I’ve lived two lives. The former was one riddled with despair, worry and constant frustration. The beginning of adulthood for me was a bite much bigger than I could chew. Just 22 years old, a new mother of twins finishing a BA at NYU, I found myself in the middle of a custody battle with the father of my children.
It was the single worst year of my life counted against other years: my father’s battle with cancer, his subsequent death, bouts of unemployment and romantic relationships gone sour. In that year, thoughts of suicide were rampant. I forgot to eat and my weight dwindled down to 90 pounds. My clothes draped over my bone-thin frame like I was playing dress up in my mother’s closet. Instead I was consistently headed to a courtroom to fight the good fight.
I spent money I had and money I didn’t have on lawyer fees and “courtroom clothes” and spent sleepless nights researching cases similar to mine. Could I really lose custody of my babies? I devised ways to get the upper hand. A diaper rash wasn’t just a common diaper rash if it was on his watch. Every conversation I had that year was about my “situation”. I started weekly therapy sessions to gain back control over my health and pleaded for drugs, but I was denied. I vaguely remember the babies. Ironically, I completely missed the first year of their lives worried about missing the rest.
Years later, when I watched Halle Berry’s custody fight play out on screen, I remembered that life of mine with disdain and winced in pain. Halle Berry. The bombshell beauty who married and divorced twice was a victim of bad choices in her first marriage and sexual infidelity in her second. After several televised romances, she vowed never to marry again, crept into her forties, and then met model Gabriel Aubry with whom she birthed a baby girl, Nahla. The union did not last long sealing the beauty’s misfortune in romance, and the struggle to maintain control over her daughter’s life ensued. I could only imagine the agony on Halle’s part at the thought of losing someone she had waited so many years to love. But pain is always subjective.
Deion Sanders won temporary custody of his two boys earlier this year after he alleged that his wife Pilar locked their sons in a room. Usher’s fight and subsequent win of custody of his two boys rose questions for me about his own integrity. Any mother can imagine Tameka Raymond’s pain of losing two children in a custody battle after having lost a third to death just weeks before. Fathers rear children, but mothers own them. Or at least they believe they do. Halle Berry, Pilar Sanders, and Tameka Raymond may have appeared to have it all together, entering the courtroom with hair perfectly placed, makeup flawless. Even Pilar’s mugshot was gorgeous. But no photo can capture the turmoil on the inside, blood racing through their veins, emotions running high, stress heavy like bricks on their hearts at the fear of losing their prized possessions.
The double standard here and abroad is that a mother is entitled to custody in a parental split unless there are situations such as drug addiction, neglect, absence of a stable home or mental illness. A father having custody is not the norm and when he does, it’s seen as some heroic act of nobility. He must have been doing something right.
Dwyane Wade recently released his book, A Father First and recounts his fight to win custody of his children. Usher went on to document his triumph on “Oprah’s Next Chapter”. But mothers caring for children on their own don’t tend to write tell-all books. They don’t headline TV specials. They just raise kids. Usher publicly responded to claims of cheating with his wife’s bridesmaid with “We had exchanges.” It confirmed for the masses that Tameka, in fact, was not lying and only compounded the emotions she must have felt in the divorce proceedings. But it is hard for couples to circumvent feelings for each other when sharing child rearing responsibilities.
The real subject that often gets lost in between courtroom screaming matches and tear-stained pillows are the children. A question of their well-being mimics the Republican Party’s slogan this year. Are they better off? Morals can often get lost when vying to maintain custody of children and it becomes a battle to see who will win and who will lose and leaves true concern for the children at the door.
Deion and Pilar’s divorce drama is like another installment of War of the Roses—domestic abuse, gag orders and jail time. All of this and three young children are stuck in the middle. The couple has definitely seen happier times including their reality show “Prime Time Love” in 2008. It’s either an example of feigned feelings or fleeting feelings. When you love someone, the love never dissipates. But for those on the outside looking in, the evidence thereof is gone and all that is left are bitter feelings, a lot of anger and resentment. Even for the couple in question, a look back at the battle several years removed from it proves an out of body experience.
Anyone who has children has witnessed the beauty of the child mind. They love their parents. Even if the parents are bad, the children simply don’t know how not to love them. The role of both the father and the mother is vital in a child’s life and custody disputes become much easier to navigate sans the courtroom when both parents come to terms with that very fact. Children are to be raised, not owned since the idea of one human being owning another ended with the abolition of slavery. When a couple learns to view their children as an undertaking, rather than a possession, the responsibility shifts to being a caregiver, a good steward over the immense task of raising a child. In this view, it is easier to see the benefits of both parents’ contributions, and the question evolves from How can I win this thing? to How can I support the children’s best interests even if it means me living outside the home?
I’ve lived two lives. It is because the former one was so vastly different from the one I live today that it seems it was in another space and time, a different me, if you will. I retained primary custody of my twins, and now six years later, my concern is not so much how the split has affected me, but how my decisions have affected my children, my true loves. Seeing their eyes light up to have both Mommy and Daddy in their lives reminds me daily, why would I want anything but…
Herina Ayot is a freelance writer living in Jersey City, NJ. She is currently working on a novel based loosely on her own life titled “The Content of Things Undone.” Follow her on Twitter @ReeExperience.