Saving Face

Chapter 8
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Sept. 23 2009 5:05 PM

Saving Face

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Illustration by Deanna Staffo. Click image to expand.

It's Friday at lunch. Cole is in trial, the kids are in school, and I am in the playroom organizing bins. It's my therapy.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate

It doesn't take a village to raise a child. It just takes a village to clean up after one.  When Sam was born, we started off with an "only stuffed animals" rule. Then it was the "only cunning, educational wooden toys and stuffed animals" rule. Then it was the "only educational wooden toys, stuffed animals, and plastic toys so long as they weren't TV characters" rule. Then it was only Sesame Street. And Thomas. Finally we agreed on a rule that we could all live with: The "nothing that would explode in his hands and sear his little eyebrows off" rule.

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And as our playroom became the place parenting principles went to die, I thought that if Sam learned nothing about being frugal from his mountains of toys, he might at least learn some self-discipline.   Enter the bins. We now have blue bins for cars and red bins for crafts and orange bins for Playmobil figures and green bins for superheroes. A friend suggested drawing cars, crafts, and little figures on the sides of the bins to help Sam sort his own toys, so I did it.   But mostly, our toys all get jumbled into two or three baskets and the rest of the empty bins are stacked in a corner. Once in a while something will motivate me to dump everything and try to reorganize. Often, it's the sound of some battery-operated creature beeping at the bottom of a heap   or the scent of spoiled milk from a sippy cup that has begun to smell like a crypt.   A visit from Cole's mother will do it, too.  

Marina has always had a very different strategy for the storage of her girls' toys. She labels her containers with cleverly ironic names. Her bin for dolls, pretty dresses, tulle, tiaras, and pink stuff is labeled "Pernicious Female Stereotypes" and the tub full of educational puzzles is called "Stuff You Never Play With." Her Play-Doh bin says "Greige Goo."   In the week since our law-school matinee performance, she's also become a proponent of the zenlike meditative state that can be reached by drinking half a bottle of merlot and sorting the girls' toy bins.  

As I separate the zoo animals from the farm animals, it occurs to me that even though Marina has made a lot of material progress in the last seven days, she seems somehow worse off than ever. Her attempts to formalize a visitation and support schedule have been met with no resistance at all. Bob is perfectly content to see the kids on Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings, to pay whatever bill needs paying, and to leave them alone beyond that. He hasn't agitated for anything he left behind at the house, he hasn't questioned Marina's parenting choices. This leaves Marina many empty hours in which to imagine a Bob too consumed with his new life to care about his old one; she is plagued by visions of him settling into his new high-rise apartment with his new low-rise girlfriend and a new wardrobe that is, in her mind, comprised mainly of surf shorts, concert T-shirts, and baseball caps. Marina has been known to tweet such scenarios at 3 a.m. Since Bob hasn't returned even one of Cole's phone calls, I am starting to believe she's not wrong about this.

All of this has become terrific fodder for Splitigation, which really does seem to have found sort of a niche after only one week. After Marina posted a link from her Facebook page and then tweeted about it, I had 100 readers. They told two friends, and they told two friends, and suddenly I have several hundred readers. It wasn't my plan to pitch my advice primarily to women, or to stay-at-home women who have been dumped by the primary breadwinners meant to be providing for them, but now that I have started reading all this e-mail from readers, I can't help but notice the difference between the way women and men experience a divorce.

A woman from Washington state wrote in to say that her husband not only cheated with the au pair (the au pair? Yuck!) but then when she had some kind of breakdown over it, they managed to get sole custody of her kids. A woman wrote in to say her husband told her that he was going to McDonald's and never came back. He even asked her what she wanted him to pick up for her. And she was pregnant. There's the woman whose husband kidnapped their daughter and took her to Costa Rica and she spent years tracking them down. The woman whose husband put their house on the market without telling her.   I know most marriages don't end this way, but after a week reading the comments section on my Splitigation posts, I can't believe how many actually do.

Mostly, I just keep hearing from women who are on the brink of a divorce and totally terrified of losing their kids. I wonder whether most divorce lawyers understand that for a woman—for whom the experience of putting a kid on a school bus for the first time is akin to amputation—the idea of giving up your children from Thursday to Sunday is like sending your own pancreas to the dry cleaner. It's not that dads out there aren't suffering. I get mail from them, too. But these women gave up their jobs and their independence and their skinny jeans to their marriages, they've lost their husbands, and now they are threatened with losing their kids. They are getting all sorts of legal advice, but that isn't really what they need. They need counseling. They need to feel they aren't alone. They need me. I am really starting to believe that I am giving them something they don't get anyplace else.

I hear a key turn in the front door. Cole? It's just after noon.

"Hey?" I call.

I hear his footsteps in the hall, hear him drop his things in the study and make his way across the house to the playroom.

"You're sweeping back the sea," he mutters when he sees me sprawled all over the floor with my piles of carefully cataloged kid booty. I am hard at work on a gummy bear that's lodged in a Transformer, so I just glance up at him and smile.

"It has to be done."

"I give it 20 minutes," he says, loosening his tie. "Ten if Sam manages to dump it all with both hands instead of one."

"How did it go today?"

"We're done. Now we just sit and wait for an order from the judge." He folds his jacket over his arm.

"How's Kayne?" I ask.

"Insane. Ana put on a hell of a case. The schools in Ohio are now somehow unparalleled in the free world. Her boyfriend will move them all into his gorgeous McMansion with a bedroom for each. The kids will have nannies instead of being in aftercare at school. Their grandma can watch them on sick days. There will be ponies and sunsets and rainbows in Ohio. And between Christmas and summer vacations and the wonders of Skype visitation, he'll somehow have more time   with the boys than he does now. So how are we supposed to stop her?"

"Oh, Cole," I peel myself off the floor and put my arms around him. "What judge believes Skype is the answer to anything? Good grief."

He rests his chin on my head. "It's just so unfair. Erica. These women have it so easy. All they need to do is find a rich guy out of state and they get to airlift the whole family out. Sure, it's changed circumstances, but it's like she's won the custody lottery. Poor Kayne has worked like a dog to provide for these kids for 10 years and now, through no fault of his own, he loses custody and virtually all contact with his sons because his ex-wife has a sugar daddy."

"I dunno sweetheart," I say. I think of the reader whose husband made off to Costa Rica. She sure didn't get a trial beforehand. "I've been hearing from dozens of women whose financial circumstances just collapse after a split. Most women don't get sugar daddies, you know. Most have to watch their ex-husband's income go to supporting two households instead of one, and most have to get jobs. I'm not saying it's OK that Ana is about to marry her way into sole custody but trust me, that's not the story I'm getting."

"Well, honey, you certainly have become quite the little expert on divorce in the span of a week. I checked out your blog out this morning. Everyone at the office is devouring it."

"I'm hardly holding myself out as an expert, Cole," I snap my head back to look into his eyes. This is more than just the stress of a long custody trial. "I am just trying to give some advice to women who feel like they have nobody to turn to and the whole world to lose."

"Well, you're dispensing legal advice on the Internet, which is just asking for trouble down the road. You're evangelizing all these bitter women into thinking that the only way to get divorced is through acts of extreme financial violence. You're encouraging them to take as aggressive a posture as possible where being reasonable is almost always smarter. It's very cute and very funny, I grant you, and it's really great entertainment. But, Erica, I promise you that you are making things worse for a lot of people who need cool, rational, professional advice instead of punch lines in a crisis."

"Well tell me how you really feel, Cole," I snort, annoyed that I am being cast as the flapping hysteric to his rational actor. Again.

"And to be perfectly honest about it," he continues, "you're also making it awfully hard for me to represent a man when everyone at work believes I am now married to the Ann Coulter of the contested divorce world."  

"Wow," I say, angrily sweeping the last of the Legos into a box. "I had no idea this blogging thing was going to be so threatening to you. I thought you wanted me to do something with my law degree. To be—and I quote—'more than just the children's inexhaustible personal shopper.' "

Cole sighs. I slam out of the playroom, grab my laptop from the coffee table in the living room, and experience a moment of resentment that my husband has his own study while I will have to post today's blog entry from the floor of the laundry room, surrounded by pink Dora the Explorer socks. I'm pretty sure Cole won't find me in here. He hasn't done laundry since the mid-1990s. I slide down next to the washing machine, flip the computer open, and load up the Splitigation home page. My phone rings and I grab it. I don't recognize the number but push the talk button.

"Erica, is that you?"

"Yes."

"Listen, it's Kevin. Marina's brother. I'm calling from Seattle."

"Hey there, Kevin, how are you?" I smile, leaning my head back against the drier. I've met Kevin a couple of times, and I really like him. He's one of those class clown types, but I can't imagine why he'd be calling me.

"Not good, actually. I just got a phone call from the hospital. Marina's been in an accident."  

******

And now, the next questions for my readers: Can you tell us about your car accident? What happened? How long were you in the hospital? And also, shat should the judge order in Cole's relocation case? Here's my account of surviving Week 1. Send e-mails to savingface.slate@gmail.com or post on the Facebook page. You can also follow Saving Face on Twitter.

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