Ever had those moments when you thought ‘How the hell did my life ever end up like THIS?’
Let’s just say that the last year and a half of my life has been one long moment like that.
To sum up where I came from: I married the guy who I had dated since I was 18. We had three amazing children together, and I had the luxury of being able to be a stay-at-home mom since the day my eldest was born. We were the couple who gave every friend we had hope that marriage could actually be a lasting, good idea. Sorry, friends…I won’t say it is not possible, but it’s safe to say that I can no longer at this point be your poster girl for fairy tale marriages.
In January of 2009 we sold or gave away everything – the cars, the obnoxiously big house full of possessions somehow accumulated over the years. We bought one way tickets to Argentina, intent on breathing life back into ourselves once again, as we had somehow found ourselves the epitome of checked-out suburban America and we were determined that would not be our style for a second longer. On an individual level, I thrived in Patagonia, as did the kiddos. I was happy, alive, vibrant, living a dream. For the first time in a long time, I had the opportunity to slow down and truly check in with myself – and I realized what I had probably known deep down for a while. My marriage was not a happy one any longer and was not healthy for me to stay in.
I was determined to stay friends. We would be that modern day divorced couple who gets it right, effortlessly staying in each others’ lives with grace, celebrating, enjoying and appreciating the other more after divorce than during marriage (it all sounds so strange now in hindsight, seeing where we actually ended up). I moved to a different town with the kids; he brought us all to the bus station and sent us off with hugs and love. The next nine months were turbulent as we tried to adapt to the new arrangement. When his parents offered to buy the kids round trip tickets to visit Michigan for a few weeks to see all of their extended family (the kids had not been back to the US for two years), I figured it would be a good break for the kids, a relaxing, fun treat where they could go back and get spoiled for a bit.
Long story short: a few days before their return flight, my ex got on a plane to the US, never put the kids on their return flight, immediately enrolled them in school in Michigan, and thus established a sense of physical custody in the eyes of Michigan law. Safe to say I didn’t see that one coming. This had been my best friend and lover for 14 years, someone whom my kids to that day had idolized.
I got on a flight to go back to Michigan, to basically say ‘what the @!*?’ I guess he had decided that if I did not want to be with him, there was no reason for him to stay in Argentina to sit there and watch me become happier and happier. He wanted to move back. Understandable, and I would have supported him if he wanted to move back – but with three kids together, an arrangement had to be made that worked for ALL of us, not just him. His demeanor was calm, rational. We got to the point where we were civil enough to take the kids skiing together, and I even celebrated Christmas at his parent’s house. He showed promise of the guy I used to know so well and trust so much. We made an arrangement that he would have the kids a couple of more months until summer, then send them down to me in Argentina for 6 months. From then, we would do six months, six months. It seemed fair and the kids were happy. I was content that we were able to work out an arrangement between ourselves like two grown adults, an arrangement that took everyone’s needs and desires into consideration.
You might have seen it coming (you are brighter than I was…), but I got played.
Fast forward, and the only thing I ever got sent to me in Argentina were divorce papers, with him demanding full legal and physical custody. Silly me, but I thought that the only time that anyone would stand a chance at getting full custody from a mom would be if she was a crack head, violent, or simply did not want her kids. This shit just does not happen to moms who bake cookies and still sing lullabies at night to their pre-teen.
It took me one interview at the Friend of the Court’s office to realize what I was up against. I was up against a husband who had spent a year figuring out how to work the court system to his advantage. He had done everything ‘right’. He had the kids in a great school and lived at home with his very church-going parents, he had stable income. He became SuperDad on paper, while mom was now a travel writer gallivanting around ‘third-world’ Argentina. I bawled for hours the day I saw that in writing, the father of my kids had said I had consciously abandoned our children and that I had never had any intention of seeing them again when I got on a plane to Argentina. That he never said he would send them back for the six month/ six month plan. In my opinion, that is the lowest, cruelest lie he could have conjured up. He had a lawyer, he had done his homework, and he had money; I had integrity, the support of my kids, and a possibly naive trust in the universe that it would not let this happen.
A full year in court later (during which I moved in with my parents at the age of 34, leaving my work, house, and life in Argentina far behind and got to see my kids only on weekends, as he had full custody), the judge ruled that my ex had in fact had moved the kids overseas deceitfully, and that it was in the kids best interests to be with me in Argentina. I was awarded full physical custody of my children and the permission to move my kids anywhere in the world I see fit. I am raising a well-deserved glass of Malbec to myself after that battle.
I admit I did some things not very ideally throughout the process. If by writing this I save a mom or a dad out there the heartache of having to go through what I did, if they can identify red flags and take preventative action to not end up in the position that I ended up in, then this has all been worth it.
Things I would do differently had I known then what I know now (also known as: do as I say, not as I did):
- I would have written down and documented absolutely everything – conversations, agreements. So much about the kids’ original trip back to the US, or arrangements about their return to Argentina, had been done over skype or by phone and could not be used in court.
- I would have let more friends and more family know how bad things actually were. I am more private and also did not want to create any more family drama than what I was dealing with. I wanted to keep everything calm and on the down-low. Looking back, this led to me feeling too many times like it was me against the world, with no one who really fully knew my situation or the details of what I was going through. I spent too many nights crying myself to sleep, worried, when had I just opened up more, I could have had support and hugs and patient, listening ears on all sides.
- I never would have thought that I could represent myself in court. When I first got back to the US, through financial desperation I thought my only choice was to represent myself. Having a skilled lawyer in the end, I feel, made all the difference. It is expensive, stupidly expensive…but there is no price one would not pay to get their kids back. Court is unfortunately an overwhelming system, and you have to have someone who knows how to navigate the system well. It’s like attempting to go out to sea during a brutal storm with no boating experience – wouldn’t you feel much safer with a competent captain?
- Hindsight is everything, of course. But I would caution anyone going through a separation or a divorce, no matter how much they think they can trust their partner, no matter how much they believe that nothing bad would happen, to not let their kids leave whichever country they are living in without accompanying them personally and getting any arrangement in writing. If you are overseas, once your kids hit US soil, the game changes. It isthen impossible to get them off US soil without the other parent’s permission, or a court order (which took me over a year to get…)
- I would have been the one who filed for divorce first. At the time that I separated, I did not want to officially file and go to court, as I thought there was nothing that we could not have worked out between the two of us. I thought that me filing for a legal divorce getting custody in writing would have wrecked any chance of us having an amicable separation in which we figured out our family matters on our own – without some judge telling us what our lives should look like. In the end, I ended up being the defendant, constantly having to defend millions of details in a way that he as the plaintiff who had ‘established’ physical custody did not.
Things that helped me throughout the process to win the case:
- My kids are articulate, feisty, and have been raised to not take shit from anyone. They stood up for what they wanted. I happened to luck out and get a judge who took the time to listen to them and to value their insight and opinions. And instead of just a Friend of the Court interview, my 10 year old daughter, through her outspoken, stubborn ways, fought so that a court appointed counselor worked with the kids to understand the situation more. Whereas FOC took 20 minutes to assess our family situation and the desires of the kids, and made their parenting time recommendation based on that, the counselor interviewed them in depth over the course of 6 weeks. The kids had time to make their desires truly known in a confidential setting, and to tell their side of the story, all while never having to step foot incourt. Some people criticized my allowing the kids to participate, saying it would traumatize them – but my kids felt empowered doing so. To not have been given a voice would have made them feel like helpless victims – and they proved to be the most convincing allies I could have hoped for to have on my side.
- The judge ruled that because the kids, while in Michigan, had always kept a strong psychological attachment to me and their life in Argentina, and had always thought they were moving back soon, that a true physical custody situation in the US had not ever been established – as psychological attachment to a place has to be taken into consideration. This was a huge factor in my court case. I could show through Facebook messages showing what colors they wanted me to paint their room before they returned, emails from my daughter looking into the horse she wanted to rent in Argentina, etc, that the kids always believed that they would be returned to Argentina, and that they held as much emotional attachment to their home there as they did their new environment with their dad.
- My ex basically self-destructed halfway through the court process. UpstandingSuperDadgot charged with some very serious crimes. While he couldn’t have this used against him in custody matters until he was actually convicted, it couldn’t have exactly helped his case. His lawyer also quit on him towards the end, leaving him to represent himself in court. Had he kept it together throughout the entire court process, I would have had an even more uphill battle. So while this is nothing that you can plan in advance, keep hope. Always. It’s not over until it’s over, and you never know when the winds are going to unexpectedly turn in your favor.
- I had a badass lawyer who believed in me and what I wanted to do. In the beginning, I interviewed many lawyers, and would not give any permission to represent me. If they in their heart did not personally believe it was a positive thing for my kids to return to Argentina, how on earth could I expect them to be able to sell that plan to a judge? Others tried to get me to settle for what they thought was possible…I could probably get custody, but I should agree to stay in the US. No. No. And no. Settling for mediocrity just because someone else did not believe I could get more does not work for me. My kids and I dream big and go after what we want, not what we (or, heaven forbid, someone else) think we should settle for. I finally got a lawyer who believed in me and whose idea of ‘possible’ was much more expanded than most. And here we are – full custody with court permission to live anywhere in the world we want (something a thousand people told me I would never realistically get. I say screw ‘realistic’ and go after what it is you really want, making sure to surround yourself by people who support you).
If anything, I want anyone going through a crazy international custody issue to know that you are not alone. When I first started the process, I honestly felt like I was the only one in the world who had to deal with some of these issues. My advice to you – reach out to others who have walked the path before you. Never settle from the get-go for less than what it is that you really want. Do your homework (meaning don’t rely on your lawyer for everything – take some matters in to your own hands – try to find previous court rulings, anything, that could help your case. What is at stake is too important to not try to help in any way that you can). Make all important decisions from a place of love, not fear. Most importantly, don’t lose hope. Ever.I feel that an overall stubbornly positive attitude has gotten me further in this court case than almost any other thing (I personally think that the universe conspires to support those who dream big and believe in its goodness), and a positive attitude made the day-to-day journey in the end more of an interesting learning adventure and less like sheer hell. As Winston Churchill said, “For myself I am an optimist – it does not seem to be much use being anything else”.
Have you had any experience with international custody issues? I would love to hear your story. Please feel free to write in to firstname.lastname@example.org to share your story privately, or leave a comment here for others to connect with you.