By Abby Normal
This is the story of my personal journey of a child custody battle. Due to the emotional and mental abuse I suffered, the abuse and neglect of my precious children by their father, and my own lack of self-esteem, I felt so weak and beaten that I let the situation get worse before I finally found the courage to act.
Trusting and Naïve
Trusting and naïve best described me in 2006 at 19 years old and a first-time mom. I had struggled with severe bipolar type 1 disorder for years. This disorder causes periods of extreme emotional highs and lows, sometimes with thoughts of self-harm. My ex knew this and often used it against me. He threatened to use my mental health as grounds for full custody of our children, should the question ever arise. Our difficult relationship was more off than on, and I moved in with my father in his one-bedroom apartment. My ex held all the control by convincing me that I was crazy and had no money. I believed him, so when the state of Wisconsin pursued child support on my behalf after filing for state aid in 2007, I agreed to everything.
- 50/50 placement.
- Tax rights to our son every other year.
- Shared medical expenses.
- $25 per week in support.
I tolerated the most offensive behaviors.
I convinced myself I loved him so much, I willingly jumped back in line. As the other woman, I tolerated his relationship with a coworker as she moved in with him and had his baby. When that relationship ended, I had so little self-esteem that I agreed to reconcile our differences. We moved back in together, and I wasted no time in notifying the court to suspend child support.
I raised his daughter as my own after he won full custody of her during my pregnancy with our second son in 2010. During this time, he and his family subjected us to constant mental and verbal abuse.
I worked evenings as a C.N.A. He would often call me at work to say he was going out with his sister. They left our children in the care of her 11-year-old until after 10 p.m., when I got off work. The parenting responsibilities belonged to me; he would often leave for days at a time. If I called him to find out when he would be home or who he was with, he accused me of “mothering” him. He told everyone that we were not together, and that I just could not let him go. According to him, I created all our problems. He convinced everyone of my instability, successfully isolating me from any human connection. I felt more alone than ever.
Moving home in desperation
In 2011 he threw me out of our home and moved his sister and her family in. I was so convinced I would never win in court that I left without my children. At this time, I worked third shift in a factory, so I justified this act to myself by thinking they would be there anyway while I worked. Working multiple jobs to make ends meet on my own and support his household during this time, I paid for his gas, all the clothes, and sometimes food for our three children.
Eventually, I worked myself to the point of exhaustion and lost everything. In desperation, I moved back in with my mother, got my old job at a liquor store back and started drinking. Even though I lived 15 miles away, I provided all the transportation for the children. Every morning, I drove over to get them ready for school in the house he shared with his girlfriend and their two children. Sometimes I babysat for them, too, because I was still trying to be the mom that made life easiest for the children.
With death comes rebirth.
Both my grandmother and his mother passed in 2015, causing the whole family to sink into a deep depression. The worst came when my father died in 2016, one month after I started a new job. His death affected the kids and me greatly as we had a close relationship with him.
As bereft as I felt, I knew I had to step up and become the parent my children needed. I stopped drinking and put my life back together. A small inheritance my grandmother had left to my father passed to my brother and me. That money enabled me to move out on my own, still trying to co-parent well for the sake of the children and raising my ex’s daughter. The more I moved on with my own life, the stronger I felt. I began dating, trying to normalize my life. I met a good man and entered into a serious relationship. I found myself pregnant with our daughter almost a year later.
The truth comes out.
At this time, the boys began to speak up and share things with us. Without a doubt, their father and his girlfriend abused and neglected them.
- “Dad and his girlfriend leave us in charge of the babies often.”
- “It’s our responsibility to change their diapers.”
- “There is no food.”
- “I have not showered in a week.”
- “I have no clean clothes.”
- “They hit us a lot.”
- “I found white powder in a bag in Dad’s room.”
- “The house is dirty, and it smells bad.”
I needed to change my approach.
I had no money, so once again, I moved home to my mother’s. I knew that this time, though, I needed to make major changes in my approach. I worked hard to build my credit and looked into low-income housing. When my youngest son spent all weekend at his father’s home with a severe ear infection, they failed to seek medical attention. I knew then I needed to act for my children’s well-being. That was the last straw. At this point, feeling as angry as I did, my mother stepped in and generously offered to help pay for a lawyer. I reached out to friends on social media for help. One friend recommended a very good law firm. I called and spoke to the receptionist, who recommended one of their attorneys specializing in family law. We scheduled a consultation for January 2019.
My lawyer became my anchor.
From that first meeting, I knew I needed her. As a mother herself, she understood my pain. I signed a contract to pay a $2,000 retainer fee in installments. My mom made the initial payments and I agreed to repay her as soon as possible. We filed the paperwork on February 14, 2019, at the Rock County courthouse and received a court date for March 28, 2019.
I accomplished three things before our court date.
- Therapy for both boys
- Placed myself on a waiting list for a low-income apartment
- Stopped all visitation with their father.
Just before our 10:00 court date, I sat with my attorney going over some last-minute things before our case came up. She shielded me from him when he walked in. I let my lawyer do all the talking in court. In detail, she recounted my children’s dire situation.
After hearing our case and taking everything into account, the court ordered the following:
- Sole custody awarded to me.
- Supervised visits for 1 hour, 3 days a week.
- $100.00 a week child support paid to me, plus shared medical expenses.
- Dad’s girlfriend to have no contact at all with our children.
- Absolute sobriety always during visits with the boys.
- Drug testing any time I demanded one.
- Court-appointed guardian ad litem for the boys, for which we were each to pay a fee of $250. (Guardian ad litem is a guardian the court appoints to watch over someone during a case.)
Failure to comply with court orders.
The guardian ad litem sent packets for each of us to complete, asking questions about our home life and about the boys. Before I moved into my apartment in May, I had completed the packet and paid my share of the fees. His daughter’s mother also sued for full custody. As a result, we shared information to help each other. By the time of our next court date on July 18, 2019, all visitation with their father had ceased. Not only had he violated a court order when he allowed his girlfriend to be around the children during a family camping trip (supposedly supervised by an aunt), he also failed to complete the paperwork assigned by the guardian ad litem and paid no fees or child support. He failed to appear in court that morning.
The court ordered that
- Any future visits or contact would be at my discretion
- All previous orders still stood
- He had to pay all court costs, and
- He must reimburse me for any amounts I had already paid.
I hugged Andria tightly outside the courthouse. We parted ways, but I kept her business card should I ever need her again. She gave me back my strength, that part of me he stole. I owe her everything, but $3,000 would have to do as payment for giving us a new life free from abuse.
Life moved forward.
My daughter’s father and I decided to move in together. He lovingly stepped into the role of father for the boys. Their half-sister now lives happily with her mother. We heard nothing from my ex for months. Then one day in December, just before Christmas, he called to say he had to move out of state. He wanted to say goodbye to the boys. His drug problem had become so severe, he’d been forced to act as a drug mule to pay off his debt to the dealer. His only escape was to leave. I gave him two hours at a local McDonald’s to say goodbye.
My youngest son took it the hardest and began acting out with serious behavioral issues, even attempting to light our house on fire. He spent two weeks in a mental health facility, and thankfully, is improving. The longer they live without their father and the trauma, the more they heal. Three years later they have a positive, loving male role model. They will always carry the scars, and we are forever locked in emotional battles, but we are working together as a family to move past it all.
A new way to be a family.
My biggest regret is that I did not act sooner. I tried so hard to be the good guy that I failed to see it causing more harm than good. Now, every day, I tell my children how important they are to me. I make sure they feel loved and cherished. We are learning together to function as a healthy family. My boyfriend is a saint for all the patience, love and support he gives us. Living with broken people is not easy, but he is now the glue that holds us all together.
I would never have become the tenacious fighter I am today without my mother’s guidance. I was a broken woman when I tucked tail and ran back home. With her love and support I was able to pick up the pieces of my broken life and finally move forward.
Five Lessons I Learned from This Experience
- I will never willingly give someone power over me.
- I will take all the opportunities I can now see to stand my ground.
- I am not powerless. I have a support network I should have utilized sooner.
- I now know I have a support network that will help me if I ask. Money was not the issue I thought it was.
- I resolve to take back my personal power and stand up for myself.