This article originally appeared in the Kindred Voice Vol 2: Mental Illness
I never realized that I was a villain.
I sit in my therapist’s office, gazing out of the window like I always do, and I say to her, “I just don’t get it.”
She shifts in her chair and says to me with her cute southern accent, “you never will. You keep trying to rationalize someone whose behavior is completely irrational.”
Her words roll around in my head with some regularity. I’m still trying to accept this fact. I am a fairly self-confident woman until I’ve had to interact with him. And then I begin to question everything.
My co-parenting relationship had been fairly copacetic for several years, but for some reason, my decision to file legal paperwork memorializing our parenting arrangements sent him over the edge. Prior to filing, I gave him warning that it was coming and reassured him that I wasn’t looking to change anything, I just wanted to lock in the status quo.
“It will protect us both in the long run,” I told him, “in case things aren’t always as good as they are right now.”
Little did I know that was the last time things would be good.
After getting served the paperwork, he told our daughter that I was trying to take her away from him. She came home crying and wanted to know why I would do such a thing. I reassured her that I wasn’t trying to take her away; that I would never do that without reason. I told her that everything was fine and she need not worry.
I started therapy two weeks after filing those papers. I needed to make sure I was prepared for the emotional battle it seemed I was gearing up to fight. I didn’t realize at the time what an amazingly good decision it would turn out to be.
My daughter is the product of a broken heart, an ill-advised rebound, and a birth control failure. It caught us both by surprise, but I wasn’t exactly shocked when he decided to opt out of fatherhood.
It completely blindsided me when, exactly five years later, he decided to go all in.
Things were fine at the beginning. I was mostly in utter shock that he had changed his mind. It wasn’t without me begging for a change of heart for the first three years, to no avail. I had long since given up when I heard the words on the eve of my child’s fifth birthday— “I think I want to do this dad thing.”
Those might not have been his exact words, but that was the sentiment. We partnered up the next day to give our child a memorable birthday. I fielded calls from his siblings, who, up until this point, had no clue I–or their niece–even existed. It was all so incredibly surreal.
After a few years, we had finally settled into a co-parenting groove that was tolerable, but not great. What I knew of what co-parenting looked like, regardless of whether the parties are in a committed relationship or not, it was messy and imperfect. Our relationship was no different.
Now that we were at the point of legalizing our agreement, I didn’t understand why he thought that I was trying to take anything away from him. I sat in the therapist’s chair, week after week, trying to comprehend why he was so angry with me. I only wanted to protect us both, “Just in case,” I said to her. Why was that so bad?
I questioned my decision on a daily basis. Everyone in my orbit reassured me it was the right thing to do.
A few months later, he was being investigated for a child abuse allegation and I desired to restrict his parenting time. My daughter’s version of what happened and his were completely different. Hers was violent and scary and his was that he did nothing more than discipline his child. I have re-read the police report from time to time, just trying to see if I could understand what exactly he thought had happened on that night.
The investigation that was ordered in our civil case after the fact saw him cast me as dishonest because of one incident where I had my child lie about her age to avoid paying bus fare that I didn’t have so I could get her to school. I heard things like “the parties are embroiled in a very contested parenting case,” when the only one that was contesting anything was him.
At his sentencing hearing for the abuse charge, he told the judge that he apologized for wasting the court’s time for something so trivial. I about fell out of my chair to realize that he didn’t agree that his actions were at all traumatic to a ten-year-old. The judge also disagreed, responding that it was never a waste of the court’s time to ensure the safety of a child.
A couple of months later, I received an email from my attorney, wanting to know details about something that had happened between me and the dentist’s office. I read the email four times, just to make sure that what I was seeing was actually what the email said. His attorney was describing an event that had never even happened.
I found myself in the therapist’s office again the next morning, asking her how I’m supposed to cope with someone that doesn’t even know what actually happened from something that never happened? I was starting to feel completely crazy and combed through my memories to see if there was anything that closely resembled this incident that was creating drama.
I picked out a memory from several years prior that sounded sort of familiar to the incident described in the email. “Could that be what he’s remembering? Why does he think that just happened?” I shook my head and gazed out the window. “His attorney thinks I’m this raging bitch and he believes every single word his client tells him about me! I’ve been cast as a villain and I haven’t done anything wrong!”
I broke down in tears and my therapist reminded me that I am not the one who is irrational. Even so, I question it, and walk out of her office, recounting every conversation obsessively, trying to glean even the slightest visibility into his perspective.
His family completely stopped talking to me after the abuse incident, where we previously had a positive relationship. When my daughter expressed a desire to reconnect with those family members, I shared with them the details of the abuse. No editorializing, just the facts.
I was called manipulative and controlling and was asked never to contact his family again. I’m still not sure how my act of trying to bring the family back together created an insurmountable divide that I don’t think will ever be mended.
It was then that I realized that every time his reality and mine don’t align, I begin to question myself. And I have gotten to the point where I try to anticipate how he’s going to respond to me with every interaction.
I get it wrong every time.
I put a lot of effort into side-stepping the land mines, but what I seem to forget is that the land mines haven’t been planted yet. In fact, they probably don’t even exist.