It is interesting to me to look back at what I have been through and reflect on what I have learned. Maybe I can pass some of it on to you! And, perhaps if you are going through anything close to what I went through this will help ease the pain a bit and give you some ideas as well. I hope so.
I got a divorce when my daughter was two and a half. Too young to understand, only young enough to know something wasn't right. Kids are incredibly intuitive, don't sell them short. Her mother was a severe alcoholic. Incredibly beautiful, (as in runner-up to Miss………. (State) of the Miss America pageant), and she knew how to use it to get what she wanted.
She had an addiction problem, and when I realized it, I went to a counselor. My ex-went with me one time and halfway through the session ran out. The counselor sat me down and said that I was in a tight spot. That unless she wanted to change nothing else would and that there was at least the possibility that she would use the child against me, even to the extreme point of hurting our daughter emotionally or otherwise. I had witnessed her rejection of our daughter often enough to know what she was saying had the ring of truth in it. She was telling me we had to separate and my daughter might be better off if I were not there.
You need to understand that my attachment to my daughter is incredibly strong. (As is normal- I hope.) I helped the doc birth her, and when the nurses and docs cleaned her up, she was mine. I walked her around in circles in the birthing room, tears running down my face, singing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy," and to this day I sing the "Do-Do,” song to my grandkids to help them go to sleep too. I got the divorce, but try as I did, I could not get custody. My ex and my daughter moved back to her parent’s home. So, I became a long-distance Dad.
Ages 2 - 4
This is not easy because it is the everyday changes that are so miraculous in a child and in the relationship those changes create. I resolved not to be a stranger and until my daughter could speak, and when my ex-was of the mood, I talked to my daughter and sang to her on the phone and twice a year tried to get my court allowed visitation. My ex-sometimes made that impossible. I didn't have the money to pursue each violation of court order. Distance only seemed to increase the difficulty and the pain of separation.
AGE 5 to 8
When she could talk, the phone conversations became better, but still, her mother made that problematic, and at times as she got older it became harder and harder to talk with her. "She was too busy." I heard this too many times. It is frustrating, painful to the point of being almost debilitating. It feels as though your heart has been crushed and doesn’t even want to beat. But you cannot stop calling or trying. This is crucial! At every step along the path, you must keep trying. You must keep working at having a relationship with your child.
Then something miraculous happened. When my daughter was 6 or 7, I asked if she ever wanted to call me and she said, “yes.” For whatever reason, her mother agreed, and my number was posted beside the phone in her house. To this day I thank my ex for that one simple gesture. Little things, insignificant little things can be incredibly valuable and change lives for the better. Slowly, we began to talk more, as I believe my daughter started to realize there was a problem in her house. With that realization, I got to become more involved.
I got a call one day from the school that Erin had not been picked up, it was 5 PM her time, 4 PM my time, school ended at 2:30 PM and I was 500 miles away. I knew the name of her best friend. I got lucky. It was an unusual name. I found her number and called their house. Her best friend’s Mom went and picked her up from school. This awful thing gave me another opening. I started collecting names and numbers of her neighbors, friends, teachers anyone I could find. To me, this was a way of protecting my daughter as best I could.
I can only imagine how embarrassing that was for my daughter. Kids know when something is not right. Equally, you as a long-distance Dad need to realize how they feel. I never said anything negative about her Mom. To this day I don't do that. Children naturally feel an incredible bond with a parent, especially it seems, to a parent who has a problem. In the case of children of alcoholic parents, the child becomes the parent. They feel the responsibility of protecting and caring for the parent.
While we talked more on the phone, conversations became trickier. I couldn't ask about her Mom as she would become defensive and the discussion was over. I couldn't ask how she felt about this or about that as that seemed to carry the same defensive attitude as though I was prying too much. So, in many ways, I had to parent by not directly parenting.
I could ask about school, activities, friends, grades, courses, teachers, subjects, what she liked and didn’t like. But it had to be lite, gentle and almost off-handed. If I pried too much, the conversation ended.
This was my daughter's way of retaining some control in her life that was basically out of control. To this day she keeps that trait.
It was also this incident that prompted me to realize her mother went on benders. And, maybe just maybe I could get custody of my daughter. I started the process. I had just enough money to hire a lawyer and start. I guess I should have known better when the lawyer, after the retainer and some investigation told me that trying to get custody was a bad idea. My righteous indignation got the better of me. It was when my ex-walked into the courtroom, just late enough to make an "entrance" that I understood what my lawyer meant.
She wore a demure white silk blouse unbuttoned just far enough, with her hour-glass figure, olive skin, dark auburn hair, bright green eyes and a skirt just long enough for the court to notice. She was stunning. She strolled down the center aisle with an injured, “Why is he doing this to me?” expression that was a preamble, to a short, expensive child custody hearing.
I was after-all the out-of-state father, with little to no standing in the community and proof, (specious at best – according to her lawyer) of one instance of forgetfulness that would never happen again. No question, case closed. If I learned one thing from that, it was; listen to your lawyer when he or she gives you his/her opinion. You are paying them, aren’t you?
The aftermath was worse than the trial. It was more difficult for me to see or talk with my daughter again. The number came off the phone, and my daughter was "Very busy,” almost all the time. My Christmas visitation was eliminated as they went out of town to see relatives. I was starting all over again.
After a time (I don't remember how long, I only remember the frustration and pain of not being able to communicate), I was able again to talk with my daughter. I asked her what books she was reading. The reply was that she "hated to read," and she finally told me the name of the reading assignment. As a teacher for two years after college, I remember how vital the ability to read is to succeed in school and in life. This I could do something about. I had an idea!
I called her teacher. “Could I get her reading books and other school books?” Would her teacher help me get all her books? The answer was “Yes!” Unbeknownst to my daughter, her mother or anyone but the school I traveled there, met all her teachers, got an update on how she was doing and most importantly got all her books, and some that she would be using in the future. I felt like a king, a genius and most importantly like a good father! I managed to get into and out of the school after-hours without being seen by any relatives, estranged or otherwise.
(There is a definite possibility that today this would be more difficult. Back in the 1980's, it was easier. I am not suggesting you can do this today, I am suggesting you should try. I am recommending this as your duty as a Dad, in the house, long-distance or just across town. Know what your child is doing, how they are doing and who they are doing it with. A child will take a more significant interest in themselves if you take a more substantial interest in them.)
The first time my daughter and I talked after my trip to her school, I asked her how her reading was going. She hemmed and hawed and said she was doing it. I asked her to read to me and said I would love to hear her read? I said if she read to me I would read to her and she would get through the book quicker.
Silence. OK, and she started to read. Haltingly at first then with a bit more confidence. After a few paragraphs, she stopped. I said ok my turn and began to read. (I had already read the book, and her teacher had told me where they were before I left, so I knew about where she was then.)
Silence. Then, "How did you get my book, Daddy?" I told her not to worry that it was my job as a Dad to help her with her homework and that I had not been very good up to now, but that she would get as much help as she needed, whenever she needed it. I also asked if it was ok to keep this information to ourselves. From that time on, we did homework together, and I found out how inadequate my knowledge of "new math and new history, and modern English was. But I got to learn, and I got to help her learn. Together.
(This was the first time and one of the few, I ever asked my daughter to keep a secret from her Mom. I couldn't gauge the reaction her Mom would have, and I didn’t want this destroyed. It was one of the few times while my daughter was in grade school that I ever felt entirely successful as a Dad. Most of the time my daughter was home alone at night. That made me very sad. It also gave me an excellent opportunity to be with my daughter – at least on the phone. I wish they had invented Skype or Zoom back then.)
Sometime later in the summer, my phone rang at 2 AM. I don't know about you but when my phone rings at 2 AM it usually isn't something good. My daughter, on the other end of the line, was crying! There was a violent thunderstorm, and she was/and still is, scared by thunder. 2 AM, and she is alone in the house. (Absolute anger at her mother, and abject pain that I am incapable of being there to comfort her. None of which I can show.) We talked on the phone for a long time as the wind, thunder (that I could hear on the phone), lightning and rain pummeled the house.
I made up a story. The old Greek mythology story about Zeus and his anger and losing at bowling (that was the thunder), and the lightning was when he missed the pins altogether. The rain was tears of laughter when he hit the pins, and my daughter was in the middle of one of the greatest bowling matches the gods had ever seen. The storm was finally over. And she went to sleep.
There was some comfort in my ability to calm her fears, but I cried myself to sleep in frustration and anger. Why was I in this situation? Could I ever get my daughter to live with me full time? What would it take?
(In the middle of all of this, from time to time I would go to a counselor, psychologist for help, opinions (which they seldom like to give), and comfort that I was doing what I could, the best I could. I started out not being a fan of "shrinks." But this taught me that they do have value. I did get comfort, ideas and back up. Try it. If you are having a tough time with a child or relationship, get some help. Finding the right psychologist can take some work, but it is worth it. At least, it was for me.)
AGE 9 -13
After I realized that my daughter was often alone when her mother went out at night, I suggested we cook together. While the idea at first was met with some derision and laughter, I got her to get some Mac and Cheese, hot dogs, hamburgers, buns, chips, and coke. Since her Mom pretty much did whatever she asked, this was easy.
Very quickly I came to understand that I was not going to improve on the food she ate. But, if I wanted time with her, my concession was allowing her what she wanted while I got to get the same comfort food and enjoy step by step cooking with a 9-year-old. (I purchased the same food, and cooked, very carefully, telling her each thing to do, one step at a time. I had menus and cooking ingredients and steps prepared in advance. She used electric elements and I was careful to talk about grease and fires and anything that could be a problem. I think we had the safety issues under control.)
There was a lot of laughter, messes, boil-overs, cleanups and wonderful Dad, daughter stuff. To this day the cooking "classes" were some of my happiest memories with my daughter. Miles of separation can be conquered from time to time. Just put your mind to it.
It was during this period that my ex-remarried and moved. This is not good, as now there is another guy in the works who my wife will try to make "Dad." So, I worry and stew and its back to the counselor again. It is harder to talk to my daughter. They are a hectic, very social couple, and I feel I must start all over. AGAIN!
The marriage didn't last. There was a great deal of violence. At one point my ex-was thrown down the stairs, the State Police were called, an ambulance was called, and Child Services was called. Surely now I have my chance. I can get custody, finally!
Not so fast kiddo. My new lawyer is careful. Briefs me on all the possibilities. Points out once again that I have no standing in this court or even this state and that it just depends on how the judge sees it and which judge we draw. This was and still is a conservative state where mothers are given colossal latitude and fathers seen as less relevant to the rearing of the child.
And so, it goes. Even in a plaster cast, her arm propped up from a broken shoulder, and bruises, dressed to the nines, perfectly timed, my ex- arrived and the courtroom buzz stopped.
Evidently, my daughter witnessing her mother being thrown down the stairs, a TV thrown on top of her, the arrival of the State Police, ambulance and spending a night in the custody of Child Services carried little weight. Certainly not in the view of this judge, who interrupted my testimony to say: “Your child is fine. What’s your problem?”
I had to start all over again. My ex and my daughter move back to their home state. At least now there is a regular phone call, and my daughter gets to come and stay for six weeks during the summer. I see her three times a year. She makes a friend or two at my house. At one point sitting out on the stoop on a hot summer day my daughter stops me from lighting a cigarette and says: “Dad, I know Mommy is going to die.” “Will you stop smoking please?” I was stunned.
(I never picked up another cigarette. After 25 years of smoking, I stopped cold turkey. I don’t smoke. I gained 50 lbs., lost it twice and am down to a decent weight but have more to go. I stopped smoking about 25 years ago. I am thankful she asked me to stop. I don’t know that I could have any other way. At the time my daughter was eleven years old. I hope I have had half the effect on her life that she has had on mine.)
With that amazing question, we began having our first heart-to-heart conversation. Ever. I asked if she was happy at home. She was. That was at-once a joy and a disappointment. The idea of her living with me ever present. It also never occurred to me that it wouldn’t happen. I just had no idea when. She would not come to live with me for three more years.
A couple of times when my daughter came to visit me I would consult a "shrink' based on what was going on, how I felt and my concerns for the visit. I prepared for each visit as best I could. Making sure we had things to do; that she had friends to visit and I took a vacation for as long as possible. I also wanted her to have alone time or girl-time with friends, whichever she wanted. I never wanted her to feel "stuck with Dad" while she stayed with me, nor did I want her to feel any aloneness or neglect.
(At some point, a psychologist told me that I was not likely to get custody until she reached puberty and began the separation process from her mother. Then, the “shrink” said it would be possible to have her decide she wanted to live with me. She also noted that courts were listening to kids when they reached puberty and that my daughters desire, even more than my own could be a deciding factor.)
That is almost exactly how it happened. I got a call one night. My daughter was angrier than I had ever heard her. She said she was fed up, and her mother was "gone again." Could she come live with me? She said her suitcase was packed and if I would send her a ticket she would be on the next plane. I was floored, happy, panicked. My mind raced, trying to figure out how to say; "Yes, of course, I'll see you tomorrow morning.” But I couldn’t.
That would be stealing your child. In as quiet a manner as possible, considering my exploding heart, I explained what would happen. How it would take some months but that legally I had to get full custody for that to happen. I asked her if she wanted her mother to have visitation or if she wanted to spend time at home with her after she left. "No," I asked about her friends and leaving them. That seemed to calm her down a bit.
She protested angrily that she had the right to decide, not me and not her mother. She was 13. I wanted to say “Yes” so badly I could taste it. But I had no choice. I told her to unpack, say nothing and I would start proceedings the next morning.
I hired a lawyer, and he got an investigator. 8 months later I had full custody. Even dressing up didn’t help my ex this time. I had more than enough evidence. Separately, in chambers, the judge listened to my daughter, and the decision was made. Starting in the new school year, she would move in with me. Only 6 more months to wait.
Twelve years after the divorce I got full custody. The results from that are a separate story, full of a headstrong teenage girl, and a father and step-mother who loved her very much and still do.
Parenting, especially long-distance parenting is made up of part creativity, part careful thought, a full dose of patience, too much pain, not enough time and most of all a lot of love.
I have never understood how parents can leave a child behind, but I know it happens. I’ve seen it. While I am not proud of my record of marriages, I am very proud of the effort I put into having a relationship with my daughter.
When everything went wrong, when my anger boiled over, when I cried my eyes out, not once did I ever forget the goal: a good relationship with my daughter.
Today we talk once a week at least. I see the grandkids regularly on Skype, and twice a year we visit. They are as wrapped up in what they are doing as my daughter was at their age. I am grateful when I watch the youngest play with a new toy or tell me of her new adventures, and the oldest of his victories or losses in soccer and the latest on his neighborhood buddies.
My daughter has made excellent choices in her life, and I like to think I had a lot to do with that. I think of how she could have turned out, and I am grateful for who she is and who I am, and how hard I worked to do what I did.
There is still a gap between us, most likely stemming from her repeated pleas, to “Move home Daddy, please.” Even now those words make me cry.
There was no work where she lived, and the words of the psychologist still ring in my ears. Did I make the right choice to leave her? To this day I don't know. I made the decision that at that time seemed correct, though it still hurts.
I have a beautiful daughter, of whom I am justly proud.
She has her master’s degree, works for one of the largest companies in the world and has a high paying job. She married a good man, who loves her, knows when to laugh at her and with her. She has two kids who drive her orderly mind nuts. Life is as it should be.
I have a great deal to be grateful for.
I hope this article sparks some thought and conversation. Long-distance parenting is hard but tremendously rewarding. Know that no matter what you are going through there is a positive light at the end of your tunnel. Believe that: always.
I wish you well…
A.W. “Chip” Stites,
Retired: Writer, Photographer