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WHY I COULDN'T TELL OUR DAUGHTER ABOUT OUR SEPARATION

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"What is a barrister?" asked my six-year-old daughter, who had just overheard me use the word on the telephone. I paused, preparing my reply. "Ah yes ... barristers are very clever people who are very good at solving problems. They are helping your father and me work out the best way to manage our timetable as parents, as your father and I are not able to agree on much."

Over the next six years, this became my stock answer to our child's queries.

I was put in this position because I had been told by a judge that I couldn't discuss with my daughter the very issue that she was the subject of - namely how much time she should spend with each of her separated parents.

What we may tell our children as we go through the upheaval of divorce or separation is an issue that has troubled me for some time. I use the word may rather than should in the context of family law proceedings, in the very unfortunate case that one's transition from a shared family life to single parenting involves the assistance of the courts.

I have had a relationship with the family courts for 10 years or so. It was not one that I willingly entered into. I was compelled to attend more than 30 hearings at various levels of the court hierarchy - from county court, to high court and the court of appeal. It was exhausting and debilitating, but it is all over now and I am out the other side.

The issue of these many hearings was essentially to do with how much time our child should spend with either parent. I did not always have the benefit of solicitors and barristers - I simply could not afford it - and was often up late at night working on statements, trawling through seemingly endless papers and documents. This stuff of court hearings and document preparation is tiresome for a single parent. But what to tell our child?

The hearings went on for years and my attention was diverted away from parenting to looking after my case, as I shuffled before one judge to the next. Our child was aware that her parents were not able to agree on much and were having assistance from third parties. Indeed, our child was the subject of the hearings.

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However, the Family Procedure Rules restrict any discussion of the case to only those who are party to the case or to legal professionals (involved in the case), or those to whom the court gives permission. And as if that wasn't enough, our high court judge expressly stipulated that a recital be included to our family court order stating that the case was not to be discussed with our child. (This recital remained in place for six of the past 10 years of court hearings.)

Our child was the subject of the case, but not a party to the case, and the law said I must not discuss the proceedings with anyone who wasn't a party to the proceedings. But children are observant, they see and hear what is going on around them. How could I help our child make sense of what was happening while staying on the right side of the law?

I remained overly cautious, and even as our child grew up and started to put two and two together, I was conservative in anything I said, lest I should be in contempt of court. I replaced terms such as "court" or "judge" or "orders" with unloaded words such as "meetings" and "arrangements". It was not an easy task to live this double life but my daughter started to make sense of what was going on in her own way. She remained largely unaware of the specifics of the court orders that dominated her life, but a strong sense of wanting to be heard.

"Children have rights, you know," she said after school one day, aged about 10, "and adults have to listen to children." She was right, but I was finding it increasingly difficult to bridge the gap between her idea of what was going on and what I was allowed to say; there was a fundamental mismatch between her reality and the reality as imposed on us by the court. The family court had ordered us how to manage our time and I was in the very odd situation of not being able to fully explain to our daughter how this had come to be.

My case rumbled on and despite the wishes and feelings of our daughter being made evident, the court continued to impose a regime on our family that was ill-suited and out of date. Nothing was making sense and she was unable to navigate the new timetables designed by the court that stipulated where she should be, at what time, on which day.

Family lives are generally messy, multi-layered, and require spontaneity. A court order that requires a strict equality in arrangements for daily family life forces a rigidity that is sure to break. Family relationships cannot be ordered, they cannot be defined in court papers.

At about the age of six, our daughter had an arrangement imposed on her that was difficult enough in practical terms: her father was often out of the country and unable to support her weekend sports commitments simply because they were always somewhere else. But, on top of this, it emerged that as a father, his style of parenting did not work for our child. Simply put, they did not get on.

While it may be difficult to accept, children may get on better with one parent than the other, and this may change as the child develops, switching between one to the other.

In my case, our family relationships were structured by a detailed order of the court, and all of us, including our child, were burdened with having to make it work. But it didn't work. It couldn't work.

The relationship between our daughter and her father got worse and worse. I was listening but was in a straitjacket as I was ordered to be quiet and support the order of the court. It was so horribly difficult. What was I meant to say to her now? How could I help her to make sense of this mismatch? I was silenced by legislation and court orders.

I felt that the court's snapshot of our lives had captured a reality that was one we did not live. The court had made its decision, based on this snapshot, but implementing this decision into our daily life did not make sense for our child and I was left with the difficult task of having to make sense of it for her while not revealing how the decision had come to be.

And the court did not tire in reminding me of what I may and may not say and to whom.

In the end, it was our child who defied the authority of the court. She simply would not comply with what was being asked of her.

She refused to go to her father's home, she refused to be picked up by him from school, she refused to go to the airport and refused to get on another plane. It was upsetting for us all. She became defiant. She was desperate to be heard. I listened but could not carry her message. I felt powerless.

It took 12 months and nine court hearings, from the time our child defied the court order, for the court to come to its own conclusion that it could not force familial relationships. It was thoroughly exhausting. During this time a guardian was appointed to our child and through her guardian she became a party to the case. I was still restricted in what I could say to her directly despite that she was represented by her guardian. However, her voice was finally heard.

She is now free to make her own arrangements about how much time she spends with her father, and is no longer burdened with disobeying court orders. From my point of view, their relationship is better now than it ever has been and perhaps it is a more honest relationship than the one imposed by the court, even if it means less time is spent together. Another benefit is that our child is thriving at school and in her sports, and is developing a healthy social life. She spends less time on planes and more weekends with her sports teams.

The issue of where the responsibility lies to make court-imposed family arrangements work, troubles me. It seems that too much responsibility is placed on the child to make it work while the court clips the wings of the parents. There must be another way to allow the parent to communicate to their own children while negotiating their way through a new set of a family arrangements. Surely this can only assist the child and lessen the burdens.

The author's name has been changed

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