As our lecturer commented, in the hardest cases the judge makes the best decision he or she can, and hopes that no one dies. Professor P. wasn’t just being dramatic. In Australia, at least one Family Court judge has been killed by a distraught litigant who had hoped for a different decision. Yikes.
At that time, the law stated that in decisions regarding shared parenting, a judge’s paramount consideration was “the best interests of the child”. My classmates and I spent lots of time learning how that phrase had been interpreted by legislatures and judges, and whether or not we agreed. Does “the best interests of the child” mean giving primary custody to the parent with the most stable income, the parent who has spent the most time with the child, or the parent who is the more responsible and dependable? Should we always aim to split custody 50:50, on the assumption that children need both Mum and Dad? Should we try to determine whether an estranged Mum and Dad are in fact being sincere about their respective pleas for custody of their children, or whether (intentionally or not) each is just trying to score points? If a judge’s decision is likely to anger one or both parents, what kind of collateral damage might their children later face?
We were then asked to consider an awkward scenario: what if Mum (primary caregiver) wants to relocate to pursue a positive new job opportunity in a city where she has close family and friends, and wants to take the kids with her; what if this potential destination is hundreds or thousands of kilometres interstate or overseas; what if the children’s father can’t or won’t similarly relocate and insists that his ex-wife stay put? If the issue went to court, should a judge let Mum go ahead and make the move, or command her to stay?
You can see why Family Court judges (and in fact all those who work in Family Law) have my wholehearted admiration, as well as my heartfelt sympathy.
At the time, my loyalty swung backwards and forwards between that fictional mum and her ex-husband. I read lots of articles, trying doggedly to find the elusive out-of-the-box solution that would be “in the best interests of the child” and still wouldn’t make anyone miserable (I never did find that solution; probably it didn’t exist).
One article I read stayed with me. It drew a compelling analogy between a parent and an airline passenger experiencing a drop in cabin pressure.
Airline safety demonstrations always advise us to ensure our own mask is secured before helping others. The logic behind this is unimpeachable – how can we help our children or others around us if we ourselves run out of oxygen and pass out?
The article argued that securing the best interests of a child meant securing the best interests of his or her primary caregiver – whether those interests are a decent job and financial security, a strong support network of family and friends, remarriage, or other elements that would likely bring happiness and stability (both in concrete terms and emotionally). The article was strongly in favour of making sure the child’s primary caregiver had a fully-functioning oxygen mask in place, and was in the best possible position to care for his or her child. The writer was clearly a supporter of that fictional mum's relocation plans.
I don’t remember whose side I came down on in the end (especially given that our lecturer was a well-known proponent of dads’ rights, and I was not one to let emotion ruin my GPA). However, I found myself thinking of that oxygen-mask article again lately.
How many parents really do stop to consider – daily, weekly, or even at all - whether their own metaphorical “oxygen mask” is in place? When I became a parent for the first time, I found myself completely absorbed in my baby and lovingly (if annoyingly) anxious about everything that concerned her. At that time, the idea that I might have not just a right, but also a responsibility to continue to act in my own interests was literally beyond my comprehension. I remember noticing articles in parenting books and on blogs that urged me to secure “Me time” and to take care of myself and my own individual needs. Privately, I couldn’t help thinking it was all a load of selfish B.S.
Looking back with wiser eyes, I hereby extend a humble apology for all those slurs I mentally let fly against people who (I now realize) knew better than I did. I now see that I spent much of the first 6 years of my life as a parent over-extended, rapidly burning out, and growing more bitter, jaded and unhappy by the day. It is a saintly person indeed who can focus all his or her time and energy selflessly on other people, especially pint-sized ones – a paragon who can work and cook and mop up puke, patiently feed and soothe a crying baby for hours at a time instead of sleeping, brightly endure entire days with a toddler in the throes of the Terrible Twos, and voluntarily replace all previous leisure activities with trips to the park, Wiggles songs, and Fisher Price toys - and all without feeling exhausted, fraught, or plagued by a tiny inner voice demanding, in a rising crescendo, “What about me?”
In the unlikely case that there was any doubt in your mind, let me confirm that I am not one of those saintly people, and I extend a heartfelt sorry to my kids and my husband for having to live with me at my burnt-out worst.
My own oxygen mask is still in prototype form and doesn’t always work properly. Persistent user error and residual “I’m FINE, ok?”-type stubbornness hasn’t helped. However, at least I have finally admitted that I need that mask and its reviving oxygen. If you don’t own your own mask, or aren’t using it properly, do something about it. This is not just about your rights as a person; this is about your responsibility to those who depend on you – you need enough oxygen not only to stay alive and conscious, but also to have the physical and emotional energy to stay on top of your parental responsibilities, and even (hopefully) to be the kind of person you’d like to see your own children become.
It isn’t easy to find that source of oxygen if you’ve been doing without it for a long time – you might feel as though you don’t have the time, money or resources to be changing direction career-wise, getting help with home duties/childcare, reading books, exercising, sleeping more, or doing whatever big or small thing is that will revive and energize you – but finding a way to get that personal O2 is a necessity, not an extravagance.
You can’t be the best parent you can be if your own life is suffocating you.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, before I pick up my children I am going to enjoy a cup of coffee and a piece of cake – the cake that will be eaten by my kids and my husband as well, but that secretly I made for myself, because it’s my favourite.