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Our children's keeper: Giving versus fighting

Divorce itself is painful enough for kids. But some children additionally become the weapons wielded in emotional battles between their parents. These young victims helplessly watch as the people they love most fight for the coveted position of The Children's Keeper.

Nobody wins

More than 50% of marriages today end in divorce. Approximately 75% of all divorced people will eventually remarry. Blended (step) families are quickly replacing the traditional family as the norm. Sadly, it is predicted that more than 60% of these new blended families will also end in divorce. As a result, an estimated one million children will experience divorce each year.

Donning the shield of righteousness and the sword of conviction, parents march into the battlefields of the family court system in droves, engaging in everything from minor skirmishes to full-blown nuclear war; each parent believing that he or she is earnestly fighting for their children's best interest. I know firsthand -- I was one of these parents.

My ex-husband and I divorced nearly 13 years ago, leaving me as the sole managing conservator of our three-year-old and infant sons. Shortly after our divorce, my sons' father remarried, had two daughters and moved 1,300 miles away. The boys spent most of their summers with their father and his new family and spent the school year with me. After six years of single motherhood, I also remarried, gaining two stepsons and eventually adding another son and a daughter.

Best interests of the child

As my eldest son entered his teen years, he longed for a closer relationship with his natural father, and mentioned that he wanted to try living with him during the school year. Feeling sure he wouldn't really be happy with that arrangement, I believed it was in his best interest to stay with me. He continued to push the issue and I finally explained that his father had made some lifestyle choices which did not provide the best environment for him to live in. Like a mama bear protecting her cubs, I shielded my sons and fought for them, secure in the knowledge that I knew best how to care for them. The battle ensued for two years, accruing thousands of dollars in legal fees and immeasurable emotional costs on both sides.

By the time we actually had our day in court, my sons were nearly 16 and 13. Our personal lives displayed before strangers, there was no dispute that my present husband and I had provided a loving Christian environment in which we nurtured exemplary sons. I cried as my ex-husband tearfully confirmed that he thought I was a very good mother and that I had raised the boys well. He explained that his goal was not to take them from me; but that he also deserved a chance to share their lives.

The judge heard both sides and commended us and our attorneys on our civility. She then talked to both boys and asked them what they wanted. My oldest son told her that he had never really known his father and he just wanted a chance to spend time with him before going off to college in two years. The younger son chose to stay with me. Much to everyone's surprise, the judge granted their wishes, giving my ex-husband temporary custody of the oldest, and retaining my custody of the youngest.

I had the option to appeal the decision or continue fighting for permanent custody. The judge who would preside over the appeal did not usually divide siblings or move children from a stable environment simply because the other parent had moved away. In short, I had a good chance of winning on appeal. However, I realized that nobody could truly win in this continued battle, and the loss had already been substantial for all concerned. Therefore, I made the hardest decision I have ever had to make as a parent -- I decided to let go.

Loving and giving

In fighting for what I believed was my son's best interest, I had lost sight of what this was really all about. It was not about me or my ability to be a good parent. It was not about whether I could provide a better environment than my ex-husband. It was about my son's need to know his father. It was about loving and giving, not fighting and keeping.

Before my son left, we counseled with his church youth pastor who asked him if he felt that he had made the right decision. His big brown eyes brimming with tears and a slight quiver in his voice, he hesitated before he answered, "I don't want to leave what I have here, but I need to know my dad. -- I can't have both." My tears freely flowed as I fully realized my son's anguish over having to choose; knowing that his decision would hurt one of his parents. Either choice resulted in a tremendous sacrifice for him. I had less than 48 hours to help him wrap up the details of his life here before moving across the country. I suddenly realized that there were so many things that I wanted to do with him, show him and tell him. I wasn't ready to let go! The reality of this move was beginning to set in for him as well, and packing the items in his room was hard for both of us. At one point, my 6-foot tall, 180-pound son put his head on my shoulder as we sat on his bed and sobbed together. I actually went to the phone to tell my attorney that I had changed my mind about the appeal. However, I gathered my senses and reminded myself that my son needed a relationship with his father in order to fully develop as an adult. I needed to respect that desire and help him go without guilt.

The first few weeks after he left were especially hard for me. I was surrounded by constant reminders of my loss. His 16th birthday passed without celebration. The house seemed eerily quiet without his music and the constant phone calls. I avoided leaving the house because I couldn't bear to see people who knew him. I couldn't drive past his school or soccer field without crying. I wondered if I would ever know joy again. Even rocking my infant daughter brought back memories of cradling my son as a baby. I couldn't seem to adequately explain to my three-year-old where his brother was, who those people were that he left with, and when he was coming back. My 13 year-old is much too cool to admit that he missed his brother, yet he seemed to wander aimlessly in the yard without his soccer partner. My husband's eyes welled with tears when friends asked how we were doing.

Peace and growth

Since then, there have been many positive changes for everyone as we're all settling into new routines. My son has adjusted to his new school and is reveling in the attention bestowed on a new kid in a small town. His father and stepmother are learning to meet the challenges of raising a teenager, and his half-sisters are adjusting to having an older brother around all the time. My 13 year-old is ecstatic over having his own bedroom for the first time in his life; and my three-year-old seems to have accepted his brother's absence. The grass is starting to grow back where the boys used to play soccer, and my grocery bills have greatly decreased without my redheaded eating machine. Through the miracle of technology, we are able to communicate regularly via e-mail. My ex-husband and I are communicating a little easier now; and, as time passes, I am more at peace with my decision to let my son grow.

I have also received an unexpected blessing through this tragedy in discovery of a hidden talent. Four days after my son left, still in the grips of deep despair, the words to a poem about my son "came" to me and wouldn't relent until I wrote them down. One week later, I wrote the first of many humorous articles about our blended family experiences. It seems I have found my joy once again, and I have learned to share God's gift of words through writing for other parents.

My husband and I now also share our tragedies and triumphs in a discussion group that we lead for parents in blended families. Most importantly, I learned that loving means giving, not keeping; and that there are no winners in custody battles. Regardless of who the judge decides may keep the children, both parents pay high stakes, emotionally and financially. But the children, the very focus of our love, are the ones who suffer the greatest loss when parents fight over them. After all, our children are God's gifts of love and are never really ours to keep. He entrusts them to us to nurture for awhile, but like any treasure, the value is much greater when we share our precious gifts.

Knowing that God, Our Children's Keeper, truly has their best interests at heart, helps us realize that giving in to love does not mean merely giving in.

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