|Painting by Elisabeth Slettnes|
Patriarchy exists to serve the interests of men, and in our country, most notably white men. Our laws were made by men, and our family court structure was made by men. The whole structure exists, on the whole, to benefit the patriarchy’s interests. My journey into that started in a different system of patriarchy – my marriage.
At the beginning of my marriage’s unraveling, my ex-husband gave me a list. His list included the requirements for my staying married to him. On the list were dictates that included: begin every sentence with an “I” statement; agree with 100% of what he says; agree with 100% of his parenting decisions; he has to be in charge of where my things go; that I must cease to have strong feelings; that I spend what he tells me to spend on groceries; that I inform him when my menstrual cycle is happening; that I believe everything he says; and that my Facebook and emails are always open to him. When I asked him what the point of this list was, he replied, “Control. I need control.” I was one broken person then, and also scared of what he would do, so I told him I would give him his list. That wasn’t good enough, as he told me – and so we were soon divorced.
As part of our divorce process, we were required to mediate. At the first mediation, I was greeted by a stack of motions detailing my depression and inadequacy as a mother. My ex agreed to provide child support. Allowing myself to be bullied, I agreed to his parenting plan, which was no reflection of what kind of parent he actually was at that time. It meant I had significantly less time with my children, but I wanted to avoid going to court at all costs and knew that the court system favors 50/50 parenting plans, even for small children, and mine was close enough to not be 50/50 that I didn’t want to rock the boat.
We had a second mediation on property and financial issues. By then I had mustered up some courage and was not as agreeable. We were headed to trial.
Right after that, my ex switched attorneys and filed a motion to discontinue child support based on the judge not signing the agreement right away. This was six months after he agreed to pay child support in the amount he offered and according to the chart.
That was the moment at the top of the roller coaster’s first big hill, only there was no sense of play and fun and an end at four minutes. This was a descent into a place that seemed to make absolutely no sense to me, where everything was upside down, and no one cared about my ex’s character. That place was family court.
I should back up here and provide more information. My ex is someone you might see walking down the street. He is a holistic bodyworker and appears to be a pretty interesting, cool person. His family is close. One of them is a psychotherapist, one a deacon in the Catholic church, and another one is an experienced social worker. My ex’s father was a prominent divorce attorney in our town. My ex grew up hearing things like, “logic would dictate...” as a critical way to address his behavior. He was, in the most important ways, brought up in a home court of law. There is a sickness that permeates his family, and they all agree to participate in it. As a result, his family is one of the most enmeshed families I have ever seen. I often compare them to the “Borg” from Star Trek. If you insult one by non-compliance, you’ve insulted them all. If you are on one’s blacklist, you are also on everyone else’s. There is no grace and certainly no middle ground. And there is no one else that matters outside of the family.
His mother also has money. Because of their resources, anything their son wants or needs, he gets. He was never taught how to be a contributing adult, nor that he is capable of supporting himself fully. Years after our divorce, I had a bizarre, heated conversation with his mother, where she repeated my words back to me in a mocking way, and proclaimed her endless love for her son and said that she would give him all the money he needs to take me to court. Not to pay for lessons for the children. Not to pay for their tuition. Not to enrich their lives in any way. But to fund a war against their mother.
After our trial regarding child support issues, my ex decided to stop paying child support. For the next year and a half, he refused to pay child support. In the meantime, the motions kept coming. I remember there were four months once where I did not receive a motion. Eight months after our trial, the judge handed down a verdict. He had to pay child support. More motions and appeals followed.
In the meantime, parenting with him was a nightmare. One time, I was visiting my old neighbor, who lived next door to my ex. I didn’t know the kids were home, but as I was readying to leave they spotted me from their upstairs window. My little boy, who was barely four at the time, started to run down the stairs to hug me before I left. The next thing I heard were his cries from inside the house as his father prevented him from coming out to see me. My ex is the slippery kind, for his parenting of the children is not overtly abusive. And my constant fear is that my children will normalize some of his more bizarre behaviors. I have two children from my first marriage, and he was incredibly harsh with them. He did not allow them to pursue their interests without his input and control, and he insisted that they do things they were not comfortable doing. That is another story and I did not protect my daughters as I should have. They do not speak to him or his family to this day, even though they had spent nearly ten years of family togetherness through dinners, birthdays, and holidays.
My ex’s parenting skills are still relatively non-existent. He recently went on vacation with the children and my youngest sustained what he thought was a concussion. He had my son call me to tell me that he hit his head, then got on the phone to tell me he thought my son had a concussion. I prompted him to take him to the hospital and he did. But he would not give me the name of the town, only the name of the hospital. I was not even clear what state they were in. He refused to give me that information and when I asked to speak to the doctor, he said, “you don’t need to know that.” He did not tell me my son was throwing up and did not give me clear information – then stood between me and the doctor.
Even worse, he answers emails less than half of the time, refuses to make schedule switches, and puts me in positions where I am “damned if I do, damned if I don’t.”
When we filed to hold him in contempt for not paying child support, he kept very properly and quite legally disagreeing with the court about his obligation. I knew the system was messed up when at his contempt hearing, right after he had handed me a check for nearly 18 months of back child support, the judge congratulated us for “working it out.” The judge, right there, supported his nonsense, and made me realize what a complete joke family court is. That judge retired shortly after this and a new judge was voted in to take his place.
Four months after she was voted in, the court of appeals ruled on his child support appeal, and so another body of judges told him he was obligated to pay child support. The next month, he filed to find me in contempt for various minor schedule infractions, mostly involving my engaging in tit-for-tat as a way to stop him from manipulating the schedule. For example, he would make flight arrangements on a long weekend and schedule to return four or five hours past his scheduled time. But he would not ask me for this adjustment, and he would tell me the day before, despite my requests that he simply communicate with me about the schedule. He refused. He also filed to terminate child support. The new judge agreed with him completely and terminated his child support, as well as finding me in contempt and ordering me to pay is attorney’s fees to the tune of $2300.
Now I am not receiving child support. I have grappled with the realization that I have no partner in raising my children, that I never really did. He refuses to contribute to the children’s school tuition or supply fees, and is now deliberately working less to show the court how poor he is. Yet he somehow manages, with the unfaltering aid of his mother, to keep those expensive motions coming. In fact, I have something worse than having no co-parent at all. I have a hindrance, someone who seeks to financially ruin me and someone who uses a willing system to carry out his manipulation and control. This is essential patriarchy, the collusion of an individual’s power-over dominance with an abusive system already in place to support his superiority.
I am now in college full time. I do not have my degree, despite the fact that I am in my late 40’s. I work full time as a teacher. I take on extra jobs as an artist and a musician. And that doesn’t include the time I spend parenting my children – or dealing with the constant drama that has become this court case. I take on odd jobs for sewing, singing lessons, and artwork commissions. My plate is too full. If I can work my ass off to support my kids, why the hell is he spending his time memorizing statutes in an attempt to retaliate against me? Does he really think this somehow supports his children?
That is what is most disappointing for me, that none of this seems to take into account the children. I have to come to grips with my deep disappointment in their father as a person. A father who is present and loving to his children and does not seek to break their mother emotionally, financially, or otherwise. A real father knows that, regardless of how much he hates their mother, his children benefit when he meets his obligations. My ex could never be put upon to model respect, kindness, and support for his own children’s mother, and neither could his family. It’s a sad double whammy.
He is not a father. He is, in every way, a stubborn, foolish dictator.
One of the hardest things to deal with has been the status of my situation. Meaning, I am somewhere in between severe domestic violence and “normal.” My ex once pushed me down during our marriage, so hard it broke my thumb, but there was never the ongoing cycle of violence with the typical honeymoon phase and build up to a repeat.
I could never show the bruises where he hit me repeatedly, because it didn’t happen. I could never insist that he screamed names and profanities at me constantly, because his tactic was using stony silence to demonstrate how I suddenly didn’t exist during a conflict. There was, however, the low-level poisonous contempt for me that permeated our whole marriage.
This was one thing I could always count on: that my husband deemed me beneath him, incapable of producing a valid thought, irrational because I had feelings, and merely an object there to serve his whims. And the implication was that his thoughts, his wishes, his desires were always superior in every way to mine, and were the only thoughts that counted.
But this kind of abuse is not enough in a family court system where, if an abused mother brings to light that she is abused, it doesn’t matter to a system that Solomon-style, takes the children and splits them between loving mother and documented abuser. If this is the status, how on earth would the court system discredit a controlling, manipulative man? They don’t care. That man has the same rights to his children as I do. It doesn’t matter what he models for the children, or that he doesn’t support them. At that point, it isn’t a mother’s rights or father’s rights issue, it is a children’s rights issue. If our culture cannot even see their way through the inherent injustice of an unsafe, overtly violent situation, how is it going to serve families like mine – where the abuse is covert and pernicious, and where my ex uses the court system itself to punish and subjugate me?
My answer to that is the system is not set up to serve families and children at all. It is set up to serve the very people who created it: white men. It is set up to receive all of their projection, inherent role dominance, and the desires of men. I was married to patriarchy, and I am still fighting it every day.
-Solana Simpson, an excerpt from the upcoming Girl God anthology, Single Mothers Speak on Patriarchy.
Solana Simpson is an artist and musician. She works as a teacher at a school with an awesome, alternative educational paradigm. Throughout her life, she has been a midwife's apprentice, a seamstress, a singer in a traveling gospel group, twice a wife, a knitting and toy designer for a magazine, and most importantly, a mother to four wonderful children. Right now, she is pursuing her degree in psychology with a minor in creative writing. Since she has led a blessedly unconventional life, she is just now getting around to completing her degree. Solana is committed to her own inner work and using the voice of her experiences to help heal wounds unique to women; wounds having to do with parents, partners, culture, history, and society.
She blogs at psycholobitch.com