It’s a lot easier not to complain when you win.
But yesterday’s court victory meant far more than just one in the “W” column for yours truly. With the help of a fierce guardian ad litem and a judge who surprised me with her acumen, I managed to get equal parenting rights for a father. And yes, I almost wrote “gay father” there — but for a father should suffice.
Truth told: my client is gay, and legally married to a man. His coming out had caused the divorce from his children’s mother nearly three years ago. He had settled for a parenting plan that gave him five hours of visitation each week in the mother’s home. He got lousy advice from a lawyer with an agenda — his website styled him a “Christian lawyer”. He told my client that “no judge in Missouri would give a gay man overnights”. The wife’s lawyer did her bidding, and my client spent half of 2015 as a shadow in his children’s lives.
Seven months later, the man found me. I launched a motion to modify which took more than a year to come to trial. We tried to settle — at every turn, including after the first day of testimony last week. But the ex-wife persisted. She attacked his most vulnerable spot, the guilt he felt for disappointing her by finally admitting his true nature. She actually testified that he should not have more time with the children because of his sexual orientation, though she tried to hedge her position with the excuse that the kids might be bullied.
Through the entire trial, the ex-wife’s own gay sister sat smiling in the first row of the courtroom, down the aisle from my client’s husband. I swear her face must have frozen in position.
At the end, the judge started her unusual announcement of the results from the bench with a sentence that spoke to my cause. I don’t often tell the parties in open court what my ruling will be, she began. But this case demands that I do. I have read everything put in front of me, and heard all the witnesses. And I have to say, Mom, that you dwell on complaining about small things. I hate to use this word, but you are petty.
She went on to cite a host of examples of the ex-wife’s trivial complaints. They ranged from improperly installed car seats which my client had asked his ex-wife to help him rectify, to my client buying toys for the children to have at his new home which she had testified meant he was buying their affection. The judge chided the ex-wife for introducing into evidence an e-mail that my client had written to his father when he came out. That e-mail was meant to humiliate and embarrass Dad. But it had the opposite effect. It showed his emotional struggle during a very difficult time. It did not humiliate him. It humanized him.
I have had my difficulties with this judge over the two years that she has sat on the domestic bench, an assignment which she leaves at the end of this year. Complaints have escaped my lips over dinner and wine with other lawyers. My inability to connect with her stands as one subject on which I have not stopped complaining, though sometimes silently, often disguised as brainstorming about ways to minimize any impact on future hearings when she’s barked at me.
Before this trial started, I opined that perhaps she had been judging me by my clients. The last two cases which I had in front of her did not involve such virtuous fathers. I had been worried that she would view this case negatively because she disliked me. But I saw another potential. Maybe she had been responding to my attempts to advance non-righteous causes. Perhaps in my zeal to get what my clients wanted, I had stepped over boundaries which she seeks to defend.
I went into this trial determined to give this judge a second chance — a chance to rule despite her dislike of me if that’s what motivated her occasional castigation of me in other matters. I opened my mind to the possibility that I had lost sight of my own quest to use nonviolent communication in my dealings with her.
At the start of the trial, I stood to enter my appearance and spoke in a clear voice. I crossed the courtroom to take the podium with a firm stride. I had prepared. I knew my facts. I understood the law. I believed in the virtue of my cause. I put aside my complaints about the judge, and did my job. When the last party rested, and silence fell over the courtroom, I had a moment of blinding clarity. I understood that win or lose, I had tried a clean case and this judge had seen me do it. For a half-second, the outcome did not matter as much as my redemption, and hers.
It’s the twenty-third day of the thirty-fifth month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.