I won my case in court, and I should have felt victorious. Instead, what I felt as my attorney guided me through the winding family courthouse halls was relief mixed with overwhelming guilt. The court, agreeing to my request, had ordered my 10-year-old son to go live with his dad permanently.
My son has O.D.D. (Oppositional Defiant Disorder), a mental disorder that manifests in frequent and persistent patterns of anger, irritability, arguing, defiance, or vindictiveness toward parents and other authority figures.
Back when all this was happening, my son wasn’t just a challenging kid, or one with a temper. He was a child who threw wrought iron lawn furniture, smashed dinner plates, put his foot through an aquarium, punched holes through walls, took a baseball bat to my bedroom door, got suspended from his baseball team and summer camp, attacked his younger brother and me with a golf club, spent time in a mental hospital, and punched his therapist in the face. It wasn’t just one child’s mental health crisis, it effected the whole family.
My son’s dad, who had disappeared with no notice for six months and now lived in another household, blamed me for our son’s behavior. He said I was a horrible, incompetent parent, and I took his comment to heart. It triggered my insecurities because, to the many people looking at our situation from the outside, I’m sure it looked like I was.
Shocked by my son’s defiant behavior, outsiders did not notice me working hard to be a positive role model, acting with love and kindness, and doing everything I could to keep all of us safe. They were unaware I pored over books, blogs, and articles, or that I consulted with his pediatrician, behaviorists, psychologists, parenting experts, and psychiatrists, and followed their advice. All these outsiders saw was the end result, that nothing I did made anything better. The plain truth of it was that, despite my earnest efforts, I could not handle raising my son with his mental disorder all on my own.
Struggling With My Son’s Oppositional Defiant Disorder
For five hellish years, my younger son and I were on eggshells around him. We were desperate for a break, but our social lives and support systems disintegrated. His dad refused my pleas for help or flat out ignored me. Neighbors stopped inviting us over because my son yelled obscenities and got angry. I couldn’t hire a babysitter because none of them could handle him. My elderly mom helped out infrequently and not for long enough. Friends would have provided a great distraction, but we couldn’t invite them over because we never knew when or how he’d strike.
Most of the time, we felt trapped.
When my son’s temper flared, I did what I could to calm him, and when that didn’t work, I switched to protecting my younger son and myself. Often we drove around the block for an hour, to give his brother time to calm down so that when we returned, it would be safe for us to go back inside.
Eventually, my ex conceded to a family therapist for the three of us. The therapist suggested we always keep the boys apart.
My ex told me he could do a better job raising our son. He told my attorney he wanted custody. He thought he could terrify me into being a better parent by threatening to take away my son.
But I knew his threat was empty because taking responsibility for our son was the last thing he wanted, as he’d shown time and time again. Remarried with a young son, and globetrotting, he didn’t have space for our son in his new life. Still, when he threatened a change in our son’s custody, I told my attorney, “I want my son to go.”
I whispered the words, horrified I’d even say them. I tortured myself with the question, what kind of mother says she wants to relinquish custody of her 10-year-old son? Meanwhile, my attorney filed the motion, taking advantage of my ex’s threat to give me the very things that I needed: respite and hope that he could better provide for our son.
Giving Up Custody of My Son
After hearing all the evidence, the judge sided with me and placed my son with his dad. My son never spent one night with him. Instead, his dad sent him to live with his parents, who were in their 70s, and lived 30 minutes away from him. The next day, my ex called me, the first time since our divorce five years prior. “He needs you. He needs a strong female role model. My mom can’t provide that. I think he should go back and live with you.”
“No,” I told him, “No.”
Standing my ground, I felt overwhelmingly guilty. However, the relief I felt with my son out of the house was stronger. Now his younger brother and I had a chance for normalcy. Friends. Outings. Vacations together. We could rebuild our lives.
My older son, too, would benefit. His grandparents, whom he loved, would coddle him and make him the center of their lives. They’d give him the attention I couldn’t as his terrified, burnt-out mother. This was his chance for normalcy, too.
Letting go of my son and allowing someone else to raise him was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I’m glad I did it, though, because ensuring my son got the support he needed gave our entire family a chance to make a new start.