When it comes to facing a custody case, you probably feel like a fish out of water. And, honestly, if you don’t feel that way, you probably should. I don’t say that to scare you – I don’t ever want to just scare anybody – but only to make you aware that things that you may take for granted are often different in custody cases.
You have to remember that in litigated cases everywhere, it’s judges – some of the oldest and most conservative members of our population, especially in Virginia – who make final decisions. It’s judges – predominantly old white men – who pass judgment on women facing custody cases. (And, really, it’s often not better to have a woman judge – after all, who judges women more harshly than other women?)
You’re not a robot, and your case didn’t come to exist in a vacuum. Typically, when women come to see us, it’s because they’re at the end of their rope. Whether their case is part of a divorce, or whether it’s purely custody, they’re usually in our office because they’ve tried to handle it on their own and just can’t. Oftentimes, the situation they come from has been abusive. They’re scared, and feeling overwhelmed.
They’re also usually looking forward to a fresh start, freedom, and some resolution on some issues that have kept them lying awake for many sleepless nights. Sometimes, I think, the feeling of the end being near is exhilarating, especially after so many long years being with the wrong person, fighting, and worrying about the future.
Facing a contested custody case is difficult for a lot of reasons, with not the least of which being the fact that we judge women in this country – maybe even women all throughout the world – harshly. Much, much more harshly than men. Women are sluts and women are unfit mothers and women are ridiculous, dramatic, and over the top – all while boys will be boys, and their behavior is excused, justified, and accepted. Men are lauded for the simplest contributions to the household, while women are expected – simply expected – to manage it all.
When it comes to raising children, women are judged the most harshly of all. We’re judged for not breastfeeding, for breastfeeding in public, for co-sleeping, for allowing the child to sleep in her own room, for crying it out, for sleep training, for not sleep training, for immunizing, for not immunizing, for private or public school, for daycare, for staying at home – whatever choice you make, simply put, there’s a problem with it. And maybe we’re worse to ourselves than even others are to us, because the mom guilt is so insanely real.
It’s no wonder that, sometimes, when moms come to us, they crack a little under the strain. They are so tired of being inspected under a microscope that they rebel – maybe a little, maybe a lot. But, hey, we’re all human, right? It’s totally understandable. As a working mom (judge away, critics, I’m not budging!) and an attorney and a married woman, believe me, I understand all of the pressures and influences and sources of guilt.
Still, despite all that, for the sake of your children, you’ve got to keep it together. I’m writing today, not to solve any deep rooted problems in society, but to help you prepare for your custody case. After all, no matter how you’re feeling, the most important thing you can do at this point in time is whatever it takes to keep your family together and serve your children’s best interests.
Warning: What I’m going to say to you will likely strike you as sexist, unfair, and downright wrong. I totally agree that it shouldn’t be this way, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is, and that you need to learn to operate in the system that you’re in, and not the system that you wish you were in. I hope that in twenty years (heck, even just five or ten!), I’ll be writing an article with a totally different tone. But, today, at least, I’m not. I’m sorry – I’m a feminist, too – but I’m also a mother, and I believe that, first and foremost, you’ve got to put on the best – the absolute best – custody case you can.
I’m sorry to tell you, but courts are making decisions about motherhood based off of perceived ideas of morality. Yes, that’s right. You’ll be judged based off of how saintly you appear.
Things that can really damage a custody case are things that make you appear slutty. That includes the way you are dressed, both inside of and outside of the courtroom. (Remember, oftentimes there are pictures admitted into evidence of moms with their kids, or images pulled from Facebook – so, really, it’s the totality of your image that will be viewed and judged.)
Starting a new relationship during your case is probably also going to be frowned upon, especially if you move in with your new boyfriend, have him around your children, do any sexting or send any racy emails that your child’s father discovers, or anything of the sort. If you go through more than one partner during the course of the case – I mean, hey, you’re single, right? — that’ll also be investigated in detail and more than likely frowned on. Investigating any kind of issues or feelings with a partner of the same sex will also be viewed as fairly shocking to the court.
Meanwhile, it is also pretty likely that your child’s father will have a girlfriend, potentially several. While we’re often able to get a restriction against having overnight guests while the children are present, in other ways you’ll likely feel that the court doesn’t concern itself much with whether or not your child’s father is dating, having sex, or bringing strange women around the children – at least, nowhere near as much as it cares whether you do the same things. Is it fair? Nope. Is it a double standard? Absolutely. But it’s the truth, and it’s a good idea for you to become familiar with these standards.
Am I saying you can’t have a boyfriend? No. Do what you will. I’m just telling you that, if this information gets out, you’ll likely be judged more harshly than your child’s father will be. I’m telling you that it becomes a character flaw, much more so for a woman than for a man. Does the court expect you to be Mother Teresa? Yeah, kind of. Pretty much. Motherhood incarnate, at least. You should be careful making whatever decisions you are making, and aware of the consequences.
The choices you make in your private life will come to bear in a big way in your divorce or custody case, and can have a lot to do with how a judge views you. The reality is that women are judged much, much more harshly, and there’s probably not a whole lot that you can do between now and when your case goes in front of the judge to change the entire system. It’s best to plan strategically and to work within it. If that means waiting to have a boyfriend… well, maybe that’s the best plan. Too late? Maybe it’s a good idea to start talking to your attorney about damage control and image management.
I know, I know. It’s not fair. It’s unrealistic. It’s too much to expect of women, when we don’t have similar standards for men. Believe me, we all struggle with it, too. In fact, one of our attorneys, Lori Michaud, railed against this specific issue just last week. It makes us furious, too. But, at the same time, we know the system. We know what the judges are looking for. We know what mistakes have hurt our clients later on down the line, and we want to help protect you from making those mistakes, too.
Let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about your case, and what you can do to present yourself in the strongest possible light. I know you’ve already been under an incredible amount of strain, but the best thing to do to alleviate your fears and concerns for the future is to (1) have a strong legal strategy that you understand and can participate in, and (2) to talk to a licensed therapist about it throughout the process. It’s hard, there’s no doubt, but you can do it. And we can help.
For more information about Virginia divorce or custody cases and what to expect, visit our website and request one of our free books and reports. Need to talk to someone now? Give us a call at 757-425-5200.