Once upon a time I was a kid with dreams and potential. I was “gifted,” whatever that is supposed to mean. From seventh grade on I nearly always made all A’s, worked harder than most kids my age, never drank or smoked, went to church like a good little Episcopalian, sang in the choir and even formed a junior choir. I was going to be the principal trumpet player of the Chicago Symphony some day.
Then I went to college as a music major, and after going through a few typical college experiences, I realized I didn’t want to major in music. I wound up graduating with a 3.1 GPA and a B.A. in Russian language, and about $3,000 in credit card debt from a school related trip to St. Petersburg to study abroad, most of which I paid off within two years by working in a customer service call center dispatching repair technicians.
Then came one of my stupider decisions. Based on my aptitude on some tests, I decided to go to law school. Private law school, for which loans were necessary.
I did okay in law school. I struggled through the first two years, but started doing better while studying tax law. And I met someone I was drawn to – another law student who was studying corporate law.
I felt “called by God” to accept his proposal and marry him between our second and third years of law school, despite some very major differences in ideals.
We both wanted kids, but I wanted to wait and establish a career, while he wanted to pop out as many kids as God would gift him with. I caved and went along with his “trust God and don’t use birth control” plan, and by the time I graduated from Emory Law, I had made Dean’s List twice, “booked” the corporate practice seminar, had a callback interview with a major accounting firm, and was seven months pregnant with our first child, who was due right before the bar exam.
We took his dream job offer in New York, a high paid Wall Street attorney, and I gave birth (c-section, it nearly killed me), moved 1,000 miles with my newborn, and began studying for the New York Bar (I passed on my first try!) in February.
By the time I passed that exam, I was pregnant with my second child, and after a pregnancy that drained my already depleted physical strength, I gave birth to a beautiful little girl who had some medical issues.
I knew I had to prevent getting pregnant immediately. I stood him down on the birth control issue and started using a diaphragm, even though I HATED the thing.
He lost his wonderful job right around the time we had decided to go for Baby 3. He found another job without missing a payment. I had another little boy.
Throughout the years we were married, he brought in all the money, and I did pretty much everything else, allowing him to be a mostly absentee father. He worked 90+ hour work weeks, often sleeping on the floor of his office. Once or twice we talked about me going to work or him taking a less stressful job, but the conversation always went the road of “emasculation” and his need to be a banking lawyer, and who would care for these kids and he wanted MORE kids but I was denying him that, and I could get a job if I really wanted but it wasn’t necessary because most of my salary would have gone to child care and taxes, and he would automatically make sure ten percent before taxes of my income would be paid to the church we attended, a church we were donating over $20,000 a year to from the very first year, even though we struggled to pay two law loans and survive in an expensive state. By the time I decided I’d had enough, it was more like $30,000/year.
We bought a fixer upper, but there never seemed to be enough money to make repairs. Anything we managed to save wound up gone.
When my youngest child was almost two, my then husband was called up by the Individual Ready Reserve to serve in Iraq. He was offered the opportunity to resign his commission and stay home, but service to his country was more important to him than we were, so I got to play the good military wife and hold down the fort with three kids under the age of six. I was 1,000 + miles from my parents, siblings, and my support network consisted of one good friend I had made who was willing to babysit my kids on a moment’s notice. My then-husband did not even take his leave time, choosing to remain in Iraq for the entire tour, because what he was doing was too important for him to come home and visit us.
He came home at the end of his tour because I “made him” instead of letting him voluntarily extend. I made him come home because I was “incapable” of holding down the fort with three kids who missed their father, I was struggling with being a single parent with little support except the pay that allowed me to remain home with kids I loved dearly but could never entirely escape.
He came back, and he immediately began criticizing everything about my “inability” to hold down the fort. The house was dirty. I spent too much time online. I didn’t fuck him enough. I wasn’t willing to have more kids. I insulted his masculinity by being a layreader at church when I knew he was morally opposed to women “preaching” in church.
By the time the army called him up again (in less than two years) he was losing job #2, and I was a little glad to see him go.
I took the opportunity of his absence to get rid of things I wasn’t supposed to get rid of, like his collection of moldy ten year old phone books from a town he lived in two years before we met.
Understand this: while I had wanted to wait on having kids, I always wanted them. My kids were my whole world. I did all I could to spins magical childhood despite being married to someone who didn’t want his kids believing in Santa.
When he came back from the second deployment, he wanted to run for politics, but I “wouldn’t let him.” He spent more time going door to door volunteering for the RNC than he did looking for a job. But if I went looking for work (and while I had passed the bar, I had missed the opportunity to get some necessary referral letters and never been admitted to practice…) he would feel emasculated.
We blew through any savings and a HELOC he had me take out for him during the first deployment. I had already “wasted” about 40,000 of that 80,000 HELOC with “unnecessary” spendings to fix a roof with brittle shingles, vinyl siding, new windows to replace the broken windows, a front door that couldn’t be pushed open by anyone with an ounce of strength…
When he finally found another job, it was a contract job with the state department, in Afghanistan. I secretly hoped he would continue to skip all vacations and remain overseas. He disappointed me by coming home for weeks at a time every few months of that job.
I wrote a novel, it started a war. It started a dialogue that opened my eyes to the fact that I was miserable and that living for and through three kids wasn’t any healthier for me than it was for them. And by the time he came home for good, I knew I wanted a divorce.
I negotiated my way out of New York and moved to Florida. I played the game by his rules for about six months, even taking the kids to church from time to time (falling short of his requirement of every week) despite the fact that both boys were avowed atheists, my daughter was in a Wiccan phase, and I no longer had faith in much. I still had my little girl sense of justice, though. I still believed that as long as I played by a set of rules that others imposed on me, I would come out okay in the end. I believed that hard work was rewarded, too.
Then something else happened – I met someone who saw me. All of me. The person I was and the wild caged creature who wanted to come out but didn’t know how to unlock the gate.
By the time I filed for divorce, I had made a mess of things. I had gotten involved with my current husband, and I had been honest about that with my ex, who up to that point believed my “mid life crisis” would end and I would “come to my senses” and “return to my faith” and be “a good wife.”
Under the advise of one shady Florida lawyer, I retained a New York divorce attorney and filed in New York State. My ex dodged service and filed in Florida, and a long, expensive battle over jurisdiction ensued. Shady Florida lawyer wouldn’t represent me as soon as he realized his buddy was representing my ex. I had to retain another Florida lawyer, and I found a good human being.
My New York attorney was a good, honest woman whose sense of justice was as childish as my own, and she never believed that New York would end up tossing it to Florida. Not when all the marital assets were in New York and the duration of the marriage existed in New York.
Had it remained in New York, my years of sacrificing my own career would have allowed me to claim partial ownership of his license to practice. Financially, I would have been protected in ways Florida would not protect me.
Instead, I wound up settling just to bring an end to things and to keep my kids and not end up bankrupt. I gave up the house under the condition that I would no longer be responsible for the debt. I gave up any right spousal support even though my career was wrecked to follow his dreams. I couldn’t even pass the Florida Bar Exam. I accepted smaller child support payments under the agreement that he would assume the debts for the consolidated student loans. I had the kids for the school year, he got most of the summers and holidays and vacation times. I got the work, he got the carefree fun times.
At first he was good at paying child support. He was on legal job #3. Then he lost that job – which was my fault for making him litigate all that jurisdictional stuff.
My ex never held up the part of the agreement to get me removed from the credit cards he was still using. I didn’t push it because he would have had to reapply for credit. It might have cost him his ability to visit the kids, and the HELOC could have forced him to lose his house.
I gave him the better deal on tax exemptions – he got them all until each kid’s senior year, which I wanted so I could get them tuition waivers with my job.
By then I had remarried my current husband, who struggles with physical disabilities, and has had his own share of the world beating him down. My husband’s grandfather, grandmother, and mother had ALL died within the span of a few months, and my husband sold everything he could, including plasma from his own body, to help make ends meet. I was earning about ten percent of what my ex had made, as a police dispatcher at a community college. All efforts to find a better job had failed.
We moved into my husband’s mother’s house, though it was 50 miles away from my home, and though it was too small and we had too much stuff. I let my ex get away with not paying support for months because he was unemployed. As he stopped paying bills, MY credit crashed. John’s stuff even started showing up on Adam’s credit reports, even though he had never been a part of any of that debt, debt that was not even supposed to be on my credit.
The commute, the farming lifestyle, the fact that my attention was divided, and a number of things drove a wedge in my relationship with my daughter. I don’t want to go into details, but ultimately she moved back in with her father almost a year after the move “out to the country.” He younger brother made a choice to also move to New York when he visited his father and sister last summer. Only my oldest remains in Florida, a college freshman with dreams of his own, a straight A student who does everything by the book and believed hard work will pay off…
My ex was still paying the child support, and my daughter was angry about that, feeling that I didn’t deserve it. I never got into the discussion with her about the framing of the agreement that couched EVERYTHING in child support to make it more palatable to the ex, or how the reason payments were to continue in full until months after all three kids turned 18 was because we negotiated it that way and I gave up part of the child support payments, all sorts of marital assets, and any right to marital support to compensate for my decreased earning potential.
Then my ex lost Job #4. He still hasn’t found another. Then I lost my job last December.
I was relying on a tax refund that was supposed to come in today, but didn’t. I suspect it is because my ex defaulted in the student loans, and now I am in a very precarious position.
I am behind on my car loan. We are behind on property taxes. I am behind on the phone bill. We have an electrical bill we won’t be able to pay.
I am not a bad person. I have just made some really bad choices, mostly out of love.
Love. That magical word that is supposed to somehow fix the things that are broken, and make everything okay.
I am sitting at a lake, typing on my cellphone, occasionally seeing a coyote, and pondering where things like live and faith and doing what I thought at the time was the right thing have gotten me. Wondering when it will be my time again to have dreams and “make something of my life.” Maybe never, but quitting has never been an option.
The sun will be coming up in a few minutes, and I can see the outline of the lake in dim light as I wonder “what now? Where do I go now?”
Where do you go when you lose everything? How do I start over with less than nothing?