Looking back it’s hard to recognize my life 10 years ago compared to now. One decision led to another and here I am- living almost 3,000 miles away from my daughter and I can’t believe this is my reality. I’ve experienced so much joy and unbearable heartbreak. I’ve made so many mistakes and also made some of the best decisions of my life. I’ve had to navigate an intense custody battle, long distance visitation, and parental alienation all while trying to blend our family. And I want to share the story of how I got here. Because from the outside looking in, it may seem like we have it all together, but now you’ll know that things aren’t always as they seem.
I remember looking down at that positive pregnancy test and not fully comprehending how drastically my life was about to change. I was only 18 and in an unstable relationship with an uncertain future. The next few months were filled with doubt and fear as I explored options and made decisions that would impact the rest of my life. I was young, impressionable, and pressured to get married and “make it right”. So I did. But before I walked down the aisle, I turned to my best friend and said “I don’t want to do this. I CAN’T DO THIS” but I turned around and went through the motions because I was taught to believe that it’s just what you do. I married someone I wasn’t in love with and it was the biggest mistake of my life. But the moment my daughter was born and I held her in my arms for the first time, nothing else mattered. I loved her with all of my heart and I knew that I would do anything for her. I had no idea at the time that would mean letting her go.
Long story short, my relationship with her dad didn’t work out. A few weeks after she was born we moved to Texas together for his job and that is when he left. I’ll never forget that day. He came home from work saying he’d been fired and we got into an argument. It was honestly so typical that I didn’t even think it was a big deal at the time. We argued a lot, he lied a lot, and I’d just gotten used to it. When he said he was leaving and walked out the door, I truly didn’t believe him. I assumed he’d be back in a few hours and things would be fine. But he didn’t come back. After a few hours I decided to call and he said he was driving back to South Carolina. I didn’t know what to do. I was alone in an apartment I couldn’t afford with no job, no money, no support system, and a brand new baby. I couldn’t go back to South Carolina because I didn’t have a good relationship with my parents and I knew that moving back in with them wasn’t an option. So I decided to go to Utah where I had family to watch the baby, a full time job to support us, and eventually my own apartment. I started to establish a new life as a single mom and life was so good.
I never heard from her dad. I tried to call him on her birthday. Nothing. I tried to book a plane ticket for him to come and see her. Nothing. I sent birthday and Christmas cards. Nothing. I had every reason to believe that he didn’t want to be in the picture. So after a year of no contact, I filed for divorce. I assumed the process would be quick and easy since it had been so long since I’d heard from my ex. So I was completely shocked to find out that he had previously filed for divorce in South Carolina under false circumstances and without my knowledge. The judge there had already granted him temporary full custody months before and I had absolutely no idea.
At that point, everything was chaos. The courts fought over jurisdiction. I hired multiple attorneys in both states to defend my case. I explained exactly what happened, I provided documentation, but after multiple hearings a judge in South Carolina required that I quit my job, terminate my lease, and move within 30 miles of my ex. I had to completely abandon the life that I’d worked so hard to build. I couldn’t believe this was actually happening. It was my worst nightmare. When I got to South Carolina, I immediately had to drop my 18 month old daughter off with strangers for overnight visitation every other weekend. My ex’s parents were the only ones to meet for pick up and drop off and I had to watch my daughter cry and hang onto me each visit- not understanding what was happening or why. It broke my heart and traumatized her. So I continued to fight. I hired a private investigator, I gathered evidence and documentation, I worked tirelessly to prove something that I felt was so obvious. He didn’t love her like I did. He didn’t want to see her and he didn’t want to be in her life. Why was he even doing this? At the time I doubted my faith more than ever. I always felt so strongly that everything happened for a reason but I couldn’t understand why this? I quickly realized that the family court system is flawed and I was stuck in the middle of an outdated process. So I knew that I had to figure something else out. I had to compromise and work outside of the system. One night, I talked with my ex and we came up with an agreement. He told me what I wanted to hear but I thought it was genuine. He said that his parents were the ones who wanted visitation and that he would sign a paper that would be “our agreement” as long as I went through with what his parents wanted in front of the judge. It was a huge mistake but I thought I could trust him. I was naïve and believed that everything would work out.
My divorce was finally official. I signed a court document saying that I would live within 30 miles of my ex for the rest of my life BUT I had a signed and dated copy of our actual agreement saying that I could live wherever I wanted. It was such a huge relief. I felt like I could finally move forward with my life again.
I got remarried to the love of my life. He got into law school so we moved to Atlanta, Georgia and it felt like everything was working out perfectly! We had nothing to worry about. For months we went by our other set of paperwork. She lived with me for 2 weeks and with her dad for 1 week, meeting halfway every exchange.
Until one day, I drove to our meeting point to pick my daughter up and she wasn’t there. I called to see if they were late and no one answered. I waited. Still nothing. So I started to panic. I was so worried but decided to just drive 3 hours to where they were living and hope it was a misunderstanding. Finally I heard back from his girlfriend at the time and she said that they were keeping my daughter and not giving her back. They weren’t at their apartment and wouldn’t tell me where she was. I could hear my baby crying in the background and I broke down. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t know where to go or what to do. It was the worst moment of my entire life. Time stood still and I was trapped in my worst fear. I didn’t know if I would ever see my daughter again. I drove to the local police station in the city where they lived and filed a report but there was nothing they could do. I called my attorney and he filed for an emergency hearing. The next few days (weeks?) were a complete blur. I don’t remember any of it. Even writing this is extremely difficult. I can’t go back to that time. I remember vaguely staying in a hotel, making a poster for my daughter with pictures of us on it, and gathering documentation that I had collected to send to my attorney… The rest is gone, those memories are lost. It’s too painful to process. The next thing I can remember is standing at the court house with my attorney after he had a conversation with my ex’s attorney- basically showing them the proof we had of parental abduction (my ex taking her and not giving her back after his visitation was over) and being in contempt of court for multiple other things. And feeling relief that they wanted to settle without a trial. We were finally able to make it official in writing.