(43) Non-Custodial Mothers with Rachael

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My brave guest, Rachael, and I talk about divorce and a taboo topic – mothers who don’t have primary custody, or even any custody of their kids. The goal of this episode is to give a voice to those mothers, and to break down the stereotype that a non-custodial mother is always unfit, an addict, or unstable. Prepare to have your mind expanded.

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Brandy:            Hello, Adult Conversation Podcast listeners. I have a lengthy lead-in for today’s episode, so I won’t say much up front except that the goal of this episode is to give a voice to mothers who don’t have full custody, or even a majority of the custody of their children, and to break down the stereotype that a non-custodial mother is unfit, an addict, or unstable. Prepare to have your mind expanded.

Brandy:            Also to note, the universe has been giving me a lot of practice with imperfection lately like it did in this episode when my luxurious mic that I’m using right now unknowing got overridden by my stupid internal laptop mic. So, my audio does not have the richness you’ve become accustomed to, but the good news is that my guest’s does, and she does most of the talking. On to the show —

Brandy:            Today on the podcast, we’re talking about a topic you don’t hear very much about at all: non-custodial mothers, meaning mothers that don’t have primary custody or even any custody of their kids. At the beginning of this year, I started working with a woman who later revealed that she did not have custody of her kids. I knew her to be smart, caring, and stable, so when she told me this, my mind didn’t know what to make of it. It quickly became clear to me that I had made many subconscious assumptions about who non-custodial mothers were. I don’t think I had ever said it out loud or even explicitly thought it, but I had assumed the only mothers who didn’t have custody of their kids were either addicts, unstable, mentally ill, or selfish. I hate even admitting that, but I think many of you listening might also be walking around with this unspoken agreement. So, it was this woman who opened my eyes to my inaccurate assumptions, and she also made me realize that the same patriarchal oppression and misogyny that exists in nearly every facet of our culture also exists in custody situations (because of course it does). There are numerous reasons why a stable caring mother could not have custody of her children, and in many cases, it’s a mother’s selflessness that leads her to make a really hard choice. That’s what we’re going to unpack today, and I expect to learn a lot because I’m new to this topic. I know this is a super long intro, but I wanted to give some background before introducing my guest, Rachael. Thank you for being here today, Rachael.

Rachael:           Thanks for having me.

Brandy:            Of course. To be clear, you are not the woman I met at the beginning of the year, but you and I connected recently and when you told me your story, which has some similarities to hers, I at least had a frame of reference for it that I wouldn’t have had before. I’m grateful for that relationship beforehand that set the stage for when we chatted and that there was something there that it felt like this story needs to be told. We need to shine a light on this because there are probably many moms out there in this situation who don’t hear stories about this and who don’t get this validation.

Rachael:           Yeah, that’s spot on, Brandy. As a non-custodial mother, which I did not know that I would be at the beginning, it was certainly not something that I found a lot of information on, and it’s certainly not something that I saw much in my own community. There weren’t really people to reach out to, and even with the internet, it was still difficult to find anything that resembled a situation similar to mine.

Brandy:            I bet. Especially with that stigma and then how hard it must feel to admit that and talk about it and not have people just show up with their assumptions like I probably would have. We have a lot to talk about today, and I’m really interested in everything that you have to say. But first, what do the listeners need to know about you?

Rachael:           I think something to preface what I’m about to talk about is going into this, I was somebody who always wanted to be a mother. From when I was really young, I had jobs working in childcare. During college, I took parenting classes. I really did everything to prepare myself for this. Going through this, when you hear me going through these challenges, know that I was somebody who thought I knew. I had taken every opportunity to learn, and I still had difficulties. I still had challenges. I was still brought to my knees at certain points. I think it’s just important to know that I am one of those people that I look back and say, “Why didn’t I know that? How could I have not seen that?” One of those the things I think to preface is that you can know everything and still be blindsided and still be thrown a curveball. I hope this resonates because I was somebody who certainly tried to understand and know as much as I could going into motherhood and marriage, and I still fell flat on my face.

Brandy:            I feel like us Type A people have a real hard fall with motherhood and sometimes with marriage, too, because when we’re the planner and the researcher type, I think that that happens to us because for some of us, it’s the first time in our lives that we’ve had something that we don’t ultimately control or that we’re not necessarily having success at. I think that that fall can be pretty hard.

Rachael:           Oh, yeah, definitely. You can plan a pretty picnic, but you can’t predict the weather.

Brandy:            Yeah. Oh my gosh, what song is that from? That’s from an Outkast song?

Rachael:           It could be. I thought it was older than that. But yeah, maybe.

Brandy:            The other thing is you just told me before I hit the record button is that you were a psychology major, and I feel like that’s an important piece, too, because here you are showing up so prepared, so involved, so ready to smash this out of the park, also understanding human nature and why people do the things they do.

Rachael:           Yeah, exactly. My research was in personality pathology. You would think that I’d be able to spot a narcissist from a mile away or whatever, but it’s so different when you are in it. It is hard to strategize when you are just taking things day by day. It’s hard to even look past the horizon.

Brandy:            Right. So, can you walk us through your story?

Rachael:           Yeah. My husband I got married pretty young. We knew each other in college through a mutual friend and dated for about six months, had our oldest, and got married, and shortly after found out we were expecting our youngest. Our daughter was born, and we got married. He accepted a job in another state, so we flew to the other side of the country. Shortly after he accepted that position, we found out that we were expecting our son.

Brandy:            Wow.

Rachael:           There was a lot going on, but it was wonderful. My daughter loves her birth story because where we are from, we are known for tornadoes. There happened to be one that night — not near us, but it was close enough that they had to move everybody into the interior of the hospital. All these women in their rooms on the outside where the windows are, you have to move them inside. So, there were woman very much giving birth.

Brandy:            Woah. Were you all together? Was it communal?

Rachael:           Yeah, we were all in that middle hallway just doing our thing. Thankfully, I had just hit about four centimeters, so I was just kind of bouncing on the ball. It was just kind of starting to get a little uncomfortable but nothing bad, and I certainly, seeing those women, was very humbled. It was a tumultuous night, and my daughter likes hearing about that because she likes weather. She certainly is a little bit of a tornado herself {laughter} in the best way.

Brandy:            {laughter} That image of women all being together in the hall — as a birth worker, I have always wondered what it would be like to give birth in a communal experience. Not that I’m saying that I think we should be doing this, but I always wondered what it would be like if it would be a situation where you were pulling on other people’s energy knowing I’m not the only one going through this. “Oh, look how she’s breathing. Maybe, I’ll breathe similarly.” Or, if you’re like you at four centimeters and you’ve got a lady who’s at transition, who’s at like 10 centimeters and is just screaming, if you’re like, “Oh, my God. I don’t think I can do this.” I don’t know if it would help or not, but I love the idea of this communal, feminine energy togetherness. Would you recommend it or not? Thumbs up or thumbs down?

Rachael:           For those women, I’m sure that was not part of their birth plan. I would hate to put that on any woman because it never goes quite like you think it’s going to, but yeah, it was definitely a very surreal moment. It was definitely very humbling to see women just doing that, and they’re doing it regardless of the circumstances. Like, “This baby’s coming, tornado or not.”

Brandy:            Wow. After having your kids, how did things evolve with your husband? I’m curious, too, because you have the background you have, what were some of the red flags that you first saw with him that maybe it wasn’t until later that you realized, “Oh, those were red flags,” and at the time didn’t look like it? What was that like?

Rachael:           Oh, yeah. I certainly did the analysis, the post-mortem afterwards. Honestly for him, the first red flag would have been controlling behavior and invasion of privacy. He went through my email one day. This was right before we had an engagement party. We had just gotten engaged, and I had left my email logged into his computer. I guess he went through it and went through years of emails and found one where I had told him something different. He confronted me about it. That was one of them. There were a couple others, but I think the biggest ones were the controlling behavior and not really having any boundaries with regard to my privacy or just my autonomy as an adult.

Brandy:            Ah, wow.

Rachael:           When we got married, he saw that he had full fettered access to my entire life.

Brandy:            Oh my gosh, that’s so tough because we already give all that up for them. To have a spouse, also, that you’ve already given that up for, my heart goes out to you for that.

Rachael:           Oh, yeah. It was definitely something that it really wasn’t until I was speaking to lawyers, that were like, “Yeah, that’s not — that may not be technically illegal, but it’s certainly uncouth.” It’s certainly not something you would see in a healthy relationship, and that was — honestly, I was very lucky. My lawyer, I was a teacher for her daughter, so she was very blunt with me. She was probably more candid than she would be with a normal consultation simply because we had that relationship beforehand. But it wasn’t really until talking to her that I was like, “Oh, I can have a life outside of my house? Going to a concert with my friends a couple times a year — that’s not — I can do that?” And she’s like, “Yeah, you are a person. You were a full person before the kids. How can it be expected that you’re anything less after?” I know you’ve brought it up on your podcast, but he was very much of the mind that he would go to work and bring home a paycheck, and then, I was to do everything else.

Brandy:            Yeah.

Rachael:           In addition to that, when we were getting engaged and talking about it, I was preparing for grad school. I was studying for the GRE, and I was doing my own research. It was very much assumed that that would be put on hold. I was fine with that. I didn’t want to be spreading myself thin. We were moving across the country and expecting a baby. I thought, “I can hold off. It’ll be there.” Our plan was when they went back to school that I would have some more time, and I could go back and get my degree. As that time approached, it became more of like, “Well, I’ll support you going back to school if you make as much money as I do.”

Brandy:            Oh.

Rachael:           These goalposts kept getting moved, and I was like, “Well, that’s kind of a big one for me because I think you knew the type of person I was when you married me, and you knew that I wasn’t going to be ‘Suzy Homemaker’ barefoot pregnant in the kitchen.” So, this was kind of a slap in the face.

Brandy:            Yeah, it’s like a bait and switch a little bit. Like, “I’ll marry you as who you are, but then, my expectations for you are really quite different.”

Rachael:           Oh, yeah. When I look back, I definitely see some of these themes in his family of low self-esteem. Not necessarily trapping but trying to get what they want even if that hurts the other person — using guilt and using shame to keep them going. I look back, and I’m like, “I should have known,” but I can’t expect that of myself to know everything.

Brandy:            No, absolutely not. What was the thing? What ended your marriage? What was the reason for the break that catapulted you into our topic?

Rachael:           Looking back, I did have some cold feet before we got married. I’m just one of those people that is anxious to begin with. We had our child before, so I was like, “Am I marrying this person because I really love them, or is it because I have this child?” I really did love him, and I did care for him. We got to a point where we were living far away from my support system, our family. Two young kids. Staying home all day. Running the ship. I remember getting very depressed, and I had been diagnosed with depression when I was much younger, about fifteen. So, it was something that I knew going into it — and I certainly had talked to him about it, actually, before we even got engaged because I knew that I didn’t want him to walk into something like that unprepared if possible. It was one of the things that I was just getting really depressed, and I had no support system. I had people that I had met, and they were very nice, but it just seemed like I was more interested than them. Looking back now, I realize that most of those women were from around there, they had their support system, they didn’t need friends like I needed friends. Then, I was thinking, “What is it? Is it something about me?”

Brandy:            Oh, right.

Rachael:           So, that was kind of the turning point. I remember getting very depressed, like suicidal thoughts. I spent so many days sitting in our recliner just looking out the window. I’m here, the kids are there running around, but I’m just not there. I told my husband, and I was like, “Something’s off. I think we need to go to couples counseling.” And he was like, “Well, everything’s fine for me, so I think this is your problem. You need to fix it.” It was one of those things that — at that point, I had been sending some risqué messages to somebody. We had never met up or anything, but it was somebody local. I had told him about that, and that kind of brought it to a head. We had these discussions, and I went to counseling and essentially was told I needed to either take a class at the local community college or join a book club.

Brandy:            Oh my gosh.

Rachael:            Apparently, I had a lot of intellectual energy that was not being used. It was my own demise there, so that was helpful but, of course, did not fix the problem.

Brandy:            No. Oh my God. A book club and a class does not change the fact that you gave up who you were in so many facets. I’m not surprised, and yet, whenever I hear about these kinds of stories, I’m just like, “How do we let this happen?” I don’t mean you. I don’t mean the person going through it. I just feel like as a society, anytime a mom is like, “I don’t know if I can do this anymore,” having suicidal thoughts, not herself, her life is completely different, and we’re not like, “Oh, this is…” — I don’t want to say it’s obvious, but it’s like, “Oh, this is a big picture thing. This isn’t like you’re broken.” This experience is somewhat broken, but then we put it on the mom and that just breaks my heart.

Rachael:           Oh, yeah. Even going into that, I went to my doctor and got on antidepressants, and it’s always amazing to me, as somebody that comes from a background in psychology, that we’re so quick to push antidepressants, yet therapy is really where — medicine is good, but you really need that long term and those coping skills that therapy give you.

Brandy:            Totally. I totally get the medicine route too. I’ve been in situations in my life where I’ve just been so desperate for something, whether it’s health related or sanity related, where it’s like, “I need to do something quick in order to feel better, so then I can do the next level which is maybe like therapy.” So, I can see why people would do the antidepressants to get themselves back on track to even have enough bandwidth to maybe do the therapy.

Rachael:           Oh, yeah. I remember when I finally decided to get on antidepressants, my husband had taken a job in another city. For about two months, I was with the kids kind of by myself for most of the week, him coming back on weekends, and I remember we’re getting the house ready to sell. I was in the kitchen cleaning the cabinets, and I just like started crying because I just realized how much work there was to be done and knowing that I was going to be the one that had to do it all while having two kids to care for and paying bills and getting doctor’s appointments. All of that was like, “I just need something to level this out until things get a little more stable.”

Brandy:            Yeah.

Rachael:           We went a couple of years, my husband and I, we moved, and I started working again. I really enjoyed it. I finally got to meet some people and make some friends. I got to meet my best friend who I just love and who has been really a rock for me throughout all of this. My husband had suffered a sudden cardiac arrest at the age of 32 just out of the blue.

Brandy:            Oh, wow.

Rachael:           I called the ambulance, and they came. Thankfully, they got there in time, and he was in a coma for a few days. Thankfully, he came out of it. He’s 90% to 95% rehabilitated, but it was several weeks in the hospital and several months of rehabilitation. It was during that time in the hospital that was kind of like the universe shaking me and being like, “Wake up. Look at this. When you’re on your deathbed, the relationship you’re in and how you feel, when you have to answer for all of this, how are you going to feel about that?” It was really then that I realized something’s gonna change. I don’t know what it is, but I had a lot of time to sit in the hospital. I just thought about what was important to me, and I reprioritized what I was going to spend my time on. I realized during that time, I was keeping the house going, and one of my biggest fears was that I wouldn’t actually be able to do it. Even when he was in the hospital, I did it. I had been doing it the whole time.

Brandy:            So, you got like a little preview of single motherhood in a way.

Rachael:           Yeah, and it was like, “I can do this. I’ve actually been doing this.” I realized that I actually kind of preferred it because I knew that I was gonna have to do everything, and I didn’t have to rely on this other person. A lot of issues we had were me asking him to help out, especially when I went back to work and sitting him down, saying, “I can’t do everything that I’ve been doing while I’ve stayed home.” I just remember the laundry and being like, “If you see the laundry in the dryer, you can certainly take it out and fold it.”

Brandy:            Right.

Rachael:            And he’s just like, “Well, you just have to tell me,” and I’m like, “Well, do you not see that that actually doesn’t take anything off my plate now? It just adds another.” When he was gone, it was easier because I didn’t have to remind anybody. I just knew that I was gonna have to do it, and that kind of took another step out of it that I didn’t have to do. Obviously, him being in the hospital, I had no problem helping him. I actually really enjoyed being able to help him in that time and certainly his time of most need.

Brandy:            This is a tough question, and I’m just so curious: How did you rectify – like he went through this event. I’m putting myself in your shoes, and I’m thinking of everything you’re saying about having the preview of single motherhood and also having the wakeup call that’s like, “Am I awake in my life? What life do I really want to be living?” But then, how do you rectify that, or did you? What were those complicated feelings that I imagine you must have had when you’re like, “Okay, my husband almost died here. He’s trying to get back to normal, and I’m sitting here thinking about how I’m going to leave him.” How did you hold on to two things which is like sticking up for yourself and advocating for yourself and all that you deserve and that you should have the autonomy to make your own choices? But then also, the timing is so shitty. Was your mind going back and forth in an argument the whole time? Your judge and your victim in your head like, “I have to leave. You shouldn’t leave.” All of this stuff that we go through in our head, what was that like?

Rachael:           A lot of it was like, of course, “What are people gonna think?” I think it was really just that I listened to the voice that had been there the whole time, and I had just kind of been muffling. I just had been saying, “Well, not right now.” I think that was really the moment that I was like, “You don’t get any other time. This is it.”

Brandy:            Wow.

Rachael:           “If you want to make the most of it, it’s probably going to be the harder thing.” I’ve never been one to shy away from the harder thing. I’ve always been willing to go there because I understand how precious life is, and we only get one go round. I knew that however it was gonna go, I wanted to make sure that I had a say in it because, ultimately, I was gonna have to be the one to answer for it. I wanted to do that for my kids, too. I wanted to show them, “Hey, you don’t ever have to stay in a shitty situation. You don’t ever have to stay with somebody who doesn’t treat you well. You always have the option,” and if I have to walk the walk, that’s what I’m willing to do.

Brandy:            What was that like when you brought this to him? Did you very quickly see that he was going to make this a living hell for you, or how long did it take until you noticed that?

Rachael:           Actually, the night before his medical event happened, I had been looking for marriage counselors. I didn’t actually realize that until I was going through my history one day, and I was like, “Oh my God. That was literally the night before.” Of course, I had all these irrational like, “Did I do this to him?”

Brandy:            Oh, right.

Rachael:           I really did. I was like, “Oh my gosh. Did I cause him stress that could have caused…?” Once he got rehabilitated and got back to work, it was really examining his behavior after this event because, for me, this was such a wake up, but for him, it seemed he was just kind of ambivalent about it. It was pretty amazing. His family had dropped everything to come help him. I’m just looking and thinking, “If that were to happen to them, he would not do that. There’s no way this guy would drop everything to go fly out and help somebody for who knows how long.” I just saw how little appreciation he had for his family, and I thought, “How can I expect anything more than that? That’s how he treats the women in this family. Is it really any surprise?” Once he was rehabilitated and back to work, I sat him down and said, “I would like a divorce.” He did not want a divorce, so he brought up the, “Let’s go to therapy.” I said, “Okay, I’m willing to go to therapy, but considering I’ve been trying to get you to go for years, I want you to make the effort. I want you to find a therapist, and I want you to set up the first appointment.”

Brandy:            Good for you.

Rachael:           I was like, “That will show me that you are invested.” A few days go by and I asked him, “Hey, did you find a therapist and set it up?” “No.” I said, “Okay. Well, here’s three that I found. Make an appointment.” Another few days goes by and I asked him, “Hey, have you set that up?” He said, “No.” I’m like, “Okay. I’m gonna do this because I’m doing it for me at this point to make sure that I am not insane.” We had just been through this pretty traumatic event, so I wanted to make sure that I was being levelheaded.

Brandy:            Right. And thoughtful.

Rachael:           I set it up, and we went. My husband just wasn’t super open, and I could tell he just wasn’t into it. The therapist even kind of called him out. So, a couple months go by, and I said, “I’m not in any hurry to divorce you. We are paying down medical bills. There’s a lot going on. I’m not in any hurry to get out.” Then, he had discovered that I was kind of moving on. I was talking to other people and dating which was not the best thing in hindsight. It’s something I certainly regret, but he had of course gone through my emails and found another email account that I had and got into that. He had sat me down and said, “I was just going to let you leave and let you have the kids in the house and just go and separate ways. But now, you’re this obviously untrustworthy person that is awful. Now, I want the kids. I want the house.”

Brandy:            Oh my gosh. In my outsider perspective that doesn’t know shit, I’m looking at that, and I’m thinking, “That’s not actually for the well-being of anybody. That is revenge. That is ‘you are talking to somebody’ or ‘I feel rejected.’” In that moment, I would imagine you’re like, “What am I dealing with now?”

Rachael:           Oh, yeah.

Brandy:            So, when did he start with the custody stuff? How did that then come about?

Rachael:           I had been talking to an attorney, and I had been trying to figure out how we could work this out and either do a 50/50. I certainly assumed that because I had been a stay at home mom for five years and I had been main caregiver, that that would be the best for them, but he wanted custody. For him, I think a lot of it was child support. He’s certainly a money person, but one of the things that at first, I thought, “Okay. Well, we’ll see how this goes,” because it was at the point where he was calling me and harassing me at work. I was having panic attacks. I had to get prescribed anti-anxiety medication because pretty much anytime my lawyer would call me, it would just trigger me. But it came to a head. I was out one night with a friend, and I came back. He was very upset, and it was early in the morning and just kind of accosting me. The kids were in the other room. I thought, “Okay, I’m going to film you. If you think this is appropriate to be talking about, you won’t mind it being filmed.” So, I started filming him, and of course, he did not like that. He came over and pinned me against the couch and tried to get the phone. At that point, that’s assault. I mean, we were separated. We had filed. We were trying to cohabitate, but I called the cops. I had to get a temporary restraining order, but it made things very, very difficult. From then on, it was very adversarial, and it wanes. Sometimes I’ll have a conversation with him, and I’ll think, “Okay, there’s the guy that I knew. There’s reasonable person.” But then, he’ll do something else, and I’m just like, “Uh. Okay. Back to square one.” I had even told him, I was like, “We don’t have to have the divorce our parents have. We don’t have to hate each other. It’s in the best interest of the kids that we get along and that they see that just because we live apart, that we don’t have to be adversarial.” He just was not into that. I think me moving on quickly probably did not help that situation, but it got to the point where I thought, “What am I waiting for? Am I waiting so that everybody doesn’t further stigmatize me or further judge me?” It was just like, “I don’t think that’s worth it. I think I deserve to be happy, and I deserve to be with this person that I found that I love and that loves me and loves me in a way that I feel I deserve to be loved.”

Brandy:            Right.

Rachael:           I thought, “I’ve waited long enough. I’ve paid my dues. I’m not going to waste another minute.”

Brandy:            So, when did your ex tell you, or when did you know that he was going to try to take full custody? Or, was that how it started? Did you guys go to court and you knew this was happening? Did your lawyer say, “He won’t be able to get full custody, you’re the mother? This isn’t going to happen,” or when did it go from being, “This is okay, and we’re gonna fight this,” to, “Oh my gosh. I might be losing my kids.”

Rachael:           My lawyer certainly sat me down. He was like, “Are you sure?” I was like, “He’s harassing me. He’s bringing up my mental health. He’s certainly pulling out every — he has an arsenal, and I don’t have any money.” I had been working for maybe a year at that point, and we had just had that whole medical thing.

Brandy:            Ah, right.

Rachael:           I didn’t have any money, and he had pretty much said, “If you don’t give me custody, I’m gonna keep you in court till you run out of money.” And I thought, “Well, that doesn’t do any of us any good.”

Brandy:            Did he mean full custody?

Rachael:           He meant just him primary custody.

Brandy:            Okay, got it.

Rachael:           And he wanted me to pay child support. Those were his terms.

Brandy:            So, the situation is that you’ve got this person who you know is pretty vengeful and out to ruin you, and he knows that you don’t have money. He’s basically told you, “I’m going to ruin you financially. You won’t have the money to fight against this.” So, what options were you left with there? And what was your inner mindset like?

Rachael:           I mean, my options were essentially I would max out every credit card I had. The gist of it was I was able to afford a two-bedroom apartment. Even my ex said that he’ll use that against me because he can afford a three-bedroom house. I couldn’t afford an apartment in the school district that the kids lived in, so that didn’t help me either. We did mediation, and he had tried to graze it like, “Well, I’m willing to give you a break, so you can start your career,” like he was doing me a favor even though I had been very insistent that I wanted to keep being in their lives at the same capacity I’d always had and that that was what was best for them.

Brandy:            Right.

Rachael:           It just kind of got to the point where I thought, “Okay, I’m going to be up against this person for who knows how long. Even if I did get custody, this is somebody that I feel like is just gonna keep me in court. Any infraction is going to be magnified and used against me.” I really just kind of had a heart-to-heart with my attorney, and he said, “That’s smart thinking because even if you do get custody, what’s that co-parenting relationship going to be like if this person’s even more adversarial?” I’m in their lives, and I’m in their lives enough. At age 13, they can decide something different. I realized how much time and energy would be spent on it, and I saw that it would probably drain me as a person, and it would drain me financially. I would probably just not be super happy, so it was the lesser of two evils. It wasn’t a decision that I wanted to make, but I made knowing that they’re cared for. It is one of those things that there’s two sides of it because I would love to have custody. I am very thankful that he wanted to do that. I’m very thankful that he stepped up to do that which is not the case for a lot of people. I’m certainly thankful for that, but it’s certainly not what I had planned for my life and certainly not optimal.

Brandy:            With your lawyer saying, “That’s smart thinking,” I can understand that the left brain was like, “This makes the most sense on paper because you’re gonna be dragged in court, and you’re going to have no money, and you’re going to be a shell of a person from the emotional nature of all of this. Why put yourself through that?” But then, the other side, were you freaking out inside thinking, “What if I don’t have custody of my kids? I’m losing my kids?” Were you beside yourself about that or had you move to the more analytical, logical thinking even if it was a protective measure? How did you handle that? I hate to say it, but this is a lot of moms’ worst nightmare coming true, and so you’re living in it. What was the emotional feeling side of that, and how did you handle that? It’s so much.

Rachael:           Yeah. {sighs} It was a lot. Thankfully, I had a very good support system. I had a good sounding board, and I had some people — even my mother. My mother and I got much closer after this because my parents divorced for kind of some similar reasons, but that was a different time. She was very kind of blindsided, too, by this. She’s like, “Back in my day, the moms got custody. You just filled out some paperwork, and that was that. You figured out child support.” She said that this was just totally different. I was like, “Yeah, The Tender Years Doctrine is no longer kind of adhered to in the courts. It’s just a different ballgame.” I definitely was freaking out. I mean, there were months and I still even do it. My current husband knows this. When the kids visit, usually the day before they leave and for three or four days after, I am just kind of inconsolable. It’s the longing for them, but it’s also the injustice of kind of the whole situation that I’m not in their life. It’s not because I don’t want to be, but because I can’t because of somebody who’d resigned themselves to a position that sees me as an adversary or unable to mother in the capacity that they believe is smothering which is unrealistic to begin with. It was certainly difficult. A lot of it was the stigma, of course. It’s like, “What are people gonna think? People are gonna think I’m unfit or that I can’t care for my children.” But at the end of the day, it was realized that I don’t really care what other people think. I care what my kids think. I care what my family thinks, and they know what is going on. They know the type of person I am, and I’m always there for them. So, as long as I’m doing that, then that’s kind of my barometer of how I’m doing as a mother.

Brandy:            In the court proceedings or when you guys started that whole thing before you’d made your choice to like, “I’m not gonna just go through all this and let this person bully me and take all my money,” how was he painting the situation with the courts? What was he saying about you that wasn’t true? What was all of that like to go through?

Rachael:           He had actually been the one to file. He had gone in, and it’s in the public record, but he’d said a lot of really bad things. I confronted him because my attorney told me, “Hey, he filed. Here’s what he said.” I looked at it, and I was shocked. I was like, “What the fuck, dude? Where did this come from?” I confronted him, and he was like, “Well, I didn’t mean to put that in there. I had initially talked to the attorney, and I was venting.” I was like, “Well, you know you can have them remove it.” And he didn’t. That was kind of when I realized that I couldn’t really trust what he’s saying, and this would be a trend. Throughout the whole thing, he would say one thing and then do another. He had put in that I had smoked weed and that I had a history of depression and that I was sleeping around. Those claims were unfounded, unfortunately. They can write whatever they want.

Brandy:             Was there a place where you could, in front of the court where there’s a judge or a mediator or however it went, say like, “Hey, these things are not true about me. There’s no evidence to back this up. This isn’t who I am. Here’s who I am. I’ve been with my kids for five years. I’m a stay at home mom. This is what I’ve been doing.” Was there a place even like a forum for you to be able to do that?

Rachael:           Well to do that, I would have to go to the judge. The thing about that is you really don’t want to go before the judge for things like these because they have a lot of power, and they have a very small window into your life. Usually, you try to go through mediation to get to some resolution, but I did not have my day of vindicating myself. It was something I just had to eat, and it exists. I hate that he put it somewhere where kids can see it because even when I filed the TPO, I chose not to put in a lot of the things because I knew that this was a public document and something our kids could see. I didn’t want them to see it. I gave him the benefit of the doubt on that one. I think that’s just kind of been the theme of this story which is me taking the high road and just being hit with branches constantly. Like, “Is this the right road?” But I’ve seen the fruit from my labor, and I’ve seen people turn around and say, “I thought you were ‘duh, duh, duh,’ but I see now that this person is just out to get you. I think that’s really crappy, and you’re a good person. You’re good mom.” It gives me strength to keep going because I know the truth comes out in the end.

Brandy:            Ah, right. So, what was the custody agreement? When you finally were like, “Okay, we’re going to do this your way because I don’t have the resources to fight this, and it’s not fair that I’m in this position, but fuck I have to make this choice I never wanted to make,” what did the agreement end up being in terms of custody?

Rachael:           So, we did about 60/40.

Brandy:            Who was the 60? You or him?

Rachael:           Him. He was the 60, so they could stay in their school district which I felt good about. That was kind of my ultimate decisioning for letting him have custody was that would be one less change for them.

Brandy:            Did all that change? Do you now have a different custodial agreement?

Rachael:           Yeah. We had to go back to court for custody modifications. My ex had lost his job and finally, I guess, found a position in another state. He just told me, “Hey, I’m moving and moving the kids.” I was like, “Well, that’s not quite how this works.”

Brandy:            Yeah.

Rachael:           That’s when I called my lawyer and just prepared him. We ended up coming to 75/25. I think it’s actually a little more than 20 especially right now. I have them six weeks out of the summer. I have them every other Thanksgiving, half of Christmas, every other spring break, and I have a couple breaks. Then I also have the option to go down and visit them for a weekend pretty much every other month that I don’t see them.

Brandy:            When he took you back to do the modification, did you feel at all like, “Okay, I don’t care if he ruins me financially, I’m gonna fight for this because I’m not gonna lose this custody,” or what was your mindset? Did he make you feel like he was going to come even harder? The second time and with the custody changing, what was your mindset like?

Rachael:           The second time, I was in a better state financially. I was making about three times what I was making before. I had done very well for myself in my career. I was much more comfortable on that end, and I also was remarried, and my spouse was willing to help me get through that. But it was very apparent to me that this person — just even with communication, even visitation that I had, he was making it difficult. But to be honest, I talked to my lawyer about it. I said, “I’ve thought about just having a very candid call with my husband to ask him, ‘do you need the kids? Do you need them? Is your life going to be remiss without them?” Because I can kind of understand that more than I could understand his tactics because he had a vasectomy, so even if he wanted to have more kids, that would be a big ordeal. I kind of saw that side of it, and I tried to be really empathetic to him knowing that he wanted a family. He wanted the wife and the house in the suburbs and the good job. That was his main driver. I thought, “to work against that, how much energy am I going to be spending on that? What else can I do with that?” It sucks. It’s really hard sometimes to know that I’m missing parts of their lives, but I also see that the time that I do spend with them, I’m so much more involved. I’ve got plans, and that time is set aside for them. Whereas, when I was mothering, it was relentless. It was just swimming in that time with them, and it was, “How do I get away? How do I just get an hour? I just need an hour.” But now, it’s like when they’re here, I’m just cuddling them and kissing them, and we’re doing arts and crafts and making photo albums. I’ve been able to kind of see that side of it where they’re getting a lot more quality from me, but they’re not getting that quantity. I mean, I still talk to them several times a week. I can’t say that we are as close, but I don’t think our relationship has been hurt by it.

Brandy:            Got it. It sounds like that 75/25 split to you felt doable. I guess I was imagining a scenario in which that split is given to you, and you’re like, “Oh, hell no. We’re not doing this.” But it sounds like when that was given to you – and totally correct me if I’m wrong – that because you’re empathetic and because you were thinking about your ex’s life and how he really wanted the kids and the wife and the job and the house and all of that, and also, because you had been a stay-at-home mom and knew that that is overwhelming and wanted maybe a break from that, that it seemed like you were more able to accept that rather than fight against it because it seemed like it was giving something to all the parties, does that feel right?

Rachael:           Yeah, definitely. I think that’s the diplomat in me. I’m a middle child, so I’m a born mediator. It’s like, “How do I get everybody a little bit of something?” And at the beginning, my lawyer said, “Well, let’s just give him enough rope to hang himself. Let’s see if he can do it.” I was really hesitant. I was really skeptical. He hasn’t done it quite to my standards, but he’s done it. I’m competent in his abilities, and I know that the kids are taken care of. But of course, I was crushed, and I cried relentlessly so many times and so many pity parties. I thought, “How much energy is it going to take to fight against this, and how much of that energy can be put towards something that is going to be more productive?”

Brandy:            Right. Man, what an intense thing to have to choose. Will you tell us about what it was like after you did the 75/25 split? I feel like the first custodial agreement you had seemed like it was probably pretty normal for a divorce. But then, when you go to the 75/25, how do you, when you’re meeting people and talking to people, and saying, “I’m a mom.” “Oh, yeah? Where are your kids?” “Oh, they’re not with me.” Like all of that stuff that now you have to deal with and explain. Will you walk us through what that was like?

Rachael:           Fortunately, the people around me, my family and friends, they knew, and they understood. They had seen this journey, and they understood what I was up against. They were very supportive. When I talk to colleagues and just chit chat and I bring up my kids, it’s so weird how many times I have to do this where they’ll just be asking, “What’d you and the kids do this weekend?” And I’m like, “Well, they were actually with their father. They’re with me for six weeks.” I’ve certainly had some instances where I’ve mentioned that and I can see the wheels turning and the person’s eyeing me up like, “Oh, what’s going on here? Why wouldn’t she have primary custody?” Even the most well intentioned, I’ve told people, and they said, “Oh, I can’t imagine not having primary custody of my kids.” And I’m like, “Yeah, I didn’t either.”

Brandy:            Right. What your story you tell? I would imagine a lot of people have different stories about different things that are kind of touchy topics in their life that come up all the time. So, do you have the nutshell, the elevator pitch story when people go, “Oh, what happened there?” Do you have that?

Rachael:           Thankfully, I think people know when they don’t want to know, or I’ve been around people that have been pretty considerate. If they don’t know me well, they don’t ask, but the ones that do ask seem to be satisfied with the answer, “We’re both good parents. At the time, he had a house that was a little bit bigger that they could have their own rooms, and it became a very adversarial divorce and custody battle. Ultimately, I chose the path of least resistance as trying to keep some semblance of sanity for all parties and trying to keep us away from financial dire straits.” Usually, once I give that explanation, people seem to be understanding. Especially, the people who know me because they know that I am a highly capable, highly functioning person and that I am not a degenerate, and I’m not a floozy or a drug addict. I think they see me, and they say, “Oh, okay. Yeah, this is this is just a situation I hadn’t heard of yet.” They kind of work that into their schema.

Brandy:            Right. Yes. What are some examples of some of the stigma and hurt and judgment that you’ve had from people?

Rachael:           Honestly, I’m really thankful that at least I haven’t heard it. His family is probably the most judgmental, and in some ways, that hurts. In some ways, it doesn’t. There were some family members that I just really don’t care what they think, but there were a couple, like his sisters, that I really did respect. I liked them, and just hearing kind of some of the things they said, it was pretty hurtful. But I’ve been very, very fortunate to have pretty understanding people in my life and people willing to stick up for me. I had the same thoughts, before all of this, that a non-custodial mother would be somebody who’s on drugs or somebody that was mentally ill and just incapacitated or unfit, unable or didn’t want to have their kids. But there are certainly so many other scenarios, especially, when you look at the family law system. It is it is not perfect.

Brandy:            Yeah, I bet. And the lack of safety net, too, that you’re talking about which I know a lot of women are in this situation where if you give up your career and you stay at home with your kids and then you find yourself needing a divorce, you have no financial resources if your spouse is not going to be compassionate or just neutral at the very least. How would you even fight something if somebody wanted to come at you like this? If your spouse wanted to come at you like this? I think about all the moms who are in these situations where they’re trying to fight for something, and they don’t have the means to do it. They’re having to choose, like in your situation, between being financially ruined and emotionally ruined and dragged through all of this versus not doing that. If there was some sort of safety net where at the end of the day, it wasn’t whoever has the most money gets the custody of that sort of situation. I’m pretty blown away at the fact that he had a room for each child was more important than a mother’s presence. What kind of system do we have where that detail is more important than actual time with a mother? The room is the important thing?

Rachael:           A lot of that is just learning how the legal system works and how much precedent has. Because I had, as the guardian ad litem put it “acquiesced custody” to my husband, and even I told her essentially why, she was kind of like, “If that were me, I would have said, ‘Okay, let’s go at it.’” And I’m just like, “Well, that would have done nobody any good. Ultimately, it’s the children that would have suffered because that would mean less money for them.” My husband and I are both millennials. We both have student debt. We both started our careers in a recession. It’s never been easy footing for either of us.

Brandy:            Oh, wow. This is how capitalist society works, but then the money piece is the thing which makes total sense when you’re thinking about, “If we go to court, and we bleed each other dry so that I can get 50/50 custody, then my kids at his house don’t have the same resources.” Then, what if that same thing happens to you? Ultimately, that’s not great for the kids.

Rachael:           I made a very extensive pros and cons list, and I really tried to look strategically at how certain circumstances would play on down the line. Unfortunately, that’s part of my job. I’m very good at it, but it was looking at that whole picture. Part of it, for me, was I knew that they had so many people in their lives that loved them, and they will never want for anything. Between me and their father, between their aunts and uncles and grandparents, these children will never want for anything. They will always be taken care of. That’s the reassurance for me now. Is it the life that I wanted? Is it the life I had pictured, and I had dreamed, and I had worked towards? Not completely, but it’s kind of funny, when I went in to talk to my lawyer, she’s going through all this stuff. She’s like, “This is really hard. How are you holding up?” And I’m like, “Well, nobody’s dying.” A few months ago, that wasn’t the case, so that certainly shifted my perspective. Nobody’s dying. Everybody’s here, and that’s something that I got from that experience. I’d love to give that to somebody else without them having to go through that experience. That’s kind of what it came to at the end of the day is that nobody’s dying. My kids are taken care of. They’re loved, and even if I’m not in their life as much as possible, I’ll make sure that the time that I do spend with them is as quality as I can get.

Brandy:            God, you’re so fucking rational. You’re so rational. It’s pretty amazing. It’s truly amazing.

Rachael:           That’s only because of years of therapy. I had some really good therapists that taught me coping skills, especially for the catastrophizing which I’m really good at. {laughter}

Brandy:            Wow.

Rachael:           You’re not the only one to tell me that. I’ve had several people be like, “You’re so wise beyond your years,” or, “I can’t believe you’re this rational about it.”

Brandy:            You must have a pretty decent self-esteem and confidence and, of course, support by your current husband because I think for so many people, they would be second guessing. It’s pretty amazing that you’re able to talk about it in this way and have this overarching “I want what’s best for everybody” even including your ex. It is remarkable. I’m curious, do you ever second guess your decision? Do you have moments where you go, “I think I might take him to court?” I think I might try to get more custody.” Do you ever have those moments?

Rachael:           Every now and then. Like I said, it’s when the kids leave, and I get that wave of injustice and that wound. I told my husband, and this is really insensitive because his father died when he was 18, but I’m like, “It feels like I almost wish — not that they were dead, but I feel like that would be easier because I could grieve that loss.” Right now, it’s like I grieve that loss, and then they come back, and then that wound gets opened. Then I have to grieve all over again, but I’m getting better at it now that I know what to expect and my husband knows what to expect. He knows that the couple days after the kids leave that I’m gonna be a little moody, but my husband has been amazing. Honestly, I think he’s the reason that I have handled this so well. I don’t have my kids, but now I have a partner that gets it.

Brandy:            Who is like a true partner.

Rachael:           I don’t second guess it at all. He’s my ride or die.

Brandy:            Have you thought about how you will talk to your kids about this when they’re old enough to ask questions? Do they ask questions? How do you how do you foresee a conversation like that going, or have you already had it? What is that like with the kids? Do they didn’t ask you, “Why don’t we live with you, Mommy,” or any of that kind of stuff? How do you handle that with the kids?

Rachael:           Yeah. Honestly, that was the hardest part. They wanted to live with me, and they were very vocal about it. Even though I know that they don’t get to be the ultimate decision makers, I have to take that into account, and part of it was just how he went about it. He just kind of told them, “Hey, we’re moving.” They were, of course, freaked out. But it’s one of those things, we’re pretty open about it. They know that Mom has a job. Dad has a job. Unfortunately, they’re in different states. They haven’t really asked too much about it, but I’m certainly going to be open with them to a certain degree. I do not want to vilify their father, and I won’t. I’ve certainly thought about it, but they haven’t really asked any of the specifics. I mean, I think they both know that we both love them very much, and we both want them to be with us 100% of the time, but it’s just not logistically possible. I think they’re both old enough to kind of understand that, but I think the best thing is that they have each other. It makes that a little easier.

Brandy:            Yes. The hard thing, too, which I’m sure you’ve thought about is that the way that we adults experience something and the way that kids experience things can be totally different. I can imagine the things that have gone through your mind and thinking about the questioning that they may have, even if they understand Dad and Mom work in different states, and this is why we have to live with Dad. Even if you’re explaining to them the very rational reasons why this was the best thing for everybody, without saying, “Because your dad would have taken all of my money and left us all destitute,” or whatever — even if you’re not saying all that stuff, but you’re explaining it. It’s like we don’t get to know what the kids experience and what they believe to be true about it. And I think that that’s such a hard thing as a parent to want to have them understand it and almost fast forward to when they’re an adult and be able to have the adult conversation about it with them. Like, “I need you to understand what was happening here, and it doesn’t have anything to do with my love for you. In fact, it had to do with me wanting the best for you.” But it’s like that scary thing about parenting where we can’t know what agreements our kids have made about that or what they assume to be true about something. I’m curious, does that ever eat you alive? I feel like that would eat me alive. I’m curious because you have such a rational take on this. Do things like that ever eat you alive about maybe assumptions that they’re making that aren’t correct, or how do you handle that?

Rachael:           Actually, now that you mention it, I really haven’t.

Brandy:            Oh, God. I just planted the seed. Okay, let’s just pretend I said none of that.

Rachael:           No, I was really honest with them when it was all going on. I mean, as much as I could be. I did not want to turn them against their father in any way. I had to really prepare my statement so to speak. Honestly, they know that we both love them to death. They have never really doubted it.

Brandy:            What would you say to other moms who are in your situation? Do you have any advice or validation for them?

Rachael:           I would just say that it feels like the end of the world, but it’s not. It’s totally a different situation if your ex is dangerous, or if he is somebody you’re really scared about. That’s kind of a different situation. There is acceptance to be found, and there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Your kids, yeah, while they’re small, we hate missing these moments, but they’re gonna be adults one day. You’ll have a different relationship, and you will have a little more control over that. So, those are the years that I really look forward to, and as long as I’m in their life, I can’t get too hung up on the quantity as long as the quality is there.

Brandy:            I love that. Maybe for other people and it is this way that you have about looking at it almost mathematically, but it’s not about the quantity. It’s about the quality. You mentioned something about if you’re going through a custody battle with somebody who you feel like was dangerous is a different thing, did you feel like your ex could have been dangerous?

Rachael:           Yeah. He had physically assaulted me, verbally assaulted me, but it was one of the things that he had never been violent with the kids. I didn’t really see him — I mean, me and my lawyer talked about it, and I said, “Honestly, I don’t see him being violent to the kids. He loves those kids. Those kids are his world.” But if he ever is, I’m certainly on guard, and I will do what needs to be done. But I don’t really have that fear for him, but it’s certainly a whole different situation if you are legitimately worried about that.

Brandy:            Right. But even obviously worried about what he could possibly do to you for retribution. Obviously, that had to have had an effect on your choices and knowing that everything that you’re choosing, what if this sets him off? What if this is a trigger for something that is more violent or assaultive or something like that? I can imagine that even if it’s not totally a conscious thought, but subconsciously, under the surface.

Rachael:           Oh, yeah. If there’s anybody that’s thinking of leaving an abusive spouse, I would say be very strategic, plan accordingly, do your research, know what the resources are for you, make a plan to be in a safe space, and to isolate yourself or go no contact if you need to get a TPO, a temporary restraining order, temporary protective order, do that. Especially, if they have guns and have made threats, that’s certainly a case where you really need to be very careful, and I hate to say that, but really plan ahead and make an exit strategy.

Brandy:            Right. Rachel, I so appreciate you opening up and giving us a peek into your situation in your life. I feel like it helps us redefine and be creative about a reimagining of the different ways that motherhood can look. I feel like that’s one of the things that I like to do on this podcast is talk about stories that aren’t often told, and I appreciate you coming here and giving us another take on that because I know this is obviously very vulnerable stuff and very personal. So, I really, really appreciate it so much.

Rachael:           I appreciate you doing this work and giving an outlet for those voices because if you’re not looking, you really don’t see them. Of course, I’m not exclaiming from the mountaintops, “I’m a non-custodial mother,” but I’ve come to realize that the more I talk about it, the less stigma there is. The more I give people a chance to see that I’m an example of a non-custodial mother and I’m a good mother and that those two are not mutually exclusive. There is a lot of stigma and a lot of myths, and I think part of it is catching up with times and just seeing how difficult all of this is, too, with the legal system. Not being the custodial parent does not mean that the mother is unfit. Sometimes you have two parents who are very fit. Sometimes people just don’t understand complexities.

Brandy:            Yeah, right. At the very least, I feel like people listening to this today, I can imagine some of the listeners might be like, “Oh my gosh, I don’t know that I would have done that. Or maybe I totally would have done that or thinking in this way. I hadn’t even thought about that.” I feel like there are probably going to be a lot of different thought processes around the things that we’ve talked about today, but you’ve given us a reason to take a pause and to check our agreements about non-custodial mothers, and for that, I’m really grateful because I obviously saw firsthand how I had those agreements and assumptions. That’s not fair. There’s a whole story that nobody could know when you meet somebody and you hear this. I really love that maybe we’re breaking a stereotype today.

Rachael:           Yeah, and Brandy, I had those same assumptions. Had you talked to me five years ago, I probably would have held the same assumption. I think we’re learning every day, and I think that’s the beauty of giving people voices is we get to see that human part of everybody’s lives that they’re not displaying for everybody, but they exist. I think it’s very important.

Brandy:            After this interview ended and I stopped recording, Rachael said to me, “I wasn’t as emotional as I thought I’d be. I guess I was business Rachael.” I just wanted to acknowledge that, like with any vulnerable story we tell, we have various ways of telling them. I’m looking at you birth stories! Sometimes we tell the clinical and logical version, and sometimes we tell the very emotional and downright painful version or a mix of both. So, I just want to honor the bravery that it takes to even share these stories at all, no matter which version is told, and no matter if we surprise our ourselves about who showed up that day. Also, Rachael shared with me an article about noncustodial mothers, and in it, there was a quote that I found really interesting. It says, “When a father is non-custodial, we picture this guy who is working really hard and just doesn’t have the time to raise his children on his own. He is noble and kind and pays his child support on time, and when he does take those kids for his three days at a time, we applaud him for doing it on his own. Why can’t the custodial mother be the same way?” I think this quote illustrates the double standard we have toward mothers. Had this interview been with a father, we may have looked at him differently, and my questions even may have been different. It makes me realize that these are some of the unequal expectations that non-custodial mothers are up against on a daily basis.

Brandy:            If you are enjoying this podcast, please subscribe or leave a rating or review. If you want to show your love in a deeper way and would like to support a mom on her side gig which sometimes feels more like a main gig (Hi, me), go to http://www.patreon.com/adultconversation. Thank you to all my beloved Patreon peeps who helped keep this podcast alive! As always, thanks for listening.

** As always, thank you to Scott Weigel and his band, Seahorse Moon, for providing me with that jaunty intro and outro music. You guy are awesome. Check ’em out on iTunes.