with this type of tragedy, many women, stripped of their parenting responsibilities, never really recover. They never figure out how to move on. We are forever vigilant for our children. We are forever ready to swoop in and recover what was wrongly taken from us.

Three months before the court ruling, I stood along Fifth Avenue watching a parade with my family. A woman with hollow eyes approached us and handed out a flier. The flier described how her ex-husband, an abusive narcissist had convinced the family court he should be the custodial parent. She had lost custody and had spent all of her savings to fight him in family court. She had lost her home, her job, her identity, and she was subsisting through the kindness of friends who allowed her to sleep on their couches. Her fight had been going on for at least five years, and she was in dire need of funds. By seeking support from the parade crowd, she hoped for some handouts, so she could continue her legal fight.

After losing my custody, I remembered her face and the look in her eyes. She was void of life, love, and a purpose other than to continue fighting for her children. Four months after meeting this woman, I was in her shoes. The trial had taken a toll on me, on my new marriage, on my finances, and most of all, on my children. I decided to stop fighting and to leave my children where they were to alleviate the tension, the conflict, and the turmoil in their young lives. Once I stopped fighting, I wasn’t quite sure how to start living.

Some time ago, a very personal tragedy has unfolded on social media. Sheryl Sandberg, COO and second in command at Facebook lost her husband of twelve years. After the burial and after sitting the requisite seven-day period of intensive mourning, or “Shiva” in Hebrew, Sheryl observed Shaloshim, a thirty-day period of mourning observed when one loses a spouse. On the 30th day of Shaloshim, Sheryl penned an essay and posted it to Facebook. Though the essay was meant to be a note of thanks to all those individuals who had reached out, supported, and extended a gesture of kindness, Sheryl’s essay served as a mantra of what living really means. It was a confirmation to me of what choices we have when faced with tragedy, loss, and deep sadness.

Grief is a kind of suspended reality. It’s disorienting, dark, and uncertain. It feels like falling head-first down a rabbit hole. Nothing is as it should be. It makes one feel totally out of control. It changes on a moment-to-moment basis.

And, much of the time it feels like treading water. Some days, the sorrow is so suffocating, it’s like drowning. The hardest part about grief is how the future is irrevocably altered. Plans we thought we could count on change. And, knowing we’ll never have plans with that loved one makes old plans and memories that much dearer and precious. Old memories become little temple shrines places along the timeline we revisit time and again and cling to. I think what struck me most about Sheryl Sandberg’s essay is a quote she used. “Let me not die while I am still alive.” Originating from a Jewish prayer, it essentially means that we ask for time to honor our deceased loved one by living our remaining days with gratitude, intent, and meaning. It’s a terribly difficult directive to live by especially when suffering grief.

Fourteen years ago, without knowing that prayer, I came to that same conclusion. Three months after my children moved to another state, I found out I was pregnant. I hadn’t been trying, and the symptoms I had were more like the flu rather than morning sickness. When the blood work came back, I was dumbfounded. And, I was terrified. What if the judge from family court found out and decided I wasn’t fit to take care of this baby? What if she looked at me and saw my weight loss and my sallow complexion? What if she knew of my depression and listlessness? What if she decided she needed to take this baby away too? For about a week, I thought about aborting the baby. Though abortion wasn’t an option I’d ordinarily consider; in flawed logic, I reasoned it was better to abort this child than to let the courts take away another child. I went to Planned Parenthood. I went through all the counseling, tests, had an ultrasound, and scheduled the abortion. According to test results, I was within the first-trimester window. I was eight weeks pregnant.

The night before the procedure, I backed out. I couldn’t abort this fetus, because I was also afraid I might never have another chance to be a mother again. And, I needed that chance to raise a child start to finish. I needed a chance to prove to myself I was a fit parent. I canceled the procedure. I made an appointment with an OB and went with my husband for a first appointment. The doctor greased up my belly, slid the heart monitor into place, and picked up the heartbeat. Then he measured me and frowned. I wasn’t the right measurement for eight weeks. Was it twins? Did I know the first date of my last cycle? Was I sure when I conceived? Another ultrasound was ordered. It confirmed the fetus wasn’t eight weeks. It was a little girl and was actually thirteen weeks. Had I aborted her, I would have been outside the legal window for abortion.

In my mind, it was a sign. It was a gift from God. It was a symbol I had a choice to begin my life anew. I had a choice to live each day with intent and meaning. I had a choice to create something from nothing.

We named her Mia Avigayil. In Hebrew, it means from God or who is like God. Avigayil means “my father’s joy.” One other thing, Mia, the two-knot kid, because she had a double knot in her umbilical cord wrapped tightly around her neck, should never have made it. At 32 weeks I went into labor, and then I stopped. For seven more weeks, she seemed to make it clear she was coming no matter what.

This Article originally appeared on Women’ss Voices Magazine and is feature here with Author permission.

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Merle Huerta
Merle Huerta is a high school learning center teacher. She has written a wide range of articles and essays on parenting, education, mental illness, and grief. She is an army wife to a disabled combat veteran and a mother of a blended family of 13. She has a Masters in Instructional Media & Technology from Columbia University Teachers College, is a graduate a nonfiction writing program from The Writer’s Institute at CUNY, and is currently working on her second masters in Biology and Special Education. She lives with her family and two dogs just north of New York City, NY.
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