I didn’t know about the cookies.
Back then I knew about the unbrushed teeth and hair. Limited bathing. He had them looking like ragamuffins.
I knew about how the electric company had shut off power because of nonpayment. I knew about the house approaching foreclosure, and how the deed nearly got sold on the courthouse steps.
Those were the reasons I initially took my ex back to court, when I attempted to modify custody for the first time. Shared fifty-fifty was hell on me and the kids—sending them back into his “care” the nightmare of my life and, of course, it was no dream for them, either. They dreaded going to the point that they would hide from me on transition day. Sob their fears. Beg me to keep them.
I tried to be strong in front of them and kept the doubt and anxiety to myself, but I cried a lot back then, too. Part of the nightmare was that I couldn’t just “keep them.” I was legally bound to giving them over, full-well knowing that in the world of coparenting, you’re the one who gets in trouble if you don’t oblige—no matter what condition you’re sending them to.
This would have been 11 years ago, give or take a few weeks, months. My kids were 6 and 8 or so then.
Last night my daughter, who is now 20, told me about the cookies for the first time. She said that after I moved us out, their dad didn’t keep or prepare food for them at the house I’d left behind. Just a cabinet full of cookies he’d bought in bulk.
After school she’d be so hungry that she’d eat cookie after cookie. And then come dinnertime, only more cookies were on the menu.
As she recounted this to me I flashed back to the time she’d stood (same timeline) in front of the open refrigerator in our shitty, low-income apartment and gasped aloud. “Wow, we must be RICH or something.” Her comment pierced my heart. We only had the food because, in fact, we were poor. Because I’d signed us up for food stamps. But she didn’t know that, and I was offering so much more than cookies.
Which, it turns out, didn’t matter.
If you’ve experienced family court, you know it takes months, sometimes a year or more, to get to the part that matters. This is for many reasons, not the least of which is the attorneys’ ability to ask for continuances and cause delays. It’s particularly handy for those who don’t have the best story to tell and need time to tie up all their loose ends.
Abusive and neglectful loose ends.
By the time we presented before the judge, my ex had done a number of things to improve the living situation at his house. Giving what narrative I don’t know—but it had long been his pattern to trick people out of money—he convinced family to bring his bills and house current, which means he avoided foreclosure just in the nick of time. He also found a new partner and assimilated her with ease. (Or with lies and manipulation, as it were.) She was a package deal, turns out, so upon her insertion in my kids’ lives the responsibilities conveniently changed course. Hygiene became important. Real meals were prioritized. Necessities got handled. It’s like she simply jumped in and did his job for him. And for the sake of court, he took the credit, successfully securing his portion of custody. None of the rest—the context, the truth—mattered.
Unfortunately that’s been a recurring theme with family court for us, as you may remember from some of my other stories.
My son, who is two and a half years younger than his sister, was part of our cookie conversation last night, too. He said, “I don’t remember that at all.” Whether he was just too young or has since blocked parts of childhood to cope the way my daughter has, we’ll never know. “But look at us now. We’re okay, Mom. We’re okay.”
And it’s true, despite everything, despite our tumultuous years as a family with their dad, and the decade of post-separation abuse and trauma since, we’re actually better than okay.
Although my daughter will never eat another fudge-striped cookie again.
Both my kids read this essay, and I share it with their approval. Our stories are cathartic for us. I share for me, for them, and for you, because I want you to know that, above all else, what horrors you experience while “coparenting” with your abuser are surmountable.