Recalibrating The Term “Child Custody Battle”:Lessons And Tips I’ve Learned

CustodyI’m sure many have heard this from a few bitter friends going through a difficult custody battle:

“I’m taking him to the cleaners. He’ll be paying me so much child support, he won’t have the money to take out all his little  [explicative] girlfriends.”

As much as it hurts right now, the court isn’t and shouldn’t be the battle ground to make him “pay” figuratively or literally.

As a single mom, created by my own making and by an insensitive ex (I don’t claim to be a saint. I still can’t stand him), I make it my job to be a fair steward of Andrew’s support.

It’s not my money.

Yes, I may pay for the lion’s share of everything, but at the end of the day, I don’t use Andrew’s money to supplement my income. I put 15 percent of his support directly into his college fund each month. I pay daycare 40 percent. The rest is used for food, clothes, toys and diapers.

If I want to get my hair done, I wait until I have saved enough. I am not a budget savant. I have to save, scrimp and cut the nice-to-haves that I wouldn’t think twice about pre-baby. I am about two years overdue for a massage or a spa day. I will probably fore-go that luxury for another year.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge feminist. I believe mothers are entitled to their “me” time like everyone else. I just don’t support the choice that it should be at the cost of our kid’s needs and happiness.

This is why child support has such a bad rap. Grieving, divorced parents or grieving, unmarried singles use support as a tool to “get back” at their exes. We lose sight of what is really important: the money belongs to our children.

We need a more productive dialogue on child support and custody.

Just because we made the decision, however wrong or right it was, to have a child, this does not entitle us to a monetary “reward.” The system didn’t intend for it to be a loosing proposition for one parent and a win for the other. Custody “battles” are not venues for a winner or loser (I struggle with this one because I unfortunately felt this way when I was going through it). I want to believe I practice what I preach so I made an edit on my About section to remove any “custody battle” jargon. Now that I’m older and wiser, I realize how short-sighted this was. Even serving as pro se (my own attorney), I didn’t “win” a custody battle. I went through the system and negotiated what I thought was best for Andrew.

With that being said, here are some tips and lessons learned I wish someone had imparted to me before I started on the custody and child support journey. Disclaimer: I am not a legal adviser. These tips are based solely on my lessons learned. Consult a legal adviser who is certified to practice law in ALL cases.

1.) It’s Not Your Money.

Repeat this over and over again when your unenlightened ex uses custody or child support as a bargaining chip. It’s against the law to do this. Child support is a right to the child. In almost all cases, custody decisions are made using the “best interests of the child” principle. Your ex may lob some pretty unreasonable clauses at you. Breathe. Don’t react. Remember that the judge or mediator doesn’t care about how much of a dick he is or was to you. The judge/mediator only cares that the proposals are reasonable and that they benefit your child. If the standard of living is high in your area, the child support enforcement bureau will adjust accordingly. If your ex is self-employed, they may even pose a beginning amount based on his last tax return. If he isn’t claiming everything on his taxes you may have to live with the fact that your kid won’t see that support. It’s just the harsh reality of the system. Again, don’t take the approach that you’re losing out on money owed to you. Your child is losing out and that’s something your ex must live with. Being a good and fair steward of your child’s support will increase your karma points.

2.) Read Everything You Can Get Your Hands On.

I had a Maryland Bar legal adviser to cut down my costs of a full-time litigator. Doing this took an ENORMOUS amount of my time. I had to read every bit of fine print. I had to research the local laws. I had to do my own calculations on support. I wrote every document and had my adviser review it when necessary. This isn’t for everyone. Both of my parents have a strong legal backgrounds so I grew up with a love for the law. Not everyone can understand the law and or should serve as pro se. Even if you have a lawyer (which I hope you do), read and question everything. EVERYTHING. Do the research. Don’t take your lawyer’s opinion as gold solely on the fact that they have been doing this for a very long time or because they promised a “win.” Chances are they may miss something because they didn’t live with your ex. I firmly believe knowledge is power. Research will only help you be a better negotiator for your child.

3.) Give When It Costs You Nothing And/Or Benefits Your Child.

Many times people think they need to “win” every custody argument and think it’s a show of weakness to give on the little things. I can tell you it’s not. To preserve my sanity, I gave my ex ample time with Andrew. Not just because I could (it cost next to nothing), but as my dad would say, it’s the right thing to do. I have a provision to keep extra time discretionary. It was such a small thing to do, but it really paid dividends. My ex can feel free to ask for extra time and you know what? I never deny it. It’s made visitation so much easier. It’s a show of good faith. Even if your ex is an asshole, you can rise above and give. Since I have Andrew full time, I gave his dad a bunch of static holidays and some rotating holidays (odd and even years we rotate). I don’t celebrate Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, so do I really need to fight for those holidays? No. I have plenty of other holidays.

4.) Apply Negotiating Jujutsu.

Jujutsu- close combat for defeating an armed and armored opponent in which one uses no weapon.

Some of the most seasoned negotiators apply the mental art of jujutsu to reach compromise. They are successful because they understand what is and what is not in their control and they have a respect for what is equitable. This means, the only thing you can control is you. You can’t control the system or manipulate it for your own benefit. Judges and mediators are very well attune and sensitive to manipulation of the court. Chances are, if your ex tries to manipulate the system (as mine tried), he will fall flat on his face (he did). Only liars have to remember the stories they tell. Truth tellers can recount reality with very little effort. Bottom line: keep telling the truth. Stick to what is based in fact. Divorce your emotion from the process (as hard as it is). Make a mental effort not to succumb to tactics that are inflammatory. Reacting this way adds credibility to the claim however untrue it is. You have the power to control how you react and don’t react. This is jujutsu.

5.) Don’t Obsess.

Although #2 seems a bit obsessive, fact finding shouldn’t take a life of its own. Once you obsess you have lost control of yourself. You start reacting to every word or inflammatory remark. This starts a tit-for-tat mentality that can set you back to #1. Learning should be the end, not a means to find a loophole. Negativity also has a way of infecting others the more you obsess about your case. It takes more mental energy and strain to obsess than to enjoy life in the moment and learn.

6.) Respect The Court System. It Is What It Is.

If the court had time to wrestle over every ill in our society, we would never progress. The court system isn’t infallible and sometimes it makes serious errs in judgement. At it’s best, courts, judges, lawyers and other court stewards exist to stay neutral and equitable. That’s the very definition of justice. So, you may not receive the judgment you feel is right for your child. That’s not fair. But, you have the power to appeal. If you can’t afford it, make due until you can. Because the courts rarely like to deal with the rawness of a very emotional split and custody arrangement, seek outside counseling with or without your ex. If you had a court appointed lawyer due to income restrictions (they are often over worked and unappreciated too!) and you feel like they didn’t advocate well enough, save for a lawyer who can and appeal based on serious unfairness. Don’t keep wasting the court’s time with frivolous motions because you’re angry or were unfairly represented. Most times the judge will reappoint another lawyer in cases where there is clear and convincing evidence to show you weren’t represented fairly. Which leads to my last point…

7.) Keep Records Of EVERYTHING.

All the small emails that seemed innocuous at the time. Record the frequency of your lawyer’s phone calls, what you discussed and what decisions, if any, were made. Keep a chronology of events leading up to the custody petition that show you have your child’s best interests at heart. Ask for a court recorder and pay for the transcripts. This is key, especially if you plan on an appeal. A court recorder’s transcripts show an accurate reflection of what you and your ex testified under oath. If he swore under oath you were a good mother and then recanted it later, a judge will naturally ask that he provide evidence that proves otherwise. Keeping records holds everyone (yes, including you) accountable for their intentions, actions and words.

I hope the lessons I learned are helpful. Remember, this too shall pass. Keep loving yourself and your L.O. Karma has a way of paying it forward…


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