Parenting through custody chaos
Hands on her hips, eyes narrowed, my daughter glared at me. “Dad always takes me out for pizza on Friday nights,” she said.
I sighed, gritting my teeth. She was handing me an invitation to outdo her father. After a hectic workweek, I wanted to start dinner, not stew over parenting styles.
Only weeks after becoming a single mom, the rules I had relied on when our family was intact no longer worked. Extravagant gifts from her dad filled my 12-year-old’s bedroom: R500 perfume, a leather jacket, a dozen roses, a TV and stereo system—luxuries he had never condoned before the divorce.
“Meet me at the kitchen table,” I said. “You need to see something.” Retrieving my checkbook, I showed her the balance. “We have R300 until next payday.”
Each day the tension between us grew. My daughter was often arrogant, authoritarian and verbally abusive, like on that first Mother’s Day after dining in a nice restaurant with her dad and his girlfriend. “She’s so pretty,” Melanie told me. “She’d make a much better mother than you.”
I have lost her, I thought. Fed up with chaos, plagued by doubt and tempted to retaliate, I begged God for courage to boldly and tenaciously live out what I believe. Within days my commitment was tested while clothes shopping for summer camp.
“Daddy would never take me here,” Melanie said as I parked in front of a thrift store. Refusing to play the popularity game, I replied, “I can’t compete with Daddy by giving you everything you want. All I can give you is what I think you need: a love that knows how to say no; the stability of a home you can call your own; consistency—whether you think I am old-fashioned or mean; values like taking responsibility and believing that being a good person is more important than feeling good.”
Over time I realized that divorce ends a marriage but does not terminate a family. The resistance I experienced from my daughter started making sense. Her history and past family traditions had crumbled. Nothing stayed the same. Even birthdays and holidays were negotiated. She felt torn between being loyal to me and choosing her dad, who was and always had been her idol. She was lashing out at me because she felt unsure of his commitment to her.
Caught in this puzzling dilemma that I could not change or fix, I kept telling my daughter, “I love you, and I am being the best parent I can be.” However, when she returned from a 16th birthday trip with her dad and said, “I am going on a blind date Friday, like it or not,” I arrived at a turning point.
Melanie already knew the dating parameters—Mom meets the boy and whoever is driving. This time she vehemently objected, saying Daddy had given his permission since he had joint custody. Although I couldn’t force her undulating emotions to settle nor squash my fears, I refused to be held hostage in my own home. I pulled out her suitcase and said, “Then your dad can have total responsibility raising you. I won’t watch you destroy yourself and pick up the pieces afterward.” Her door slammed. I trembled. She stayed.
There is little that Melanie and I cannot talk about now. She finally saw that home and family are not about a big house and perfect people but about listening ears, open hearts and warm hugs. I think she caught on to the fact that, whatever happens, her mom is her biggest fan.
Not long ago my now-grown daughter and I reminisced about those years she hated me. “Mom, don’t you get it? You were a rock. You never moved,” she said. “Sure, I could do anything I wanted at Dad’s house. While I love him a lot, I never knew where he stood.”
Tears filled my eyes. I recalled the many times I had lifted my weary arms to the sky, imagining my daughter lying across my open palms, and prayed, “Lord, You’ve got a big problem. I don’t know what to do anymore. I give Melanie back to You. She’s Yours. Just help me stand my ground.” With hindsight, I saw that in those desperate moments I had leaned on a strength greater than I realized—the immoveable Rock was there all along.
Kari West is the author of “When He Leaves: Help and Hope for Hurting Wives.”