Chapter 41: Welcome to Middle School at the Border of Crazy
After ten hours of working from home with back-to-back meetings for the third day in a row, I waited patiently for the final call of the day with a glass of wine in hand.
My eyes glaze over as the blue screen vibrates. As I stare at the computer, two zombies stare back at me—the image of my daughter and her father side by side, no affection or touch between them. My view gets disrupted as MSP’s (Miss Sassy Pants aka my daughter) therapist joins the meeting.
Our virtual family therapy session begins. A meeting we’ve been working toward for three years.
The time has come for my daughter, to share the decision about where she wants to attend Middle school. Westfield or Brooklyn; in other words, to live with Mommy or Daddy.
The anxiety is palpable, especially for my daughter. But I feel it too; there’s a massive pit in my stomach. I hope that she expresses her choice with resolve yet dread that she will succumb to the guilt she feels for having to choose.
You might be wondering why we’ve put this decision in the hands of a 10-year old. That’s because my daughter’s father wants her to attend school in Brooklyn, and I want her to attend Westfield. We simply can’t agree.
The alternative is to go to court and have a judge make the decision. Anyone who has been through a custody battle can attest to the arduous, painful, and LENGTHY process. Plus, the courts are currently closed due to the pandemic. An impossible situation. Therefore, this decision sits solely in her sweet little (or not so little) hands.
I am terrified because she got accepted to a gifted program at a school in Brooklyn. In Brooklyn, you don’t have to attend your zone school. You can apply to others if your child is particularly bright and possesses exceptional skills. MSP is an intelligent young woman and did very well on her statewide tests. Therefore, she can choose the gifted program at her second-choice school (out of five selections) in Brooklyn or the one middle school in our area in Westfield.
Leading into this meeting, MSP and I have discussed the pros and cons of each situation. I guide her to decide based on location and educational environment, not a choice between her mother and father.
I want her to rationalize the type of school, campus, curriculum, community, surrounding she will have vs. where she resides. I hope that this will help her decision feel less like a rejection of a parent than a choice for the type of life she wants to lead.
I affirm that I am her mother 24-7, whether she is with me or not, and the same goes for her father. We are and always will be there for her no matter where she lives or attends school.
For the past three months, after we visited all six schools (five in Brooklyn and one in Westfield), she’s been working with her therapist to outline the decision and a framework for communicating her choice.
Imagining these conversations makes my stomach turn. My heart aches thinking about the level of anxiety MSP’s experiencing. I’m reminded of the feeling I had when she had an IV inserted into her chubby arm when she was just four months old. She suffered from a stomach flu and was severely dehydrated. As she snuggled in my arms, the nurse stuck the needle (he got it on the first try, thank God), and I felt her body quake against me. That familiar pain seeps into my bones as I think about what she is going through now. As a parent, all we want to do is take any pain away.
MSP fully comprehends that this decision will define her youth and her future. The choice will inform the friends she makes, her day-to-day life and the education she receives.
Brooklyn is a very different environment than Westfield; I know because I grew up and went to school in Brooklyn. Conversely, I’ve witnessed my niece and nephew go through the educational system in Westfield. Seeing the benefits and detriments of either scenario, I sought advice from her Brooklyn Elementary School teachers. They unanimously supported Middle school in Westfield based on several factors including how she learns and her personality.
Watching her little face on the screen, I long to hold her and cuddle her in my arms. I want so much to assure her as I did in the hospital many years ago. Instead, I sit there and watch her eyes go dull as she eliminates emotion to muster the courage to say the words she’s been practicing.
As her therapist sets up the purpose and desired outcome of the meeting, I could see her shift uncomfortably. The therapist is very encouraging to MSP and shares that they’ve done a lot of work together, outlining all considerations. She then prompts MSP to share her decision. MSP takes a long, hard deep breath, and in a monotone voice, whispers, “I want to go to Westfield.”
My heart bursts with joy.
Then her father interrupts my joy and asks, “What did you say? I can’t hear you.”
Mind you; he’s sitting right next to her.
Her therapist encourages her to speak up. MSP closes her eyes, takes another deep breath, and exclaims, “I want to go to Middle school in Westfield.”
I can see her father tense as he now shifts in his seat.
NOTE to the reader: This is NOT news to him. Over the past few months, he asked her several times about which school she wanted to attend. She told him the truth that she wanted to go to school in Westfield. He asked for her reasons. She told him because of the school campus, the curriculum, the fact that they have gym every day and often outside. She loves the community and that they have woodworking and theater classes. He encouraged her not to make any formal decisions until she has the full picture once the Brooklyn school acceptances arrived. She agreed.
And here we are. All the acceptances were received, and the undeniable truth is that MSP still wants to attend Middle school in Westfield.
Not to mention that I moved to Westfield because she was supposed to attend elementary school here. When MSP was six-years-old, her father asked her to choose between us. The decision she made at six-years old, she makes once again at ten.
I am entirely relieved, thrilled and very proud!
But since she is with her father for the next 24 hours, I begin to imagine what those hours will be like for her; tense, sad, stressful, and anxiety-filled. I fear that he will continue to question her motives and her decision. Alas, I resign myself to trust that because we have a witness (her therapist), he cannot manipulate her into changing her decision as he did when she was six.
We talk for a while longer about what that change of circumstances means to her and us. Her father and I now need to get into detail over the revised visitation as she will be with me five days a week for the foreseeable future.
And that sets off a two-month process of negotiation.
We decide it is in MSP’s and our best interest to redesign the elements of our custody agreement without lawyers or the court involved (this is a risk based on my previous experience). Once the year has passed, we will go to court to finalize the agreement. He positions this as a “test” period.
Mind you; I am her mother. I am not sure why I need a “test” period as I did not subject him to such a test. However, I learned to choose my battles with a High Conflict Personality (as described by my custody lawyer who is well-versed and experienced with these types of personalities).
His pattern of behavior over the past six and a half years, caused me to stop trying to co-parent and focus on parallel parenting. The reason is that he does not compromise and dictates the rules. He likes to assert that he is a physical custodial parent as a point of leverage and importance. My lawyer reinforces that because we have joint custody, that means relatively nothing as all decisions are made jointly.
Regardless, I enter this process with trepidation and extreme caution. I commit to eliminating emotion from my responses and communication with MSP’s father. I’ve learned this lesson the hard way. I must contain and control how I react to his prods and pokes. Inevitably, he will do whatever it takes to get a rise, and when I lash out emotionally, he wins—every time.
He proves me right; the entire negotiation is complicated, emotional, and I compromise a lot.
We net out with a revised agreement that has its pros and cons. Here are some of the highlights:
On the upside, I will have her five days a week, Monday through Friday. He will have her three weekends a month, which means that she may not be with her friends or be able to attend special family events (without the special request to swap the weekend). When I suggest that Middle school is an important time for social development, he agrees to allow her to attend ONE event (school-related or social) from his allocated time. And I would need to pick her up and drop her off from their home in Brooklyn.
With that said, I will commute her to and from Brooklyn and Westfield each weekend. Drop off AND pick up as I’ve had to do since we got divorced. With most co-parents, travel from home to home is split evenly. However, this is not the version of custody her father conforms with, so I will let the judge decide what is fair once we finalize the agreement.
He demands that each parent have an entire year of holidays that would alternate for EVEN and ODD years. Meaning that EVEN years (2020, 2022, etc.), I will have her for Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve/Day, Christmas Break and New Year’s Eve/Day.
He will have her on ODD years.
In 2021, I will not see my girl for an entire year of holidays. I won’t get to see her open her gifts or sing carols with our family (as we have done for many decades together). I will not get to have an Easter egg hunt nor get to relish those family photos to see how she’s grown over the years.
However, there are years when she will be present in every picture for every holiday. But it breaks my heart to think that there will be times she is absent. There are lots of “I’s” in the above paragraph and that is not lost on me.
Overall, I do not think this is good for her. She should be able to see both her parents and extended families over the holidays within reason. Her father’s rationale is that alternating years will ease parental holiday planning and vacations. Considering I do all the travel, this doesn’t make any sense to me.
I relent to attain peace. One wrong move and I know he will shut down the negotiation altogether.
After I privately cry my eyes out imagining a Christmas Eve and Easter without her, I share my apprehension with MSP about the holiday arrangement her father is proposing. She looks me square in the eyes and says, “Mama, I got what I wished for, to be here with you and attend Middle school in Westfield. Everything else will work out. Sometimes I must make compromises to get what I want. Being here will make me happy, and that’s all that matters right now.”
And so, my wise daughter (this young lady I’m helping blossom into a formidable young woman) schools me in the way only she can. It’s the MSP Show, and I’m just here to tune-in, be her biggest fan and greatest supporter.
Get ready world, because here she comes!
P.S. Unbeknownst to me, MSP proactively captured her list of goals for the coming year; her 11th year of life. I discovered this paper taped to her wall as I was cleaning up her creativity room. I plan to invite her to guest blog on TDF so she can share some insight into her, clearly, amazing plans for the near future.
Cherry Maggiore is the proud single mom of her 10-year-old super-sassy daughter (aka Miss Sassy Pants or MSP); in addition to being an award-winning senior marketing executive at a major media company.
Beside her side hustle as the Freak of Nurture, she also started a home design company after being inspired by renovating and designing her 1880’s home in NJ.
This insanely curious and passionate “multi-potentialite” can be found dancing the Argentinan tango, swing and Hustle every Saturday, cooking her family an Italian Sunday dinner, singing and air drumming at concerts or searching for her next adventure