For the past eight years, there have been two words - two very little words - that make my knees buckles and my stomach flip. No, not head lice. Not even exploding nappy. No - the two words that keep me awake in the wee small hours of the night are 'joint custody'. Even writing them makes me go a bit light-headed.
When I left my son's father in 2008 - taking with me my two-year-old son - I'm not sure I'd even heard those words. It didn't take long, however, for my son's father to suss out their mystical, magical power.
And so, for EIGHT WHOLE YEARS, I've toed the line and done what I'm told, because the thought of 'joint custody' terrifies me. Because if I rock the boat in any way, my son's father will utter those magic words and frighten me into submission.
Before you pipe up, I do acknowledge the other side of the coin. I understand what it must mean for a loving, devoted father to spend just a couple of nights a week with his child. I understand how heartbreaking this must be. I understand that a 50-50 split is - on paper - fair. I understand that for some parents, and for some children, this arrangement might work very, very well. But please understand that this arrangement is not for me. It's not for my son.
I also understand that the Family Court doesn't necessarily care what's right for me, and what's right for my son. Until my son is 12, they won't take his thoughts and feelings into account, believing him too young to be heard. If he was at risk, yes, they'd factor that in, but right now, as it stands, if his dad turned around and said he wanted his son every second week, he'd get his son every second week, and no amount of shouting and screaming will change that. As it stands, the Family Court advocates for a child spending as much time with his dad as he does his mum. If the dad wants more time with his kid, then the dad gets more time with his kid.
For me and my son, the thought of a 50-50 split is unthinkable. My son isn't particularly close to his dad - they have a strained, slightly awkward relationship - and he spends time with him under duress. That's not just me making excuses, that's a fact. When he was little, he'd be physically sick as we turned the corner into his street. Every. Single. Time. Now he's older, he goes to his dad's with a grim resignation, and comes back tired and sick and glad - so, so glad - to be home.
My son's home is with me, his step-dad and his younger siblings. This is where he feels comfortable, has tantrums, walks around in underpants, and helps himself to my stash of Lindt in the pantry. We have our ups and downs, of course we do, but that's real family life. This is his family! I can't even imagine him not being here for 50% of the time. I'm a mum of three, not a mum of two. His life is here, his brother and sister are here, his friends are around the corner, his school's just down the road, his soccer club's a 30-second bike ride away. When he's not here there's something missing. Yeah, bedtime's a bit easier, and we save a bloody fortune on meals out, but that's not the point. We're a family of five, and we're lost without our eldest boy.
Right now, my son's dad is pushing for more nights with his son. This has nothing to do with a genuine desire to spend time with his kid, and everything to do with him paying less child support. Fact. My son doesn't want to spend more nights with his dad. I don't want my son to spend more nights with his dad. Guess what? It doesn't matter what he wants. If the father wants more nights, the father gets more nights.
You know what? If my son loved going to his dad's - if it really was quality father-son time - then I'd have to suck it up. I would suck it up, because I understand that a kid needs a positive relationship with his dad. I'd miss him, but I'd deal with it, for the greater good. But this is about ticking boxes, and fulfilling obligations and - yeah - saving money.
The arguments and the negotiations and the threats tire me out. I'd love to say bugger it, have your son as much as you want, just leave me alone. But it's not about me, is it? It's not about the father, either. It's about my son. My son doesn't want to spend more time with his dad. My son wants to be at home, with me, so I've got to keep fighting the good fight - for my kid.
Due to the sensitive nature of this article, this Australian single mother author has chosen to remain anonymous. Certain facts have been changed to protect the identities of any parties concerned.
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