My Reward, My Punishment… My Son – Sons of Divorce

by Steven Manchester

boy portrait
son © cdrcom – All rights reserved.

Several long years ago, I fell head-over-heels in love.

“Congratulations!” the doctor exclaimed, “You have a healthy baby boy!” Overwhelmed, I took him in my arms and carefully inspected the fragile, squirming gift. Ten fingers, ten toes and the wail of a siren made my eyes fill with tears. He was beautiful, absolutely perfect, and the endless possibilities for the future washed over me like a magical tidal wave. I cried for the dreams we’d share together and the lessons I was anxious to impart: Baiting a hook, hitting a curve ball, being a gentleman without being a weak man…all of it. I was sure that this boy was my reward for every good intention I’d ever had. What I didn’t realize, however, was that our dreams were solely contingent upon the success of my marriage…

It’s been said that most relationships don’t end in a sudden burst of anger or betrayal. Rather, like a panting dog, love collapses exhausted at the base of walls that can no longer be hurdled. In my case, with my son still in diapers, “irreconcilable differences” escorted me from my comfortable recliner into a world of living torment.

Though equally hurt, we decided to act like real adults and “do what was in the best interest of our child.” This, I discovered, would prove impossible, as “the best interest of our child” was as different in our minds as our ideas for saving the marriage. Almost instantly, my newly estranged wife considered our son her closest ally and determined that she and the boy were a package deal. She couldn’t see the separation. My son was hers and if I wasn’t with her, then I was merely an outsider. In essence, if she and I were to be separated, so were he and I. The nightmare had begun…

While our innocent baby boy sang along with Barney, my wife and I went to court; an intimidating place designed to bring justice to criminals; a horrifying place where truth can prove as rare as an attorney willing to tell it. At 150 dollars an hour and in no hurry to resolve our differences, both lawyers muttered half-truths, while a stranger dressed in black robes allowed nearly fifteen minutes to decide our future. I panicked and cleared my throat… I was swiftly threatened into silence.

Before it started, it was over. Society’s views would inevitably dictate the outcome: My new ex-wife was a little girl; a victim who cried more easily, while relying on the maternal bonds (we all cherish) to bring her victory. I, on the other hand, was naturally bigger; nothing more than the breadwinner, who unfortunately represented the same gender that historically abandoned its kids. With nothing for me to do but watch, my entire world was slowly dismembered, piece-by-bloody-piece.

With no apologies and even less compassion, the judge issued a punishment harsher than any prison term, while the haunting crack of the gavel sealed the cruel deal: I could take my son on loan, two nights a week and every other weekend! I was in shock! I’d heard the brutal rumors, read the frightening stories, but still, I couldn’t believe it. Yet, there I stood: A man who was being criminalized for committing no crime; a trembling father who was no more than one-half of a relationship that no longer worked.

“I suggest that you work together with regards to your son’s education, religious aspirations, activities,” the judge concluded with an empty smile.

I glanced over at my EX. She grinned.

“The judge went easy,” my attorney whispered, “you’ve been given standard visitation.” WENT EASY? I was enraged, and still paying this idiot to defend rights that were never mine.

The EX called the shots now. Due to one simple chromosome, from here on, my love would be valued less. Reality tasted like broken glass. For the first time since my son’s birth, I silently wept.

Not long after we left court, reality set in…

There was a strange support from those who cared to listen, but it was equally infuriating. “I would have done this… And I would have said that…” most boasted, but these were only the words of people who’d never experienced child custody, or perhaps, from those who valued their pride more than their own offspring. In either case, it didn’t matter. Their opinions were empty and valued as such. I felt completely alone.

And so it went: I’d take my son for our court-ordered visits, only to drop him off two hours later, so another man could bounce him off his lap. Ironically, each new boyfriend was given all the time he wanted with my son. At first, it killed me, but I decided, “Whatever’s best for my boy. His happiness must come first!” Though it stung terribly, that attitude sustained me all the way to Christmas.

I waited in my old driveway for 4 excruciating hours, while three inches of snow muffled the screams from the cab of my truck. When they finally pulled in, my ex-wife snickered, “I must have lost track of time?” and handed over my son. I was livid! My boy was dead tired and half-asleep. And the EX…well…she just grinned, confident that there was nothing I could do about it. It took everything I had left to conceal my tears. I didn’t plan to give her anything for Christmas and was doing my best to stick to the plan.

Days turned into weeks, as I tried to contend with my son’s misguided guilt of his parents being separated. It wasn’t easy. I only had a fraction of her time to soothe him. In the meantime, nothing seemed to ease the spite of a woman who had no qualms about using our child as a pawn in her cruel games. She had custody, so the boy was constantly used as a tool to negotiate for more. While I was fighting for just visitation, she was going for $$$…as much as she could get!

Weeks turned into months and if at all possible, things got even worse. Put simply: Imagine that the person who hates you most controls the person you love most? She would bash my character, using our son as her sounding board. I understand the intensity of emotions, even the darkest feelings, but this behavior never made sense to me. For every derogatory word directed at a child’s father, isn’t half of whom that child is- also insulted? On the flip side, there could be no comparable reply without compromising the invaluable lessons of honor. Boys don’t talk badly about their Moms and understand respect! Knowing this, I never reciprocated my wife’s vicious slander. She, however, made it a sport to stain the very name our child called his own.

As time dragged on, several mysteries were solved: When a person demonizes another, it evidently frees up their conscience to justify almost anything. (I suppose no one looks in a mirror and sees a demon looking back?) In our case, words like abandonment were forever used to mold me into a monster, often permitting acts of great greed and cruelty. I was at the whimsical mercy of one who was consumed with hateful vengeance. And through it all, she convincingly swore, “I need to protect my son. I need to put him first.” PROTECT HER SON FROM HIS OWN LOVING FATHER?!! Perhaps it’s human, but she could never understand that being a father was a whole separate business from being a husband.

The playing field was so damn uneven! Everything I’d ever been taught; everything that made me who I was, raged inside of me to lash out. I wanted to go to war with her, I truly did, but the same recurring question always halted me: Do I pull on the boy until he breaks in half? The answer, of course, was no. The only thing I really could do was my best, and hope that (in time) he’d know the depth of my love for him.

This worked for a while, but eventually, I was getting beaten so badly that I had no choice. I put up my gloves. We went back to court.

As I painfully recall, I was allowed (briefly) to explain all that I missed because my ex-wife considered the visitation order a suggestion and not a court mandate. In turn, she lied and vowed that she never interfered with visitation; never slandered my name to our son; blah, blah, blah. The judge’s shaking head couldn’t decide the difference between fact and fiction. In the end, no one in the courtroom could and oddly enough, it didn’t seem abnormal for the setting. With a stern reprimand for us both, we were dismissed back to our own agendas. My ex-wife had won again!

At every level, I was at a serious disadvantage. I was struggling financially and begging to be more involved in my son’s life. As a last resort, I conducted some frantic research. The years of gathered statistics were sobering: Very few women had ever been fined, or jailed, as a result of being held in contempt of court for withholding a child from visitation. In the blurry vision of the court, it was considered a punishment for the child as well. I’d learned: There are many perceptions of the same truth, while in court; the only one that mattered was the judge’s. These truths had finally worn discouragement down to disheartenment. I had to ask: If victory is a guaranteed impossibility, why ever enter the ring again? The answer turned my heart to stone.

For all intents and purposes, my son’s mother had been granted complete and total control, making life pure hell! No matter her games or punishments for me, there was never any true recourse. When confronted, she would simply laugh. “Wanna go back to court?” she’d bark. This little girl had been empowered to all ends; a prime example that our “we” society had finally, and completely, surrendered to our “Me” society.

The months crawled into years. As I look back, I guess it’s the little things that hurt most: I’d practice baseball with him, only for her to storm the field after his last game, snatching up his trophy so that I’d never see it. There were Christmas’ when I’d play Santa for a little boy who had been kept up all night by his Mom’s family. Each year, he was too exhausted to enjoy the holiday with me, or mine. And every school year, I was forced into begging to see his report card, as she was convinced, “You don’t care about his grades. If you did, you would’ve never abandoned US!” The examples are endless, though I’m not sure they matter anymore.

What does matter and always will, however, are the many poor decisions made because I no longer had a say. My son was, and still is, being raised by a woman who could never understand what it’s like to be a boy, or what it takes to become a man. Sure, she’s taught him how to bake moist Brownies and the joys of sitting around the kitchen table chatting with the ladies, but she could never teach the sacred rites of passage into manhood: How to protect himself without starting a fight…the glorious list is endless. In short, dirt and worms and slingshots are taboo in her world, as they should be, but in the end, it’s not her world that suffers. It’s our son’s.

As if God blessed my son’s life to only one; his mother, I still struggle to help him retain the half of his identity which came from me; a half also filled with family and tradition. To make matters worse, when any responsibility for my son’s upbringing was taken from me, it became incredibly dangerous for me to discipline him, or be the father God intended me to be. I remember wishing I had the same rights I watched my ex-in-laws enjoy. The more time that passed, however, the less I kept watch. Even I knew I had been castrated in fatherhood. How could I possibly teach a boy to be a man when many of these attributes were stripped from me long ago?

In the real world, bitter angry words fall on deaf ears, so silence has watched the months tick off the years. All the while, life has been cheated of the many magical moments shared between a father and his son. In my darkest nightmares, I could have never imagined watching the childhood of my own blood whip by, while strangers told me (along with those who didn’t wish me well) that my input as a father would be limited and my role as a Dad reduced to that of a visiting friend. Yet, it happened! And through it all, the same awful question has haunted me: There was never any question about the value of a mother’s love, but at what point did a father’s love become valued less? I’m yet to find a reasonable answer.

Though tragic, I now look forward to my son becoming a grown man. I honestly long for the time when our relationship will no longer be controlled by the ever-changing moods of one hateful person. I wish this, even though I know the best years will be fast-forwarded!

As much as I wanted to avoid appearing bitter, it has obviously proven impossible. But you must understand! My dreams, my hopes, my loves…my very future, are found in my son. Once he was taken, all was lost, and it’s nearly impossible to grieve someone you still see from time-to-time! In a comically twisted sense, my ex-wife finally found enough ways to share her wonderful gift. It’s taken years, but I understand her now. Resentment is a difficult demon to slay.

In closing, as a result of my painful experiences and tormented research, I am saddened to report that we live in a fatherless society today, where many of our children are void of a male influence. In reality, though, abandonment is not the primary cause. Rather, thousands of alleged deadbeat and apathetic Dads stand in the shadows, wishing they could fulfill the most precious responsibility God could ever impart: To raise a child; their child. Instead, they have been forced to atone for the sins of their forefathers.

I suppose the most stiffening truth is that the majority of men are only one decision; one single choice away from being where I am.

The shocking part is that this decision probably won’t be theirs to make!

-Evan and Jake’s Dad