Opinion: Don't Be Scared, Sandra Bullock; I've Been There
As I listened to the so-called experts on morning TV yammer on about how tough your custody battle is going to be, all I could think was, "Baloney!"
Like you, I adopted a baby with a husband who went rogue soon after. One sunny morning, three weeks after we brought home our daughter, Steve went to work and never came home.
I was completely blindsided (sorry for the unintentional pun, but I can't think of another word for it) and I can only describe the next few days as feeling like I was swimming underwater. Life became blurry, with a lot of feelings coming at me that I'd never dealt with before. It was the first time in my life that I couldn't eat.
The thing that made me craziest though, was the "helpful advice" from friends, family and attorneys. But I had to listen because my own thoughts were jumbled.
"Take him for all he's got," was the recurring theme. Steve was a big earner so folks thought he should have to own up to his choice through his checkbook. When I wondered aloud if keeping Steve on the hook would have a detrimental effect on my daughter in years to come, one bold-faced name matrimonial lawyer said something I will never forget:
"Honey, $10 grand a month can pay for a lot of therapy."
Bad answer. Who wants to subject their child to damage, just so you can pay to fix it? Turns out that a lot of people stay in custody battles for the potential of incoming cash. Granted, not having money is a scary situation, but having a child with psychological scars has got to be worse.
That attorney's bad answer became a turning point.
Later that evening, I attempted to clear my mind by aimlessly paging through an issue of People, the same magazine you told this week -- some 13 years after my marital upheaval -- that you were "sad and scared" about your future. I flipped to a photo of a celebrity single mom -- can't remember who -- and it totally hit me: Maybe Steve can give our baby up for adoption and I can re-adopt her as a single parent.
When offered that idea up to the next three attorneys I met with, they all said it was impossible. There's no precedent for it, one said. A judge would never allow this because Steve is not a convicted pedophile, drug addict, alcoholic, mentally deranged, physically disabled or on welfare, said the next one. (Apparently, these are the criteria wherein the court would allow someone to give up his child for adoption.) The third guy was a doozy. He said that if I tried this, I would be taking a chance of someone else coming along and adopting my child.
I decided to stop seeking the advice of the fancy-schmancy, high-priced, name-brand lawyers and found a young, solo practitioner who didn't have years of dealing with jaded, deep-pocketed clients under her belt. She was the first and only one who got it.
Sandra, I won't say that it was totally smooth sailing -- our first judge retired in the midst of the case -- but once we got in front of the judge who signed off on this "impossible" idea, it became what my attorney called a "paper push." Like you had to do in your adoption, I had to go through a second round of home studies, so the judge could be sure that I wasn't going to become destitute without a spouse. I supplied the requisite tax documents, psychological evaluation, fingerprints and proof that I had caregivers for my baby as needed.
To ensure that Steve wouldn't be on the hook for anything, I even signed a document that said that I would never pursue him for anything parent-related. And, to be doubly certain, his attorney added a section that said if my daughter ever pursued her former father for child support, and won, that I would have to pay it to her.
It's now 13 years later, Sandra, and I have absolutely no regrets about this decision. Early on, I explained to my daughter about her biological parents and how I came along and now I'm her mom. I also explained that I had been married, but we decided that it wasn't a good marriage, so we split up (I have never bad-mouthed him, except to my shrink, which I pay for myself, thankyouverymuch). Sandra, I don't make the money you make (yet!), but I am just fine.
More importantly, my daughter is fine. Over Cheerios, as we watched the legal folks gripe and grouse this morning on your situation, she rolled her eyes and said, "Mom, you should call Sandra Bullock and tell her not to listen to these people. She'll be fine."
Trust her. She knows.
Jo Parente is the ParentDish nom de plume, a pen name, used by our editorial team when we want to spill our dirty little secrets but still keep our dignity, and families, intact.
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