A study, which was conducted by researchers at Humboldt University in Berlin & published in the journal Emotion, found that if women restrain their emotions they are perceived as less intelligent & emotionally competent —whereas men who restrain their emotions are seen as more intelligent and emotionally competent. -Jamie Lutz for Bustle
Before I met with the guardian ad litem (GAL) in fall of 2014, I promised myself I wouldn't cry. There was a fear that a disclosure of tears, no matter how justified or earned, would classify me as mentally unstable or too emotional. I decided I would calmly focus on his questions, even though I was under extreme distress during the interview and throughout the invasive process of custody litigation. We were dealing with sensitive content, whether my sons would remain in my care (as they had been for their entire lives), or be relocated over 1000 miles away to live with their father. Unfortunately, there was not a feasible way to split them more evenly between the two of us due to the great distance he had moved away. For the sake of our sons, I wish it had been an option.
Upon evaluation, the GAL perceived me as “not close, supportive, or loving" toward my sons. There was also mention of "indifference" between my sons and I. Maybe my lack of lacrimation was a mistake. Maybe he had an idea of "how a mother should act," and my behavior didn't fit the stereotype of the hysterical mother clinging desperately to her children. I didn't think truth needed to be coated in tears in order to be visible.
A few months later, in May of 2015, I sat in a room of men who influenced the future of where my children would live in a deposition with our lawyers and the GAL. I had already read everything in his sloppy report. I knew his impression of me and was not surprised by his negative responses aimed at me during this tedious examination. However, there was one moment when I believed the true nature of the relationship I shared with my sons would shine.
My lawyer asked, “Does she help her son with homework? Does she read to them at night?”
After I heard this question I relaxed. At this point, I had largely been on my own with my sons for almost three years. Not only alone metaphorically, but alone as in by physical distance that was corroborated by my ex’s residence in another state. Clearly, only one parent had been helping our third grader with homework. The GAL would have to admit that I enriched my oldest son’s life, as evidenced by his persistent academic success. Not to mention that no matter how little money we had, books were always welcome in my home. Scholastic book fairs were like a holiday for us, and Kevin could always choose at least one book. I was proud of the tall bookshelves in my tiny house that contained colorful stories that we could recite from memory.
In response the GAL scoffed.
“Help HIM with homework?” he ask incredulously. “More like, he could help HER with HER homework.”
He was pleased with his self indulgent wit & looked around the table with a devilish Cheshire grin. My son, Kevin, had just turned nine-years-old. The GAL had just indicated, under oath, that my nine-year-old was smarter than me.
There was not a dignified alternative, so I had to sit quietly and allow my legal representation to speak for me. The table faced a large window, and the piercing afternoon light flooded my eyes. Did this really just happen? I wanted to run out of the room, but instead I forced myself to look the GAL in his blue eyes until he finally looked away from me.
I have never known that extent of rage or hurt in response to the words of a complete stranger. Couldn't stop asking myself, what is it about me that gives him this impression of me? I couldn’t figure out the source or the reason. Was this because their father was a biomedical engineer and I was a stay-at-home mom? Being a stay-at-home mother did not mean I had the IQ of a 9-year-old. However, even if I did struggle with "my homework," was that really a way to talk to someone? Was that really the matter we were discussing? No. Furthermore, it was cruel, unnecessary, and untrue. It is likely that he would not have suggested such a thing about a man and his child. My family told me to shake it off, but it stung. I was confused and humiliated. However, in the past four years, I have come to a better comprehension of the systemic gender bias and racial undertones (I am mixed-race, my ex and GAL are white) that covertly infiltrate situations like this. This is a conversation I will passionately address at another time, but here is just one link if you are interested in a study that examines this in relation to gender.
Photo by Jen Otchy, 2012
The next fall I went back to my university. Not to become a doctor or a neuroscientist, just to finish my bachelor’s degree in psychology. Damian had started kindergarten and it afforded me the opportunity to take classes without paying for childcare. Shortly after I started, I decided that I needed to remedy the X on my transcript from anatomy from 2004 (story for another time). Very soon into the class, I fell in love with the content. Especially physiology, because it fed my curiosity about how the body works. My maturity and dedication helped me learn material that would have been too difficult twelve years ago. Initially, I didn’t remember what a hydrogen ion was or why they seemed to be so important for changing pH (whatever that was), but I studied very hard and kept earning A’s on my tests.
That winter I had a meeting with my pre-health advisor. I told her I enjoyed anatomy, physiology, and behavioral neuroscience (another course I was taking), and was contemplating furthering my education in medicine. Due to my age, I wanted information on how to become a physician assistant (PA). It seemed to be a plausible alternative for someone like me, given that I was already in my thirties and still an undergrad. While we were talking, I admitted some of my reservations about my (lack of) science background and expressed anxiety that I was still waiting for a judge’s decision concerning custody. I needed her to know I was trying to build up confidence to take the classes I would need for PA school. I also disclosed the disconcerting deposition with the GAL. After I admitted how that comment had gnawed at me for months, she sat the papers down and folded her hands. I’ll never forget the intensity of her eyes as she looked at me.
Let me ask you a question.
Oh no. She’s going to tell me I’m crazy and that I should fix my personal issues before trying to take classes like this. I shrank back into my seat, like it would help me disappear. Why did I tell people these things?!
Her gaze was direct, and she spoke each word with intentional emphasis.
Did that man put a fire in your belly?
No one else had ever asked me this.
She understood my pain, and I sat up in my chair and leaned forward enthusiastically.
YES, he had ignited a fire!
I nodded my head in response, and now she was incredulous,
Then WHHHY are you bothering with PA requirements?
She gently took the papers about PA school from my hands and opened a different set of drawers. Soon she set down a fresh set of flyers and brochures, pausing before she spoke so I could look them over. My lawyer had done this. It was kind of dramatic and usually when he had bad news. This was not bad news.
These are medical school requirements, she explained as she separated the papers. This is what you really want but you are afraid of it. You do not need to be afraid of it, because you have a fire inside of you that this man gave it you. USE IT. At the end of the day, the requirements are so similar that you might as well aim for medical school. You can change your mind, but you have a fire that is going to get you there.
After she patiently walked me through the requirements & offered suggestions for extracurriculars, I was stunned. I had expected judgement or for her to shoo me out of her office for speaking about a medical career. When you've been emotionally abused, you have low expectations of yourself. This was a day that began to build faith in my potential.
Sometimes the boys have to come with me to campus.
This was August of 2016, working in my first research lab.
A couple months later I took my physiology final the morning before my lawyer called to tell me the judge had granted me custody of my sons. I earned a 100% on it. The call came when I was in the pick-up line watching my sons walk toward me. I had to pull over because I was so overwhelmed from the news. It was one of the best days of my life.
I graduated this summer with my B.S. in Psychology with a Concentration in Behavioral Neuroscience + Pre-Med Prerequisites. I spent a year working on an honors thesis involving cytokine expression in the hypothalamus after an immune challenge and maternal separation. My research relates major depressive disorder with early life stress, and examines how an attachment figure can buffer the effects of stress & non-specific neural inflammatory processes.
Recently I finished editing my undergraduate honors thesis. As I was driving Kevin home later that day through rush hour, I dictated to him how to do his 8th grade math homework. Later that night, the deposition came to mind. It was my turn to laugh. The GAL's words no longer sting and are now merely scars of an old injury that has healed over. Now I know that no matter what type of job I have or what title I earn, his comment was unprofessional. This experience has given me a desire to help advocate for women and to be more aware of the (implicit) gender bias that can borough into situations like this without accountability. If the GAL had been my only mirror, I do not know where I would be right now. Thankfully, I was lucky enough to be surrounded by other people who could tell me another story about myself & the world I live in.
Yesterday I began classes for a master’s of science degree in Physiology and Neuroscience at Wright State. This spring, I’ll be taking the MCAT and applying to medical school.
The sacrifices are too costly to be doing this for anyone but myself, or to simply "prove something." Yes, that man burned the spark that ignited the fire to return to college. It helped me begin the cognitive process to explore what I could be capable of. Beyond that, it’s been up to me to endorse my own dreams. The hurt I experienced was not a sustainable fuel to propel me forward. I had to commit to the workload in front of me for reasons that inspire me to work toward my goals instead of running away from a past.
My goals are born of my own curiosity and my personal ambition. My future belongs to me. With that said, crossing these milestones knowing that his degrading comments were not powerful enough to stop me me, feels really good. After everything my sons & I have experienced, it is so encouraging to start to see growth and progress from those dark memories.
Now I hope that you feel encouraged that our futures are malleable, and very small steps can make a significant difference in the trajectory of a goal. This is also why I write my story, to share and highlight the brief seconds of my life that made such a profound impact on where I am now (and where I am going). People often tell me that they can not imagine how I do this, but they also can not imagine what it took just to get here. If I never had to advocate for myself and my sons in the way I did, I do not think that I would have built up the capacity for resilience that my goals have required from me.
I'd also like to mention that the advisor I spoke with was a single mother and a woman of color. I appreciate that she didn't pity me or dismiss me. Instead, she knew how to challenge me due to her own life experiences that resembled mine. This is one reason we need diversity in higher education, and I am grateful that my university had her on staff.