Some Important Tips To Survive A Custody War

This past weekend, I took Stela for a walk after we went to church.  My church is located relatively close to the courthouse that I describe as ground zero of the Custody War that was fought against Lucifer.  Until recently, I wasn’t even able to drive through that area without breaking down into tears and shaking hysterically due to the painful memories of the things that took place in that courthouse.  This past Sunday, however, I decided it was time to come face to face with some of the memories that I had been avoiding.

As I walked past the courthouse, I noticed that it had almost doubled in size since the custody war.  My stomach twisted in knots as I looked at the millions of dollars of taxpaying dollars that had been pumped into this broken institution.  While I didn’t break into tears, I don’t think I will ever be able to walk past that place without thinking of the pain that I associate with that time.  I know I will never be able to look at Family Court as a place that cares about the protection of children as it should.

As I reflected on this broken system, and Stela sang her made up baby songs in sheer blissful unawareness, I thought about how my thoughts on Family Court have changed since I have had some time and distance from the legal abuse.  In the past year and a half since my son was murdered, I have spoken to many parents who are in the throws of chaos.  They are enduring their own personal hell in Family Court.  Here are some things I have learned, that you won’t hear from your attorney.  These tips won’t help me anymore, but I wish that I had heard them when I was in the trenches.

You are allowed to fire your attorney:  Legal counsel is expensive, and it’s important.  Bad attorneys don’t have angels on their shoulders telling them not to waste your money.  If you find yourself in one of the below situations with your attorney, run out the door as soon as possible and do not look back.

1)  A Jerk:  If your attorney speaks to you like you are a moron, and get’s mad at you when you get emotional – this will only get worse.  While your attorney shouldn’t be your therapist, a good family attorney will understand what is at stake and be experienced in dealing with emotional parents.  You should never feel like you have to apologize to your attorney for crying or being frustrated with the situation.

(Note:  While crying is completely fair during times of great distress, try and save these emotions for your therapist.  You want your attorney to be able to focus on the legal issues, and not your emotions.)

2) Distrustful:  Your attorney is your advocate.  I recently spoke to someone who made the grave mistake of employing the same attorney who represented Lucifer.  She noted that she was confused as to why her attorney was pushing for her to roll over, and allow her ex more unsupervised access when the man hadn’t established himself in the child’s life (by his own choice).  She wondered why iy seemed like her attorney was working for her ex husband. Sometimes when it appears as though your attorney has an agenda that doesn’t jive with your child’s best interest, it is because they do.  Bottom line – if you don’t trust the person, you shouldn’t give them a dime of your money.

3)  Inexperienced:  My first attorney was a disaster.  He was a business attorney who had a previous relationship with my parents.  When I initially realized that I needed an attorney, I didn’t know who to turn to.  Having never been in a situation like this before, I had no idea how specialized law really was.  While this unethical business attorney claimed he knew family law, he entered the courtroom like a five year old who just stepped through the doors of a University.  Sadly, before I realized that he had no clue what he was doing, he had already spent 30 thousand of my hard earned dollars.  Mistakes like this will cost you.  Before choosing an attorney, ask around for recommendations and go see them in action on another case.

Work to be the best version of yourself:  I will be the first to say that going through Family Court can make a sane person feel crazy.  It is an emotional experience that really cannot be compared to anything else.  Many of us feel as though we are being asked to send our children across a battlefield completely unarmed, while we watch him/her try and dodge the land mines in the field.  Just as you would go to the doctor to get a cast if you broke a foot, you must get counseling if you are going through a Custody War.  When you walk into the courtroom, you need to be the best version of yourself.  You need to be as calm and put together as possible, and you need to think clearly.  This is the fight of your life.  Your children need you to be sane for it.

In addition to going to a therapist, find a good friend you can talk to.  Go for walks, go to the gym, and do things that help to relieve stress.  So many people talk about being too busy to take care of themselves.  Realize that you are not helping your children if you are constantly stressed out.  If Mama ain’t happy – ain’t nobody happy.  (Note: this can apply to Dad’s too.)

Work on things you can control:  One of the hardest things for people to do in Family Court is accept that you have a very limited amount of control.  You cannot stop your ex from lying.  You cannot stop him/her from paying professionals to lie for him/her or from channeling their inner actor and crying on cue.  And ultimately, as painful as it is, you cannot control what the courts decide.  You can appeal your butt off and spend your entire life savings, but most people leave Family Court unhappy.  I would never advocate for giving up on your child.  NEVER give up fighting for your child’s best interest.  That said, for the time you have with your child, make it count.  Even if you only get every other weekend to see your children, make that time special and let them know how much you love them.  Enjoy those moments with your child because you really never know when they could be your last.  And even if your children have the long life my son never had the chance to have, you don’t want to look back at their childhood and realize you never enjoyed any moments with them due to the custody war.

I had 15.5 months with my son Prince.  While he spent 99.9 percent of his life with me, it wasn’t enough.  Now that I have to live with the fact that his father chose to end his life, it makes those times when I had to leave him for only three hours much harder to think about.  I can never get more time with my son now, but the memories that I have of him keep me strong.  I am thankful that, even though much of his life was spent in the horror of Family Court, I took the time to make his life wonderful.

Two days before Prince had his first birthday, we were in court.  I was a horrible day, and I left afraid of what would happen to my son.  For hours after the hearing, I felt like I was living in a complete fog that I couldn’t see through.  I was paralyzed with fear.  Even though I had planned a weekend at the beach, we almost didn’t go because I was so upset.

Luckily, my family was able to help me through that hard time.  They forced me to come to the beach to celebrate Prince’s birthday.  This was the last birthday Prince would ever have.  I am so thankful I was able to take him in the sand, and spoil him that weekend.  If I hadn’t gone that weekend, it would have haunted me to this day.

I will never know what it is like to be stuck in Family Court for 18 years.  I can only imagine what that kind of sustained terror can do to a person.  In my short experience, however, I have learned that the best thing you can do is be the rock that your children need.  Don’t let the terror ruin your ability to make your child’s life wonderful.

 

 

 

 

 

I Have An Agenda, And I Am Not Ashamed Of It

I am going to say something that shouldn’t be a newsflash to anyone who has ever read my blog, heard me speak, or been anywhere near me in the past few years.  I HAVE AN AGENDA.  It is not hidden, and I refuse to make any apologies for it.  Want to know what my agenda is?  It’s simple really…I am passionate about children.  I truly believe that Prince chose me to be his mother.  I was chosen because he knew I would fight for him, and he knew I would speak out to protect his memory.  He knew I would fight for change – that I would fight to make it so that no other children would suffer the way he had to suffer.

Since my son was murdered, it seems like not a day has gone by where I haven’t heard about the brutal murder of another child.  This week, I heard about another shocking case that happened in Fredrick, MD.  A little girl named Anayah Williams was murdered by her father.  As her father was beating her to death, her mother watched.  As if the murder itself isn’t shocking enough, possibly the most disturbing element of this case is that when the girl was only two months old she had been removed from the home for having a fractured skull.  Instead of recognizing that these parents were dangerous, our sick and twisted system put the girl back into the house (for the sake of reunification with her birth parents).  She was murdered shortly after her return.

I would love to be able to say that I am shocked when I hear these stories.  Our system fails children.  Those who are tasked with the protection of children are more concerned about protecting the parental rights of abusive parents.  They are more concerned with clearing their case load then potentially saving a child’s life.

Recognizing abuse:  Most children who are abused don’t even know they are being abused.  If you ask a child who has been abused their entire life if their parent abuses them, you will most hear something like, “no, he/she was a good parent.”  If a child is used to being beaten with objects, having things thrown at them, and getting beaten to the point where physical marks are left, they might not see these things as abusive – this is their normal.  While children who live through abuse might not be able to determine that their situation is not the norm, there are certain tell tale signs.  For example, if a child is often seen with bruises that are beyond the occasional toddler bump, something might be wrong.  Another tell tale sign is when you see a child who is clearly afraid of their parent.  While it is normal for a child to respect their parent, a child should never be afraid that they are going to be physically harmed by their parent.

Doing something about it:  Another unfortunate reality that I have noticed since the death of my son, is that many people choose to ignore child abuse if it isn’t happening directly in their home.  When they hear of these child murders on television, they talk about how sad it is for five minutes, go hug their own child, and thank God it isn’t their reality.  What people fail to realize is that the child who is being beaten up next door will one day show up on your doorstep.  He will be dating your daughter, friends with your son, or maybe even a parent to your grandchild.  Child abuse is not someone else’s problem.  It is a society problem, and in order to end child abuse everyone must take responsibility.

A few months after I left Luc, I went back to his old neighborhood and spoke to some of the neighbors.  I asked a few of them if they had ever witnessed anything disturbing.  One man mentioned that he had witnessed Luc abusing a child in public, right outside this man’s house.  When I asked the man why he didn’t report it, he said, “it wasn’t any of my business, so I didn’t get involved.  I almost said something, but I didn’t want his anger to turn on me.”  The man then told me to keep my head down, and that it would all work out for the best.  Since Prince died, I often wonder what people like this man would think now.  Would he regret never reporting the abuse?  Would he look at my situation and think that things worked out for the best?

Recently, I was accused of having an agenda – as if this is a bad thing.  If you are as passionate about an important issue as I am, you should be proud that you have an agenda too.  I will never hide from my agenda.  I will continue to have this agenda until the day when I stop hearing about children dying from abuse.  I don’t want to just stop hearing about it because I stop listening.  I want to stop hearing about it because I want it to actually stop happening.

Please join me – please have an agenda too.

 

 

 

 

My First Post Baby Half – Marathon

 

Before I got pregnant with Prince, I was a runner.  I had run two marathons, two half marathons, an olympic triathlon, and countless smaller races (5k, 10k, etc).  I loved being an athlete.  Running was my way of relieving stress, and running was part of who I was.  I ran until I was eight months pregnant with Prince.  Then one day…I stopped running.

When I stopped, I told myself it was because I was too pregnant, but it was more than that.  I had become depressed because my relationship with Luc was confusing and scary.  Earlier that year, I had signed up to run a marathon with my sister (it was going to be five months after Prince was born).  I ended up flaking.  Shortly after Prince was born, when I learned that I had been living with a murderer, I started the most intense and emotional fight of my life.  For the next 15 months, I fought to try and save my son’s life.

Those of you who have been following my blog know that I lost the battle to save my son.  After 15 months, Luc killed my son Prince.  When this happened, it was the worst part of what had been a painful two years.  I was devastated, and I knew that my life would never be the same again.  There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t think about how much I love my little boy, and how I wish he could be here with us.  Dealing with the reality of this loss left me feeling further away from the woman I once was.

My Revenge:

I have often heard that the best revenge you can have on someone (especially a psychopath) is to live well.  Since taking a bat to Luc’s private parts doesn’t appear to be an option, living well is what I must attempt to do.  Those of you who have been entangled with a psychopath know how easy it is to look in the mirror one day, and not even recognize yourself.  I had gotten to that point.  I was about 60 pounds overweight, my hair was horribly damaged (it actually had started to fall out due to stress), and I realized that I no longer did many of the things I used to love.

While my daughter is an incredible source of happiness, I realized that in order to truly have my revenge I needed to get my whole life back together.  I needed to get back to doing things that made me happy and relieved my stress.  So, I got myself a new pair of running shoes, strapped Stela in the BOB stroller (with the infant carseat insert, of course) and ran.

Painful Journey:

Similar to childbirth, getting back into running shape was painful.  Unlike some women, I never enjoyed pregnancy.  Getting fat, getting kicked in the ribs, and watching your extremities swell on the daily wasn’t ever my idea of enjoyment.  (Note:  I am not ashamed to admit this – it doesn’t make me love my children any less.)  While I love running, running as an out of shape post-pregnancy mom was not glamorous.

The first run was torture.  I felt every one of those 60 extra pounds I had gained between my pregnancies.  Luckily, Stela was along for the ride on most of my runs.  While pushing a heavy stroller is no picnic, her smiles helped me remember why I was enduring all the pain.  The extra stroller weight also made running without the stroller feel so much easier.

After a month of some short runs, I realized that in order to get that piece of me that I had lost back – I needed to sign up for a race.  I needed the experience of lacing up my shoes on race morning, hearing the starting gun, running through the crowds of equally as nutty folks, and crossing that finish line.  In a moment of confidence, I signed up to run the DC Rock n’ Roll Half Marathon.  The race was only 4.5 months after giving birth to Stela, but I figured, ‘I have some muscle memory – I will be alright.’

Race Day:

In the days leading up to the race, I would be lying if I didn’t admit I was a little terrified.  Ok, maybe I was a lot terrified.  It had been four years since I had run an endurance race (the last one being June 2010, DC Olympic Triathlon).  Since DC has experienced an unusual amount of snow this winter, I hadn’t even been able to train to the level that would have been close to enough.  All these factors aside, however, I wasn’t about to flake this time.  I needed this race.

On race morning, I got up before the sun and made my way to the starting line (Constitution and 14th street to be exact).  As I nearly froze standing in the Porta Potty line, I wondered if my boobs were going to explode before I would be able to pump or get to Stela in order to breastfeed.  In the end this seemed like a silly concern compared to the actual physical monster of a race I had before me.

After what felt like being stuck in a pack of hungry cattle, corral 28 was finally released to start the race.  Adrenaline got me through the first five miles.  Then, my entire body began to remind me that it hadn’t been long enough since I had given birth to a child.  ‘What am I going to do,’ I thought frantically.  I needed a plan.

Running Goddesses From Kentucky:

Just as I was losing hope that I would ever finish the God awful race, I spotted two women who looked as though they were having a blast.  They were both dressed in St. Patrick’s Day attire, but I was really drawn to the fact that they seemed as though they had a brilliant plan.  One of the women had a stop watch that beeped every minute reminding them to walk.

When I heard the beep, and realized that they had a plan, I jogged over to ask them about it.  Likely seeing that I was struggling, they asked me to join them.  I owe miles 6-11 to these amazing running Goddess’.  They told jokes and stories – and they fed me pretzels.  Sadly, around mile 11, I hit the runner’s wall.  For anyone who doesn’t know what this means, let me explain briefly:  Have you ever been punched so hard that your entire body feels it?  If the answer is yes, you have experienced something similar to what it feels like to hit “the wall”. It is possible to run through this feeling, but it takes a ton of mental strength and distraction.  Needless to say, when I hit the wall I had to wave the two running goddess’ on so that I didn’t slow them down.

The Finish:

Those last two miles were the hardest miles I have fought for in all of my years of racing.  With every step, however, I realized that living through the trauma of the past few years has made me mentally stronger than I ever was before.  I was running this race to prove to myself that I hadn’t lost myself during the battle, but what I learned on the run (during the most difficult time) was that I am now a better version of myself.

Most everyone can look at something in their life and have pity on themselves for it.  For me, it seems so easy sometimes to sit and cry about all the terrible things that have happened in the past four years since I met Luc.  What isn’t easy, however, is finding ways to move on.  I wasn’t physically ready for this race.  I drank too much water, ended up depleting my electrolytes to a dangerous level, and almost bought myself a trip to the emergency room.

The last 30 seconds of the race, however, were amazing.  I felt the last four years flash before my eyes, and it seemed like a moment of incredible closure.  I realized that I will never be the woman I once was, but I am hopeful that I will look in the mirror one day and realize that the woman staring back at me is better than the woman she once was.  She is better for having survived the storm.  She is better for having run through the pain, and made it to the other side.

 

 

 

 

Daddy Doin’ Work: Empowering mothers to evolve fatherhood

If I had a dollar for every time I have seen a mother carrying a baby on her chest, pushing toddler in a stroller, and carrying several bags at the grocery store at the same time, I would be a wealthy woman.  This is a common scene amongst mothers, but if I had a dollar for every time I have seen a man in this same situation – well, then I would be on food stamps.  When you do see a man in this situation, however, people act like it’s epic.  A man carrying his baby on his chest elicits the sort of ogling that you’d expect only from teenage girls on a  school yard when the hot dude walks by.

Why is this?  Why is it normal and expected for women to parent their children, but considered Godly when a man does the same?  Why  do we find changing tables in the women’s restroom, but the same tables are noticeably absent from men’s restrooms?  Is society trying to tell us that a guy can’t change a diaper?

Those of you who know my story know that calling my ex simply a “deadbeat” Dad would be like calling Mother Teresa just a nice lady.  If there were a term for something much worse than a deadbeat – my ex would likely fall more closely into that category.  I mention all of the above to say that part of the reason men are the way they are today, part of the reason that many fathers have not evolved beyond cavemen times, is because of the low expectations we as women have for them.

My good friend Doyin, aka Daddy Doin’ Work, is on a mission to change the face of Fatherhood as we know it.  You might have heard of books that talk about how to be a good parent (like how to change a diaper).  The market is loaded with those types of books.  This, however, is the sort of book I wish had been available when I met Lucifer (this is what I call the D bag who killed my son).  What is refreshing about what Doyin has to say is a no nonsense kind of guy.  He is the first dude to praise the Dads who are doing great things, but he is also the sort of guy who isn’t going to make excuses for the guys who do things that all men should be ashamed of.

I recently wrote a blog about how racism isn’t just a black issue – it’s an everybody issue.  I feel the same way about the evolution of fatherhood.  This is a conversation that everyone should be having regardless of gender.  As a woman, however, I love the idea that Doyin is tackling this issue by speaking to women.

Doyin, congratulations on your book my friend.  I applaud you for attempting to raise the bar on fatherhood – the role model you are for your daughters – and your attempts to empower women.

 

Racism – An Everybody Issue

Before my son was born, while I was pregnant with him, someone asked me what I wished for.  I said, “I wish that before my son is born, we could live in a place where racism no longer existed.”  (Note:  This was before I realized that I had more immediate concerns – i.e. that his father was a psychopathic serial killer)

None the less, I wanted my children to be born into a world where they would not be judged but he color of their skin.  Recently, I have been encouraged by the amount of interracial couples I see on a regular basis, and the popularity of the cheerios commercial featuring that cute little biracial actress.  While I was born in 1980, well after the Civil Rights Movement, our country was still the type of place where I became painfully aware of racism at a very early age.  I have lived long enough, however, to see things change a lot.  People no longer stare at my family when we are out in public, because seeing interracial families has become normal.

So much progress has been made since my parents were children, that I had been able to live 33 years without being terrified in a situation due to the color of my skin.  This fact, however, changed this past week.  The following encounter made me realize that for as much progress that we have made, many of us still find ourselves wondering when race will no longer make you the target of violence.

The day of my eye opening experience began relatively unremarkable, like many other weekend days.  I am training for a half marathon in a couple of weeks so I dragged myself out of bed, bundled up Stela, and hit the trail for a run.  While I had planned to run at least 4 miles, Stela had other plans.  After about 2.5 miles, the diva came out and Stela started to scream at the top of her lungs.  After stopping for a mid run breastfeeding session (Note:  I don’t recommend this.  It was awkward.  I should have packed a bottle.), Stela decided that she wanted to hold my hand to go back to sleep.  I spent the last .5 miles running while holding her hand.

By the time I finished my run, I was exhausted, sweaty, and a bit cranky (given that I had planned to run further).  As I was walking back to my car, on a very narrow sidewalk, my eye caught a strange looking man walking in my direction.  Normally, I would have crossed the street, but construction forced me to continue on the narrow sidewalk.  The man, who was carrying several bags and walking aggressively, ran up to me and screamed, “There are too many Niggers around here!  You all are cock sucking Niggers!”  He was no further than a few inches from my face when he said this.  While many people might think to yell back at him, my first reaction was to put the entire force of my bodyweight behind the stroller and book it up the hill and back to my car.  I was terrified because this man didn’t appear mentally stable, and I was sure that if I hadn’t gotten out of there he would have turned the verbal assault into a physical one.

As I sat in my car, after this encounter, I held Stela trying to calm her down (she had been crying hysterically).  I realized that I was also trying to calm myself down.  Why had this encounter scared me so much?  In the past nearly three years since my son was born, two black teenagers have been murdered – one for “looking” like a criminal (Trayvon Martin) while carrying a back of skittles and and some iced tea – the other (Jordan Davis) killed because his music was too loud.  Possibly more disturbing than the fact that these two innocent teens were murdered is the fact that our court system was unable to see that justice was served.  Trayvon’s killer was set free, and the jury in Jordan’s case just couldn’t seem to find his killer guilty of murder.

It’s nearly impossible to have escaped media about both of the cases I have explained above.  While I am multiracial, I am here to tell you that the moment I came face to face with a crazy racist man while innocently pushing my little girl in her stroller – I felt very black.  I became extremely conscious of the color of my skin, and knowing the environment of my country right now, I was terrified.

Next time I go for a run, I will be carrying mace.  I don’t tell this story just to tell an interesting story.  I tell this story to prompt conversation.  I encourage everyone, regardless of your skin color, to think about how you can be a part of the change.  What needs to happen in our country so that racism is no longer acceptable.  What needs to happen so that a company like cheerios can make a commercial featuring an interracial family and NOT be subjected to negative racist comments?  What needs to happen to end these violent racially motivated murders?  What needs to happen to hold these murdering racists accountable?

We are all a part of this society – we all share this burden.  This is not a black issue, not a white issue, but an all of us issue.

 

 

 

 

 

Bode Miller’s All-American Fantasy – Family Court Style

This past week, I was reading through US Weekly while in the pumping room at work.  Typically, there isn’t enough time to actually read the articles so most of the time I just browse and look at the pictures.  When I saw the above picture, however, I nearly spilled breast milk all over myself.  Upon first glance, and if you don’t know the back story here, this just looks like a picture of a happy couple with their happy little baby.  The man is Bode Miller.  He is with his new wife, who is holding his son “Nate”.  What this picture doesn’t show, however, is that Nate’s name is actually Sam (Miller decided he didn’t like the name the child’s mother gave him, so he started calling him something else) and the chic holding him isn’t his mom.  Sam’s mom, ex-Marine Sara McKenna, is the woman who Miller describes as a “fling”.  A woman he treated like dirt upon finding out she was pregnant (see text message quotes below), and a woman he appears to be attempting to ignore as a permanent part of his son’s life.

Many American’s cheered for Miller during the Olympics – he was an alpine skier trying to set world records.  This  US weekly article paints Miller as a loving father who is fighting for custody to his son.  What it doesn’t mention, however, is what this man said to the mother of his child before he decided he wanted to take her to court.

“I’m not going to do this with u Sara. U made this choice against my wish and gave me no say. U are going to do this on your own.” Miller told the child’s mother, ex-marine Sara McKenna.

“Having a once a month Dad is not something he deserves, and you should take the chance to walk away while I am still agreeing to it.” Miller continued.

After the above text messages, McKenna decided to move to New York in order to pursue her degree.  Given what Miller said that he didn’t want to be a father, she went ahead and moved while she was pregnant.  After she moved, however, Miller changed his mind.  McKenna was then slammed by a New York judge for moving while pregnant.  The custody battle continues, but what is concerning to me is the dangerous precedent that appears to have been set in this case.  Now, in addition to women having to fight to protect their children, we are going to be told when and where we can travel while pregnant.  McKenna was essentially treated by the courts, and by Miller, as an incubator.  As soon as she had the baby, Miller started to call the child something else and flaunted his new wife as if she was the child’s biological mother.

What This Means:

As I looked at this picture, I tried to understand why it made me so damn angry.  It wasn’t the fact that Miller seemed happy with his new wife, or even that the new wife was holding the child (in an ideal world this child’s step mom should love him).  It was the fact that I can imagine how McKenna must have felt when she saw this picture.  So many women are seen by the court system as “scorned”, but instead of sloshing all of us off as scorned, try and imagine how it would feel to have the person you love most in life taken from you by someone who views you the way Miller obviously views the mother of his child.

Here is a man who basically told his ex to abort the child, and when he changes his mind – our courts hand him access on a silver platter.  Should he have contact with his child?  Of course he should.  He is his father, and by all indications he doesn’t appear to be dangerous.  That said, he should be encouraged by the courts (if not out right forced) to at least pretend to respect the child’s mother.  If he cannot even acknowledge the name the mother picked for the child (when he was mysteriously absent from the birth), this is clearly a problem.

When I was in court, I was terrified.  I was terrified that my son would be hurt (given the fact that people around my ex kept getting killed).  The other day, I tried to imagine how I would have felt if I hadn’t been as concerned about Prince’s safety.  How would I have felt if I just didn’t like Luc as a person, and didn’t think he would be a good influence on Prince.  How would I have felt if after treating me as someone he had just used and abused, he had thrown me aside as he moved in a new woman (and took family pictures with my son as if to show that I had been replaced).  I would like to believe that I would have been strong enough to just be happy that he loved my son, but I think the truth is – that might be asking too much of most of us.

Impossible Super Human Strength:

The courts continuously ask parents to lay their humanity at the doors of the court before entering the court room.  When we act human by crying or expressing fears, we are punished.  When we leave relationships where we are treated poorly, and then have to hand our children over to an abuser, we are scared.  When woman (and men) have to turn their children over to someone they cannot stand to even look at, it is going to cause tremendous pain – even if you know that your child should have access.  The courts do not punish parents for behavior that is not conducive to raise a child.  So most of the time, the co-parent is left in a position to just bite their tongue and try not to show the very raw human emotion that all of us would feel if put in the same situation.

This picture made me sad for all of the men and women who have safety concerns about the person with whom they are forced to co-parent.  It is sad and scary because Family Court is a place where emotions run high.  It is scary because even without a security concern, most people who have gone through Family Court would not be able to look at this photo and not get heated about it.

Looking at this picture made me terribly sad for this little boy.  He deserves to have his mother and his father.  Even if the two of them are not together, he deserves to have parents who can respect each other.  He deserves to be called by his birth name.

 

 

 

I am, I’m asking you to stay.

If you have read enough of my blog, you must know by now that I am an advocate for children.  What you may not know, however, is that right out of college I taught Elementary Special Education for two years in South Los Angeles.  I was a member of Teach For America.  While I didn’t continue to teach after my two years, I assure you that I was required to pass the same teaching exams and pursue the same teaching certification as those who were not affiliated with Teach For America.  In fact, I took it a step further than most and pursued a Master’s Degree in Special Education.

Before arriving at my school, my students had not had a permanent teacher in years.  After two years looping with many of the same students, I was able to exit many of them out of Special Education and back into the General Education classroom.  Most of my students achieved several grade levels of education in just one year.  I don’t give you this information to brag.  I was not an exceptional teacher by Teach For America standards – I achieved what was expected for the organization.  I wasn’t only able to do this because I was highly educated.  I achieved results because I was passionate about children, and I was supported by one of the best organizations this country has to offer.

Just past week, as I came across this blog post on my Facebook newsfeed.  The post is titled, “I am, I’m asking you to quit.”  This blog is written by a woman named Molly who describes herself as a “white female who was educated at a prestigious university.”  She also mentions that she is “riddled with privilege.”  For this reason, she believes that people like herself don’t belong in classrooms teaching children of color who don’t come from the same privilege.  She then goes on a rant about how terrible she believes Teach For America is for our nation’s children.  This week, I will explain in detail why I respectfully disagree with her.

 

1)  Children Need Good Teachers – Race Be Damned:  One of the arguments in the above linked blog article is that someone who is not a minority or someone who hasn’t experienced being “under privileged” has no business teaching students of color.  Does that mean that if you are not white you shouldn’t be teaching white children?  Should children only be subjected to teachers who have shared their exact experience?  This sound like an argument right out of the Jim Crow south.  Children need good teachers.  Good teachers come in all different colors.  If these schools housing TFA teachers waited around until they had qualified teachers, who all happened to be the same race and socio-economic status as the students, they would have a school in serious need of teachers.

2)  Training:  This blogger throws out a popular misconception about TFA (which leads me to believe she has no actual experience with the organization).  She argues that TFA throws inexperienced young adults in the classroom with only a few weeks of training.  First of all, before a TFA teacher even steps foot in a classroom, he/she must pass the statewide exam to ensure that they have enough knowledge to step foot in a classroom.  Next, TFA teachers go through a rigorous month long training before stepping foot into their classroom.  During this training, the teachers are mentored by senior teachers who assist in lesson planning, co-teach, and help prepare these teachers to take on their own classrooms.  Finally, as do ALL teachers, TFA teachers are required to pursue their certifications.  In the school where I taught, there were several non-TFA teachers who were pursuing their teaching certification while teaching.  TFA teachers often times go above and beyond pursuing just their teaching certification.  In fact, many of us got our Masters Degrees in Education in addition to our teaching certificate.  Along with going through all the same things non-TFA teachers do, TFA also provides its teachers with ongoing support throughout their years teaching.  To say that TFA teachers are not prepared to do their jobs is simply not true.

3)  Two Year Commitment:  It is true that TFA has a two year commitment requirement.  This might seem like no time for those who do not understand what is actually happening in the most under performing schools in our country.  At the end of my first year, I became one of the most senior teachers at the school where I was teaching – and this was NOT because there were too many TFA teachers at the school.  This was because I taught in South Los Angeles in a school that had an extremely high burn out rate.  That said, most of the people I came into TFA with are still teaching to this day.  Some of them are principals at schools, and all of them showed tremendous achievement in the classrooms where they taught.  Those of us who are not teaching, remain advocates for education equality.  I remain in contact with several of my students who I am now trying to help get into college.  My commitment to them didn’t end after my two years with the corp was finished.

4)  Resume Pad:  It is no secret that Teach For America looks good on a resume.  It is also no secret that TFA has become so highly competitive that many people want to be able to say they have gotten into the program.  That said, there is so much more to be gained than what is evident on a resume.  If someone enters the organization just looking for a notch on their resume, they will soon be weeded out when they realize how much the organization expects out of its corp members.  There are experiences I have gained from my two years teaching that I will never be able to capture in words let alone on my resume.  I learned a lot from my students in the years I spent in the classroom, and I truly believe they learned a lot from me.  I highly doubt that my students would mind that I proudly put Teach For America on my resume.

5) TFA Teachers Push Out Certified Teachers:  The schools where TFA sends its corp members are not the schools where teachers are standing in line to teach.  Students often come to you at least three grade levels behind where they should be, and many of them come to school hoping to receive the only meals they will get the entire day.  The certified teachers at the school, while there are many good ones, are a mixed bag.  One of the first grade teachers where I taught, who was certified and had been teaching for over ten years, would come in every day and read the newspaper while her students copied the alphabet from the board.  Every one of her students went on to the second grade without a shred of information from first grade.  She should have been pushed out of that school.

I remember my last day teaching like it was yesterday.  One of my students, who I fondly called President Hernandez, came to sit beside me on the playground.  I had been his teacher for two years.  I taught him how to read, and the next year he would be headed to a General Education classroom due to the significant gains he had made while in my class.  He looked up at me and asked, “Ms. McLeod…who is coming next?”  I wasn’t sure who would be coming next for President Hernandez, but I sincerely hoped it would be a Teach For America teacher.

 

 

 

 

Courage To Change The Things You Can

In the past few weeks, I have gotten several emails from women who are going through scary custody situations.  Many of them reach out to ask me what they should do.  They tell me how scared they are because Luc reminds them of their ex, and they fear that something terrible will happen to their children.  I have written on this topic before, but this is a topic that I think anyone who is going through a rough time can benefit from.

Let me first say this:  People have asked me how I am able to still continue to live after my son was brutally murdered.  I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but one thing I can assure you of is that I am NOT the strongest woman who has ever lived.  Every person has the capacity to make the best of their lives despite their circumstances.  I made the choice to keep living, but that is not to say that I didn’t have days where I wondered how I would survive.  I lived through many of those traumatic days while Prince was still living.

If you find yourself enduring legal abuse in the middle of a Custody War (or if you are living through another form of terrible trauma like the loss of a loved one), here are some tips that could help.  While these are things I wished I had heard, there is no rule book for this sort of trauma.  You have to do what works for you, and it might take a few tries at different things to get it right.

Find Your People:  When something devastating happens in your life, it helps to surround yourself by people who love you and have your best interest at heart.  For me this was family and a few close friends.  For some people, family might not be the first group of people you turn to.  Be wary of people who crawl out of their troll villas to make your pain worse.  There are many unhappy people out there who enjoy feeding off of the pain of others.  If you sense that you are connected to one of these people, remove yourself from their presence quickly and don’t look back.

Find Your Spirit:  For me, this involved going to church, and talking to my priest.  If church isn’t your thing, find a place where you can tap into your spirit and find some peace.  Praying helped me to remember that there were things that were out of my hands and that I was doing the best I could.

Take Care Of Your Mental Health:  If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.  Most parents who are in the midst of custody hell, try and focus on the children all the time.  They don’t realize that by not taking care of themselves, they are not doing the best they can for their children.  Children are like emotional sponges.  When you are anxious, your baby is anxious.  A terrible custody case can drive even the most sane individual mad.  Everyone who has traveled on a commercial airline has heard that if the air pressure in the plane changes, you are to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you attempt to put one on your child.  This is clearly so that you don’t pass out before you have the chance to help your child.  The same concept applies to mental health.  You cannot emotionally support your children through a stressful situation if you are an emotional wreck.

Enjoy Every Second With Your Child As If It’s Your Last:  What happened to my son was the worst case scenario.  I would never tell parents to expect the worst.  That said, don’t take the time you have with your child for granted.  When your children are around, enjoy the time you spend with them and try not to focus on worrying about the time when they will be with the other parent.  I distinctly remember spending hours on the phone with lawyers when I should have been spending that time with my son.  I cannot get those hours back now.

Lawyers Will Take All Of Your Money If You Let Them:  When I was going through the custody war, I always thought that if I could just make a little more money maybe I could protect my son.  There was a time when I was feeling guilty for spending money on food when I could be paying my attorneys.  One night, my attorney called and told me that if I didn’t pay them 5k by the end of the week, they would stop working on my case.  I cried on the phone telling them that I didn’t have anymore money, and his reply was that maybe I should ask friends or “rob a bank”.  I racked up credit card debt and drained my bank account because I believed this would save my son.  At the end of the day, it clearly didn’t save my son.  Lawyers will continue to take your money if you let them.  Try to find advocacy groups to help suggest pro bono help, and think about ways you can cut down on some of the unnecessary litigation.  Money doesn’t fix a broken system.  Don’t let your custody battle drive you to a financial place that negatively impacts the quality of your child’s life.

Finally, on my worst days, I read this prayer over and over:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

The courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.”

I know these words make many of us think of an AA meeting, but there are not many truer prayers you can say.  Unfortunately, shit happens – bad shit happens – and when bad shit happens…it sometimes gets worse.  Many times, there are a lot of things that are out of your control.  Handle the things you can handle, and let go of the things you cannot.

For months after my son died, I went over and over in my head about what I could have done to save him.  What I had to realize is that I couldn’t save him.  I also had to realize that no matter how much I obsessed about what happened, it wasn’t going to bring him back to life.  I could, however, change the way I lived my future.  I could choose happiness, and put one foot in front of the other.  Do I have days when I cry and don’t want to get out of bed?  Absolutely.

There are many things in my life that I regret, but I am so thankful that I was able to enjoy many moments with my son despite the terror that my entire family was living through when he was alive.  During these dark moments, hang onto the joy.  There is always joy – you just might need to dig a bit to find it.

 

 

Mama’s Little Travel Buddy

As some of you who follow my Facebook know, I just went back to work after three months of glorious maternity leave.  Two weeks ago, I decided to take Stela on a short vacation before I returned to work.  For those of you who are not in the US, I should note that we have terrible maternity leave laws.  In order to take off three months, I had to use up all my personal leave and take a month of unpaid leave (companies are only obligated to give you six weeks of short term disability).  So, needless to say, this was my last little vacation for a while.

 

My sister had an interview in Seattle, so me and Stela joined her for the trip.  For those who have flown with children, you can imagine my anxiety leading up to the big day.  I have never gotten the chance to take Prince flying, so I was in new parental territory with this one.  Given my daughter’s tendency to have diva moments, I had no idea what to expect from her on this trip.

The day of the big trip, we all woke up at three in the morning to make it to the airport in time for our zero dark thirty flight.  Stela woke up with crazy hair, but didn’t seem to mind being put back in the car seat for the ride to the airport.  On our way to the airport, I told my sister that I had read a book on flying with babies.  She made fun of my dorky parent side, but I was glad I read the book as it prepared me for some of the things I would encounter.  For those of you planning to travel with your baby, here are some things I learned from our trip.
1)  Don’t fly airlines that are not child friendly:  On the flight there, we flew Delta.  Delta was great!  They allowed all the families with small children to board first, and the staff offered to help carry things to make it easier and faster.  United, on the other hand, was not friendly.  We had the unfortunate experience of flying United on the return.  When I asked about pre-boarding, I was given the stink eye as the woman said, “we don’t do that here – you need to board with group four like your ticket says.”  To make matters worse, when I suggested to one of the flight attendants that they should allow families with babies to pre-board, he also gave me a sideways look and said, “babies slow things down.”
At this point I was irritated, and Stela was crying from being cold while waiting in the tunnel behind the rest of the plane.  When we finally got on the plane, several people had their bags in the middle of the aisle (because there was no more overhead space) and I tripped all the way back to my seat (with Stela in my arms).  News flash United (and all other airlines like this):  Allowing families to pre-board with their babies promotes safety.  By the time I got to my seat, I was nearly having an anxiety attack from having to avoid falling and Stela was cranky.
2)  Bring a carseat bag:  If you are not wealthy enough to purchase your baby a seat, bring a bag for the carseat so that you don’t get it back from the gate check with nasty airplane grease all over it.  We were lucky enough to have a seat for Stela on the first flight, but after that we had to check the carseat.  Considering that the bag went from red to black (from all the dirt), I am glad the carseat was bagged.
3)  Feed the baby on take off and landing:  Even though many of my readers gave me this wonderful advise, I was stupid and thought that the pacifier could take the place of the boob.  On the final leg of the trip, Stela was peacefully sleeping and sucking the pacifier.  I thought, ‘hmmm…since she is sleeping I really don’t want to wake her.’  About two minutes into the decent, Stela lost her mind.  She jerked awake, her eyes bugged out of her head, and she began to wail as if I was cutting off her head.  I immediately pulled out my boob (not caring about those who might be offended) and tried to stick it in her mouth.  It was too late though.  She was so upset from the pain that she began to slap me.  The crying didn’t stop until I forced gripe water into her mouth.  The swallowing made her ears pop.  Stela immediately stopped crying, and smiled as though she was thanking me for getting it together.
Stela was a wonderful little traveler.  She loved the plane noise, and smiled for most of the trip while cuddling her stuffed Llama.  We were able to take her touring around Seattle, on a short road trip to Portland to visit her half sister, and even took her on a winery tour.  Even though Stela loudly farted and spit up all over the floor in the middle of the tour of Chateau Ste. Michelle Winery, she was a real trooper and seemed to enjoy the scenery.
Back to work:  Two days ago, I started back to work.  For weeks before I went back, I have to admit that I was a bit in denial.  I have had a blast staying at home with my baby girl.  We have had one way conversations for weeks, and just two weeks ago she began to babble back to me as if she had been a part of the conversation the entire time.
Even though folks warned me that I might get teary on my first day back, I believed that there was no way I was going to cry about leaving my child with my mother.  I thought this until I found myself sitting in my car in the parking lot at work – crying my eyes out.  My daughter, on the other hand, was gabbing and smiling at my mother and seemed completely fine with this new working mom development.
I haven’t slept since I went back to work, so this post might have been a bit all over the place.  In conclusion, however, I want to offer a word of advice to all moms (and dads) who have a chance to spend some time at home with their babies:  Cherish every single second, because when you are trudging to work in sub zero weather while missing the smiles and coos you will be comforted by the fact that the time you spent was quality.  Also, go on vacation when your baby is young.  Once they get mobile, this will not be as easy.

The Legal Form Of Child Abuse

Before I get into this topic, let me put forth a few disclaimers:

1)  I know this topic is controversial, and some folks are going to disagree with me.  If you can’t handle someone disagreeing with you, you might not want to continue reading.

2)  I am not in the business of telling folks how to raise their children, so this post does not come with the intention of preaching to anyone.

3)  My intention with this post is to make people think, and to share my opinion on this controversial topic.

If you are still reading, then great!  Let’s begin…

About a week ago, I was talking with a friend about the topic of children’s civil rights.  My friend said, “Isn’t it strange how we allow people to spank their children, but if you spanked your spouse it would be assault?”  Even though I have given this topic lots of thought over the past few years, this comment blew me a away.  In that one sentence, it seemed like she had given a perfect example to the situation in which many children find themselves in.  A spouse who is hit has a way better chance at being protected.  That person can go to the police (assuming the police aren’t corrupt), go to a shelter, or possibly attempt to fight back.  A child, on the other hand, has no recourse.  Unless the parent who is hitting them leaves visible marks, the abuse could simply be explained away as legal spanking.

According to Wikipedia,  Corporal Punishment is defined as a form of physical punishment that involves the deliberate infliction of pain as retribution for an offence, or for the purpose of disciplining or reforming a wrongdoer, or to deter attitudes or behaviour deemed unacceptable. The term usually refers to methodically striking the offender with the open hand or with an implement, whether in judicial, domestic, or educational settings.

Currently, forty-one of the United States consider corporal punishment of minors within domestic settings lawful.  Delaware outlawed it as child abuse in 2012.  Twenty-one states allow some form of corporal punishment while twenty-nine have banned the practice.  (Check out this list of the places that still allow teachers to hit children.)  When I read that many states think it’s ok for a teacher to hit a child, I just about lost my shit.  Really??!?!  I won’t even get into what I would do if my daughter came home and told me a teacher hit her.

Spanking Does Not Work:  My parents had two different philosophies on parenting.  If we did something wrong, my Dad would spank us, and there was rarely any discussion about it.  Having been spanked a few times in my life, I can assure you it doesn’t work.  For example, I can count the times I was spanked as a child.  I remember the spankings, how I felt during the spanking, and how I felt after.  That said, I can’t remember the reasons why I was spanked.  If spanking intends to teach a lesson, shouldn’t the child be able to remember the lesson?  I was so afraid of being spanked that I often completely missed the lesson I was supposed to be learning.

My mother, on the other hand, never spanked us.  I can remember distinctly the times that my mother punished me, and I remember what I was being punished for too.  Her way of discipline involved follow through and respect.  When me or one of my siblings was acting like a maniac, my mom would simply say something like, “one more word out of you and you will be left home next time we do something fun.”  My lesson came around the age of 4.  I was losing my mind in the movie theatre.  My mother warned me, but at the time I clearly didn’t believe her.  My fit only lasted about 60 seconds before my mother picked me up and left the theatre.  She made a point of bringing my brother to the movies soon after, and she left me at home with a sitter.  I remember being so sure she was kidding up until the point when she left me at the door crying and begging to go.  Later that day, my brother came home with a milkshake bragging about how great the movie was.  The lesson was learned.

Spanking vs. Beating:  When my father was young, it was common for parents to send their children outside to get a branch before being hit.  While it might seen perfectly normal to slap your child’s hand to keep them from touching the stove, or grab them by the arm somewhat forcefully to catch them from running out into the street, there is nothing ok about beating your child with a tree branch or a belt.  I don’t think it’s possible to NOT leave a mark when hitting someone with a belt or a branch.  The danger in our laws is that many people don’t know the difference between spanking and beating.  Our laws embolden abusive people, and leave many children feeling helpless and unsafe.  There is nothing in the law that states that people who cannot control their anger cannot spank.  In fact, our law makes it so that people believe they have the right to do whatever they want to their children.  That is…until the child turns up critically injured or dead.

I don’t believe that just because you choose not to hit your child, that child will then be out of control.  When I was a teacher, some of the most out of control children I had in my classroom where children who were being hit at home.  These children often repeated the same poor behaviors, even after their parents hit them.  When I walked into that classroom on the first day, I had a student throw a book at my head and another one run out of class and try to jump the fence to go home.  After a month as their teacher, however, I had them marching to lunch and asking permission to use the restroom.  I did this without spanking them, so why shouldn’t a parent be able to do that too?

I often think about the type of mother I want to be, and how I would like my daughter to see me.  I want my daughter to respect me, and I don’t want her respect for me to be tangled in fear.  I want her to know that I respect her, and I want her to feel safe.  I hope that she will tell me when there is a problem, and I don’t want her to worry that I will beat her up.  My daughter will know that I am a woman of my word.  She will grow up not wanting to disappoint me, and she will know right from wrong.  She will also know that even though our society may not respect the civil rights of a child, her mother does.

In December 2010, Luc struck his older son on the back so hard that the child had a bruise in the shape of Luc’s ring.  The child went to school and told his teachers about the abuse, and after some short court proceedings Luc was let off with no more than a slap on the wrist.  Luc was told that it was legal to spank your child, and that next time he should just be sure not to leave a mark.  Less than two years after that incident, Luc killed his youngest child.

Imagine living in a country where it were legal to spank your spouse.  Imagine it being legal to spank your spouse, and then one day finding yourself in a relationship with an abusive person.  Imagine having a bruise on your body, and your spouse being told by the police that the next time he beats you he should just make sure he doesn’t leave a mark.  That feeling you are getting right now in your gut just imagining what that would be like…that is likely not even half as terrifying as the feeling many children live with every day because of our laws.

Be the person you want your child to become.  Now let’s start some real discussion about how we treat children.