On Losing Custody of my Daughter

Dinner in England’s Lake District

It feels good to just admit it, I’ve lost this fight.

There are people suffering all kinds of atrocities and injustice in this world. My situation isn’t even on the same scale as for instance a parent in Syria. Still, what happened last Monday hit me as the most emotionally damaging moment in my adult life. I’m in shock, kind of numb. Occasionally, I’m able to cry.

I have always wanted to be a father, a hands on dad who parented differently than most. For those who haven’t read it, these are my hopes as a father. I sometimes joke that in an alternate reality, I have ten kids and we all live in the mountains. Laughing and rough housing in a huge scrum of children is my happy place.

Last Monday, an English court gave my daughter’s mom pretty much everything she wanted. The privilege of parenting, taking my daughter to school and caring for her daily, has been forcibly taken from me. With two loving and attentive parents, this has mostly to do with her mother’s desire to keep her in England and ability to argue in English court that the situation there is a good one.

Our daughter has a nice life in Devon — it would be hard for me to argue otherwise — but it lacks just one crucial ingredient, her father. Our original agreement was that our little girl would return to live with me, for 3 years, starting in August, 2017.

It seems obvious now that her mother never had any intention to fulfill this commitment. I’m financially devastated, after 8 months of emotionally exhausting custody battles in both countries.

There are two hardest parts in releasing my hurt and anger and moving forward.

1) I thought my ex-wife and I had a trusting friendship, one we’d both worked so hard to establish in the aftermath of our divorce. There is no factor more important to our daughter’s happiness and ability to thrive in this world than the emotional tone between her mom and dad. This feels to me permanently shattered. No more adventures or trips where she can hold both of our hands at the same time. Her mother’s betrayal took this away and in doing so her “winning” is pyrrhic, like the winner of a nuclear war. A whole web of relationships were terribly damaged by this breach of trust. It caused enormous stress for my mother, who is battling stage 4 cancer. This was not the first time my ex-wife has done this, operated from fear and inadequacy when faced with “the hard part.” In fact, that contributed to our divorce. I would be a fool, a delusional optimist, to allow her back into my life.

2) I feel punished for kindness. Against my lawyer’s advice, back in 2011, I made large concessions in the hope of re-establishing trust and peace, not as husband and wife, but as co-parents. I could have insisted on the California default of 50/50 custody and that our daughter live permanently in San Francisco, where she was born. I could have dug in my heels, grabbed for 70% and then retreated to equal time. Instead, knowing how much her mother wanted to return to England, I agreed to a plan of alternating back and forth. Our daughter would know both places as home to varying degrees. Yes this might be hard at times, but nothing close, for instance to my friends who grew up as children of diplomats. So long as our little girl was loved and encouraged, these movements back and forth would stretch her in a healthy and constructive way. She would feel both English and American and I hope internalize the best of both cultures.

Today, my girlfriend is encouraging me to see the bright side, to have compassion for myself and my ex. I will have every other Christmas holiday. If I can find a way to afford it, I will go in the spring and autumn and perhaps bring my daughter to visit friends on continental Europe. I hope to teach her a bit of French, Spanish and German and a respect and appreciation for these other cultures. Her summers will be in California.

But for now, I’m just a face on her mother’s iPhone, no snuggles or chasing around the room. If anything is said that her mother disapproves of, such as, “I hope you’ll come back and live with me in SF one day,” her mother has the right, affirmed by the judge, to take the phone away and end the call. It feels like a severely crippled form of parenting.

Another lesson came to me. In any kind of relationship, a friendship, a marriage, a business partnership, even a whole community, there is a seemingly universal rule of thumb. For there to be a healthy kind of thriving, there must be daily kindness and great communication. If just one person shifts to fear based decision making, to a place of inadequacy and mistrust, the whole thing can very quickly come unraveled, sometimes forever. It takes an unflinching commitment to our higher virtues for healthy dynamics to endure.

My hope in writing and sharing this so openly is that you all, mothers and fathers, might learn from my mistakes. People so often hide these crucibles from public view. I don’t hope that you become bitter and hardened and never extend trust, but that you might become a little more discerning and painfully honest in who you extend that trust to, the degree to which you extend it.

Don’t fool yourself about another person’s patterns. As Maya Angelou said, “when someone shows you who they are, believe them.” If they have shown a tendency to harm, to slide towards fear, don’t give them much. It is most often not the brutal sadist who causes the most harm; it is the fearful person imbued with righteous good intentions.

It is okay to look a person in the eye, with deep respect, and say, “I don’t trust you, and I can’t have you in my life.” If you shift your energies to the people who deserve your trust — you know who they are, you can feel it — you may discover a life richer and more full of joy, creativity and learning than you ever imagined possible.

People can change; in fact, people are change. Assert healthy boundaries and give them the space to do so and prove it consistently. If they do, you can always invite them back into your life down the road.