It was Christmas 1997 before Nick and Tom paid their first visit to the rest of us in Santa Cruz, where we had moved in June 1997.
The intervening six months had been a storm for them and for us. We had all expected to move to Santa Cruz together. Then, shortly before we left, Nick and Tom’s mother, Sunshine, petitioned the Versailles Court of Appeals on an emergency basis. She asked the court to transfer Nick and Tom from our home to hers because the rest of us were moving house and leaving the country.
This particular court was unfamiliar with the case, which had been heard during the preceding years by the lower court in Versailles. But its lack of familiarity did not stop the Court acting precipitately, only a short time after being petitioned, and against the guidance of four lower court judges. These judges, remember, had become familiar with the various households and had consistently, and in light of a court-appointed psychologist’s report, always placed the boys with us.
It was such a shock. I felt responsible for the need to move back to the US, because I’d been unable to find a job or build up my own practice again during our last year or so in France. So, rather than fly directly and cheaply to San Francisco, I had spent a piece of my inheritance on flights to New York, a hotel suite for a few nights there and then train tickets in an Amtrak family sleeping cabin across the country, for all of us. It was a dream trip, one that Nick and Tom would not share and have never taken.
Right up until the last minute before we left, we hoped to take Nick and Tom with us on our dream trip, because the Versailles Court of Appeals had ordered the boys to spend half of each vacation with each parent. So they could have come with us on the trip and then returned to their mother for the second half of the summer. But of course Sunshine would have nothing of it. Having finally won an advantage before the courts, she was going to make the best of it. She did not let them visit us in California for the October school holiday either.
She may have felt triumphant at first, but Sunshine didn’t really think of how she would look after these two dynamic boys who had been wrenched away from us, from the family they had grown to trust. If she had thought it through, she could never have realized that she would end up fighting them as well as me, at times as much as me. I don’t really know why the court reversed itself in 1999 and sent Nick and Tom back to us, but my guess is that it something to do with those very fights between her and her children.
A lot happened to our depleted family during our first years in Santa Cruz. It was a time of transition, a time of reorientation, and several of the photos here cover the high spots as we settled in. Nick and Tom were living their own lives in Paris, and I worried about what they were missing with us.
Visitation rights mean nothing to a mother bent on revenge. Which means that her children don’t mean a lot: it’s all about her. While there is much talk about deadbeat dads and other paternal sins after divorce, there is not enough attention paid to mothers who use their children to get even for their fathers’ real or imagined wrongs. These mothers merit as much disdain and social sanction as do deadbeat dads.
It would take two long years and court hearing after court hearing to demonstrate its initial error to the Versailles Court of Appeals. Having let itself be swayed into acting with excessive haste before we left France, the Court would only act to correct itself with all deliberate speed after being fully informed. Two years of separation resulted.
In part, the breakup of our new family may have resulted, but I’m jumping ahead.
The first six months apart were the worst. I frantically drafted letters full of argument upon argument, the law and the facts, and continually harassed my lawyer in Versailles, all trying to get the Court of Appeals to reverse itself or even simply order Sunshine to respect my visitation rights. I was really scared for the boys. Their mother had been wallowing in her anger for years already, and now Nick and Tom were right in the line of fire on a full-time basis. Month after month, nothing seemed to have any judicial effect on this abruptly changed status quo.
I decided that I would have to go to see them in Paris. It was not the first choice, because I couldn’t bring the family. Daphné and Alban were in their first term at an English-speaking school, and couldn’t miss even a week. But I could go myself. I timed it to coincide with Nick and Tom’s October school holiday, which included Tom’s eighth birthday, because I had visiting rights during that holiday and their mother would have a hard time stopping me. Once I was with the boys, Sunshine would need to convince someone in authority to dishonor the court’s Order that the boys spend half of their vacation with me.
Unannounced, and with a copy of the Court Order on visitation in my pocket, I collected them outside their school in Paris on their last day of school before the October vacation. They were at two neighboring schools on the same street. Tom was so surprised that he recoiled, scared, before being able to give me a hug. What had he been hearing about his dad?
Nick had presumably been hearing the same thing, but his reaction was very different, if equally striking. He saw me on the sidewalk in front of the school before I saw him. There were so many children when the schools let out. In fact, I heard him before I saw him. He cried out: “dad, it is you, I’ve imagined so many times that I saw you just like that on the street! Now it is you, it is really you.” I ran across the street and picked him up and held him very tight. It felt as if my heart was going to break. Poor little chap! Had I ever let him down!
At the time, that was the single worst moment in my life as a father.
We had fun during our few days together around Paris, of course, but the boys were both preoccupied with what the rest of us were doing in Santa Cruz. We had all shared everything for three difficult years, and that didn’t just disappear because of the mistakes of overly hasty judges. They felt left out now. Their mother’s life was more solitary: she had always been emotionally isolated from the family that raised her, and our divorce obviously did nothing to help those feelings. Quite the contrary. The contrast with our bustling household, full of energy and with an in-house two-year old and a baby on the way, must have seemed very stark.
Back in California, I started worrying about helping Nick and Tom not to feel so left out. It was almost impossible to do. Life in Santa Cruz was inevitably full and active. In November, we all spent a weekend up on the Russian River, and had a great time. During their next phone call, Daphné and Alban each told Nick and Tom about the weekend and how much fun they had. Well, of course they did, only natural, but I could feel how bad the boys in Paris felt over the phone. Not that they wanted to deprive us of good times. No, but they did wish they were here, and they did feel left out.
It was during the two-year period of our separation from Nick and Tom when Daphné (in particular) and Alban (to some degree) first started feeling strongly that they were disfavored in my eyes. I never felt that disfavor, and tried very hard all the years that I was raising them to keep all the children as equal as possible. They were not the same, of course, and each needed different treatment in various ways, but I tried very hard to dole out favors equitably and without regard to our biological relationship. The imbalances created by Nick and Tom’s prolonged absence must have had something to do with the way that Daphné and Alban already felt poorly treated.
I do remember feeling a terrible sense of loss, especially at first, when Nick and Tom were no longer living with us. And I only felt as if I could fully enjoy myself and let go when all the children were together. If I did so with Daphné and Alban, they recounted what had happened to Nick and Tom, who felt more left out than they felt already. It was a no-win situation.
Finally, the boys came to visit us in Santa Cruz. For Christmas 1997. Needless to say, we all had a great time. Everyone went out of their way to ensure that our reunited children had a wonderful Christmas. There was the regulation stack of presents at home (see Christmas), and at the Nashes and Hanlons the children all got thoughtful presents too. In short, everyone spoiled them rotten, which did them no harm at all.
Two more vacations together followed, in each of February and April 1998. The boys came to and from Paris for each French school holiday. One of the great advantages of the French is that they have a lot of school holidays! Those six months of unexpected separation were no more. During this period it was a manageable two to four months, with the holiday planned ahead and the boys’ arrival reassuringly consistent. Sunshine was finally figuring out that the court did not want to see her sons punished for the sins of their father, at least not by her. They were consistently able to visit whenever there was a school holiday, as the Versailles Court of Appeals had ordered.
Nick went through a crisis at San Francisco airport on his way back to his mother’s in Paris in March 1998, after his second vacation with us in California. He became so hysterical that the pilot on his scheduled United flight refused to take him. We couldn’t calm him down that day at all, until the plane had taken off. I felt obliged to ask his mother’s sister Shawn and her family to ensure that he would take the later plane that we arranged for him and Tom. United Airlines were very helpful. Shawn took them to the airport that time so that it would be less traumatic for Nick. He still called me from the airport before embarking, and we spoke for about 15 minutes. Only when I pointed out that if he didn’t get on that plane, I’d be required to pay for tickets myself to Paris and back to escort them to their mom’s, as required by the Versailles Court, did he agree to hang up the phone. All very traumatic, and all oddly similar to Daphné’s feelings when leaving her father at the airport in Paris in June 1997.
Unfortunately, Sunshine and the Versailles Court of Appeals were not the only obstacles to keeping our new household somewhat integrated. There was also Marie-Hélène, oddly enough.
She decided to go to France with Daphné, Alban, Charlie and Alex during the summer of 1998 at the same time as Nick and Tom came to the US. I never did figure out exactly why, although obviously after a year in the strange land which she had adopted she genuinely needed a visit back to her “pays d’origine.”
It seemed that she could have made this trip when Nick and Tom were in France too, but who was I to argue? I did try, and was brusquely rebuffed: “it was you who took the children 8,000 km away from their father. Now they have to see him. That is all.” You may notice that this summary did not address the timing issue, which was the only thing I disagreed with. Of course Daphné and Alban needed to see their father. Just as they needed to see Nick and Tom. Just as Nick and Tom needed to see Charlie and Alex, who were in France when they were here with me.
The best opportunity for an extended period together for all of us had been lost. The only long vacation that all the children had was their summer vacation, and the school vacations in France and the US actually did coincide pretty much. The Court Order sent Nick and Tom to me for six weeks of those twelve. Marie-Hélène then spent most of those six weeks in France with Daphné, Alban Charlie and Alex. We have happy holiday photos of the four of them at La Grée, and of the three of us in Yosemite. Never the twain did meet!
Sadly, the same thing happened at Christmas 1998. This time, Pierre convinced his ex that Daphné and Alban needed to be sent to Paris to stay with him for Christmas. So Nick and Tom spent Christmas with Charlie, Alex and the parents at Disneyland, and Daphné and Alban spent Christmas west of Paris with their father and his then current girlfriend. Another opportunity lost. Reintegration of our little household seemed to be getting further away rather than closer, and nothing that I could do seemed to stop it.
I understood a mother’s desire to ensure that her children spent time with their father. It was the timing that drove me crazy. There was no court order yet concerning Daphné and Alban. The absence of a court order meant that nothing required them to be anywhere on any schedule, and we could have imposed our own schedule in order to help the four older children stay connected. Marie-Hélène did not do so during this extended period of separation. I never did understand her reasoning.
There was so much that Nick and Tom were missing out on, on top of their lives in the new household. There was daily life at Happy Valley School, soccer for the children on the weekends, family dinners and games, birthdays, trips out, and that fabulous American children’s holiday, Halloween.
Most importantly, at the end of January 1998, Alex was born in Santa Cruz. They were back for a visit before he was two weeks old, but still. They were not there when Marie-Hélène noted in our agenda that he had taken his first steps. That was January 26, 1999. They were still away when she noted in her agenda, in June 1999, that Alex said “papa” for the first time. That was something! You can’t recapture moments like that after they have been taken from you. Nick and Tom never did.
How did it happen, this extended period of lost opportunities for being together? Childhood flies by so fast. Blending families is so hard. None of those opportunities could ever be recovered. It was obvious that, going forward, the missed opportunities were going to cause trouble.
Marie-Hélène always put the children first. How did it help the children, arranging to keep Daphné and Alban separate from Nick and Tom during 1998 for most of the time when they could be together?
Somehow, she must have felt that doing so would help Daphné and Alban. How? She would point to me, I think, and say that I was not looking after them properly, and that since we had moved to the US I was not the same with them. She would say that she didn’t want Daphné and Alban to feel worse about themselves by seeing me favor Nick and Tom when we were all together.
I could have told her that it was not a matter of feeling less for her children. I never did feel less for them. Maybe that’s one of the advantages of being a man, that there is no distinction in your experience of a child (comparable to pregnancy) between a child and a stepchild. I continued to pay what was needed to help them feel good and enjoy their newly adopted country. I loved them both as if they were mine, but I also felt other things equally strongly.
I missed Nick and Tom most of the time. I felt responsible for our separation. I had failed to make a living in France, and then somehow had misjudged how the Courts would react. I had lived with my sons since the day each was born, or close enough, without a break until June 1997. I was trying not to make it worse for them, which meant that I was consciously making an effort to do fun stuff when we were all together, and less when we weren’t. I was trying to regulate the feelings of individuals in a complex group, not feeling any less about any one or other member of the group.
Maybe that effort was doomed to failure from day one. Could be. Maybe if those extended periods of possible togetherness in 1998 had actually been spent together, maybe feelings all around could have been different. Who knows? What actually happened was difficult enough to fathom. What might have happened if it had played out differently is just impossible to glean.
By the end of 1998, there began to be favorable signs emanating from France that this separation was not fixed in stone. The Versailles Court of Appeals appointed its own expert to determine where Nick and Tom should reside, and he had come all the way to Santa Cruz to examine our temporarily unblended household. Even without our furniture (still blocked in France by our crooked French moving company), our home bubbled with the energy of four small and happy children, including a baby. I knew that the contrast with Sunshine’s home in Paris would be clear and favorable to us.
This expert, a psychiatrist or psychologist, took Marie-Hélène aside, alone, for five or ten minutes. I figured that he must have been asking her how she felt about Nick and Tom returning, because with her four children already to look after two more might have seemed a bit daunting. I had no doubt that she would tell him that she would be delighted to see the family together again. I know that she did, or the Court would never have sent the boys back to our home. She was always going to do the right thing by the boys if she could.
Things were getting a bit hot and heavy in Paris, too. Nick, Tom and Sunshine had already met the expert, and Nick in particular had already told him clearly where he wanted to live. Understandably, Sunshine did not feel too good about that. He had been insisting on living with us non-stop since he had been moved back to his mother’s house. Sunshine became more and more angry: rejection will do that to anyone. I don’t exactly know what happened between them, but my lawyer was informed that Social Services were called in by Nick’s school, an indication in France of serious parental misbehavior.
Sure enough, in April 1999 the Versailles Court of Appeals, the Court who had separated us on July 4, 1997, Independence Day, transferred the residence of Nick and Tom to us in Santa Cruz, effective in the summer holiday between the school years. The light was at the end of the tunnel. My feeling of relief was palpable. We busied ourselves preparing for their return, converting the big play room in a separate cottage on the hillside into a studio apartment for the au pair we had decided to find, and looking for a Suburban, at that point the only real eight-passenger SUV on the market. The constant ache I had been feeling went quickly away.
The effects on our blended family of that two years of separation, including the vacation time that we could have all spent together but didn’t, would never really be fixed. As the children aged, on some level the effects became irrelevant, or more likely faded into some kind of obscurity in each of our young adults, but they would never be fixed.
I don’t hold grudges, but I never forgave anyone involved for that separation, including myself.
* * *
By way of a sidebar, let’s applaud the work of Michel Thizon and the Association he founded in France, SOS Papa. He and they work tirelessly to overcome the prejudices that make the legal system in France and elsewhere in the West a tool for depriving children of their fathers.
These prejudices influenced us. What made the Versailles Court of Appeal transfer Nick and Tom to their mother was a combination of three: a blind faith in the maternal qualities of women; a desire to use a woman’s children to bolster and reassure her; and an instinctive distrust of the parental qualities of men. I don’t know which is the most destructive for the children concerned. They all live on.
It is indeed possible that without Michel Thizon and his ilk, this blended family would never have seen the light of day together. They helped legitimate fatherhood. As it is, Evelyne Sullerot, a prominent French sociologist, estimated in the 1990s that the number of children then being raised in France without significant paternal contact was one or two million. Bravo Michel! Bravo SOS Papa! Keep up the good work. Here they are: http://www.sos-papa.net/.