A Tempest Brewing

In this chapter I recount the failure of the 2003 Stipulation and my return to court in 2006.

6. A Tempest Brewing
David Weiss, December 10, 2010 (Day 12 of the fast)

With the new stipulation freshly in place, the summer of 2003 was like a dream. Compared to the twenty-eight days of placement time in 2002, each of them purchased dearly with blood, sweat—and plentiful tears, in 2003 my daughter and I enjoyed 40 days together. And I mean enjoyed. We gardened, traveled to visit grandparents and friends, swam, took in the Minnesota Zoo, the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum and the State Fair.

My daughter (now 7) attended a pottery class, from which the seascape clock she proudly fashioned still ticks with playful (and timely) beauty in our dining room. She spent hours jumping rope (perhaps for joy) and playing on her swing set (one that her brother and I had made in Iowa and disassembled to bring with us to Minnesota). Our family has always been a game-playing family and 2003 will be remembered by all of us as the summer of Life®. It was not the only game we played, but it was by far her favorite. And each day ended with a near sacred ritual of father-daughter bedtime stories. These were grand days.

We moved through the coming school year without incident. Negotiating the school year schedule was not easy, but with the aid of her pastor it happened—and on time. Summer 2004 arrived, with another luxurious expanse of time (this year 41 days), and we moved into it with abandon.

This summer featured Vacation Bible School and being in a summer musical, more books and games, another trip to visit grandparents in Indiana, and a glorious family vacation to the Grand Canyon that included her brother and one step-sister as well. But perhaps most significantly, this is the summer she learned to ride a two-wheeler.

This was a huge accomplishment and needs a word of explanation. My daughter was born with a congenital defect in one optic nerve; it leaves her functionally blind in one eye. She can see light and dark and general shapes, but she cannot focus on anything—at all. It means that she has no true depth perception. Over the years her body—and brain—have learned to compensate using other cues. But as a young child, every attempt at bike-riding was a terrifying experience of moving from one two-dimensional frame into the next into the next. She couldn’t accurately anticipate bumps or branches, and every little wobble must have felt like crashing from one plane into another.

For the three previous summers I had worked endlessly with her during our time together. I had occasionally fallen with her as well. My knees—banged by both pedals and pavement as I ran behind—were more than ready for success. And her hope was fading. But that summer, somehow, she found her balance. She became the bike. And her smile was as wide as the sidewalk on which she rode with sheer joy. To this day, bike-riding, for both of us, remains a labor of love.

Now 8 years old, she began to ask persistently, over each placement, why she couldn’t have more time with me during the summer. She reasoned, fairly enough, that since she was with me so little during the school year, why shouldn’t she have more of the summer with me. I knew that wouldn’t fly, so I chose to encourage her simply to relish the time we had together.

However, that desire to have more time with me apparently manifested itself back in Wisconsin as well. Not in verbalized questions, but in sullenness for a day or two after returning there, and in outbursts and occasional tantrums in the days before I picked her up. I never saw these. They were not part of her repertoire in Minnesota. I never knew they were happening. I did know that my ex had a two-person household with plentiful rules and a child over which she reigned supreme—not harshly, but with expectations about everything. In our home, with four teenagers and two parents who lived with great intention, but also with flexibility and a high regard for joy, she savored a freedom that was hardly reckless, but tasted delicious to her childlike wonder.

I do not know, but I suspect that the sullenness that troubled the other household was rooted in the turning off of that freedom each time she re-entered her Wisconsin home. And I suspect that it was her mother’s anticipatory edginess over an approaching pick-up, an edginess—a sharpness I knew for years—that could easily trigger outbursts in a child feeling her growing excitement met with maternal disapproval.

In any event, without my knowledge, my ex took our daughter to a child psychologist that summer for these “behavior problems.” She suggested they were the by-products of visits to her father’s house. And she asked the psychologist not to tell me that she was treating my daughter. Within three months the psychologist had decided that the behaviors were indeed “triggered” by my daughter’s anxiety over making another trip to her father’s—but she never sought to include me in any way in her “therapy.” For more than fifteen months my daughter was treated, without my involvement, consent, or even knowledge, for behaviors diagnostically “tied” to my household. Her outbursts were framed to the therapist entirely by the mother who had a history of such outbursts herself, and my daughter had no voice besides her own small 8 year-old voice to offer a broader perspective.

These months of therapy were a crime against her, if you ask me. She was “treated” for making what seem to me to be legitimate responses to the strange bifurcated world in which she moved. But because my voice, my insights, and my awareness of her history (and her mother’s) were entirely excluded from consideration, the therapist can only be said to have mis-treated her in the worst way. She was utterly disempowered by these two adults, her mother and her therapist. She was taught to feel blame for her legitimate responses, to suppress them, and to feel good about squeezing herself into a world far too small for her spirit.

The school year (2004-2005) passed without any major disputes, but a tempest was brewing.

The four summer placements in 2005 were filled with joy as usual, but were also marked by bitter tears at each ending. My daughter wept, claiming each time, “But I’m not ready to go back!” She desperately wanted more time with me, with Margaret, with the brothers and sisters who had fully become her family here. She was thriving on what our family offered her and she couldn’t understand what was wrong with wanting more. At some point, neither could I.

Initially, I told her that I didn’t believe this was something her mother would ever agree to. In her innocence she reassured me, “Mom always tells me that she just wants me to be happy, and if I tell her that I’d like to have more of my summers here, I’m sure she’ll say ‘Okay.’” I said it was more complicated than that. Undeterred, she asked her mother straightforward about it sometime in August 2005. Her biting reply, “Well, then maybe we should just pack up all your things and take you to your dad’s and drop you off. Is that what you want?” frightened my daughter back into line. Back into silent submission. And gave her another lesson in the “complexity” of parental love.

In the fall of 2005 I asked to begin a conversation with my ex about two matters.

One seemed simple enough. Since 2003 I had been an invited teacher at the annual week-long Twin Cities Young Authors Conference. Held on a local college campus at the end of May, the conference brought over 1000 middle-school and junior high students in by bus each day to participate in writing workshops with gifted authors. I taught poetry workshops. My daughter knew this and was eager to attend as my guest for a day next May. It would mean pulling her out of class for a day in Wisconsin, but in Minnesota nearly 5000 kids were pulled out of class each year to attend. It was a single day, a worthy extra-curricular event, and a special treat to do with dad. Although my ex framed her response in these terms, “I’m not convinced it’s a good enough reason to pull her out of school for a day,” I would guess it was that last aspect, “a treat to do with dad” that made her nix the idea.

The other matter I knew would be contentious. But for my daughter’s sake, to honor the tears she wept so fiercely all summer, I broached the idea of increasing her summertime with me. This request was met with dead silence. My phone calls were hung up on. My letters went unanswered. My ex would not discuss either the Young Authors Conference or summer placement at all. The issues weren’t simply closed. In her mind they simply weren’t.

When I reminded her that our stipulation now obligated us to use mediation to address conflicts we couldn’t resolve on our own, she replied, “We don’t have anything to mediate. We have a stipulation that tells you exactly what times you have her. There’s nothing more to discuss.” Click.

As the fall wore on I dreaded a return to court, but I dreaded even more consigning my daughter’s desires to that damningly familiar dance of avoiding her mother’s insecurity and anger. I gave notice that I would file a motion to hold my ex in contempt for not going to mediation. She did nothing. I filed the motion in early December and she responded by hiring a new attorney to represent her.

Prior to the January hearing date her attorney explained to the court commissioner that this was all a misunderstanding. Her client wasn’t even aware that there were any issues to be mediated. (This was a flat out lie.) But that, of course her client would be willing to join me in mediation if that was needed. So the hearing was canceled and the court gave me the name of a well-respected family mediator to schedule an appointment with. I was actually making this stipulation work! And unawares I was basking in a purely pyrrhic victory.

We met with the mediator in February. I entered hopeful. I left dismayed. My ex made one-sentence responses to every question asked. Her body was present, but nothing more. Any conciliatory desire to reach agreement had been left out in the car. Or back at house. The mediator suggested that we seek some input from our daughter (now a month shy of turning 10) about her desires. My ex vetoed that idea immediately. The mediator proposed that we might receive such input indirectly via her therapist, and that we could meet with her together to hear her thoughts. In the only animated display of the session, my ex make emphatically clear that she would NOT be in the same room with the psychologist and me. And that further, she would not agree to allow the therapist to provide a written report, and that finally, she would not even commit to listening to anything the therapist might have to say on the matter. “It isn’t her role to tell us what she thinks our daughter wants.”

Throughout the two-hour session she stated repeatedly, “We have a stipulation. If we all just abide by it, everything is okay. There’s nothing more to discuss.” She asserted that nothing in the 2003 stipulation allowed for any changes to happen (ever?), and that the conflict resolution provision only dealt with issues within the stipulation itself, so it couldn’t be used to discuss changing placement time.

At the end of the session the mediator said we should consider what (little) progress we had made in understanding each other’s positions and then decide if we felt a second session would be beneficial. By the time we reached our respective cars in the parking lot my ex had duly considered the question. I said, “I’ll be in touch in a week or so and see where you’re at with things.” She replied, “You don’t need to. We tried mediation. It didn’t work. If you’re not satisfied with things the ways they are, I’ll see you in court.” I have no doubt that her attorney had coached her to do exactly this: “Attend one session; meet the minimal requirement of the stipulation; then let it go to court, and I’ll clean the bastard out.”

Sadly, I didn’t think that at the time. I was just the bastard waiting to get cleaned.

Reflections …

I don’t know how you “document” the goodness of a family. I suppose you could make a long list of all the family activities and who was present and how they participated, or you could capture a bunch of scenes of laughter on home movies. But the first is just a bunch of words, and the second is just a bunch of images. Both see only the outside. We were a family blending. Two families becoming one family. And with the delight of a wood nymph settling into a new grove, my daughter thrived in our becoming. She was exuberantly the darling of the family. Out of the distant terror she had known (and perhaps largely forgotten) as a toddler, she was relishing the full blown joy of two parents (myself and Margaret) who loved each other without reserve, and whose love wrapped round her as well. And the attention of four older siblings who engaged her in a multitude of delightful ways. But these things are known from the inside. And, as her attorney would remind me in the months ahead, they were “all a matter of opinion and hyperbole.”

During these years my income was precarious at best. I pieced together three part-time college teaching positions to fashion full-time work without full-time pay and without any benefits. I had managed to hold my own on custody matters from the fall of 2002 until now, but I needed legal counsel three years later. And while I could hardly afford it, I desperately needed it … but I didn’t see that until too late.

I should’ve filed a contempt charge the moment I learned of the counseling (something my daughter mentioned in passing in November 2005). It was an enormous violation of joint custody. It was harmful to my daughter. And it would later be wielded against me. But instead I tried to make the best of it by inserting myself far too late into a therapeutic process that was anything but therapeutic. I was a fool.

And I should’ve mortgaged our home all over again to hire the best attorney I could in March 2006. But I still believed at the time that being an articulate person, as well as a loving and devoted father, would mean something in Family Court. I still believed my daughter’s desire would be sought out and listened to. I still believed in happy endings back then. Was I ever in for an education.

* * *

This entry is the sixth written during my 21-day fast for justice in family court. Next I recount my continuing experiences in Wisconsin Family Court. You can learn more about the fast, including ways to support me, at https://tothetune.wordpress.com/hungry.

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