For months, I lived in a constant state of betrayal as X played the court system to methodically disown my role in the lives of our children, and under the lead weight of possibility of losing them forever.
Ironically, in the hands of this lesbian mother, the “straight” card was used again and again. X presented a position where parentage was her sovereign and exclusive right; I was someone who had to earn it, a task at which I had obviously failed.
I recalled X’s comment when a couple of our (lesbian) friends were dealing with significant marital problems. “After what Tammy has done,” she said, “Linda will never let her adopt the children.” Linda was the biological mom.
Back then, I had dismissed what felt incongruent—one parent’s rights being contingent upon the other parent’s satisfaction with her as a spouse—but now I was on the receiving end of the position my ex-wife had so casually detailed that day.
Societies create laws for a reason. Laws do not seek to judge people, but they do judge certain actions, with the intention of preventing them. They acknowledge that we aren’t always the best people we can be. Often, they are meant to protect us from ourselves—from harm we can cause ourselves in times of intoxication, grief, or other weakness. We generally feel safe getting into our cars because we know that the law has done everything possible—from the harsh consequences of a DUI to traffic lights, speed-limit signs, and the cops that enforce them—to protect us from harm.
If we regulate who is allowed to drive a car, and how they do it, then surely we can deploy the legal system to protect our children from the choices we’ve made while mourning the end of our marital dreams.
Relationships often end, and too few of us are at our best when we feel abandoned, hurt, or wronged. People do crazy things in the throes of a breakup. Unfortunately, the current models of divorce and family law mean that our children are typically—even if sneakily—put in the category of marital assets and leveraged for financial agreements.
In my story, it does not matter if one of us was more right or wrong when it came to our relationship. This had little to do with either one of us being fit to parent our children. But because of the way the laws in this country were written, let alone where they were missing altogether, one of us had the absolute power to lock the other one out of the right to parent our children. We do not have to accept this as inevitable any more than we have to accept hit-and-runs.
Even more frustrating was that X seemed to expect credit for engaging with me at all on this matter. One day on the phone, she said, “You should be grateful that I didn’t stay underground. Everybody told me I should just wait it out. ‘Let her keep looking for you,’ they told me. ‘Very soon, her time will be up, and you will never have to worry about her again.’”
If I had accepted the dire injustice of what was happening, I suppose I would have been grateful. The actions of my ex-wife have only one explanation: she was seeking to exterminate me from my daughters’ lives.
During one of our prep sessions, Ann looked me in the eye.
“You know,” she said, her voice ever compassionate, “one of my associates walked into my office the other evening. The practice had already gone quiet for the day, but she was working on your case. She looked at me in shock, tears in her eyes, and asked, ‘How can this be happening to her?’ I am, we are all, so very sorry, Michelle.” She took a breath. “Unfortunately, what I believe X is doing is called ‘parental alienation.’ It is a controversial area of family law in part because it is very difficult to prove; this is a nascent area of psychiatric and legal study. But I do believe that X has been systematically removing you, both physically and emotionally, from the lives of your children.”
No kiddin’ . . . thank god . . . of course . . . no shit!?! I couldn’t believe there was a term and a whole field of study on this behavior.
“John and I will be arguing this in court,” Ann concluded.
It wouldn’t be until 2013 that Parental Alienation: The Handbook for Mental Health and Legal Professionals came out, seeding more books and marking the maturing of recognition of parental alienation as “a parent’s purposeful campaign of vilification, characterized by anger, resistant and inconsistent compliance with court orders, conscious or unconscious denigration of the child’s other parent, and interference with the other parent/child relationship.”
Parental alienation leads to a “serious mental condition that affects hundreds of thousands of children and families in the United States . . . in which a child—usually one whose parents are engaged in a high-conflict separation or divorce—allies himself or herself strongly with an alienating parent and rejects a relationship with the ‘target’ parent without legitimate justification.”
In fact, an estimated 22 million people currently suffer from parental alienation, and it is being increasingly framed and acknowledged as a form of domestic violence.
Regardless of how she may have felt about me as a partner, I never imagined that my ex-wife would stand between me and our children and force me to prove that I had always been their parent. Never did I believe that she would hurt me right where it hurt the most—that she had it in her to attack where I was defenseless.
I had no legal documents to prove that the children were as much mine as they were hers. And that was an issue primarily because we weren’t heterosexual.
Excerpt from Parent Deleted by Michelle Darné. Courtesy of She Writes Press.