I sat in the plain waiting room that took up one side of the double wide trailer behind the courthouse. As per usual, they said “be there at 8” and meant “we’ll be ready for you at 10”. A younger mom in her twenties leaned over to her child’s father and said something quietly. He laughed. I tried to imagine their story. What could have landed them in the department of child support office together so young, yet still friends?
A man came out of the hallway and called some names. A man in his late forties, who had been sitting in front of me, stood up. He tucked away the pay stubs he’d been making notes on. A lady across the room also stood, also in her late forties; the mom. The dad frowned at her and said something in a defensive tone to the gentleman who had called his name. They walked away down the hallway together, but clearly not together, following the man.
The mom and dad that had just walked out had the marks of age on their faces, the weight of the world on their shoulders. The mom and dad that sat in the row in front of me were full of youth. Both sets of moms and dads shared children together. The young mom and dad were only just beginning their custody and child support journey and the older mom and dad would have been at it a while, an older version of the young mom and dad – 15 years later.
Having had a child support and custody case with my son’s father for almost 14 years, I imagined easily the history that the older mom and dad must have together and remembered, also the fresh innocence of the younger mom, working through the details with my son’s father. I heard, from down the hall, a heated conversation in raised voices between the older mom and dad. I knew what they could be arguing over. His income is that and the kids need this and her schedule allows for this. The intricacies of raising children together while not together – co-parenting from different worlds.
The young mom and dad in front of me were called and they got up to follow the lady easily down the hallway, talking together and smiling. I wondered if they would turn into the older mom and dad, disdainful of one another, or if they would maintain their friendliness through re-marriages, braces, accidents and lay offs.
My own turn came. I went through the whole process with the DCSS worker – no, the income is not corect, yes, I’d like to request a higher amount. Then we walked down the hall into the courtroom, where my son’s father was dialed in remotely, to have our hearing – me versus my son’s father as petitioner and respondent. This is our third big time through the court system to adjust our court order in 18 years. We’ve had one jursdiction change, three adjustments to child support and some questionable attempts at custody changes. The judge comments, as she reads over the notes for this hearing “Your son will be 18 next year… this is probably your last adjustment.” I felt like I’d torn through a finish line of some sort. FInally. An end to courtrooms.
Later, as I drove back to work, I called my son’s father to nail down details on other things about our son. We laughed about some ridiculous thing and plotted about another. We get along now – two people in our ahemlatethirtiesahem with a teenage son who will be off to college this year. We did it. Despite tumultuous court cases and issues with partner intervention and disagreement about this thing or that that kept us at a distance for several of those years. We did it.
Not everyone can mend fences or become friends or even friendly in the 18 years that they are required to interact. Some relationships between co-parents are fraught with mistreatment, abuse or some other circumstances that make it impossible. I consider us lucky in that regard; That despite our issues, we have somehow been able to come back to a constructive co-parenting relationship.
But regardless of where you fall on that spectrum, this last court visit, for me, drove home the point that this process of child custody and child support is not a quick visit to the child support services division and done. It’s a journey of over and over, visiting and revisiting, negotiation and compromises across 5, 10, 15, 18 years. And then, once the magical age of 18 is past, you have college, marriages, grand kids – for life.
The young couple will eventually become the older couple, with a rich history of these issues and experiences behind and between them. Just like a marriage, financial stuff, painful decisions, relationship issues will all put pressure on the co-parenting relationship. Fundamental incompatibilities aside, whether you walk out at the end as effective co-parents or mortal enemies depends entirely on how it’s all handled.