Imagine a person holding their child’s hand and walking through the park on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The sun is out, the air is warm and clean, like just after a spring rain. While there is a quiet, still calmness, a few details stand out—children laughing, giggling loudly as they are playing with others their own age. Sunshine reflects off of everything, making every color pop and look like something you’d see inside a Crayola crayon box. In the distance, the horn of an ice cream truck. The shout of “Look at me!” as the children climb the monkey bars for the first time by themselves, followed soon a shriek of joy as they take the plastic spiral slide to the bottom. It’s late afternoon on a Sunday at the park, and the day could not be more perfect.
Brian likes to watch his kids run and play at this park. The apartment he lives in since the divorce last year is anything but spacious. While it is in a nice complex, the kids who live there don’t always have the best parents. Brendan and Morrigan are six and four, blonde haired and blue eyed, just like Brian, and they both have his wild-eyed enthusiasm for the outdoors and the world around them. He watches his boy run faster and faster, then slip in the grass. Morrigan, always a princess, laughs at her brother and smiles up at her dad. “He’s not very good is he? I can run fast too,” she says, and then runs after her brother. Both of them laugh like the world will stay like this forever.
Brian looks at the display on his phone and prays to whatever God might be listening that time would just stop. Not freeze everything like in some bad science fiction story, just stand still for a little while longer so he doesn’t have to go through this again. Even the faintest hope of it seems worth praying for. Sundays with his kids are the one day he gets to be part of a world that has nothing to do with bills, a job, traffic, and all the other things that make our lives harder than it needs to be. This time he has with his kids is the one thing that keeps him going in the world.
…And then it’s gone.
“Are they ready to go?” says a terse, sharp voice from behind him. Even before he can respond, she’s already hollerin, “C’mon kids, time to go.” Sarah has arrived on the scene, ready to take the kids back for another twelve days. Twelve days of her short tempers, scathing remarks about Brian to her kids, dirty clothes, reused paper plates, head lice breakouts, daycare incidents, and whatever the hell else Sarah comes up with or neglects this time. She’s a bitter, angry woman who wants to go back to her home in San Diego with the kids, but Brian gets them every other weekend because the parenting plan decrees it so. She has never, nor will she ever, forgive him for it. The thinly-veiled hostility she feels towards him weighs heavily in the air, like a schoolyard bully ready to punch someone. Without even looking at him, she knows how to hit him where it hurts.
“Please don’t say it, please don’t say it, please oh dear Lord please…” Brian thinks over and over in his mind.
“Say goodbye to Daddy,” Sarah says.
I watch this man try not to break. I watch him hold it together as best he can. I watch in sheer amazement at the act he has to put on so that Sarah doesn’t put the kids in her car and drive off to California, never to be seen again. His kids run to him, and as if some long-forgotten god listened and answered Brian’s prayer, time slows down if only for a few seconds. From seven feet away I can feel the impact of these kids as they run into his arms, hugging daddy fiercely. The gods must be feeling generous because time stops. No one breathes, no one flinches, and it is there for everyone to see, the connection between this man and the two children that he loves more than his own life. At this moment, Brian is like the rocks of Stonehenge, because nothing can knock him down.
I look at Sarah’s face, and all I can see is loathing and disdain. However good of a front she puts up, I can see what is making the knife twist. Behind whatever animosity she may feel towards Brian, it cannot block out the envy she feels at the connection he has with those kids. Our eyes meet and she looks at me mystified, in no way understanding how he makes this strong of a bond in the short two days that the three of them have together. Part of her wants to cry, another wants to scream, and something else that is just too dark for me to fathom flows across her face like a storm. It’s like the human part of her wants to connect with them, be a part of this joy, this whole family, but some inner demon just will not let her. I feel bad for her, but then I remember all the atrocities she put Brian through during their divorce, and any link between me and whatever compassion I could feel for her fades away.
The answered prayer fades and time starts up again. Brian lets go of his kids and the sunlight around us is just not as bright any more. He kisses them both and says, “I love you two so much,” He holds their hands as he walks them to Sarah’s car. Brian buckles them into their car seats and makes sure they’re safe. With a quick kiss once more to both he says, “I’ll see you in two weeks,” and then steps away from the car.
“Brendan needs shoes. He’s in another growth spurt. Send me a check so I can get him some will you?” Sarah says to Brian.
“Why didn’t you tell me this yesterday? I could have gotten him some. There’s a Fred Meyer’s just up the street. Let’s go now and get him taken care of. If his feet hur—“
“I said send me a check,” she barks at him. “$85 should cover it.”
“EIGHTY FIVE DOLLAR FOR SHOES FOR A SIX YEAR OLD?!?!? Hell no, I’ll buy them BOTH shoes for that kind of money.”
Sarah sighed. “Have it your way,” she replies icily.
That was yesterday, Easter Sunday, a day when people are supposed to be nice to each other. I guess for some people they get to spend time with their kids coloring eggs and eating chocolate. Some people get to watch their kids walk away with someone they don’t trust, or have their children’s best interest at heart. Brian and I watched Sarah drive off and we sat in silence wishing things could be different.
“How do you feel?” I found myself asking. I felt like as ass for asking because I already knew, but I just could not bear to watch him sit there in silence with this gnawing rage eating his bones and tormenting his soul.
Brian lit a cigarette, the only one he allows himself after every weekend with watching his kids leave. “I feel like I’ve been told to run for my life, and then had my kneecap shot off with a twelve gauge filled with rusty nails and hate. How are YOU doin?”
I had no words that would mean anything compared to what I just saw. We sat at the park, he with his cigarette and me looking at the pictures of my son in my phone. I listened to him breathe in and out, watching the smoke pour from his nose like an angry Looney Toons character, only minus the funny. All I could do is sit there and be his friend, hoping that would be enough.
Brian goes through this every twelve days. He sees his kids on the sufferance of a person who resents him at almost a molecular level. Twelve days is a long time for him, something that stretches out and moves slower than molasses in January. He finds things to keep himself busy; he goes to work and buries himself, he goes to night school and buries himself even more, and in the in between moments he eats, sleeps, and does whatever he can to not think about how his kids are doing. Have they had a bath? Have they eaten a real meal? Do they have clean clothes? What horrible thing is Sarah saying now?
I have no idea how he copes otherwise, but there he is day after day chasing the next ray of hope which the rest of us call every other weekend. When you are missing your heart, twelve days is a long time.
Brian is suffering from what divorced parents are seeing more and more of in today’s custody rights issues, this issue of marginalization. This is the oppressive and unhealthy, yet completely legal, act of separating children from a parent for extended periods of time. This is done in the name of stability, regardless of the trauma it might cause. It incorporates time and distance between children and their parents, inflicting unnecessary damage to an already traumatized relationship. Mix in negative reinforcement from a bitter former spouse, and the marginalized parent has almost no chance at being a positive influence in their child’s life.
Article 16 of the UDHR states:
(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses. (3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
The element that is being overlooked here is that of dissolution of the marriage. While men and women have equal rights to found a family, this dissolution thereof becomes a challenging issue for parents, men specifically. Out of one hundred families, sixteen result in divorce. Three out of those sixteen cases result in fathers having fifty percent custody of their children. Less than one of those three has full custody. If the family is to be a “natural and fundamental group unit of society” as Article 16 states, then at the dissolution the rights of both parents must be upheld.
Marginalization runs deep in the state of Washington. It is an injustice based in prejudice and assumption. In legal circles, Washington State is notorious for siding with mothers, making no apologies for its rulings or treatment towards Fathers. Some legal groups say that Fathers only have a chance after spending their life savings, and even then it’s less than fifty – fifty. Some private citizens have created paternal support groups for fathers at little to no cost, seeing it as more important to fight an injustice than make a profit. Therefore by abolishing the practice of marginalization and removing the dreadful stigma unjustly associated with fathers, we can move forwards towards a better society.