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(what story will your daughter share when she is older?)

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I AM YOUR CHILD WHO LOVES YOU AND NEEDS YOU! FIGHT FOR ME!

    I am a child of divorce. My parents divorce became finalized in 1969 when I was six years old. My mother was granted custody and my father never fought it.

    I am here today because I wish to see change. Change in a system that helped to alter my relationship with my father for the duration of our lives. Our lives when he being 600 miles away at 54 years old seems all too short.

     We started out fairly normal. I remember watching a football game with him, the smell of my mother's pot roast in the air. Being carried around on his shoulder, waiting for him to come home from work.  A father-daughter relationship firmly rooted for growth.

    As months went by the climate of our house became more tense. I felt impending doom. Finally erupting, and then, a deathly lull settled as a tiny 6 year old followed her father around the house as he packed his suitcases, taking the personal belongings my mother would let him have, which did not include me.  So I begged him to stay, he held me for along time, finally he pulled me away as he left our house.

    And so began my father's weekend visits, who in his absence became a stranger, a curiosity to me.  No more leisurely afternoons in front of the T.V. We now embarked on the most exciting trips appropriate for our age he could think of.

    Bowling alleys, movies, malls and toy stores. I never came home empty handed.  Then back to his Holiday Inn motel room, his new living quarters, to sit and spend time with him until he dropped us off at home, never sure I would see him next weekend.

    A new set of rules imposed on our house.  My mother took a job and went to school. My sister became my mother, cooking, cleaning and disciplining me. My brother, the eldest, became the man of the house, who also disciplined me but offered no affection.  My father was spoke of very little, I only heard his name as he was being chastised for not visiting or blamed for a heck that never arrived or came late.

    Several times I would burst into tears, overwhelmed by his absence and feeling a great sense of loss. Each time I was scolded, told to be strong, to wise up and quit feeling sorry for myself.  I was certainly not to shed tears in front of my father.  How ironic that I was not to display my grief while I was also told by my mother what a lousy father I had.

     At this point our relationship had changed considerably.  The man who came to pick me up on weekends was no longer the strong, stable father I had known. I now sensed panic, helplessness and guilt emanating from my father.  I feared him now, being the object of his panic, resented him for leaving, promising to return on various days and never showing. Pitying him for his guilt and helplessness, loving and idolizing him
intensely, my daddy who would come home and defend himself to my mother and siblings and be strong again. All these perceptions from a 6 year old.

    For the next four years my father and I were unable to spend any quality time together.  The brief times I did see him were very damaging to me.

    I remember writing letter to my father in care of the Macomb County Jail.  I would seal them up and include messages to the sheriff, because I was told they would open and censor my letters, in letter I wrote to my father, telling him how I missed him and
forgave him for not paying our child support.  Until I was 16 I believed the manufacturers stamps on my Dad's shirtails were shirts he had worn in jail.

    He lost a few jobs during that time. Constantly served and arrested at work because he was unable to meet the payments.  His visits became much more sporadic, he was avoiding us so as not to let my mother know where he was, maybe he could hold down a job that way.

    I had taken to reading the obituaries every night, looking for his name.  I did not know if he dead or alive. We spent a couple of Christmas's without him. One Christmas he did show up, at 5:00 in the morning. Oh, to hug my father again, the smell of his aftershave and cigarettes long lost to my senses, he looked so sad. And then he was gone, he had timed his visit carefully while my mother was still asleep to avoid her.

    My sister caught me lying to a playmate and scolded me.  The playmate had asked me where my father was, not knowing myself I said he was always on business trips.

    My dad eventually moved to Indiana. Michigan held to many bad memories for him.  He remarried and we began to spend summers with him. This helped but by now there was so much damage to our relationship that we shared only shreds of normalcy.

    From 8 to 18 I was a very cynical, negative and aggressive individual. Having been a normal, vulnerable child, only to be laid open and cut a few times, true to my family's constant messages to me, I did wise up! I learned to mother the child within me who still missed and grieved for her father, calming my own fears.  Wiping tears I did not dare shed in front of my family.

    Yes, the feeling of alienation and abandonment brought on by the lengthy absence of my father and my family's lack of communication, to explain it ended my sweet, normal childhood. Darwin's Survival of the Fittest should only be learned in a science class, yet I practiced it at 8.

     Between 16 and 17 I underwent a year of therapy prompted by my sudden bouts of depression, an unending feeling of loneliness.  It was here I learned that my boyfriend provided me with needs normally supplied by one's father, as I supplied the needs he sought from his deceased mother. We were a pair of 17 year old walking neurotics, both heavy substance abusers that also helped fill the great void within me.

    My father and I have lost so much time.  Ordinarily routine moments that will never occur again. Moments a father and a child both share a right to, things a father should be able to see and share with his offspring.

     Today when I see my father we follow a pattern of behavior dictated by those lost moments. We feel awkward with one another, groveling for words and giving clumsy hugs. We then try to get close again, claim some of our time that we can both demand now.

    I will travel by plane for an hour to see him. Each time I visit with Dad it occurs to me that we have much catching up to do. He will tell stories of my antics as a baby, his face aglow with fatherly pride as he laughs and grins. And then a far-a-way look, an emptiness will envelop him as he falls silent and gazes out the window. I will ask him what is wrong, he will smile, be strong and say nothing.  But I know what he is thinking, the silence speaks a thousand words. I have heard these stories over and over. Yet he references to them because those are the few memories he has shared with me.  Then he will ask me about my job, my husband, and offer me fatherly advice about my present life.

    How did we get from my baby stories to my job and husband?  This is more than the flow of conversation.  It is a significant fact that we both find painful to acknowledge. As I get older and prepare myself to start a career and family, it is increasingly harder for me to see him.  He remains geographically distant and our relationship will remain a shell.

    I can always tell who is a child of divorce. They are sharp kids who exhibit aggressive, manipulative attitudes, a hardness.  Yet if you press hard enough the are hiding a deep well of pain that eats at them, that makes them survivors, very much aware of the moves and rules of a chess game that was once their family unit.

     I am a shrewd chess player, ready to knock any family opponents pieces off the board and move in for the kill, if I have to. At 21 I am still the grieving child of 6 who aches for her father.  I am the mother who emotionally nurtured that child to a functioning adult. An adult that bears the scars and festering wounds of divorce and separation.

    I am a survivor who feels that the only permanent thing in my life is myself. I grew up in a dark, frigid hell. You will never understand unless you've been there. It has aged me beyond my years and robbed me of time with my father necessary to a normal childhood.

     Although I have healed myself there are some that never will.

    I do not offer specific problems and solutions for you today. I am only articulating what children caught in today's divorce process are experiencing and can not voice themselves.

    To the fathers who are present here today, this is not chess, I am not your pawn. I AM YOUR CHILD WHO LOVES YOU AND NEEDS YOU! FIGHT FOR ME!

     And to the legal system, I stand before you today, a product of what you believed is a system that benefits me. Beyond Dick and Jane, children are still unaware of sexism. Why teach it to them like this!

 Thank You
 Maria Conigliari

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Robert Muchnick
Center for Children's Justice
Denver, Colorado USA
http://www.childrensjustice.org/




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