Custody Battle Tips

Wrote this in 2006, but the advice still holds…hope it helps somebody going through it.

heard through the grapevine somebody i know may be facing some custody issues soon. since this is something i know waaayyyy too much about (unfortunately), i figured i’d share some tips that may help anybody is this position. take it for what it’s worth—we didn’t win. but i know we learned a lot, too. so, you know. maybe our painful history can help someone else.

1. keep your focus. nobody cares if the ex was an ass except you. nobody cares what was or wasn’t fair 5 years ago, or even 5 days ago. stay in the present. deal with NOW, not yesterday and not tomorrow. even when you have a valid point, you come off sounding like a bitter, angry lunatic if you don’t. it’s vital in court that EVERYTHING is only about the child’s best interests, but still important outside of court. don’t lose track of the ONLY thing that really matters here. (hint: it’s not that the ex treats new love interest better than s/he ever treated’s not that the ex walked out on the kid years ago, or whatever. it’s only NOW. that’s it.)

2. don’t mix your issues. the most common you see: child support is NOT related to visitation. yes, it feels that way in your head. it’s not. if you have a money issue, address the money issue. if you have a visitation issue, address the visitation issue. ne’er the twain shall meet, ok? when you do mix ‘em, not only does this LOOK like you’re using the child as a weapon….well, hate to say it, but it IS using the child as a weapon (or tool, if that stings less to hear), to get what you want. it’s wrong. natural, but wrong. don’t do it.

3. if you start to feel confused, the best way to get your direction back: focus solely on the kid and the kid’s needs. now, this does NOT mean your perceptions of the other parent and how they may not fulfill the kid’s needs. forget that. it’s out of your hands, ok? with a few exceptions (like REAL abuse, not the “emotional abuse” of the ex not doing what you think is right for the kid), that’s not your concern. the other parent has a right to be a crappy parent, sadly enough. but for YOU, for your decisions, every little thing that impacts that child, focus only on the child. this helps you let go of hurt feelings and stay on track. avoid the trap of interpreting your personal opinions as “in the child’s best interests.” that just doesn’t help and it’s not relevant. and in court, NEVER, EVER, EVER make any kind of personal comments or assessments about the ex. keep EVERY word out of your mouth only about the kid. that’s what you’re there for.

4. understand, many parents freak out when the ex heats up with someone new. this will stimulate all kinds of feelings somebody didn’t even know they had. things start to go insane when other people are introduced and suddenly, parent is faced with the realization, “my kid’s going to have another mommy/daddy in his/her life. no!” expect crazy emotions from both sides now. but don’t express your own emotions to the ex. call your friends, see a shrink, keep a journal. do whatever you have to do to manage your emotions, so long as you keep it away from your child and do it in a safe way.

5. keep a paper trail of communications—one that will help you! communicate as much as possible in writing, be it letters or email. and the biggest thing: keep what you say and do entirely above reproach! these are business letters, ok? not chances to “express yourself.” forget that! this means if you aren’t sure, let your level-headed friend read communications before you send them out. here’s a (perhaps sobering) tip: read over every communication as if you are cc’ing a copy of it to a judge—who doesn’t know you—but who decides how much time you’ll get to spend with your child. because you know what? for all intents and purposes, you ARE. i don’t give a shit what you want to say. if you sound pissed off, it will come back to bite you in the ass. the momentary release you may get from telling the ex off isn’t worth what it will cost you in the long run.

6. keep records of everything else, too! document your ass off! take the kid to the doctor? bought ‘em new clothes? visitation schedule was changed suddenly? went to parent/teacher’s confernce? record it all! even if you don’t have “proof,” the journal itself can be used as documentation. and leave the acrimony and anger out of it; that’s better left to a private, just-for-you journal. but keep track of everything related to that child. at the very least, it will be a great way to show how you’re taking care of the kid, in the event someone wants to claim you don’t. courts run on paper, ok? two people can say whatever they want, but if one has any kind of documentation and the other doesn’t, documentation usually trumps.

7. while you’re at it, consider keeping a special, dated photo album. it can have the same kinds of things you’d keep in any photo album of jr. (and jr. with you and family), but keep in chronological order and date every addition. that can add a little punch in court. if the ex is claiming child is miserable with you and hasn’t been taken care of for the 6 months prior or whatever, having happy, smiling and fun photos of your child throughout this entire timeline does wonders for your credibility. make a “happy kid” scrapbook.

8. correct any circumstances that could be construed as problemmatic NOW, before you’re in court. finish household rennovations, change bedroom arranagments, or get a new sitter if you need to. whatever it is. if there is ANYTHING in your routine and lifestyle that could even remotely be critisized, fix it now. don’t wait until it is critisized—that makes you look bad. and don’t assume the ex won’t know about it. ex’s with an agenda have a way of finding things out…that doesn’t mean you’re not a good parent already, but you have to remember that these decisions will be made by people who don’t know you. all they have to look at are the exteriors. make sure yours is pretty.

9. forget the ego: if you can stay out of court through compromise, do it! once you walk into that courtroom, you no longer have control over your life and what happens with your kid. you have no leverage. despite any faith you may have that “right” will win out, it doesn’t work that way. if you’re not interested in leaving your child’s living situation as the outcome of a crap shoot, then do whatever you can to stay out of court. that means compromise whenever you can. that way, even if you have to go to court, you’ll have an appearance of being reasonable already on your side.

10. understand the biases. in this area, there is a strong preference for joint custody. one of the things a judge looks at is the likelihood that the residentail parent will encourage and foster a relationship for the child with the non-custodial parent. judges care about stability for the child; ongoing relationships with family and friends. minimizing upsets. keeping the child’s routines intact. be aware of this when making your decisions.

11. don’t assume you know what the ex is gonna do. you don’t. i don’t care how well you “know” ‘em. this is a whole new ball game. so don’t let anything throw you off. if your focus is in the right place, it’s not going to be connected to what the ex does or doesn’t do anyway. keep your focus on your child, and other things will fall into place.

12. let go of your anger. hard? yeah, i know. but necessary. anger gets in your way. it poisons your thinking. it makes it a battle between you and the ex, and removes the only legitimate focus: the child. it puts you in a win/lose scenario, and that’s not where you want to be. it also keeps you from making calm, rational decisions. talk to a friend, journal it out, go to a shrink, or take up meditation. i don’t care what you do! but whatever it is you need to do, stop being pissed off. it’s vital. the people you deal with are used to pissed off. they expect pissed off. and when you come off as pissed off, you lose credibility because it’s seen as you still fighting with the ex, not as legitimate beefs (even if you’ve got a whole cattleyard full of legit beefs)! this in and of itself could save your ass.

13. drop out of crisis mode if you can. yes, you’re going to be on the alert. it would be dumb not to be there. but understand, recognize, even if things do NOT turn out the way you want, well, that doesn’t mean the world is over. it may feel like it for a while, but it’s not. you go on. you find ways to have fun, relax. you make the most of all the time you do have with your child. when your adreniline is pumping, you can’t think worth shit and it only makes you sick anyway. not to mention, everybody else gets tired of it. so just keep going. really, you know you don’t have any other choice, don’t you?

14. keep it clean. sheild your child from this situation as much as possible. do NOT use your child’s feelings, emotions and desires are leverage. resist the very real urge to work your kid one way or another here to help your cause under the mistaken belief the ends justify the means. they don’t. keep your behavior such that you’d be proud to have it serve as an example for your child in dealing with conflict later in life. (it will be, you kno’). understand it’s difficult and painful for everybody. understand that, however ridiculous it may seem to you, there’s a good chance the ex actually believes they are doing is “what’s best for the child.” that phrase gets thrown around a lot in these kinds of things, “best for the child,” until it loses most of it’s meaning. don’t be part of that. you may or may not retain residential custody of your child in the long run, but no matter what happens, you need to keep your integrity, both for yourself and for your kid.

that’s it for now. mostly, it’s about keeping a calm head and pure heart. i don’t promise you that you’ll “win.” once something goes to court, it’s anybody’s guess. but if do heed this advice, i believe that you’ll have a better chance of getting more of what you want, first of all, and even where you don’t, you’ll have done what you can to minimize pain to your child and be able to live with yourself in the morning.

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