How I’m Hoping the Custody of My Child Plays Out After I Die
By Annette McLeod
Photo © artlgp72/Twenty20
May 8, 2018
I’m in an unenviable position, aspects of which you may have read about here. I have ovarian cancer, cannot get the surgery that could extend my life by a few years and have a prognosis of 12 to 18 months. I feel good, and we’re coping with it, so I won’t dwell.
What’s germaine to this story is that my nearly nine-year-old son lived with his father and me for his first four years, and has spent the last three — and will spend whatever years I have left — living with Daniel, his dad, half the time. And for the other half, he'll be with me and his step-father, Brian.
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When most people are happily ensconced in a spousal relationship, they don’t give a lot of thought to what will happen to their child’s relationship with their step-parent if the marriage ends. We, on the other hand, are in the unusual position of both being happy together and knowing that our time is limited. Barring something unexpected happening to Brian, he will have an opportunity I don’t: seeing Callum grow up.
He'll get to know how tall he’ll become and what he’ll do for a living — he'll get to meet his kids. When I think about being gone and Brian getting to do those things, he feels like my surrogate. He knows me well, and thinks highly of much of my character and most of my life choices.
He’s scrupulously (sometimes to a fault) honest by nature, and will tell Callum what I was really like, good and bad. And he’ll remember me well, because he loves me in a way no other romantic partner ever has — with both eyes open and his heart on his sleeve.
When I think about being gone and Brian getting to do those things, he feels like my surrogate.
On the other hand, my ex Daniel and I split because we just weren’t that into each other. He knew me and knows me, but he and I made things difficult. We weren’t friends in the way that Brian and I are friends. Daniel is a wonderful father, and at least I can shuffle off this mortal coil knowing that Callum will be parented well, if differently, than he would be if I were still around.
Daniel and I have done a lot of things right with Callum, including keeping him away from those bitter, initially difficult emotions immediately following our split. In the years since, we’ve become better friends than we ever managed to be as a couple, and I can sincerely say that I’ve never seen anyone handle shared custody better. Our son lives in two homes, has two sets of pets and parents, and he travels back and forth without emotional or literal baggage — he has clothes in both places, and neither I nor Daniel ever give him a hard time about what he leaves where.
We’re not proprietary about him or his stuff. If one of our work schedules gets complicated, the other picks up the slack. Seriously, we did this very well, all false modesty aside. He will have a decent male role model.
But my partner Brian brings elements to his relationships that my ex-husband doesn’t. Brian is gregarious and embraces life, while Daniel is more reticent and introverted. If you ask Brian if he wants to go here or there and visit with someone or other, his answer will almost always be “sure.” Daniel? Not so much. Both are good men with interesting flaws. Both would make an impact in any child’s life if they were there long enough. Callum benefits from both.
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Brian already has a complex past with his own children, whom he hasn’t seen in far too long, and not because he doesn’t want to. He got into a relationship with my son knowing — and saying openly — that being ripped from the life of another child would devastate him. He wants to continue a relationship with Callum, whatever comes, and so we talk about it, all of us, like the grown-ups we try to be.
Daniel has no desire to remove Callum from Brian’s life, and recognizes that with me gone, a parental ally he can lean on from time to time would be good for him, too. He also says he won’t chase Brian, that Brian will have to make the effort to see Callum. In a lot of ways, it feels similar to a custodial parent’s relationship with a non-custodial parent. I won’t stand in your way, but I’m not going to do all the work for you.
Brian says he will continue to pursue a relationship with Callum, but a lot of things could happen. He could choose to go live on the west coast with his mother and his sister and her family — with whom I’d also like Callum to continue to have a relationship, and I’ve had similar conversations with them. They adore him, and assure me they’ll always be there. But things change.
I’m becoming increasingly aware that I won’t get to control anything from beyond the grave, much as I might try. All I can do is tell people what I would want, and hope they want the same thing badly enough to make it happen.
Step-parent relationships are complicated under the best circumstances.
All I can do is tell people what I would want, and hope they want the same thing badly enough to make it happen.
Brian himself spent his first five years of life with his parents, then the next couple of decades with his mother and a series of three step-fathers after his father disappeared. As each of his mother’s marriages ended, his relationship with his step-father ended. One he saw occasionally through work, and he crashed on the couch of another many years later when passing through his town. That was it.
I have the best step-mother in the world, but she was 70 and my father was in his sixties when they met. And I was a full-blown adult. I’m sure she would have been a wonderful step-mother to a younger me, too, as she has raised seven children of her own and is an all-around lovely person. I had another step-mother between her and my parents. She was not so unqualifying great. She was bright and fun, but difficult. I haven’t seen her since she and my father split up, although we are Facebook friends for whatever that may be worth.
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As I began to think about all this stuff, I asked my father if he’d considered me or my brother when he married wife number two and he said, “No. I’m sorry.” But I was 17 and my brother was 20. When Brian entered Callum’s life, Callum was four, and to be honest, I didn’t give much thought to what kind of step-parent Brian would be either. I was madly in love with him, and that was enough.
Looking back, I should have asked myself some much harder questions. Would he be a good step-parent? A good former step-parent? Could I imagine a scenario in which I no longer wanted or couldn’t have him in my life, but still wanted him in Callum’s? Would it matter to him?
Fortunately, as it turns out the answers are yes, yes, yes and yes.
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