Everything Was Fine . . .
Observations from a visitation supervisor
I sat in the hair salon one Saturday getting my maintenance trim and I suddenly realized something about my surroundings. There was a young woman getting her hair all twirly-curled, faux-complaining about the shoes she ordered for her wedding (she clearly just wanted to talk about how cute and perfect they were), a young girl accompanied by her mom and grandma was getting especially dolled up for some upcoming event and the two mothers were there to make sure everything went smoothly, simultaneously giving directions to the stylist who was cheerfully taking their advice. Another woman, tinted and blown out, paid her bill, left a tip and, placing her tortoiseshell sunglasses above her wide grin, walked confidently out into the morning sunshine.
The thing that stood out for me was that they were all happy. The customers, the stylists, even the woman sweeping up gobs of hair off the floor smiled and chatted with the regular customers.
The realization was this: my job isn’t like that at all. All the people who come to my office are miserable. Rarely does anyone smile and no one is ever confident--legitimately. I supervise the court-ordered contact between an estranged parent and their child or children amidst varying degrees of divorce, separation or allegations and nobody is happy about that. Except possibly, occasionally, the children.
On one typical day, I took chewing gum out of a 1-year-old’s mouth, reminded a mom not to talk with the children she was seeing for the first time in a year about how badly their father was treating her in court, listened to a dad tell me that he has custody of his son because his mother keeps leaving for other galaxies and suggested to another, older father that his 8-year-old probably was scared when Dad left him alone to go to the store, even though the child insisted, “he wanted to stay by himself.”
Before the visits, though, there are intakes. Those times when more than one estranged parent has told me, “Everything was fine . . .” and then they came home to find their belongings on the front lawn or the locks on the door changed or the police waiting for them. The stories are all different, but the one constant is that nobody wants to do supervised visitation—custodial or visiting parent. One afternoon I was waiting for a custodial mom to show up for her appointment. Even the conversations setting up this appointment had been difficult. She was already defensive and balked at the idea that she had to drive “all the way down there” for anything, least of all to bring her precious child to see the monster of a father from whom she had finally separated.
About ten minutes after 3:00 PM--her scheduled appointment time--the phone rang. When I answered, a voice demanded, “How do I get there?” I fought the impulse to say cheerfully, “Who is this?” because I was pretty sure who it was. She was already exasperated and impatient and I still had no idea where she was calling from, so instead I said, “where are you?” Brittany (not her real name) said, “I don’t know!”, and after several minutes of vague descriptions and complaints about having to “do this” we finally got her back on the road and into the office--almost twenty minutes later.
Things went downhill from there. This slight, young woman was oppositional, unpleasant, moody and uncooperative from the outset. Her daughter, Ashley, an adorable and cheerful toddler of about 16 months with a mop of unruly brown hair, came easily into the visits with her father. The father, although rough around the edges from both a tough childhood and daily construction job, appeared to handle the child with ease and he typically had all the supplies he needed for each visit, including his own diaper bag, apple slices, juice boxes and a favorite stuffed, orange giraffe from home. Ashley came to me easily when I went to get her from her scowling mother, and would run eagerly to her dad. They’d play happily for the short hour-long visit, when he helped her get ready to return to mommy.
Visits went on for a few weeks with Brittany behaving as if she were being forced into something horrible and unpleasant. She reluctantly gave her daughter over to me each week and acted as if I were delivering her to certain doom. I tried to let Mom know that her attitude at the exchanges was critical in creating a positive environment for her daughter; to let her know that she was going to be okay, but she just didn’t seem to be able to understand that. All she knew was that this whole situation was unfair. To her.
One afternoon, Dad called ahead and said he was running late. I let Brittany know and, to her credit, she did not instantly decide to leave, but instead asked if she could talk to me. Although we don’t like to have conversations about visits with the child in the room, I felt this was a good opportunity to show her some support. I figured I could monitor the conversation well enough and steer her away from talking about anything really negative or inappropriate in front of Ashley.
What Brittany told me that afternoon impacted my work from that day forward. She said she felt “left out” sitting in the waiting room down the hall while the visit was going on. (Our policy is is no contact between parents at all during our visits; the visiting parent arrives early and the custodial parent meets one of us with the child ten minutes later in a separate area.)
Each time I took Ashley away from her and brought her into the visit, Mom sat in the waiting room, imagining all sorts of scenarios, from the ridiculous to the bizarre. She imagined that Dad and I were talking and laughing about her and that Ashley was crying the whole time and I just wasn’t bringing her back, among other preposterous claims. I was stunned from her disclosure and it took me several minutes to compose myself at this seemingly foolish understanding of what was happening. I was a little defensive, too, since I work very hard at maintaining a sense of neutrality and professionalism. How could this angry little mom have the nerve to accuse me of such totally unprofessional behavior?
The situation surrounding this family’s separation was an alleged case of physical abuse. Dad, nearly 6-feet tall, had supposedly fended off an attack from Brittany by holding her at arm’s length...by her throat. According to her, he was holding Ashley at the time. Naturally, both Brittany and Dad’s account of the incident differed on many points, but both were in agreement about the nature of Dad’s “self-defense.” Since he was the one who was attacked, Dad had a little bit of a problem getting why he was the one in trouble and having to do supervised visits. It took several conversations with him over the course of as many weeks to get him to understand that, at 6-feet tall, he was an intimidating figure to a slim, 5-foot tall woman. In addition, she was not only protecting herself, but felt she needed to protect her child from some perceived harm. Brittany also said Dad was under the influence and she just wanted him out of the house. She wasn’t attacking Dad so much as just trying to get Ashley away from him so she wouldn’t get hurt. Once the police were called, it became an adversarial situation involving courts, lawyers and biased family members. All of which added fuel to Brittany’s already burning fire.
The same fire that now burned in Brittany’s accusations. I am thankful that I was able to settle myself down before responding to her, because I suddenly saw Brittany’s hysteria and bravado as fear. She was terrified something would happen that would cause her to lose her child. She continued to be afraid of her ex, even though it appeared that their altercation was an isolated event, albeit legitimately frightening. She was even afraid that since she had been acting like such a bitch towards me that I might hold it against her and write my report in favor of the Dad and get her in trouble with the court. She was so honest...and afraid...that any irritation or defensiveness on my part soon melted away. While Ashley played happily by herself on the other side of the room, I tried to let Brittany know that part of my job was to make sure she was feeling heard and supported, too. I thanked her for her honesty in sharing with me her feelings, which she now seemed to feel a little embarrassed about--and a little surprised that I was thanking her.
Visits went more smoothly after that. Brittany began to feel a little more comfortable and was able to be more positive when sending Ashley with me into visits. Instead of sitting rigidly in a chair in the waiting room, she started to bring a knitting project with her to work on and looked, shockingly, somewhat relaxed. I even caught a smile now and then, which was a nice thing to see.
At our last visit before their return to court, Brittany brought me a picture of herself with Ashley sitting at a picnic table at a park, both smiling right into the camera. On the back she wrote a short note, which in part, said:
“I know in the beginning I probably came across as rude and I’m very sorry for that. Thanks for all the talks and suggestions. I know Ashley has been in great care with you. Just wanted to say thanks for everything.”
I often think about Brittany and wonder how they are doing. I keep the picture on my desk at home--not at the office--I don’t want to advertise the families who have come through our door. After that first day when she walked into my office--late, defensive, victimized and mad--she showed me the depth of this process and the toll it takes on a parent. She also showed me that it is possible to transform anger and frustration into openness and appreciation. The truth of this experience is that she is not the only one who learned something. The lesson she taught me stayed with me ever since. I only wish I had learned it earlier.
When I was a single mom in the early 90s, I could have used some transformation. I had two kids, an ex, a small apartment, my parents’ old silver Subaru, a full-time job and no money left at the end of the week. My children’s dad lived in the same small town and was seemingly doing much better than I was, at least financially. We shared custody--mostly. There was a schedule in place, but if he had work commitments or other obligations I was the go-to option for taking care of the kids. I was also the go-to option for his ranting about money, complaints about the kids, and my bad decisions. I feel fortunate that I was separated and divorced before the rise of the Internet; nasty phone calls and vindictive letters were hard enough to handle. I can’t imagine if I had to contend with texting, emails and Facebook as I separated and finally divorced from my children’s father. Judging from what I see in my office on a daily basis, it would have been a nightmare.
During that time, I made mistakes; many, many mistakes. Back then, if you had asked me, I would have sworn that I always kept my children’s best interests in focus. Now, from the vantage point of over 20 years passed, I can state unequivocally that there were times that I didn’t. Admitting this, out loud, is, to say the least, difficult. I used to pride myself on the fact that I had protected my children from the worst of divorce. In addition, I considered my ex to be “wrong” and “insensitive” because of his bad behavior. How could he neglect his children that way? How could he put his girlfriend before his own daughter or forget to pick up his son for his weekend with him? I judged my ex-husband’s behavior as wrong in so many ways, that it prevented me from seeing the mistakes I myself was making. As long as I wasn’t behaving like he was, then I must be the better parent. The truth is, thinking that way blinded me to the mistakes I was making all along, and that was definitely not in my children’s best interests.
Divorce makes people do strange and terrible things to the ones they once loved and promised to be true to. It’s hard to understand how things get to such a point, but then again, after years of hearing the stories I’ve heard, maybe not. People are just trying to make it through this life. Throw in a few kids and all the typical stressors increase exponentially. If people aren’t convincing themselves that everything is fine as they go about their daily routine, they will probably go mad. And then, sometimes they do. Early on in my work with supervised visitation, I was a lot more judgmental about the people ordered to attend our program. During those earlier days of meeting with moms and dads in the most desperate and unjust times of their lives, I would have confidently stated that I was clearly conveying our program conditions to both parents and unmistakably inviting ongoing contact from each. Then along comes this young woman practically in tears because she thought Dad and I were making fun of her behind her back. It was an astonishing thing to hear to be sure.
Now, since Brittany and many other moms and dads later, I understand that, with some exceptions, people are doing the best they can with what they have. I have learned not to judge too harshly. I wouldn’t want to have my behavior during my divorce looked at too closely by anyone, particularly someone sitting behind a desk taking notes as I played with my children.
During a divorce, both of a child’s parents are going through one of the worst experiences of their lives. It doesn’t matter who brought the action or whose decision it was, both parents are probably feeling one or more of the following: hurt, anger, sadness, loneliness, fear, loss, frustration, pain, resentment, vindictiveness, or any number of others. Now, during the intakes, I spend more time encouraging the custodial parent to be open and honest with me, as sitting outside in the waiting room can be very stressful. And of course I try to remind myself not to take a parent’s rude or unpleasant attitude personally; 9 times out of 10 I am seeing their fear and anxiety.
I do not work in a happy place. I don’t scoop ice cream or host Ladies Paint Nights or serve Scotch. That day in the salon, I wondered if working somewhere like that, though, would be better for me. In fact, how many times have I heard the question, “How can you do that kind of work?” And, I don’t really know. It is hard. The parents can be difficult to deal with and knowing how confused and heartbroken the children are is . . . well . . . heartbreaking. And then along comes Brittany, or someone like her and it makes all the difference in the world. Maybe it’s not a happy place, but sometimes, even just for an hour, everything is fine.